A Year of the Snook

by Kris Thoemke

Creeping along the mangrove shoreline of Mound Key, I let Steve Layton and his brother-in-law Barry Vermeychuck cast their lures along the irregular shoreline, hoping one of them would connect with a big snook. From past experience I knew this stretch of the island to be especially productive. While concentrating on the adults, I had Steve’s seven-year old son, Jonathan, tossing a shrimp off the back of my Key West Stealth flats boat, figuring he would be thrilled to catch a ladyfish or jack.

Suddenly, I heard the steady sound of line peeling off Jonathan’s reel. It matched the forward motion generated by the boat’s trolling motor. Figuring that Jonathan was hung up on a submerged branch, I switched the trolling motor off and said, "Hold on, you’re hung up. I’m on my way back there to help you."

Before I could reach the young boy he said, "I think I’ve got a fish on." By the time I’d traverse the 18 feet length of my boat it was clear that the boy had hooked up with something substantial. "Jonathan, you don’t have just a fish on, you’ve got a huge fish on your line. Start reeling," I said as my voice pitched up an octave and Steve and Barry stopped fishing to watch the unfolding action.

The splash the log-sized snook made as it struggled against the resistance of the reel’s drag was our first clue as to the size of what we now realized was a fish of a lifetime. Instant cries of encouragement and instructions flowed from our mouths. In the end, the only help Jonathan needed was my hand on the rod for a few moments when it looked like the fish was going to pull the rod and maybe Jonathan into the water.

Several minutes later, as Steve and his brother-in-law went green with envy, seven-year old Jonathan had a 47 incher at the boat for us to admire and release. As the adults learned that day, snook fishing is great fun even if you don’t catch the big fish.

Fortunately, scenes like this are likely to happen this year and for years to come. It’s too soon to say snook have recovered from years of overfishing and destruction of its habitat, but the numbers of Mr. Linesides seem to be increasing and, with the recent changes made to the snook regulations by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, chances are good that the population will increase and anglers will have a reasonable chance at hooking a big snook for years to come.

Snook are widely distributed in the tropical and subtropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. A warm water fish, snook cannot survive when water temperatures drop and stay below 60o. This effectively limits them to the southern half of Florida in the continental United States. Along the east coast, snook are common in the waters south of Cape Canaveral. The Indian River Lagoon, especially the southern end, is where the most snook are taken each year. On the Gulf coast side, snook are common from Tarpon Springs southward to the tip of the state. Southwest Florida, from Charlotte Harbor to the Ten Thousands Islands is the state’s hotbed for snook activity with more fish landed in this area than in any other region in the state.

When anglers say they’ve caught a snook, in most instances this means they hooked the common snook, one of 12 species of snook in the Western Hemisphere and the most common of the four species found in Florida. Largest of the four, it is also the most-wide ranging, and most sought after. Common snook inhabit coastal waters and range from the nearshore waters throughout the brackish water estuaries.

The smallest and rarest snook is the sword-spined snook, so named because the extra long second spine on the anal fin. Because it does not grow much past 12 inches, the fish is well below the minimum size of 26 inches and thus is never harvested by recreational anglers. Sword-spined snook are absent from the west coast and appear to be limited to the waters south of the St. Lucie River on the east coast. The tarpon snook has an upturned snout that resembles that of a tarpon. Reaching a maximum of 20 inches, this species lives mostly in the estuaries. The fat snook has a similar maximum length but prefers fresh water to low salinity habitats. Drawings of the four snook species are the Commission’s web site, www.marinefisheries.org and click on the fish identification link.

Statistics compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission show that snook living along the east coast are genetically different from those living along the west coast. These fish grow more quickly and reach a larger size than their west coast counterparts.

Angling for West Coast Snook
With more rivers and tidal creeks that penetrate further inland than on the east coast, west coast snook follow a rather predictable pattern for fish that don’t venture too far from the area in which they were spawned. In March, the snook that spent their winters in the fresh to slightly brackish uppermost reaches of the rivers and creeks begin the annual trip out of the backwaters and into the salty bays near the numerous passes and inlets. Capt. Al Keller of Naples believes the pattern is very predictable. "These fish seem to follow a rather specific route along some shorelines and if you can learn the pattern you should be able to catch more big fish," he says.

Water temperature, as it was for east coast snook, is the key to knowing if the fish are on the move toward the passes or lingering in the backwaters. "There are about a dozen creeks and streams flowing into Lemon Bay," says Capt. Dan Spisak of Englewood. "The average depth of these is only two feet, but the water does have some four foot deep potholes."

By May most Gulf snook are in the passes and in the Ten Thousand Islands some females may already have a jump on the breeding season. Many of the fish move through the passes each day and cruise the beach looking for food.

The presence of snook in the passes and along the beaches continues throughout the summer. "You find snook consistently along the outside of the Ten Thousand Islands," says Capt. Jeff Brown of Naples. "They are especially prevalent at the points of the outer-most mangrove islands and in the passes." Brown fishes early in the mornings and begins with a top water lure such as the Top Dog. "About three out of every four snook we catch on top water plugs are legal size," Brown admits. These lures work real good until the sun’s been up for a couple of hours," he says. "After that, Brown switches to a 3/8-ounce smoke or root beer colored jig and works it along the mangrove shoreline.

When the summer heat spell breaks, usually in October, the snook turn tail and begin heading inland. In Pine Island Sound, Capt. Paul Hobby of Ft. Myers says, "the fish will be in the creeks and potholes along the eastern part of Pine Island Sound just like they were in February and March." The clear water usually present in the early fall creates a challenge. "The fish can see you and they seem to know what you’re trying to do," says Hobby. "It really helps if you can make longs casts so you don’t get too close and spook the fish," Hobby says. "I use 10-pound test Power Pro braided line with two to three feet of 20-pound test mono leader." Hobby likes artificial baits and says, "DOA CAL jigs are good because they are easy to rig to be weedless, but my favorite bait is the clear with red glitter DOA shrimp.

When it gets cold, which for snook and snook anglers along the lower west coast of Florida is anything below 65o, most snook are either far up the backwaters, often as far as into fresh water, or stacked up like cordwood around nearshore artificial reefs and hard bottom areas. Scuba divers frequently report seeing large numbers of jumbo snook but anglers seldom catch the fish; eating doesn’t seem to be high on their list of things to do.

One popular technique that works year round is to fish for snook at night. The undisputed champion of this technique is St. Petersburg’s Capt. Dave Pomerleau. "I fish at night because snook feed better at night, Pomerleau says. With his anglers averaging 30 to 50 fish per night, few can dispute his success. Fishing from St. Petersburg to Tierra Verde, The Mad Snooker, as most know Pomerleau, says the key to finding fish is locating snook feeding stations. "These are places where a two to five-knot current produced by either an incoming or outgoing tide flows by structures such as a dock," he says. "The pilings make perfect ambush points for the snook." For bait Pomerleau prefers to freeline a live pinfish or shrimp so that it drifts by the ambush points where he’s learned the snook lay in wait for the next meal to float by. As for keeping blurry-eyed anglers awake during his normal fishing hours – 5 pm to 4am, Pomerleau says, "I get them to drink a lot of coffee."

Angling for snook, whether it’s skipping jigs under docks along the Indian River Lagoon, tossing live baits into snook filled passes in the summer or winding your way into the fresh water reaches of one of the rivers flowing out of the Everglades, is a treat anglers seldom forget and desire to repeat. With anglers respecting the rules and fisheries biologists providing the research necessary for making informed decisions on the rules, enough snook should be swimming in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters so that Jonathan Layton can catch another 47 incher in his lifetime. And, with some luck, maybe his dad and uncle will enjoy the thrill some day too. •

A freelance writer for more than 20 years, Kris Thoemke is now working on the revision of his popular book, Fishing Florida. For more information visit www.florida-outdoors.com.

from the March-April 2005 issue

"In March, the snook begin
the annual trip out of the
backwaters and into the
salty bays near the
numerous passes and inlets."