Cold Case

Escape the Big Bend Chill and Score Slob Snook

Capt. Jimmy Nelson January 24, 2012

In regards to access, fishability, variety and abundance, Florida is an angler’s paradise. However, passing cold fronts create treacherous conditions and shallow flats become devoid of life. Fishing in the dead of winter can indeed be tough and if you’re a die-hard angler there’s nothing worse than cabin fever, but don’t go into hibernation just yet. Florida’s Nature Coast has a unique fishery that’s sure to get your blood boiling.

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When trolling for snook, be sure to choose lures that cover the water column. Photo: Captain Jimmy Nelson

Once thought to be the northern cut-off for snook and well beyond their typical range, there’s actually a legitimate snook fishery in Citrus County thanks to the area’s warm water springs that come from deep within the limestone aquifer. These freshwater springs seep a constant supply of 72° water. Although brisk air and water temperatures have sent most game fish scrambling for warmth, inshore species in this region don’t stress out over the cooler weather.

If swimming with a sea cow isn’t high on your list of priorities, early mornings and late afternoons offer less crowded waterways and better opportunities to tangle with trophy snook.

As temperatures plummet in November and December, snook begin to make their way off area flats and begin to migrate toward the refuge of spring-fed rivers. In addition to a healthy population of linesiders, massive congregations of ladyfish, jack crevalle, mangrove snapper, trout, redfish, sheepshead and mullet also gravitate to the warm water retreats. Although winter fishing traditionally dictates a late start to let the waters warm, it’s not only game fish and anglers that visit the springs during the coolest months of the year.

These incredible ecosystems offer a safe haven for endangered West Indian manatees and during the winter season they can be found in area waters in some of the world’s largest concentrations. Because of their presence, numerous tour operations exist for the purpose of offering visitors the opportunity to swim and view these gentle giants in their natural habitat. As a result, there’s a lot of boat traffic on the rivers. If swimming with a sea cow isn’t high on your list of priorities, early mornings and late afternoons offer less crowded waterways and better opportunities to tangle with trophy snook.

To score with sluggish snook you’ll want to focus your efforts along the banks of the Crystal River and Homosassa River. The spring-fed Crystal River is approximately 6-miles long and begins at King’s Bay. The Homosassa River empties into the expansive Gulf of Mexico about 8-miles from its main headspring. Although there’s no shortage of game fish in the rivers, you’ll need to alter your approach to score supersized snook.

It is important to note that many of the springs in the area are roped off and marked by buoys. These areas are sanctuaries for manatees where no human interaction is allowed. This isn’t too much of an issue because snook routinely patrol area waters anywhere from within a mile or two from the springs. Because of the outflow from the springs, the rivers are significantly warmer and I’ve accidentally caught snook upwards of 6-miles from the springs while fishing for redfish.

While motoring down these rivers it will appear that every bend and turn reveals a promising honey hole. Even though there are a plethora of quality locations, you’ll need to locate underwater structure that alters current and offers an ambush point. My preferred approach is to slow-troll lipped plugs along the banks and in the vicinity of deep holes in the rivers. While it will certainly take time to learn the area, a sophisticated side-scanning sonar will help reveal prime habitat.

If you’ve ever visited one of Florida’s freshwater springs you know that the waters in the vicinity of the headsprings are ultra clear, but only a short distance away they become incredibly murky. You’ll want to focus on the dirty water, as this is where you’ll connect with snook. For these conditions Yo-Zuri’s Crystal Minnow really works wonders, as the holographic finish reflects even the slightest subsurface light. When slow trolling I try to keep my baits about 10 feet off the bank. The good thing about trolling is that it is pretty simple and doesn’t require any advanced techniques. All you need to do is select a plug with a diving depth suitable to the depth you’re fishing and simply drag it down the bank. Better yet, select plugs that reach different depths and target a larger portion of the water column.

Once I find the fish I’ll start casting diving and suspending plugs. I’ve also had great success bouncing jigs off the bottom, with D.O.A. Swimming Mullet and TerrorEyz my favorite for this approach. In the winter I don’t do much live bait fishing. Snook definitely respond to live shrimp, but with these offerings you’ll mainly catch a mess of jacks, mangrove snapper and ladyfish. It’s really not necessary to fish with live bait, as the snook in our area don’t get pressured too often.

It’s important to note that snook season remains closed throughout the Gulf until August 31. Because this is strictly a catch and release fishery you must take the necessary steps to provide a healthy release. If you’ve never fished the spring-fed rivers of Florida’s Gulf Coast you owe it to yourself to capitalize on this exciting fishery.

Bottled at the Source

Florida is fortunate to have what is thought to be the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the entire world, with geologist estimating more than 700 throughout the state. Providing ideal habitat for a variety of species, these nutrient rich freshwater springs are measured and categorized by volume of waterflow and range from less than 1 pint per minute to more than 64.6 million gallons per day.

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