Snook are complex creatures, likely more so than any other shallow water predator. They can be extremely temperamental, affected by lunar and solunar phases, tides, water clarity, temperatures, and, of course, seasonal fluctuations. All of these factors must be considered when formulating a plan for successful fishing. And while many of Florida’s famous game fish, both inshore and off are highly sought after, snook in particular have established a cult-like following that’s incomparable. It’s strange but true. Snook fanatics will go to great lengths to capture their quarry, often traveling a hundred miles or sacrificing a full night of sleep for that one opportunity to feel the famed thump when a hungry linesider inhales its prey.
While this unique species is most active during spring and summer, with a little ingenuity and preparation snook can be successfully targeted during even the coldest months of the year. However, depending on your exact locale, linesiders of any size cannot be harvested until February or March, so wintertime snooking is strictly a game of catch and release. What that means is that all snook, slot size or not, must be handled with extreme care and released revived and rejuvenated. Of course as spring approaches, the rules change.
Because they are cold blooded, snook are highly sensitive to seasonal fluctuations, relying solely on the surrounding water to regulate their body temperature. Ideally, snooks’ comfort zone falls between the high 60s and the high 70s. Any chillier and linesiders become seriously sluggish. Fall into the 50s and South Florida’s snook population is completely lethargic and in serious danger of freezing to death. While marine biologists have recently learned that snook can acclimate and survive in extremely cold conditions, exactly for how long and just much they can tolerate is still somewhat of a mystery.
Characteristically, during the coldest months of the year, snook survive in rivers and deep creeks, many of which feature freshwater springs that seep a continuous stream of comfortable 72°F water. Deep, residential canals also offer a sanctuary. Snook use these man-made ditches, which are slower to cool than unprotected bays, to hide from falling water temperatures. Not to be overlooked are Florida’s power plants with their warm-water discharges. These areas, too, can be fish magnets.
Finally, inlets and passes are popular wintertime snook hangouts. Incoming tides flush warm ocean water into the mouth of rivers and bays where snook lie in ambush. The common denominator to all of the above locations is a steady stream of moving water. That’s the first key to catching these finicky fish during the winter—finding them.
Now that January is here and South Florida cold fronts are at their peak, snook metabolism slows to a crawl, so a fish that is already lazy by nature is not likely to exert a tremendous amount of energy chasing down frisky bait or a fast moving artificial. During the coldest stretches, snook have the ability to literally shut down and survive solely off stored fat reserves. This is precisely when they are nearly impossible to coerce.
As spring approaches and hours of sunlight increase, fish that are held up far up rivers and creeks begin to move. Following the natural instinct to regain lost body fat and to store protein in preparation of their annual spawning duties, snook are driven out of hiding to search for forage, but catching springtime fish that are on the move to rich feeding grounds is another editorial altogether. Our immediate goal is persuading lethargic wintertime fish.
We discussed where to find sluggish snook, now its time to touch on how to tempt these weary fish. Even during the harshest South Florida winter, cold spells are regularly interrupted by periods of fair weather accompanied with pleasant temperatures and plenty of sunshine. These are the days you want to fish. Even a slight increase in water temperature can send snook on a temporary feeding frenzy. Don’t expect to see linesiders feverishly crashing mullet pods like a school of raged bluefish, but the pleasant conditions will entice snook to catch a quick meal if the right opportunity presents itself. Now is when slow and steady wins the race. An imitation shrimp, like an impregnated TriggerX, worked slowly may very well flip on the eat switch. Working an area methodically is also crucial, as snook may not exert the required energy to engulf an offering unless it is presented at the ideal depth or precise angle of approach. I recall fishing a stretch of weathered docks lining the St. Lucie River with a local pro. He insisted that we cast to each piling ten times before moving on. He was dead on, as often a strike would occur on the seventh or eighth cast. I learned that winter day long ago that even a few inches could make a big difference.
Wintertime snooking is no place for top-water plugs, though crankbaits, especially suspending crankbaits that do not need to be worked at a feverish pace can entice negative fish to commit. With mullet the primary forage in many waterways during the winter, silver/gray patterns with a low profile present a target that’s easy for fish to consume. I recommend snipping off two of the three hooks on the trebles to avoid unnecessary damage. At the very least, pinch down the barbs.
Soft swim baits, too, have a place in wintertime snook fishing. Many successful anglers swear by them. Again, it’s bait that doesn’t have to be worked fast to achieve the desired results.
Of course, natural bait can’t be overlooked. Every Florida angler should know a select, handpicked shrimp is killer, as is a live pinfish, small croaker, perch or mojarra. When they do decide to eat, wintertime snook will devour crabs and fresh-shucked clams as well, so don’t rule anything out and don’t be afraid to experiment.
While anglers have a preference for either spinning or casting tackle, one thing is unanimous; heavy leader is a must. Mature snook are equipped with razor sharp gill rakers that will instantly make short work of anything lighter than 40 lb. leader. Many snook specialist who have been burned too many times opt for 50, 60 and even 80 lb. leader. When fishing natural bait, dead or alive, circle-hooks are the only option.
By now it should be clear that preparation, timing, instinct, dedication, and a clear understanding of snook behavioral patterns are all essential for achieving any level of success. These fish are simply too smart to be outsmarted. Ask anyone who regularly targets snook and they’ll swear that wintertime fish offer one of the greatest challenges in the angling world. Maximizing on each and every opportunity is key as that one solid thump, may very well be the only thump you feel. Yet when everything comes together a fantastic fight is often the result, a fight that’s only trumped by the satisfaction you achieve knowing you coerced a magnificent predator when most other anglers didn’t even know it was there.
Capt. Saki Haliko (Tampa)
Capt. Rob McCue (Boca Grande)
Capt. Bill Faulkner (Naples)
Capt. Larry Fowler (Indian River)
Capt. Carlos Rodriguez (Miami)
Capt. Pier Milito (Everglades)