Sanibel, in fact, became my home away from home when I assessed that this general area had such perfect ingredients for so many types of snook venues. From lush grass flats, rivers, bridges, passes and mangrove jungles, all the way out to the expansive beaches of the Gulf of Mexico; it is a true linesider Mecca.
In the midst of this stunning habitat is the core of what makes optimal snook country – brackish water and mangrove-based ecology. Snook, as well as redfish, tarpon, and seatrout, are coastal estuarine fish that thrive in the presence of a good mix of fresh and saltwater, but snook need passes and inlets to perform their annual spawning duties. The power source of this brackish effluent are the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee Rivers, which run southwest into San Carlos Bay, Matlacha Aquatic Preserve and Pine Island Sound. Though fertile snook eggs are thought to hatch offshore, juvenile snook make their way back to estuarine waters, and it is here where they grow to maturity feeding on small, protein-rich finfish and crustaceans. These particular conditions are found on the inland side of Sanibel Island, which is comprised of the mangrove forests of J.N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Snook, as well as redfish, tarpon, and seatrout, are coastal estuarine fish that thrive in the presence of a good mix of fresh and saltwater…
Although the Sanibel/Pine Island Sound habitat is often loaded with all manner of game fish, it is subject to the same seasonal, weather, tidal, and lunar laws as any other world-renowned fishing destination. After speaking with Captain Mike Smith (www.mangroveislandcharters.com), he made it clear that the span of March through November was prime snook season, provided the water temperature was in the low-mid 70s. Further, he insisted that the optimal linesider fishing in these conditions would be the stronger currents of the new and full moons as well as on the lower pressure weekdays of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. His preferences have become the foundation of my choices in this fabulous fishery, and all of these factors augured deeply into the timing of a productive trip.
Captain Mike’s skiff was smack dab in the vortex of astonishing linesider action. There were pops and explosions all the around the boat – it was snook gone wild thanks to a cascade of live whitebait chumming tossed by Mike’s seasoned hands. My pal Don Eichin and I felt like heroes in a Sanibel Shangri-La – our constant double-header hook-ups made us easily forget all the preparations Mike had gone for the gift of this Pine Island wonderland.
The last three hours deep in the mangroves was the stuff dreams are made of. I’d gone ahead and done the unfashionable by counting the fish released and the number was an impressive 47 snook from 4 to 15-pounds with at least that many lost by pulled hooks or cut-offs. As Mike unhooked another snook for release, his cell phone rang. He checked the caller I.D. and promptly answered the call. With a furtive glance he said, “There’s another boat close by.” He abruptly stopped chumming and told us to reel in. Mike explained that one of his buddies was alerting us that another boat was quietly meandering into the area on their electric motor, presenting us with a big risk that the exact location of this honey-hole could go public. While this spot was a proven secret, there’s no telling how many identical spots there were to be found by adventurous anglers willing to put in their dues scouting out the area.
All three of us were now banded in secrecy. We looked on with relief as the loud surface pops subsided into the silence of a flat, placid surface. By the time the approaching skiff appeared from the depths of a skinny mangrove canopied canal, we, too, were easing along…just lookin’ for snook. When we cruised by the other skiff, they waved and we waved back and smiled the smile of three fat cats that had eaten a thousand canaries.
While snook can be encountered in the backcountry with relative consistency year-round, beach snook start to show their presence near barrier islands and along area passes and inlets during the summer. Sanibel has long been known for its consistent snook fishing, and this world-class fishery holds its own with destinations like Belize and Costa Rica. During the summer when snook fill in the passes, the shell-lined beaches of Sanibel are many anglers’ go-to spot for simple snook fishing. Unlike the backcountry where anglers must deal with pesky mosquitoes, boat traffic and labyrinthine mangrove mazes, on the beaches anglers can expect a more serene experience.
Due to the currents and bottom contours there is a slough that parallels the shoreline just a few feet off the beach. A high tide will offer your best chance for spotting snook in the slough, which can often be as shallow as two or three-feet. No matter what the conditions, you can almost always expect beach snook to be facing into the wind or current. In this venue sight fishing is the name of the game and on calm mornings it will be obvious as to where the bite is going off as you will likely witness surface pops and tail slaps as these curious snook forage dangerously close to the shoreline. Sometimes only inches from dry sand.
An Optimal Guide’s Boat and Tackle
Captain Mike’s spacious Lake & Bay sports a high-performance Yamaha with a jack-plate mounted on the transom. These features help Mike outrun summer storms with vessel speeds over 60 MPH! Another essential feature is his massive livewell. It’s capable of maintaining hundreds of whitebait for hours on end.
Mike’s go-to choice for the backcountry action is a 7-foot spinning outfit matched with a high-quality ultra-light spinner spooled with 8lb. braid. These outfits cast quite far and retrieve line at a gobbling pace. For terminal tackle, 30lb. fluorocarbon leader loop-knotted to an ultra-sharp 1/0 hook at the business end is ideal. This rig is hard for game fish to see, and also allows your offering to swim with a natural presentation.
Tackle for beach fishing can be as light as 6lb. spinning or 10lb. baitcasting, as long as you have large line capacity in case you hook the occasional monster. Many anglers also opt for a fly rod, and a 7 or 8-weight is more than adequate for the fish you will encounter along the beach.
After two days of sensational Sanibel snooking, I had more than my fill as had Don. Don is rookie to Sanibel fishing – his historical diet of stripers, bluefish, weakfish, and flounder was forever altered by close combat snook fishing. The sun was slowly beginning to set over the Gulf and we had a long drive back to Miami. The restless prospect of returning to such a frenetic city was muted by the amber glow of the splendid Sanibel afternoon.
In the summer months snook season in closed (May-August along the West Coast) and it is important that anglers practice healthy release tactics to preserve the stocks of this great game fish. While catch-and-release is a given, it cannot be practiced without responsibility. Snook are bulldog fighters that will fight to exhaustion. This is especially true during the summer when water temperatures are on the rise and oxygen levels are on the decline. After a lengthy fight, take the time to fully revive your catch.
If you enjoy catching snook and want to protect them for future generations then get involved with the Snook Foundation (www.snookfoundation.org). South Florida is the snook capital of the world and these fish are a large part of many guides’ success. Catch-and-release should be taken serious even if snook are in season. Ron Taylor is the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation’s head snook biologist and he tells me that snook are on the decline. More and more anglers are visiting South Florida to fish for snook, while leaving us with the task of managing our fisheries. Since catch-and-release is the name of the game, do the fish a favor and crimp down your barbs to facilitate an even easier release.