From as far back as I can remember I was extremely proficient at catching all of the members of the infamous Trash Can Slam. Oh yeah…and the treat of an occasional seatrout or a slot-size redfish really made my day. Sheepshead were no problem, but big black drum were a bit more than my mighty Zebco could handle.
Next was offshore fishing, which quickly became of little interest thanks to my then neighbor’s very generous offer to introduce me to grouper diggin’ in five-foot seas. Nevertheless, the excitement of being out on his 21-foot Stamas was simply amazing. The open Gulf was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, with the exception of his daughter, Julie. Needless to say, I quickly caught the fishing bug.
Quite simply, snook are lethargic and never do anything to suit you or your schedule. To be successful; you have to pursue them on their own terms.
From that point forward I was addicted, and during the countless hours fishing docks and shorelines with my two best friends, Ken and Paul, there was always talk about this one particular fish – the one fish which we figured had to be a distant cousin to unicorns and leprechauns because neither of us had ever caught one. This nemesis of ours quickly became a personal obsession. I began to ask lots of questions about my then little understood foe, the common snook.
The more I inquired, the more I learned how uncommon it was for average Joe Fisherman to catch this extremely aloof fish, and then it happened. I stumbled across a book at a local tackle shop for $1.95. Not just any book, a book titled How to Fish for Snook by Earl Downey. Immediately it dawned on me that my old neighbor was named Mr. Downey, and he went fishing almost every night. I remembered overhearing grownups calling him Earl. Could it be?
Jumping on my trusty Schwinn, I was off. I had to speak with Mr. Downey, but what would I say? Finally mustering up enough courage, I remember being extremely nervous standing at the foot of his front door. “Hi Mr. Downey, I’m Dave. I used to live next door to you and I’d really like to learn how to catch snook.”
He peered down at me and said, “Okay kid, first lets call your mother and make sure it’s alright.”
So the lessons began. To my disbelief he handed me a Mitchell 300 spinning reel and Shakespeare rod. Soon I was learning to tie knots and how to properly cast my new prize possession. Then came my first big snook outing to the then open Midnight Pass in Sarasota. It was just about dark and my first few casts were pathetic. On my fourth or fifth attempt, I finally managed to whiz the jig a fair distance. “Now let it sink to the bottom and twitch your rod tip as your jig drifts out of the pass,” instructed Mr. Downey.
On the third twitch I felt a bump. “That’s him! Set the hook!” shouted my mentor. Coaching me on how to fight the fish with the rod and not the reel, I soon had my very first snook to the beach. At more than 40-inches, in my eyes it was Snookosaurus-Rex! That very first linesider changed my life in ways I never understood until now.
Many more trips followed. I even snuck out of my bedroom window to ride my bike to all the nearby snook spots. With many trips lasting into the wee hours of the morning, staying awake in school was tough. As for my knowledge of snook, let’s just say I was getting straight A’s.
So what was I learning? Quite simply, snook are lethargic and never do anything to suit you or your schedule. To be successful; you have to pursue them on their own terms.
There’s no question that nighttime is the right time for big snook. Sure, plenty of snook are caught during daylight hours, but there’s something magical about fishing for one of God’s greatest creatures under the cover of darkness. Nevertheless, you’ll quickly realize that the success of all of your snook adventures will be highly dependent upon the weather, water temperature and availability of forage. I call it a “snook calendar.”
During the winter, think far up rivers and creeks, warm water springs, power-plant outflows and residential canals. Snook, especially mature snook, will be lethargic so select a small offering such as a shrimp. If it’s real cold, I always say; go low and slow! Crawl your shrimp at a snails pace.
As the weather begins to warm, start looking closely at river mouths and where creeks funnel into large bays. When snook depart their wintery haunts they’re often very hungry. Yet, it’s been my experience that during this transitional period they will still be on the hunt for slow moving baits.
As days start getting longer and water temperature starts increasing, so will their appetites. Now palm size pinfish, big scaled sardines, threadfin herring, jumbo shrimp, pigfish and croakers will all be on the menu.
During the late spring and summer months, snook spend a majority of their time around passes and beaches as they gather for their annual spawn. Their metabolism shifts into overdrive and there’s no such thing as bait that’s too big. Mullet, ladyfish, big pinfish and sand perch in excess of eight-inches will be in crosshairs of hungry linesiders.
During fall, the pattern reverses. They’re back to river mouths and creeks, hanging around bridges like mythical trolls eating any small fish that dares to cross their path. Now, just about any livebait will entice engulfing strikes. Scaled sardines are still very much on the menu in autumn, but palm size pinfish and 10-inch mullet remain the top choice for many a monster snook fisherman.
If you’re serious about slob snook success, an understanding of the tides plays an enormous role. I’m often asked which tidal stage I prefer to fish. My answer is that it all depends on where I am and what time of the year it is. In the spring, you can get lucky on either an incoming or outgoing, but if I’m fishing close to structure, I prefer the incoming.
For summer inlet fishing, I prefer an outgoing tide because the water flushing all of the bait out of the inlet will be a bit dirtier. This helps conceal terminal tackle and makes the snook rely more on their senses.
When fall approaches, incoming and outgoing tides are both productive since much of my snookin’ tends to be more inland where water clarity doesn’t vary as much. Throw periods of heavy rain into the mix, and I prefer an incoming tide as it often brings clearer water. In the winter, it’s all about the outgoing, especially at night. And finally, when targeting creeks and river mouths, regardless of the time of year, the best tide is certainly outgoing. Snook, being the lazy bait busters that they are, face the current and simply wait for the tide to deliver dinner.
Make no mistake: mature snook are intelligent. Every part of the tide or moon phase is spent feeding, resting or spawning. Feeding usually occurs during the fastest part of the tide, resting occurs outside the raging current, and spawning behavior can generally be observed just as the sun sets when large numbers of small, mature males swim around roe-filled females. This behavior typically takes place from late spring through early fall.
Another key term is barometer. Snook love it when the barometer is moving but aren’t very active when it’s high or excessively low. So there you are, with waterspouts and thunderstorms bearing down on you. Of course, the snook bite is on fire, the barometer is plummeting, but if you aren’t careful you could end up a victim of Mother Nature’s fury.
Tackle selection directly correlates to the size trophy you are targeting. For slot fish, a Shimano 4000 series spinning reel loaded with 20lb. braid and matched to a 7-½ foot medium-action rod will seal the deal. Next stop provides a bit more grunt after the thump. Large fish are better subdued with a 6500 series spinner loaded with 65lb. braid. Fifty or 60lb. fluorocarbon leader will be more than able to handle the challenge. Last stop is a 4/0 conventional with a 9-foot heavy-action boat rod with an extra long butt section for added control and leverage. You may be thinking, what the $%@# is this guy talking about? Is he some kind of overzealous meat fisherman? Actually, it’s quite the opposite. I’m allergic to fish and every time I’ve indulged in a fresh snook dinner, my face has ended up looking like the Snookyear Blimp.
Snook exceeding 20-pounds are STRONG! Because you’re typically fishing heavy cover, this sort of backbone is necessary for pulling them away from their lairs. Otherwise, you can kiss your trophy fish goodbye. Plus, you certainly want to get larger breeder fish in and released as quickly as possible. A drawn out battle on inadequate tackle could have a fatal outcome for your adversary. In the summer when the water holds less dissolved oxygen, snook reach levels of exhaustion rather quickly. Since most of the really big snook are caught during closed season it simply makes sense to get them to the boat as quickly as possible. This raises the question, should anglers target snook during closed season at all? A few snook biologists I have spoken with have expressed their views on the topic and I agree with their sentiments. Make sure never to jeopardize their protective slime coat. Don’t drag snook intended for release up on the sand, dirt or grass and never let them flop around on a dock or boat deck. In my opinion, landing nets, dry hands and towels are also bad practice. If you remove scales and/or slime coat you are leaving the fish susceptible to infection. As for the time you hold a snook out of the water, hold your breath, too. When you need to breathe, so does the fish. Finally, unlike my naïve years when I, too, committed this crime, never hold a snook vertically for a photo opportunity. Rather, support the fish horizontally.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “What do you need monster tackle like that to catch snook? Where’s the sport?” My answer is, “How many snook over 40-pounds have you caught?” I’ve landed three. “How many snook over 30-pounds have you taken?” My answer is over 200! My closing statement sounds something like why show up to a bear fight with a knife.
What sets me apart from other snook anglers is the extremes I’m willing to go through to catch big fish. I’ve built a custom bait trailer with twin 200-gallon livewells just so I can take fresh bait wherever I want. I also have an 800-gallon livewell with an elaborate filtration system at my house to stockpile hard-to-get baits. Driving 300 to 400-miles is commonplace. Leaving at 5 p.m. and getting back at 10 a.m. the following morning is a regular occurrence. I will chase big snook by way of boat, beaches, jetties, spillways, rivers and inlets from Miami to Ft. Pierce and Clearwater to Naples. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am completely nuts over these fish. How do you think I got the nickname, Mad Snooker.
One last thing, don’t be a two-spot Charlie. Explore out of your comfort zone and fish new areas. And when all else fails, hire a professional. A guide could teach you more about snook behavior in one trip than you would learn on your own in a year. I just happen to know a really good one!
In closing, if you’d like to get a close up look at the shear number and size of snook I am referring to, take a moment to visit the gallery on www.madsnooker.com.