I’m asking, because I actually don’t know. Last time snook season was supposed to open, the FWC decided to keep it closed with less than two days’ notice. WaterLine deadlines on Tuesday night, which happened to be Feb. 28. Snook season was scheduled to open March 1, but I just don’t trust it. If there’s been another “emergency” closure announced, I’m sure it’s all over Facebook. It should also be posted at https://bit.ly/FWCbleh.
In or out of season, snook are one of the most desired local targets for fishermen. There are multiple reasons for this: Snook can be found throughout area waters, from the freshwater rivers out into the Gulf of Mexico. The types of habitat they prefer means they’re often accessible to shore-based anglers. They can be caught on a huge variety of baits or lures. They’re great fighters, spanking most other fish in their weight class.
And, if the season is open, their flaky white meat doesn’t hurt their popularity either.
Let’s start with where to find them. As we move farther from cool weather, the snook that went upriver for the winter are starting to come back out to the Harbor. Sure, some will stick around — there are always some snook in the rivers. But most of them will move out to saltier water.
In the estuary, snook frequent grassflats, mangrove shorelines, small creeks, channel edges and pilings. That’s all stuff we would generally call structure, and snook love it. If you’ve ever fished for largemouth bass, you have a leg up on the competition.
Snook hang around structure for the same reason bass do: Because they’re ambush predators. They don’t usually chase prey down. Instead, they sit and wait for it to come to them. Using structure to hide allows them to stay out of sight until it’s too late for little fish to escape.
You might think structure-oriented fish would be attracted to reefs. You’d be right. It’s not uncommon for divers to spot schools of dozens or even hundreds of snook on our nearshore Gulf reefs.
However, they’re a little harder to catch here, because they can so quickly dive into cover and break off. If you hook what you think is a big grouper on one of the reefs within sight of land and it snaps your line, chances are good it was actually a big snook.
My snook tackle depends on where I’m fishing for them. In relatively open water on the flats or mangrove edges, I like a medium rod (8-17 lb, about 7 feet) and lighter line (10- or 15-pound braid). This kind of setup is light and easy to handle, keeps the fight sporting and lets me cast a long distance.
When I’m around heavy cover — docks, bridges, oysters, etc. — I bump it up a notch. A medium heavy outfit (12-20 lb rod, 20-pound braid) is a better choice, as it lets me out more pressure on a fish.
A fluorocarbon leader is always part of my snook rig. Snook don’t have sharp teeth, but their mouths are like 40-grit sandpaper and they shake their heads violently when hooked. In more open areas, I use 30-pound.
Around sharp stuff, I go to 40-, 50- or even 60-pound. However, you’ll still lose some even with the heaviest gear. We’ve seen big snook under docks slice 100-pound leader like it as dental floss. Keep in mind that the heavier you go, the fewer strikes you’ll probably get. But go too light, and you’ll get more break-offs. Pick your compromise.
I mostly use lures for snook. Live whitebait, mullet, pinfish or shrimp work well, but I’m not a huge fan of keeping bait alive and managing it on the end of my line. There are very few lures that can’t be used for snook, but a few of my favorites are the Zara Spook Jr (be sure to get the saltwater version), DOA CAL shad on a quarter-ounce jighead, Aqua Dream weedless spoons and Live Target pinfish swimbaits.
Cutbait can also catch snook. Big ones are lazy, so a hunk of fish (say, half a mullet or ladyfish) lying on the bottom under a dock is appealing to them. However, you might wait a long time for one bite, and when it comes, you’d better be ready or you’ll get cut off quick. My ADHD brain has a hard time staying still for this, so I usually stick with artificials.
Presentation matters — a lot. As I mentioned, snook are ambush hunters. They expect flowing current to bring them snacks, so they hide on the lee (downcurrent) side of something and wait for dinner to go swimming past, then slurp it in.
If your lure isn’t moving with the current, it looks out of place and will usually get ignored by all but the smallest (least educated) fish. If it’s not close enough to the structure, it won’t get the fish’s attention.
Snook feed best on strongly flowing tides. If there’s no water flow, they’re probably not actively feeding. That doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish, but you have to get your bait even closer to them to buy a reaction strike. If you’re not snagging the structure every now and then, you’re either really good or not casting close enough.
A snook’s mouth is an engineer’s delight. When the lower jaw is pushed down, the upper lip bone (maxillary) swings forward, transforming the mouth into a tube. This happens faster than your eye can blink, and it creates an area of low pressure inside the snook’s mouth. That low pressure sucks in water (and prey).
The whole works depends on small tendons that run through the fish’s throat at the isthmus (where the gill covers meet on the bottom of the fish). When a large snook is lifted by the lower jaw, those tendons can be stretched or even snapped.
If that happens, the lower jaw opens more slowly, and the area of low pressure formed is weak. As a result, more prey gets away and the fish gets to eat less often. A stretched tendon will heal, though the snook will probably lose weight. A snapped tendon is usually a sentence to death by starvation.
This is why I so strongly advocate a two-handed grip on snook. Put one on the lower jaw and one under the belly — not just for photos, but anytime you lift a snook. If it’s hard to lean over your boat to get two hands on it, use a landing net. Wanna weigh it? Weigh it in the net, then weight the net and subtract. No dangling, please. These fish are too awesome to hurt for no reason.
Now, eating one is a different story. I don’t kill many snook, but taking one or two a season is OK by me. Pinch the tail fin down and measure carefully from the tip of the lower jaw to the end of the tail. If it’s between 28 and 32 inches, and you’ve got your snook stamp, go ahead and ice that fish if you like. That’s what an open season is for, after all.
Don’t forget to take the skin off the fillets. There’s nothing worse than ruining a snook dinner with that soap-flavored skin. Then again, if you’ve been snook fishing all day, you may have vented some frustration with curse words, so your potty mouth might need a good soaping.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.
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