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Not all Floridians waiting for fall

11/4/2009

A few recently cool nights and breezy, overcast days had me hopeful that a tardy fall had finally arrived. Ever since September 22nd, the first day of autumn, I've been yearning for a good reason to pack away my shorts and pull out the long britches.

Compared to pretty much everything north of us, the shift from summer to winter is a relatively anticlimactic deal in Florida. Sometime in late December, we'll walk outside and think, "Oh, winter must be here. I'd better put on a jacket before fetching the mail."

However, fall in my state provides a much-awaited transitional period that typically offers several pleasant weeks of invigorating weather that just makes you want to sleep outside. Fishing gets right, too.

But alas, the weatherman isn't offering any short-term optimism. For at least the next week and a half, we're looking at daytime highs in the upper 70s to low 80s and nights that won't dip past the mid-60s. Certainly, that's a good bit cooler than the August-September inferno, but we're definitely overdue for our little version of fall.

Looks like my Sunshine State brethren and I will be waiting a little longer for our sweet season, but there's a distinct group of Floridians who have not, do not and will not wait for anyone to tell them fall has arrived. I'm talking about snook — those sly, silver predators with the black pinstriped flanks. Arguably Florida's premier inshore gamefish, snook combine predatorial cunning with incredibly fierce fighting abilities and some of the sea's finest fillets. Bottom line: snook are the belle of the ball.

In all but southern Florida waters, this subtropical species lives at the upper end of a geographic range more favorable to the places like Costa Rica, Belize and Honduras. That means even Florida's mild winters can drop water temperatures past the snook's safe zone.

These fish survive our winters by packing into coastal rivers, creeks, canals and any deep basin they can find, huddling together in huge masses and doing their best to stay warm. Deep, stable water out of the wind helps keep their internal thermometers at a doable level, but the fish need to remain as still as possible so they can use minimal energy and simply live off the fat that they packed on during — you guessed it — fall.

This time of year, shorter days tell all of the earth's wild things that the winter's leanness is just around the corner. Some years, the seasons roll through at a discernable pace, while other years, it's like someone forgot to schedule a fall for us down here in the palm tree playground. But, while we're lamenting these still hot days, we can't forget that the snook are busily on their way to winter mode.

Until a couple of serious cold fronts drop the Gulf and Atlantic water temperatures, schools of scaled sardines ("whitebait"), threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and bay anchovies ("glass minnows") will provide lots of snook chow. The linesiders will eat every baitfish they can catch, but they'll become far less fixated than they are during summer's abundance. Perennial baits like pinfish, grunts and live shrimp gain prominence during the fall season.

This is also a great time to throw artificials for snook. Topwater plugs can draw vicious strikes in early mornings and late afternoons. During the day, anglers fare well with white or chartreuse bucktail jigs and soft plastic jerkbaits on 1/8- to ¼-ounce jig heads or weedless hooks. The latter affords the option of adding or removing pinch-on weights for variable depth retrieves.

Snook are generally spread out this time of year, as they're moving through the bays and estuaries en route to their ultimate winter destinations. Mangrove edges, sand bars, oyster bars and sandy potholes amid grass flats are likely haunts. Fish peak tidal flows which occur around new and full moons for the best snook action.

Daytime fishing is usually better during a new moon period, as snook may feed at night under a clear sky and a bright full moon. When the cold fronts start their regimented march, fish ahead of an approaching front or a couple of days after one passes and the barometer stabilizes.

Fall snook still have plenty of vigor, and they'll fight to exhaustion. Particularly in heavily fished areas like Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, dolphins have learned to target fishing boats and pick off weak snook after release. Give your fish a chance to recharge its batteries by thoroughly reviving it at boatside.

Grip the stout lower jaw with thumb and forefinger and support the midsection with your other hand. Gently move the fish back and forth to wash oxygen over its gills. You'll know when a snook's ready to go because it will clamp down on your thumb. The toothless jaws do no damage, but the pressure signals a healthy fall snook.

Snook harvest closes Dec.-Feb. in the Gulf of Mexico, Monroe County and Everglades National Park. The Atlantic season closes Dec. 15-Jan. 31. Licensed anglers possessing a snook stamp can keep one snook a day between 28 and 33 inches on the Gulf side, and 28-32 inches in the Atlantic.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.