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Christmas Break

12/10/2009

Florida got its first real shot of winter this past week, and while the cold part was short-lived, it reminded us why snook season closes each year in December. In the Gulf of Mexico, Monroe County and Everglades National Park, the closure runs from December-Feb. On the Atlantic coast, snook season closes Dec. 15-Jan. 31.

As a subtropical species, snook are at the top of their range in Florida. Their Sunshine State boundaries have been sliding northward over recent years, but the predictable line seems to be Crystal River on the Gulf side and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic. Populations and relative size generally increases the farther south you go. Nevertheless, snook remain highly temperature-sensitive, so a cold front in Naples Florida (southwest coast) will still impact snook behavior.

Generally, snook spend their fall gorging on every baitfish and crustacean they can catch. Knowing that winter's lower temperatures and lean food supply are just around the corner, linesiders instinctively go on prolonged feeding binges to pack on the fat they'll need to survive the cold season. The fish will be working their way off the open flats and heading toward the security of deep, stable water in rivers, creeks, port basins and residential canals.

As winter continues, we'll likely see periods of prolonged temperature declines, particularly during January and February. This is when the snook closure really proves its merit because peaking under a dock at the back end of a canal and finding 100 snook stacked like cord wood is no rarity. Moving even a few inches to grab a meal burns precious calories that the fish desperately needs to survive, so the fish will huddle in these masses for weeks without feeding.

This makes winter snook highly susceptible to overharvest. A dozen boats tossing live shrimp right into a snook school could yank a bunch of fish out of the water in short order. Such easy pickings could devastate the population, and that's why there's no winter harvest.

Now, Florida anglers still enjoy winter snook fishing and the catch-and-release game can provide great fun during the right conditions. The key is warmth — without it, snook won't move. Currently, Florida seems to be in a roller coaster pattern of warm-cool-warm and thankfully, the cool dips have yet to plummet very far in snook range.

As long as this continues, anglers can count on decent action with the usual barometric considerations — snook will feed voraciously during the low pressure ahead of a cold front and shut down during the low pressure following a weather system. It's always the tourism conundrum for visiting anglers — a beautiful "Chamber of Commerce" day with clear, bright skies and crisp, chilly air might seem the perfect opportunity to work in a little snook fishing during that winter vacation.

Trust those of us with roots firmly planted in the land of palms and gators, you're more likely to spot Bigfoot driving a minivan across Interstate 4 than to catch a snook the day after a cold front.

Let the barometer regain its composure and the opportunity level will increase. After a cold night, the morning bite will be non-existent until the water warms. Flats adjacent to channels are your best bet, as snook will stay close to a deep water escape route where they can drop into more stable water if the weather changes. A clear day may find snook lying near the surface sunning their backs to store as much warmth as possible.

You can't go wrong with live baits this time of year and as long as schools of scaled sardines ("whitebait") and threadfin herring ("greenbacks") remain in your area, castnetting a load gives you great linesider ammo. As bait schools thin, the ever-present pinfish will become a good alternative. They won't gather as tightly as whitebait or greenies, but if you chum a flat with canned cat food, you'll gather enough to net. Otherwise, catch pins on hook and line with cut squid.

Live shrimp will remain a snook staple throughout winter. Artificial shrimp will make a good stand-in, but as with all artificials, slower retrieves will be the ticket for cold season snook. Jigs, soft plastic jerkbaits and bucktails will produce, but as water temperatures decline, so will the linesider's interest in chasing fast food.

Take a little extra care with your winter snook to minimize their stress during what is already a challenging season. Use circle hooks with live baits for easy removal and use tackle sufficient for a quick landing. The more energy a snook burns during a fight, the more it will have to replace for winter. Lastly, give your fish a chance to catch its breath at boatside before releasing. Keep the snook in the water and move it around in figure-8 patterns to pump oxygenated water across its gills.

Remember, the better we handle snook during the winter closure, the better they'll fight during the spring explosion.

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.