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Shallow strategies for summer snook

8/11/2010

The annual snook aggregations during which hordes of linesiders flock to the shallow, clear waters off coastal islands, will undoubtedly see smaller attendance this year. However, the key points for engaging those that appear remain the same.

Florida's treacherously cold winter 2010 claimed thousands of snook from juveniles shorter than a ruler to those "long-as-your-leg" titans most of us only dream of catching. The big ones are the spawning females with loads of experience, but an extended period of freezing temperatures overcame a lot of snook from this size on down to the pee-wees.

Fortunately, a good number of fish survived and summer is their time to start rebuilding their numbers. The spawning instinct pulls mature snook from shallow backwaters of salt marshes and mangrove swamps toward the coastal passes and into the shallow surf.

From May through September, the genders will occasionally mingle, but their interactions are casual at best during the softer tides of quarter moons. Once the water gains momentum on the strength of new and full moon phases, linesiders move into super skinny water to perpetuate their species.

Snook eggs must remain buoyant for about three days to fully develop, so spawning on coastal beaches during the strongest outgoing tides is critical. This sends the eggs seaward where little snooklets have plenty of time to hatch before heading toward the shallow nurseries they'll call home.

Snook will spawn several times throughout the summer season, but between these relatively brief procreation periods, the fish feed aggressively.

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Given the winter kills, statewide snook harvest has remained closed all year. The season is scheduled to reopen Sept. 1. During the closure, plenty of catch-and-release action exists — especially along beach shallows. You can literally wear out your arms on small snook, but summer offers the best statistical shot at a trophy fish.

Best Beach Baits

Live sardines work just about anywhere you find snook. You'll do a lot of casting and retrieving on the beach, so hook your baits through the nose. Circle hooks facilitate easy release.

Resist the urge to sling out dozens of live "chum baits." This backcountry tactic may jumpstart the snook bite near a mangrove shoreline, but it can be counterproductive on the beach. Snook will certainly respond to the samples, but so will the sea gulls and terns. Snook feel safer in darker backwaters, but once the sky rats start shrieking and diving above fish in shin deep water, it's game-over.

Between spawns, snook may slide into deep tidal cuts like the one at the north tip of Anclote Key. Baits that naturally run to the bottom (i.e. pinfish or grunts) do best in this scenario.

Productive artificials include white or chartreuse bucktails, soft plastic jerkbaits on light jig heads, suspending twitchbaits like the MirrOlure MirrOdine and topwater plugs. Avoid heavy splashes right over snook. You'll do best by casting past the fish and bringing a lure by their noses.

Fly fishermen armed with 8-weight outfits and sink tip line fare well by presenting minnow or shrimp patterns. A stripping basket is very helpful in managing the loops and keeping sand off your line and out of your reel. That latter tip leads us to a key component of summer snook action — wading.

Walk the Walk

Boaters will catch a few beach snook, but you'll do better on foot. A lower profile, less noise and vibration in the water — the stealth approach leads to more short-range opportunities. Secure your vessel in shallow water, hop out and approach your quarry with low, soft steps. If starting from land, just pick a promising spot and get your feet wet.

Considering that most snook will be in the swash between the beach and the first bar, heaving a big cast toward the horizon is pointless. Likewise, wading waist deep means the fish are behind you. Walk no deeper than a foot of water and cast roughly parallel to shore. This keeps your bait in the common strike zone.

Morning trips are best, as low light illuminates the beach water and finds the snook generally undisturbed. As the day progresses, the fish see and hear lots of commotion from beachgoers and passing boats, so they become increasingly skittish. Also, afternoon sea breezes and increasingly common thunderstorms make the water choppy, thereby diminishing visibility. Night fishing can be a blast, as long as the sky behaves.

Getting up high for an overview will help beach anglers monitor what their quarry is doing. You can beach your boat and watch from the deck or tower (when available), but that means you're locked into a set position. If a pod of snook swims by you, you're in business. If not, you're just working on your tan.

A valuable tool for beach recon is a 5-gallon bucket. Flip it upside down and you have an instant platform. Move that bucket up the beach grade and your advantage increases. Polarized sunglasses and a wide brim hat will help you peer into the water to locate the next pod of hungry snook.

As always, we must stress the need to take care of the snook that survived the winter freeze. These are generally hardy fish that do fine with warm season catch and release, but this year the fish need a higher level of consideration to ensure a productive spawn.

For starters, use tackle sufficient for a quick capture. Leave the light gear at home and tackle up with medium- to medium-heavy rods and reels strung with 30-pound braid topped with 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders. Snook will give you plenty of fight, but don't push them to exhaustion with undersized tackle.

After the catch, hold the fish by its bony lower jaw and lead it through the deeper water to wash oxygenated water over its gills. A revived snook will clamp its toothless jaws around your thumb right before it kicks off and returns to its beach buds.