Monday, August 26, 2013

Snook Week #1

Targeting Snook Sub-Species
By: Dave McLeod

Snook are quite possibly one of the greatest inshore game fish to be sought after. Valued for their distinctive “thump” while striking your bait, drag screaming runs, explosive acrobatic jumps, and tasty filets, Snook are the ultimate inshore species. They can be found anywhere from Florida’s backwater creeks and rivers during the winter, to thirty-five miles out into the Gulf of Mexico during their summer spawn. Being a temperature-restricted fish, the Snook’s range is limited to areas where the coastal water temperature stays mostly above 50deg. F during the winter since water 45deg. F or lower is lethal to the fish. Snook can most readily be found in the Southern half of Florida, but populations are well established throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. 
There are four Snook species that can be found in Florida: Common Snook, Fat (or Cuban) Snook, Swordspine Snook, and Tarpon Snook. I am very fortunate that in my hometown of Jupiter I can find all four species in the Loxahatchee River. The Lox is a relatively small river when compared to other Florida rivers such as the St. Lucie, Peace, Caloosahatchee, or St. Johns. Such a small river system makes concentrations of Snook easier to find. While all species inhabit the same waters and spawn in and around the inlets during the summer, the three sub-species seem to like water with a lower salinity. So if you want to target the oddballs of the Snook family, start looking where the fresh water meets the salt. 

Meet the family:

                        The Common Snook

Your average every day, run-of-the-mill snook has a tapered head and snout, lower jaw appearing to have an under-bite, large fins, and the signature solid black horizontal lateral line that begins behind the gill plate and ends at the tail. A Snook’s color will vary with habitat and water color. For instance, this fish was caught about halfway between the inlet and the freshest part of the river, and has taken on a bronze hue matching the tannic-stained, lower salinity water. In contrast, Snook caught off the beach tend to be almost white while back river fish can have a black back. Common Snook average between 16-30 inches and can grow to over 50 pounds with the Florida record standing at 44 pounds.

The Fat Snook

Fat Snook earned their name by having a deeper body than common Snook, making them appear a bit chubby. Most have a slight hump on their head directly over the gill plate. Their fins are all in proportion to each other and this species has the smallest scales of all the Snook family. Most Fat Snook are pretty small averaging only 12-17 inches with few fish caught over 20 inches. Like all Snook, Fatties can live in 100% fresh water and are sometimes caught while fishing for largemouth bass. Not a bad surprise. 

The Swordspine Snook

Swordspine Snook got their name for having an exaggerated anal fin that is so long that it encroaches into the tail fan. The smallest of all the Snooks, the Swordspine is rarely found to be bigger than 12 inches although it has the largest scales of its kind. 

                                              The Tarpon Snook

Quite possibly the oddest-looking member of the Snook family, the Tarpon Snook has a larger than average eye and a sharply up-turned mouth. It looks as if someone squished a common Snook from snout to tail and made the fins more pronounced leaving a compressed body. I have found these to be the rarest of the Snooks having only caught a handful of them, although we caught four under a single dock on the day this photo was taken, so go figure.

When it comes to targeting sub-species Snook, keep in mind that all Snook have these things in common:
  • Snook are primarily structure-oriented fish, so look for them around rocks, docks, mangroves, seawalls, grass beds, and anything else that might provide cover. However, during the summer spawn they can be seen in large schools over sandy bottom.
  • Snook are primarily ambush predators. They spend most of their time conserving energy lying out of the current behind some structure and will use that energy to feed or flee in short bursts. 
  • Like most other fish, Snook are very spooky and sensitive to noise while in shallow water. If you can see the fish, chances are the fish 
  • can see you too, so understand that the clock is ticking for you to make a cast as soon as you spot one. This applies when fishing dock lights as well. 
  • Snook are more likely to feed when there is moving water so plan to fish during stronger moving tides.

  • While Snook can be caught with all kinds of baits, I prefer soft plastics. I firmly believe that the most effective lure ever created is the DOA Shrimp. Years ago, like many other anglers, I had a few DOA Shrimp in my tackle box that I rarely used, and when I did, I had little or no success. I would cast them out and rip them through the water like any other jig even though I’ve never seen a real shrimp doing that. The turning point in my angling life came when I watched a video of Capt. Mark Nichols, owner/inventor of DOA Lures, using his plastic shrimp and catching fish after fish. I watched and learned a few critical things that day.

    1. Always cast up current or crosscurrent but never down current, because Snook (and most other ambush predators) will face into the current and wait for food to come to them. 
    2. When fishing during daylight hours, always let the shrimp sink all the way to the bottom before starting to retrieve. 
    3. Once your bait is on the bottom, raise the rod tip to eliminate slack in your line and then make a sharp twitch of the rod tip, letting the bait fall back down. Repeat.
    4. Pay attention to the drop. Snook will strike your shrimp while it is falling, so be extra attentive and ready to set the hook when you feel the thump.

    While I have caught a fair amount of sub-species Snook during the day, my favorite way to target them is after sundown. The Loxahatchee River has lots of waterfront property and just about every house has a dock. Many of these docks have large bright lights shining down into the water and some even have underwater lights. These lights attract tiny fish and shrimp, which in turn bring the whole food chain with Snook being the most abundant predator in these waters. Some lights maintain dozens of Snook pretty much every night while others have few or none.  Although I fish it differently than I do during the day, my favorite nighttime bait is the 3” DOA Shrimp but this was not always so. I figured this out one night when the water was very clear and I could plainly see that the daytime retrieve was spooking the Snook when I twitched the bait. So I waited and watched as some shrimp came swimming quickly through the light just under the surface with their noses down current…these shrimp didn’t 
    make it very far into the light before getting devoured by the waiting Snook. A tiny voice in my head said “hey dummy, make your shrimp do that” and the DOA shrimp quickly became my favorite nighttime bait.
    I’ll break it down for you.

    1. The up current casting principle remains the same at night. I like to start with the shadow line furthest up current and progressively work my shrimp into the light, eventually skipping the shrimp up underneath the dock. I have had great success making sure my bait starts in the shadows and then is swam into the light.
    2. Upon casting, instead of letting your shrimp sink, quickly flip the bail with your hand (not the handle), raise your rod tip, and begin the retrieve. Reel steadily keeping the shrimp just below the surface. Too fast and it will turn on its side and just drag across the top, too slow and it will sink out of the primary strike zone.
    3. I tend to choose my bait color so that it closely resembles the color of the water. There have been nights when changing up the color has brought strikes on a slow bite, and there have been nights where I changed colors after every fish and could not find a color they wouldn’t eat. So choose a color you have confidence in and throw it with confidence. My personal favorites are 425 watermelon/holo glitter, 313 gold glitter, 382 clear/holo glitter, and 309 glow/gold rush.

    While some anglers are all about catching big mamma Snook, I usually leave the big Snook, which are all females, alone and have a blast catching the small to medium sized fish on 10lb or lighter braided line. I am not against harvesting a legal sized Snook in season and I believe that the population in Jupiter can sustain the legal harvest of fish, but I see these fish as being more valuable swimming free for my clients and my children to catch. There are plenty of snapper and other tasty ocean fish offshore for me to eat and I haven’t killed a Snook in several years. Since the sub-species Snook rarely grow to the legal limit, there will always be plenty of them to catch if you know where to look and how to target them. So why are you still reading? Get rigged up and go find some of these amazing fish and good luck!


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