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If a bass fisherman found a bottle on a beach with a genie in it and asked for a saltwater fish that would hit the same lures as bass, but that was bigger, smarter, and tougher, the genie would have poofed up a snook.
A snook looks something like a cross between a pickerel and a northern pike. Its disposition is similarly inclined, but the snook is faster, stronger, and equipped with razor sharp gill covers. It attacks its prey with explosive malevolence that is shocking to behold or even hear. A snook has nothing for teeth, but its spring-loaded jaws make a popping sound when they hit a bait on the surface that would rival the close flush of a covey of quail for pure excitement. A snook doesn't slurp a surface plug, it pops it, and the sound it makes when it hits prey is one of the most addictive in sport fishing.
For those anglers who fish on Saturday mornings instead of watching cable outdoor shows, snook are not as famous as some of the other tropical species, like tarpon. Tarpon have a wider range than snook, but the reason they get more attention is that they are bigger and they are easier to find and catch. Snook are truly tropical fish. They can't survive in water that dips into the high 50's, and subsequently, snook are only found routinely in southern Florida and southern Texas. For those who haven't fished for snook, it is probably best that you do not know what you are missing, otherwise southern Florida would be developing even faster than it already is, and I doubt that the contractors could keep pace.
"All right", you say, "what is so special about snook?" A fair question. For starters, they are accessible fish. They thrive around man's intrusions into the coastline. Big snook love bridge pilings, docks, boat hulls, and sea walls. They avail themselves to shore fishermen much as striped bass do for fishermen in the northeast. They even fight a similar battle.
Snook and stripers also share a high tolerance for fresh water. Snook in the northern most reaches of their range in Florida are known to thrive in freshwater during the wintertime, far inland where water temperature overrides the lack of salinity. In some rivers you can catch largemouths and snook on alternate casts into the same hole. The first time you do so, you will appreciate the difference.
Snook have some things in common with black bass, too. They like the same lures, and favor similar hideouts. If there is current, a snook will use it to best advantage by lying in the fringes where grass or structure affords concealment. Snook are not lazy, but efficient. They will not do a lot of chasing for a meal, but prefer to lay in close proximity to convenient ambush.
What separates snook from bass, besides the more prominent lateral stripe and the elongated shape of the body, is what happens when you set the hook. A bass, even a big one, will generally leap. A snook will often run 60 feet before he jumps, and then he will put on a big display of tail flaying and gill rattling. Then, he will run some more. If there is some structure nearby, the snook will seek it out and break you off like it was part of a routine. And, indeed it is.
The slot limit for snook in Florida is between 26 inches and 34 inches. The best fish to catch are those around the lower end of the slot. The 23 to 26 inch fish are the speedsters and the leapers - the fish that crash baits the hardest and fight with youthful vigor. This is not to disparage the larger fish - a 20 pound snook represents an incredible amount of power when a hook is sunk into its jaw, but it is more like fighting a striped bass or a bull red. 24-inch snook are like smallmouth bass fed something evil from the laboratory. They break me off more often than the big fish because they hook deeper and wear through the leader before you can grab a lip.
I use 25 pound flourocarbon leader material when fishing in shallow water where snook average 25 inches. After hooking a couple of fish, the leader has to be cut back, or a good fish will make it a short fight.
I do most of my snook fishing off the boat. Snook are every bit as wary as brown trout. Fiberglass boats are too noisy, with way too much profile. Add a tower or a poling platform with somebody standing in it and you have set off the snook alarm. You may see a lot of fish from that lofty elevation, but you won't catch many.
As a northerner who reveled in wading streams for trout and bass, wading the flats for snook was appealing. On the grass flats, 100 yards and more from shore, I found I could indeed fish for snook that are much larger and tougher with the same tackle I used for swift water trout by upgrading my line to 10 pound test.
Even so, snook are not the only prized fish you find in the shallows of southern Florida. The possibility of getting spooled by something very large and powerful exists even in two feet of water, where 50-pound cobia and hundred pound tarpon hunt regularly.
Wading the flats of southern Florida is a dreamlike experience, far removed from the interstate traffic and the innate tackiness of other Florida tourist attractions. 16 miles south of Tampa, you can walk into a mangrove estuary where bobcats live, and still see the city skyline. A few yards into the mangroves and you see Florida as it looked before Columbus dared to cross the Atlantic. Lurking in the shadows of creek bends and overhangs lay the snook, ever alert to an easy meal - or a suspicious intruder.
There are a number of ways to go about fishing for snook. To catch the biggest fish, you must ply the biggest structure at night. There are many anglers in Florida who specialize in nocturnal sojourns around bridge pilings. They fish with big lures and bait a foot long. Many of these structure fishermen do their thing from shore, or the structure itself. This enables them to hop in a pickup and follow the outgoing tide along the shoreline all night. They know exactly which spots hold fish from experience gained by repetition. Tackle starts at thirty-pound stuff and goes up. There is little room for error when dealing with big snook around structure, and a reel's drag is simply tightened all the way down. Solid fiberglass rods shaped like pool cues are still number one in the hearts of structure fishermen after monster snook.
Another structure that attracts snook is a boat dock, particularly a lighted one along residential canals. Here you can still catch big snook, but they are smaller than the monsters that haunt the big bridges and shipping ports at night. The preferred tackle here is baitcasting rigs spooled with 14-20 pound line. Small jigs with plastic tails are probably the preferred artificials; with jumbo shrimp the choice of live baiters. Dock fishing is done day and night, often best at low tide when the angler can put his cast way back under the dock. Even with 20-pound test line, the snook break off time and again.
Backcountry snook habitat in southern Florida means fishing mangroves, trees that grow in salt water and rise out of the sand atop umbrella shaped root systems. The roots provide avenues of travel for snook on high tide, and convenient points of ambush. The traditional method of working mangrove shoreline for snook is from the bow of a flats skiff, pushed along with a pole from a platform above the outboard motor. As the pressure on snook has increased dramatically, this method has become less effective. Snook are onto the dangers posed by this high profile arrangement.
Most successful snook fishermen anchor their boats well away from the area they are going to fish, and then wade in. The big hazard here is not sharks or alligators, but stingrays. They are benign creatures unless you step on them. Then they strike with their barbed tails with enough force to drive the barb through a wooden plank. There is venom in the barb that causes intense pain, but fortunately the pain subsides when the wound can be got into very hot water. Most anglers simply shuffle their feet to avoid stingrays.
Spinning or baitcasting tackle is favored, but this is also a good opportunity to throw a fly at fish you can see. And flyfishing also adds the advantage of stealth. A skilled flycaster can drop a streamer fly in close proximity to a snook without spooking it - hard to do that with a plug or spoon.
Here, spin fishermen have discovered the advantages of soft plastic baits. They look very life-like in the water, cast well enough, and are less obtrusive than plugs or jigs. And some of the plastic baits can be rigged absolutely weedless. This means that baits cast too far into the mangrove roots can usually be finessed out. It also allows an angler to fish plastic in weed choked water and even in standing sawgrass.
Flats fishing for snook is perhaps the ultimate snook fishing experience. Here you can fish light tackle in extremely shallow water with very little to worry about except line capacity. The only structure is the anchor line from the boat you came in, and the occasional crab trap. Not surprisingly, snook find these minor obstructions with maddening regularity. But here an angler can hook a 20 pound snook on 10 pound test line and play it out. An angry snook in 18 inches of water is a sight you will not soon forget. The big ones can't jump here, but they shake their heads and thrash their tales in an amazing display. Fish under 30 inches rocket around like out of control torpedoes; nothing less than leaping, head shaking, gill rattling furor.
Another opportunity for snook exists along beaches. This is low light fishing, best at sunrise and sunset. Big snook can actually be spotted cruising along the shoreline, sometimes in large schools. This is one of the best opportunities to fly fish for snook. The Gulf beaches of the southwest coast of Florida are prime snook territories in late spring and in the fall.
The common snook is indeed any angler's dream fish. From the standpoint of battle, there is nothing quite like it. The snook is wary and hard to catch most often, and can be fished with a wide variety of tackle in very different settings, from crumbled concrete and rusted iron of the shipping ports, to the beauty of the backcountry and the flats.
The Florida limit on snook is currently two fish between 26 inches and 34 inches, but snook anglers reportedly release over ninety percent of their catch. This is not because snook aren't good to eat. Quite the contrary, snook are highly prized on the table. But snook fishermen seem to know that a snook's true value is swimming about making more snook.