The variety of habitats snook are found in is nearly as staggering as the variety of tackle and techniques used to catch them. And catching a snook is an awesome experience that every angler should enjoy at least once.
Chasing a trophy-size snook -- the wiliest, hardest-hitting fish in the sea – is an among the most amazingly memorable experiences an angler could possibly come across. Although some will come away heart broken, any angler can catch a monster. You just need to be in the right location, using the right tackle and technique.
The common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis), is a tropical species of game-fish found in warmer western Atlantic waters, from Florida to Brazil. Reaching a potential size of 50lbs or more, they can be found on wrecks and reefs miles from shore, or all the way up coastal rivers in completely fresh water mixed in with bass and bluegill and everywhere in between. All snook are hermaphrodites, starting life as males and changing sex somewhere between 18” and 26”(That’s right! All large snook are female).
One great thing about chasing after trophy snook in all these areas is you don’t necessarily need a boat to get them. Personally, I’ve caught far more trophies from shore than in a boat. And I know numerous snook fisherman that will say the same thing -- though boats do have their place.
Large snook (20-40lbs) can be caught year round, but in Florida the best time to catch a big girl -- from shore or boat -- is generally July-September. That’s true up and down the east coast. On the west coast, the best season is May-August.
Snook prepare to spawn around the full and new moons. This is when large, breeder snook become super concentrated in inlets/passes (“inlet” = east coast, “pass” = west coast). This is also when the rainy season begins in southern Florida. A sunstantial rain storm will draw many monster snook to spillways – areas where fresh-water canals breach their dams and spill over into coastal rivers and canals. Massive freshwater snook use these areas all hours of the day to feast on bluegill, bass, tilapia, ducklings, baby gators, and whatever else is swept over the falls.
For most inshore anglers, pitching a live sardine, shrimp or some sort of lure around grass flats and mangrove islands with basically medium-heavy bass tackle is the typical way to fish snook. And there’s no doubt this technique has caught a load of snook over the years. But fish targeted this way generally average less than 10 lbs -- not the way to go if you want a trophy.
The “big mamas” tend to be nocturnally active and prefer deeper water with lots of current and lots of structure. That makes inlets/passes or bridges near inlets/passes ideal places to begin your search for a lunker linesider. Well-lit bridges are especially productive, because snook will use the shadow lines created by the bridge lights to ambush prey. They simply sit in the shadow facing into the current looking into the light. When a prey item is carried into the light by the current, they can’t see the snook and kaboom!
Very hydrodynamic, snook are perfectly happy sitting tight to the bottom in a 5-knot current waiting for helpless baitfish or shrimp to drift through their wheel house. That said, they don’t want to work harder than they have to, so any current-break, like a rock, piling, old tree, will likely hold fish.
Big snook are much more active at night than smaller/medium ones, especially on the east coast. More than 90 percent of the biggest snook I’ve landed were caught between 12 a..m and 6 a.m. I think it’s more fun to catch them at night -- you can’t really see what is going on, so your sense of touch is greatly enhanced. That means when they hit, it has double the effect for you, especially when using the right tackle.
Tackle selection plays a critical role when in search of a trophy snook. On more than one occasion, huge fish have broken me off on a piling when I was using live 22” ladyfish on 125-lb line. I just couldn’t stop ‘em. I’ve seen snook saw through 80 lb-test with their extremely abrasive lips during high-pressure fights. I even saw a guy fishing from a bridge with a two pound mullet and a 6/0 heavy grouper rig with 60 lb-test mono get railed by a monster snook that ran into open water and snapped the line straight up. It sounded like an AK-47 going off when his line gave way under the immense pressure.
Though these scenarios are atypical, but the point is valid. In order to pull one of the hardest-fighting fish away from jagged structure in a 5-knot current, you’ve got to put down the bass rods and beef up the tackle a bit (sometimes more than a bit).
In inlets/passes and around spillways, use 30- to 50-lb braided line, depending on the amount of snags in the area. It’s good to use a short piece of 50- to 80-lb flurocarbon tied directly to the braid to protect against the snook’s rough mouth. To allow for long casts and solid leverage on the fish, use a baitcast or spinning rod with a fast action. It should be at least 8-ft. long when shore fishing, in order to handle throwing up to 2.5 ounces. An equally stout 7-ft. rod will do the trick in a boat, where super-long casts are not always necessary.
While trophy snook fishing from a bridge, heavier tackle is required due to the close proximity to barnacle-encrusted pilings and the like, so 50- to 100-lb. braid with a 60- to 125-lb. fluorocarbon leader and an 8.5- to 10-ft. broomstick rods are the norm. Long rods are a must for winching a 30-lb-plus snook away from structure and preventing break offs on the underside of the bridge when the fish runs underneath.
Throw large plugs of at least 6- to 8 inches. Bomber Long A’s are good, but my favorite, is the Bomber Wind Cheater. Large bucktail jigs (1 to 2.5 ounces) are good, as are all types of grubs that match the size of shrimp and baitfish in the area. A variety of large baitfish weighing a pound or two will also do the trick if you prefer to fish with live bait, including: ladyfish, mullet, croakers, sand perch and even tilapia -- just to name a few. Keep in mind, it is usually best to “match the hatch,” whether you are using live bait or lures.
Snook tend to stage near the bottom, so having enough weight to get down to them in a strong current is critical. Too much weight will get you snagged constantly, but use too little weight and you won’t get bit. The trick when fishing live baits, jigs or grubs where ever you snook fish is to make the lure mimic prey being dragged with the current just above the bottom. Diving plugs are fished differently and are much easier to use -- you simply throw it down current and reel it slowly back up-current, allowing the plug to dig down in the current. This mimics a baitfish struggling to swim up current. Sometimes in a strong current you can make the snook mad by letting it sit there digging in place for a minute -- once it starts moving forward again, they blast it!
The average fight on any decent sized snook usually goes something like this -- its pitch black out at about 3 A.M. and you are working your lure in a stiff current right into the zone when all of the sudden KABOOM! It’s completely engulfed with a single electrifying thump that nearly jerks the rod out of your hands. You scramble to set the hook as the panicked fish realizes she’s been had and makes a long, blistering run straight for the nearest structure. You push your tackle to the limit to stop them, as they can come charging out of the water, violently shaking their head in an effort to mortally chaff your leader or send your lure barreling back at you. Then the fish spastically changes directions and swims directly at you faster than you can reel, putting slack in your line nearly causing the hook to fall out.
If you make it past all these obstacles, expect lots of surface thrashing, bulldogging and astonishingly powerful late bursts of speed until the fish is completely exhausted. Grab her by the mouth while supporting her belly and prep her for release. Then just sit back and savor the moment, because you just caught yourself one of the wiliest, hardest hitting, most amazingly powerful fish that swims, a trophy snook.
Captain Tyler Kapela operates “Hit and Run” Fishing Charters. Learn more at inshorefishtampabay.com. Contact Tyler at Kapelatd@gmail.com or 727-421-1051. Content copyright Tyler Kapela 2011. Used with permission.