Winter Backcountry Snook Fishing
By Mike Conner, Editor
The morning chatter around the office coffee pot is usually about fishing (surprise!), but diving too, now that colleague Terry Gibson is a certified scuba diver. What he reported on a late-summer morning, however, would give a casual inshore angler the impression that he is also certifiable.
“Mike, yesterday morning, I came face to face with two hundred 20-pound snook over a wreck in 60 feet of water off the inlet. I almost swallowed my regulator,” he gushed, adding that he would have thought those big gals would still be stacked in the inlet spawning.
It was early August, but I suggested that those big females may have finished their courtships. “Were they smoking cigarettes, Terry?” I joked.
Terry went right to picking the brains of fisheries scientists to get their take on what he witnessed, and what divers are seeing on most deep wrecks off of Southeast Florida. I’m no fisheries biologist but this much I do know: Snook can pop up anywhere. They are as adaptable as any inshore gamefish. They might not settle for some of the freshwater scum pits and diarrheal ditches that hold baby tarpon, but snook are right at home in most freshwater canals and lakes, and flourish in brackish creeks and rivers, bays, passes and inlets, the surf, over nearshore hardbottom, reefs, wrecks, you name it. Upper estuaries hold juveniles year-round, and mature snook join them from fall through spring.
This consummate ambush feeder loves to hang around natural or manmade structure. When I was a kid, I caught lots of 18- to 24-inch snook off one particular aging, sunken shopping cart next to a culvert in my west Miami neighborhood freshwater canal, 15 miles from the ocean. I tried in vain to fool the king of the cart, a 10-pound-class fish that I wrote off as just too smart. But it wasn’t smart enough to evade my 8-year-old brother and his speargun. Little brother, I’ll never forget your $#!^-eating grin when you held up that snook back at home and said, “This the one you can’t catch?” Lucky for you the statute of limitations has run out. So I’m not at all surprised to hear about a mass of big linesiders glued to a sunken ship, under a 63-degree thermocline to boot.
Through October, Atlantic and Gulf snook fatten up on southbound baitfish before moving to sheltered backcountry haunts to winter over. The bait (ranging from glass minnows to adult silver mullet) will have moved though “snook country” surf (from roughly Canaveral to Miami on the Atlantic and Tampa south on the Gulf) by Halloween. By late November, many snook will have moved inside, shadowing the baitfish schools entering the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterways’ (ICW) bays, creeks, rivers and residential canals of the upper estuary. All predator fish, including snook, follow the food, and good snook anglers follow the snook.
The fall-winter snook migration is not a mass movement of salmon proportions. Some snook remain in the inlets and passes, and nearby beaches and bays year-round. But many snook favor winter digs that provide deep holes, relative protection from blustery winter winds, and dark-bottomed shallows that warm up quickly on sunny winter days. Also, the upper estuary provides cold, lethargic snook some refuge from predators such as porpoises and sharks.
There are miles of winding creeks, rivers and bays in Everglades National Park from Everglades City to Whitewater Bay where such muddy shallows are common, and that’s where a string of mild winter days can produce some fantastic sight fishing. Snook retreat to deeper channels and holes to wait out the cold snap, but slip back into the shallows during warming days.
During especially cold winters, water temps fall into the lower 60s and stay there for days on end, and the fish simply sulk in the deepest water available and “go off the bite.” Every few years, severe cold fronts (in January and February) send water temps into the mid to upper 50s, which can kill significant numbers of this tropical fish.
Tracking the Move
Staying on the snook can be tricky from late October through early December. After that, the backcountry is the place to be. Whenever snook fishing in the Ten Thousand Islands in Southwest Florida, I often second-guess myself if the fishing is slow in a particular area. Have the snook high-tailed it to waters farther inland? Or, are they just not in the biting mood where I’m fishing?
The only way to pattern the fish is to fish often, from the Gulfside islands to the interior rivers and bays. Actually this can be done during a full day of fishing, and with today’s speedy skiffs, anglers commonly start their snook fishing in the backcountry and work their way toward outside waters, or vice versa to find the best numbers.
On the Florida Atlantic coast, unlike the Everglades, there is no vast backcountry fishery miles removed from the ocean. So come fall, snook only make a short jog from the beaches and inlets into the ICW and rivers, sticking mostly to deepwater bridges and docks, and tributary canals. However, it has been documented that Atlantic snook sometimes migrate longer distances than their Gulf coast brethren. Snook tagged in Jupiter Inlet have been recaptured in the Middle Florida Keys. Tagged snook from that inlet have also turned up in Lake Okeechobee and Charlotte Harbor on the Florida Gulf Coast, indicating that they crossed the peninsula via the St. Lucie-Caloosahatchee River waterway.
Clues to Fishy Spots
The first impression you get when you size up a mangrove-lined bay, river or creek is that the whole place looks snooky. Well, there’s certainly not a snook on every point, at every runout, or at the tip of every oyster bar. Even on the fishiest of backcountry days, a full session of casting will prove that. So you have to look for clues, and fish the best structure. Groups of wading birds (herons and egrets) and birds of prey such as ospreys tip you off that there are baitfish about. In fresh or brackish headwaters, alligators and gar fish also signal that there’s food around. Even a lone blue heron actively “fishing” along an otherwise unremarkable stretch of shore can direct you to a good spot to cast.
It is commonly accepted that an ebb tide is the best backcountry tide phase because it serves to flush baitfish from shoreline cover, particularly the labyrinth of red mangrove roots. Much of South Florida’s upper Everglades estuaries are brackish and even fresh, and thus are lined by marsh grass and sawgrass prairies which harbor gambusia minnows. During falling tides (and even more so during strong northerly blows) these baits are forced into draining creeks, setting off some incredible snook and baby tarpon bites. Largemouth bass are often in the mix, too. But any tide flow is better than none in the backcountry. A young riser along an oyster bar or deep-cut shoreline can provide action, too.
Snook seek out ideal ambush points. Any small tributary dumping into a larger creek or river is a “runout” on ebb tides and deserves your attention. Oyster bar points or fallen trees jutting out from shorelines serve to slow the current, giving snook a place to rest and jump on passing prey. Creek and river outside bends are deeper than inside bends because they are scoured out by current over time. On coldest winter days, that’s where snook will be, so try anchoring and bumping bottom with jigs or crankbaits, or soaking livebaits such as shrimp and pilchards.
On sunny winter days, shaded water under the mangrove canopy is an ambush zone. Snook like to hold in the dark water where they are less conspicuous to prey. The best backcountry anglers are skilled at casting lures and flies back in tight, dark pockets where snook lie in wait.
Choice weapons–fly rods for bugs and baitcasters for plugs.
Backcountry Tactics and Tackle
The backcountry is the place for anglers who prefer to fish for snook in the “classic fashion,” either with light tackle and topwater plugs (and more and more soft-plastics nowadays), or fly fishing with poppers and streamers. You could certainly fish live baits, if you insist, but casting to cover is what makes this brand of snook fishing so challenging and enjoyable.
Since the mid 20th century, anglers have made forays into the South Florida backcountry to tangle with ol’ linesides. In the 1950s, rowboats with or without small, tiller-control kickers were all anglers had. They trolled spoons and feathers along shorelines, swinging as close as possible to points. On particularly fishy stretches, an angler would cast while a partner rowed, or you slipped anchor to hold the boat in the current to fish a spot. Eventually, bow-mount electric motors revolutionized backcountry snook fishing. Now, it’s a matter of firing pinpoint casts with casting or fly tackle over miles of shoreline a day while motoring along.
Most backcountry snookers fish with artificial lures and flies, though live bait can catch more “cold” winter snook hunkered in deep holes. For visual thrills and pure sport, however, nothing beats a topwater plug or a flyrod “bug.” Light-tackle is a relative term in this fishery, and it’s best to leave your flats gear in the rack and beef up when casting to mangrove shorelines in tight quarters. Plug (baitcasting) outfits in the 12- to 15-pound class are standard, and fly fishers go with 9- and 10-weights primarily. Of course, if you are dealing with sub-slot-sized fish, you can break out lighter gear. Spool that plug outfit with 12- to 20-pound mono, or braid if you prefer, and tie on a mono or fluorocarbon leader testing 25 to 50 pounds.
Fly fishers can expect to make mostly 30- to 60-foot casts when combing mangrove shorelines, and a floating line is the workhorse for casting poppers and hairbugs there, or over the shallower mud flats. You may occasionally need a clear, intermediate sink line for fishing Deceivers or Clouser Minnows either along mangrove shorelines or over slightly deeper mudflats. Short, shoreline casts call for relatively short leaders—something in the 6- to 8-foot range is adequate, with a 12- to 20-pound class tippet tied to a 12- to 18-inch, 30- to 40-pound bite tippet. Overline your rod one size too, for adequate rod loading on those shorter casts, and to turn over bulky flies and poppers with heavy shocks.
Backcountry Fish Foods and Their Fakes
Snook are opportunistic feeders, and target whatever backcountry waters dish out. The menagerie can include freshwater eels, crayfish, and even small water snakes and frogs. That’s right, snakes and frogs! I’ve seen that with my own eyes on freshwater headwaters in Southwest Florida. And have caught numbers of snook in fresh headwaters on favorite bass bugs designed to imitate both. But largely, snook favor baitfish in all regions of the estuary, particularly finger mullet, and blugills, cichlids (invasive fish which have taken over many South Florida waters) and tiny gambusia minnows (killifish) that average 1⁄2 to 1 inch in length. Where these tiny baits prevail, fly fishers have a decided advantage because they can tie realistic, like-sized flies.
There was a time when a Creek Chub Darter, Reflecto Spoon with yellow feather and a 1⁄4-ounce yellow Upperman bucktail was the backcountry snook triad, but there’s a tad more to pick from today.
Topwater aficionados tend to favor “walking plugs” and floater divers for backcountry snook. Walkers such as the Heddon Zara Spook and Rapala Skitterwalk emulate wounded or disoriented mullet. With their side-to-side action, you can create maximum disturbance without much forward movement, to work the “hot zone” under the mangroves longer. With floater/divers, such as the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow or Bagley Bang-O-Lure, you can cast to shoreline cover, work the top, and then swim the lure under for the remainder of your retrieve. Many snook follow, and then strike these swimmers surprisingly close to the boat, especially on cloudy, rainy days. Noisy chuggers, such as the MirrOlure Popa Dog, Storm Chug Bug and Rapala Pop-R, and prop baits such as the Devil’s Horse fill out the backcountry plug arsenal. For combing the mangroves, a weedless jerkbait is a great alternative to that plug festooned with trebles. Toss it right into the roots, snake it out, work it on the surface, and let it sink when you like.
Sight fishers working backcountry mud flats do best with swimming plugs, skimmer jigs, plastic shrimp and jerkbaits and flies that get to the fish’s level in two to three feet of water. Topwaters can appeal to sunning snook, too, but for the most part, the subsurface presentation is best whether the fish are “posing,” or actively cruising. The former may be cold, and refuse to eat. Try to present lure or fly as close as possible to a stationary fish without scaring it, once you discern which end is the head.
Scented baits such as the Berkley Gulp! Shrimp and Jerk Shad are increasingly popular, and are the ticket when snook are a bit cold and slow to bite artificials. Fish these unweighted on a wide-gap hook in the shallows, or pin ’em to a light jighead in deeper spots.
For deep holes and undercut mangrove creek and river banks, hair or plastic-tail jigs in the 1⁄4- to 5⁄8-ounce class, and crankbaits get the nod. A white jig is a universal color choice, yellow jigs are age-old favorites in tannin-stained water and rootbeer can be the ticket in very clear water.
Fly fishers can fish the entire water column with the following patterns: For surface work, Dahlberg Divers and hard poppers tied on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. Top subsurface streamers should be tied on No. 2 through 2/0 hooks and include wool-headed Muddlers, Marabou Muddlers, Sea-Ducers, Deceivers and Bendbacks. Bendbacks, such as the venerable Prince of Tides, allow to “fish the roots” without fear of hanging up. Fish these with either floating or intermediate lines, depending on the depth.
Sinking lines and sinking flies are best for working holes and undercut shorelines. A medium-rate, full-sinking line paired with a Clouser Minnow might get you into snook when surface activity is nil.
Seek the Heat and Repeat
By midwinter, low water temps demand that you fish the “sunny side of the street,” those shorelines with maximum southern exposure. Hit as many such shores as you can throughout the course of the day. Shallow shorelines typically have dark mud bottoms, with or without grass, that soak up and then radiate the sun’s heat. Snook (and reds, trout and tarpon) swim into these shallows to warm up. If the water gets over 65, the feed bag may come on. Afternoons usually provide the best sight fishing at this time of year, and ideal shorelines also have high mangroves or other trees that block cold north winds that typically blow for a day or two after a cold front.
Shallow backcountry flats should be poled whenever possible, particularly in hard-fished locales. The shallower the water, the more inefficient your electric is, and you don’t want to chance contacting bottom and putting sunning fish on alert. Dark mud bottoms do not show fish like lighter coastal sand flats, so you’ll need bright sun and a keen eye. Watch for movement, mud puffs of feeding (or flushing) fish, and wakes of snook where extremely shallow. Expect snook to be “snoozing” and merely warming up on the coldest days.