Fishing Report: It’s trophy snook time

A happy anglers shows off a nice pre-spawn snook taken last month in Pasco County waters while fishing with Capt. Mike Manning. The big females feed heavily in April to fuel up for the spawn, which takes place on the beaches between May and August.

With beaches reopening along the coast, there’s no question how much we love the sand and surf. The snook know just how we feel, and are gathering on the beaches in mass themselves.

It’s the start of the spawning season for the species, the females of which drop their eggs in the salty Gulf surf. It’s believed the extra bouncy of the high-salinity water along the beach provides bouncy that helps float the eggs, eventually carrying them to protects mangrove tangles where the hatchlings have a better chance of survival.

The snook season closes between May 1 and Aug. 31 for the spawning season. But as anglers know, snook have been closed to harvest for more than a year already due to the emergency order (that also close redfish and trout) enacted in the first quarter of 2019 to replenish fish stocks from the previous year’s red tide fish kills on the southwest coast. That emergency closure has been extended until May of next year, which means all snook must be released until at least Sept. 1, 2021.

But for snookers seeking sport on the beaches, the fish must always be released this time of year, so it’s business as usual. Reports from our Suncoast News sources are that the fish are congregating on the beach at Anclote Key, Three Rooker Bar, Honeymoon and Caladesi islands. It’s the usual mix of large females and smaller males, In clear water they can be spotted moving along the trough formed just a few feet off the beach. Tactics for catching them vary, but there’s one recipe for success that none dispute: Live pigfish on a live-bait hook.

Otherwise known as grunts, for the grunting/croak they emit from their throats, small pigs are too hard to resist for snook. Old-timers say it’s because their grunts get the snook’s attention. Some say snook see them as a predatory threat to their eggs and attack them in defense, but whatever the reason, live pigfish seem to outperform other live baits like scaled sardines and pinfish. They can be purchased at bait shops this time of year. Capt. Griff at Armed Anglers recently reported that the shop sold out of the 200 grunts they had in the tank in just a couple of hours, their new owners ferrying them straight to the beach for trophy snook.

Snook can be fished blindly along the surf line by setting a bait out and waiting for fish to swim by, but it helps to gather some intel by surveying the water visually to spot fish. The bends and dips, the fingers of sand bars and other irregularities around which the current changes direction and flow often are key spots to find fish. If spotted, they often spot you and move away, but make a note to come back to anchor well away and present a bait.

The usual rig is a medium spinning outfit spooled with 20-pound-test braid and a couple of feet of 20- to 30-pound-test mono or fluorocarborn leader. Hook size ranges from 1/0 to 4/0, with the bigger hooks preferred for the larger pigfish and the small when using sardines. Baits can be hooked through the nostrils or through the body just under the dorsal fin. While floats can be used, some anglers avoid them to prevent spooking the wary beach snook, which can be very skittish at times.

Other times they are bold, and won’t even move when they clearly can see an angler of their boats, which is a bit of a mystery. For longtime beach snookers, it’s well known that the fish seem to have multiple personalities. The tides and currents play a big factor in how the snook behave and feed, the only problem is the fish are fickle and can bite on the incoming one day and prefer the outgoing the next. It can be frustrating.

For sport anglers, the big females are the prize, but the smaller males are more abundant, who end up the hook. These fish typically range in size from about 20 to 28 inches, but the females can come it at 30 to 40 inches. These females can be very thick and extra heavy, as they have been gorging for the past month to fuel up for the spawn.

Because beach snook don’t have cover to dive into and tangle the line, break-offs are not a worry. Anglers should try to land the fish quickly so as not to overtire them in a long fight. Get the photo and release them so they can get back to their business of making more snook.

Right now anglers are not only finding snook on the beach, but are picking up some large reds there, which like to prowl the surf with their noses to the bottom looking for crabs and shrimp. A gator trout is sometimes taken while snooking, and at this time of year, it’s not unusual to spot big cobia along the beaches.

If the beach bite goes cold, head west off the beaches to deeper water for Spanish mackerel. Get to hard bottom and a kingfish is a possibility, at least until the water gets too warm and the schools have passed on their way north.

Depending on the beach, a boat isn’t needed to fish for spawning snook.In fact, many boating anglers anchor and hop out to walk the beach or wade.

For those who don’t like using live bait, snook will take plugs and jigs, though count on working a little harder. One advantage to them is anglers can cover a lot more water and make more casts, which ups the odds of scoring.