Cathcing a big snook is among the top achievements in an inshore angler's career. A snook over 40" is what many fisherman consider to be a true LUNKER. Finding these big fish is not so easy. Getting them to bite and landing them is EVEN harder. Snook fishing in Florida is sort of a cult affair. Hardcore snook fisherman like myself target them almost exclusively. Since lunker snook fishing is my ultimate passion, this is going to be an extensive article to help Bay Area fisherman find and catch more big snook.
There are many allures to snook fishing; their hard fighting nature, their excellent table fare, and their potentially voracious appetites. All of these things make snook the most targeted fish in Florida waters. However, the biggest reason I believe people target these beautiful fish has to do with the potential size. Snook can grow to 60lbs in Florida waters. While there haven't been any official reports of fish landed this large there have been some fish caught in recent years in the upper 50lb range. Snook can grow this large throughout their entire range here in Florida. This makes snook the largest of the big three (redfish, snook, and trout). Sure, there are some areas in the state where redfish grow to 60lbs. However, giant redfish like this are not common outside the space coast and NE Florida. Outside of the space coast, giant redfish like this are caught pretty much only in the fall in east coast inlets. You can come across a trophy snook in almost any place in their range, in a huge variety of spots, and in any month of the year. It is much more likely to come across or see a huge snook than it is a trophy trout or redfish.
So now we know why big snook are so highly sought after, now let's talk about catching one of these bruisers. To help us understand how to catch them, we need to understand something about the biology and habits of these prized fish. First thing to know about lunker snook is that most of them are females. Most snook change sex from male to female when they are anywhere from around 26-34" in length. This makes the lunkers over 40" almost entirely female. These large fish are the base of the breeding stock and are very important to the future of snook in Florida. The fish spawn from April-September here on the west coast with the peak being in May and June. Just like a female human, when she is pregnant she needs to eat for more than one person. Snook are not viviparous like humans (give birth to live young)so they don't not have to eat enough to fully develop live young. However, a large spawning female needs to eat more during spawning season than during the rest of the year. We will talk more about WHEN to catch big snook later, this is just a key component to understanding the biology of these beautiful fish.
Next it is helpful to just look at snook and analyze it's form. The first (and most important) thing you will notice is highlighted in the photo I found on the web at the top of this article, the mouth. Snook have large deep mouths and as they achieve lunker status their mouths just become massive. A snook can easily eat a bait that is 1/3 it's body length. Like all creatures in nature there is an exponential relationship between internal volume and surface area. For example, a 4lb snook might be 25" in length. A snook that is 2X as long at 50" might have three or four times the surface area of a 25" snook but weight 10 times as much. This concept carries over to what big snook will eat. A 44" snook, though it os only 23% longer than a 34" snook could eat a bait that is nearly twice as big as the 34" fish could eat. So the moral of the story is DO NOT BE AFRAID TO THROW HUGE BAITS. Now, I believe this will be a good time to talk about baits and the gear required for lunker snook.
Before we talk about baits and spots, we MUST talk about gear for lunkers. This is where many guys, including myself on many occasions, meet their demise. If you are serious about landing a giant snook you need to be serious about your gear. Twenty-five dollar Wal-Mart rods with small plastic reels, mono line, snap-swivels, wire leaders, huge sinkers, and bobbers are all things you need to remove from your thought pattern. The rod and reel neccessary for battling giants is dependent on the spot you are trying to yank one out of. Generally, I like at least a 10-20lb spinning outfit with 20lb braid and a 40-50lb fluoro leader, and that is for OPEN water. In tight quarters I am going with atleast 50-80 tarpon sized spinning outfit with 60-100lb braid and a 60-100lb fluoro leader, depending on the structure. For SUPER TIGHT quarters, go with big grouper gear. If you hook a 40lb snook 5ft from bridge fenders you will be WISHING you had marlin gear. When you are live baiting, match the size of the hook with bait size. Big bait big hook and vice versa. If you are going for lunkers, I would recommend a sharp, thick shank circle hook in whatever appropriate size. As a general rule, keep weight to a minimum. JUST enough to get your bait to the fish. There are a few situations. Where heavy lead is appropriate which I will mention later. Use the same knots, hook brands/shapes, lines, etc. you would for regular sized snook but just beef it up big time, nothing complicated here.
If you ask most die hard snook fisherman, they will tell you live bait is the way to go. These guys know about the snook's finicky demeanor. When snook want to eat they will garbage almost anything they can fit in their mouth. However, often they can be stubborn and are waiting for something particular or something very easy. As snook get very big this becomes the most important component of baiting. Big snook are lazy and very oppurtunistic. Thus, the key factor in their eating habits is that they want their prey to be easy prey. Lunker snook are usually not like the small 25" fish that will chase a bait for thirty feet and ravenously compete with their brothers over a 3" pilchard. The big fish want to lay in one spot and wait for an oblivious large fish that could provide days worth of energy if necessary.
Big snook are not ALWAYS going to eat huge prey though or be excessively lazy. Remember they want their food to be easy. There are some occasions where you will find giant snook eating prey as small as 2" glass minnows. The key here is that the prey is very easy to ambush and they can make many runs through a school of small baitfish and take mouthfuls. Fish are not intelligent in the way we humans think we are. However, they do seem to have the ability to gauge how much energy it will take to eat a bait and how much energy they will get out of it. Like I said earlier, big snook are not typically as ravenous as their smaller counterparts but there are some situations where they will expend lots of energy if there is enough food around.
One thing I need to mention before I get into the finer points of live baiting big snook is that live bait is not necessary always. Lunker snook can definitely be caught on artificial lures and there are some occasions when I prefer a lure. Topwater plugs are legendary for their ability to hook huge snook and should be in every serious lunker-hunter's tackle box. Other top artificial baits are large swimbaits and diving plugs. We will talk more about the topic of baits and techniques in just a moment, but for now let us get back to live bait because this is hands down the preferred and time honored method.
So what kinds of live bait are the best for targeting giant snook? The answer to this question depends on where you are fishing for them. When most people think of fishing for big snook, they think summer time fishing in Gulf passes, beaches, and bridges. This is where many fish go to spawn but it is NOT the only type of places big fish are found. Although lunnkers can be caught year round, summer-fall is indeed the best time to target them. One of the misconceptions people have about these big fish is that all of them are in the passes in the summer spawning. This is just NOT true. Research done by FMRI and MOTE marine has shown that many snook do not even go to these areas to spawn every year. On top of that, the ones that do don't neccessarily stay all summer. I have caught many of my biggest snook in water that is almost totally fresh in the summer time and in creeks only 15ft wide. Snook love freshwater. Many of the parasites that live on fish out in the estuary cannot survive on the fish when they enter water that is fresh. The name of the game when searching for big snook is to be open to new areas and new ideas. Big snook show up in all sorts of different spots so the baits required vary widely.
I think the best thing to do now would be to talk specifically about baits and lures. We need to have an understanding of what to put on the end of our lines and when. After we have discussed baits and lures it will make it easier to analyze some specific areas to start your own lunker quest.
Almost every single snook fisherman knows all about these little beauties. When it comes to snook fishing these baits get all the hype. They are EXCELLENT snook bait but they are the most over used and mistreated bait out there. These baits have their place for lunker snook but we need to have a long serious talk about whitebait for several reasons.
Known locally as witebait or pilchards, they are in the herring family and are common in Bay area waters typically from late April-November. During whitebait season these are the most highly sought after baits for almost all inshore species. They are so highly prized because they are an extremely oily and protein packed snack for any predator. They can be found around bridges, piers, dock lights and roaming open grass flats. These baits can be captured with a sabiki or a cast net. My favorite method is to chum them up with cat food over grassy flats just inside of passes or around bridges and toss my 10' -3/8" mesh net on them.
Keeping pilchards alive is a subject that we MUST discuss. The only thing more delicate than a pilchard is a glass minnow and they are so soft you could spread them on toast with a plastic knife. Everyone loves to fish with these guys but there is one thing SOOOO many people just don't seem to understand. Pilchards require lots of new raw or fresh sea water to stay alive, especially in warm water. They cannot be crammed in a small bucket with an aerator for any amount of time. Most boats have livewells that circulate new water, which is ideal. However, for land lubbers the key to keeping these baits is to have some sort of bucket that has holes in it that you can leave in the water and let the bait breathe. On top of that, DO NOT OVER CROWD THESE BAITS!!!! This is the biggest mistake I see people make when using whitebait when they are fishing from land and have their bait in a bucket. People will put 4-5 dozen pilchards in HALF FULL 5 gallon bucket. Now why the HELL would you only fill the bucket half way?!? More water means you can keep more bait for a longer amount of time. If you are going to keep them in a bucket that is not receiving new water in some way you MUST NOT over load the bucket. . You can keep about a 1.5 dozen 3" pilchards alive in a FULL 5 gallon bucket with an aerator for maybe an hour or so. However this depends on the water temperature and oxygen content of the water the bucket is filled with . The point is DEAD live bait is useless (THIS GOES FOR ALL KINDS OF BAIT). Ninety-nice percent of the time dead pilchards do not catch lunker snook or any snook for that matter.
Now lets get down to why these baits are over used. They catch lots of snook, there is no doubt on that. But, if you are looking for lunker snook I say whitebait is NOT the way to go most of the time. Yes, that is right, I said it! Pilchards are NOT typically the best bait for lunkers. As good as these little nuggets are they are very fast and agile. Furthermore, these baits love to swim on the surface. Most of the time our big lazy mama snook are not going to chase down a very fast small bait like a pilchard. There are pilchards in the summer time that can be in excess of 7". You might think that big snook would gobble them up but they are even faster and smarter than the smaller ones. In my experience I don't hook many lunkers on whitebait. However, like we talked about, if a situation presents itself where the pilchards are plentiful and vulnerable enough, lunkers will smash them. If you are going to fish with whitebait, hook them through the nostrils for a surface presentation or right behind the pectoral fin. Belly hooking them behind the pectoral fin will usually cause them to swim down.
Essentially anywhere other than freshwater or very brackish water is good place to throw whitebait. Bridges, mangroves, and sandy potholes on grass flats, the edges of flats, and beaches are all prime areas to use whitebait. Keep in mind though that most of the time these ARE NOT the best bait for lunker snook. So don't be surprised if you get turned down tossing at a lunker in a dock light or along the beach. There are some situations though where I would take a frisky whitebait over anything even when casting at a lunker. For example, in the spring and fall when you will often see big snook laying in potholes on open grass flats near mangroves, docks, or any other shoreline they can be deadly. Toss that bait about 10' infront of the fish and she may just wallop it. In the early summer when you will see big fish cruising on shorelines just inside of passes they can work well too. The key here is sight casting to a lone fish.
These little guys are perhaps my favorite bait for big mama snook. I have been told by several veteran guides and an FWC biologist that these little guys actually love to eat snook eggs during spawning season. From that you can guess when the best time to fish with a live grunt is. From May-September these guys will get hammered by big snook. I have hooked some of my biggest snook on live grunts from 3-10" in length. Now you might be asking "Why will a big snook more likely hammer a 3" grunt than a 3" pilchard?". I believe this is because they do actually prey heavily upon the eggs and they are so much easier for a snook to locate/eat. These guys are called grunts for a reason. They use small bones in their throats to make a grunting sound when in distress. I am sure this grunting feature has some other purpose because it seems like a bad idea to make a low frequency noise that travels far in the water when you are small baitfish in distress. What I do know is that it is like ringing a dinner bell for big snook. Another thing about grunts that makes them a good bait for lunkers is that they like to swim on the bottom. They are typically swimming around near the bottom amongst rocks and other snaggy structure exactly like big snook do. I believe that big snook come across these little guys very often because they do love exactly the same type of habitat in many situations.
Catching grunts is not very hard but it can require patience. What you want to look for is harder bottom and/or structure. This can mean rocky areas around bridges, sandy edges of channels or grass flats, docks, etc. I like to catch grunts using a sabiki rig and bait each hook with a bit of squid. My secret is to weight not only the bottom of the sabiki, but crimp a split shot or two at the top of the rig. This will cause the sabiki to lay flat on the bottom. If the bottom structure is too gnarly this can problematic. Most of the time though this will put your baits where the grunts are (on the bottom). It will weed out the number of pinfish you will catch and increase grunts.
Hook you grunts through the back near the tail. This causes them to swim down and away where the big snook are. You can also hook them through the nose if the current is very strong. Like most live baits I recommend freelining these guys. If you must put a split shot on, keep it to a minimum. These guys are prime baits for fishing structure like bridges or deep cuts in and around passes. They can also be great when big snook will hang on the edges of grass flats inside passes at the very end of out going tide or beginning of an incoming tide in the warmer months.
In my observation mullet are perhaps the least used and most under rated bait for big snook here on the west coast of Florida. East coast anglers know about the mullet's potential to catch massive snook as do many old timers here on the west coast. From spring through fall most anglers will go straight to whitebait and overlook mullet all together. I believe that most of these guys haven't seen many big snook feeding frenzies. A solid 90% of the times I have seen one or more very large snook eating, they were smashing up mullet. There are several reasons why mullet are great bait for lunkers. First, they travel in schools. Schools can be ambushed and in the confusion fish can be singled out. Second, mullet get BIG. They are one of the biggest fish you commonly see a mama snook eat. Lastly, mullet are everywhere. From beaches, to flats, to creeks, and 100% freshwater rivers. These fish cross paths with big snook more than any other schooling baitfish which makes them targeted more often.
Fishing with mullet for big snook is where people I fish with get confused. Remember when we talked about how a big snook will eat a very big bait? Mullet fishing is where I often put that concept in to practice. I have seen 25-30lb snook eating 12" mullet like fish sticks. You might look at a 12 or 14" mullet and think there is no way a snook could eat that, but trust me they will absolutely WRECK them. I don't always fish with a mullet that big though. However, if I am going after a lunker I want a mullet ATLEAST 7-8" long. There are definitely times when even a 30lb snook will be hesitant in eating a 12" mullet. My favorite all purpose lunker size is about 8-10". I like free lining a mullet and hooking them right near the anal fin on the bottom side. This lets the fish swim unobstucted by the hook. Nose hooking can be good to but the hooks pull easier and when the current is not strong it can cause the fish to just try and shake the hook and not swim naturally.
Another reason mullet are under rated is because of their versatility in terms of locations they can catch big snook. Perhaps the best areas to lunker fish with mullet are brackish water areas. Creeks, spillways, and rivers are places where big snook commonly eat mullet. What most people don't realize is that they can be great baits for pitching docks, dropping on bridge pilings, mangrove points, and fishing in the surf/passes. These are all areas where many guys traditionally will go straight for whitebait. I will bet you that if you drop a large mullet on a set of bridge pilings or swim him out in the surf near a pass you will hook bigger snook. Another highly over looked tactic for fishing a mullet is trolling them very slowly along the edges on channels or down canals. Giant snook are caught every year doing this at the mouth of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa and in the Port.
So you want to catch a super lunker? Ever been out on a pier of dock and seen a huge snook that would not eat ANYTHING? Well I got news, ladyfish are the perhaps THE best bait for STUPID SIZE LUNKERS. These oily relatives of tarpon are very common in the Bay area. They can be caught easily around bridges at night, on the flats, in creeks, and under spillways. These are one of those baits you need a BIG livewell to keep alive. So for you land lubbers it will usually just be a happenstance type of bait. If you are fishing a bridge or any other structure and you catch a lady fish, put him on a hook and let him go. Ladyfish are very frequently found around bridges and piers at night. These are the same areas where HUGE snook can be lurking. Drop one of these guys down and HOLD ON. Ladys are another one of those baits that you can't be afraid of. A giant snook can easily garbage a 20" ladyfish. However, tiny ones and big ones are all great baits for BIG snook. Hook them through the lips or in the back and like I said HOLD THE HECK ON! Trolling with ladyfish in the same way we discussed with mullet can be very successful as well.
On a side note, it is important if you fish with a huge bait that you let the fish eat for a at least two seconds before you set the hook. This is true no matter what type of bait you are using. If it is more than 8", let the fish eat.
These guys are one of those specialty seasonal baits. Every summer these guys run down the beaches and invade brackish waters in the bay area. Tarpon fisherman know how much these oily little guys can attract hungry tarpon. However here on the gulf coast, it is not common to see anglers using them for snook. Known by many guys as Pogies, these members of the herring family are even more fat and protein packed than scaled sardines. Pogies also get very large. It is not uncommon to see 8-10" pogies. In the summer you will find these fish loaded up in many creeks and brackish water areas. They usually give themselves away by jumping and flicking on the surface the way whitebait does. Big snook will HAMMER these baits and run through schools like a freight train. Now you might be saying "Why is a big pogie a good lunker bait and a big sardine is not?". If you observe whitebait and pogies enough the answer becomes eveident. These fish are stiffer in the body and seem to be less agile than scaled sardines. Pogies are actually a more pelagic baitfish that seasonally move into shallow waters and have much smaller eyes than pilchards do. I believe this makes them less accustomed to snook ambushes. Their eyes and body type also makes them less likely to see and out maneuver a big snook.
Fish these guys exactly the same way you would fish a whitebait, freeline and hook through the nostrils. Anywhere you are finding pogies is a good place to fish them. My favorite spots are creeks and spillways where I often find them. They can also be very effective on bridges and dock lights.
This is another sort of specialty bait for lunker snook. These are one of the good baits in areas that are totally freshwater like rivers or places like spillways where the water can be mostly fresh. I recommend fishing tilapia under spillways. They are easy prey for a big snook. Hook them in the back and toss them in. Tilapia can be caught in many lakes, ponds, and brackish creeks with a cast net in very short order and are hardy in a bait bucket. Not much more to say on Tilapia. The important thing is fish them in brackish water areas where big snook lurk.
Other Live Baits
The baits we have discussed are not the only effective baits on lunkers. There are some baits that you would not normally think would be good for big snook. One of my favorite "wierd" baits for big snook is live lizard fish. You will often catch these guys around bridges and on grass flats. Lizard fish can be a deadly bait to drop down on bridge pilings or fish on the drop offs just inside passes in the summer or trol them in the same areas. Freeline them and hook them in the lips and they will swim right to the bottom where the mamas hang out. Pinfish can also get devoured. There are some guides like Captain Dave Pomerleua who says pinfish are the best snook bait. I believe him, but for huge snook I just have not had good luck with pinfish.
It may not be the sportsman like thing, but a keeper size trout will catch LUNKER snook in the summer time. As long as you are the person who caught the fish and they are in season, it is legal. Seatrout will get devoured along bridges, piers, and dock lights in the summer. I have hooked into some MASSIVE snook on about a 18" trout at Pier 60 in the late summer.
Another bait I am liking more as time goes by are live Mojarras. After seeing many snook with a belly full of these little guys I started experimenting with them. These fish can get as big as your hand and I prefer them over pinfish now. They are much softer in the body and almost spine free which in my opinion makes them better bait. It is like chicken on the bone vs. a chicken tender. The tenders would be easier to digest if you had to eat the whole thing. Fish these guys in the same stlye and places you would a live grunt.
If you see big snook under dock lights, one of the most under used baits out there is a fiesty live needle fish. These stinky slimey guys will get slurped under lights when snook are just hanging out. I have seen big snook turn there nose at whitebait and pinfish for hours and slurp the first needle fish that swims into the light. Another excellent bait for lunkers, especially in the winter, is a jumbo shrimp. The bigger the shrimp the bigger the snook. Tossing jumbo shrimp around lights and boats in deeper marinas when cold fronts blow in can be very successful for lunkers. Big shrimp can get finicky mamas to eat around and lights where you see them laid up.
There is one other approach which can be deadly for big snook that many old timers know about. When I was told years ago that big snook will gobble up dead bait, I was very skeptical. However, in the years since I have hooked into some very large snook on dead ladyfish and mullet. Use the first half of the fish and pin it to the bottom with an egg sinker and just wait. This can be a good tactic around bridges and deep water areas on mid summer nights.
Now although live bait is usually the best way to get a trophy sized linesider to bite, lures can be deadly in the right situation. The type of the lure depends on the spot. We will talk about spots and what type of baits to use in just a moment. Generally speaking I have three type of lures that I have caught/hooked most all of MY lunker snook with.
Topwater plugs for me have taken the lions share of big fish in terms of artificial. These baits will hook all different sizes of snook, including the giants. My favorites are the Bomber BaDonkaDonk HP, Rebel Jumpin Minnow, Heddon Super Spook, and the Rapala Skitterwalk or Skitterpop. Colors vary, but the general rule of "match the hatch" never fails. I like topwaters that have a higher pitched rattle especially when fishing stained water or very low light conditions. I get more bites on walkers over chuggers but both can be deadly. You will miss many fish with a topwater but seeing a 43" snook blast a topwater plug is THE ULTIMATE experience in inshore fishing, nothing else comes close. Again, do not be afraid to fish with a silly big topwater bait, big baits get big fish. If you fish with topwaters or any bait with trebles make sure your trebles are not to rusted and dull. Topwaters very often pull out of a lunker's leathery mouth so the sharper the hooks the better your chance of her sticking. These lures have two main advantages in my opinion. You can get the attention of a big hungry fish easily even among thousands of other bait fish and they can be cast VERY VERY far.
The next group of lures I like for lunkers are big swim baits. I like the classic 4-6" Storm swim shads in pearl or the grayback/silver body colors. These baits are heavy and can be cast long distances and fished slowly on or near the bottom. Just bomb it out and real it slow and steady. We will talk about where to fish these later.
Lastly, I like the diving plugs. These are a go-to bait for lunkers on the East coast but you dont see too many people throwing them over here. These baits can be great around bridges and big structure. However, my favorite technique is to troll them very slowly down canals, channel edges, drop offs or parallel to the shadow line of a bridge very similar to the way you would a live ladyfish. If you are going to try this method put out a spread of two different lures that dive different depths. I would not go any deeper than a lure that will 10ft or so unless the water your fishing more than 15ft deep.
These are not nearly the only types of lures that catch big snook. The ones I have mentioned are just my favorites and have produced the best for me in my years of lunkertarding.
I think this is the part everyone wants to know but you would be surprised at how unsercet many of these areas are. That is why I wanted to talk about bait first because it is often just using the right baits that will get you bit by a lunker in the same old spots. What we are going to do is look at some different areas to start looking. Now by all means, you can hit these spots but what I really want you to do is examine these spots on your own on Google maps. Look at these areas and relate what I am going to tell you. Knowing that info, look around in your area. The same conditions will bring the same type of fish. My main goal is to help you break down the different kinds of areas to look at. These areas fall into two LOOSELY organized classes.
First we are going to look at some of our more "traditional" spots to look for big snook. These areas are near our Gulf passes or follow the "big structure, big water, big snook" type of mentality. Let's get to it!
Clearwater Causeway Bridge
Port of Tampa
All of these spots have two things in common, deep water and big structure. We know that snook like structure and we also know that big fish like deep water sometimes. The deeper water provides more safety from predators and shelter from bad weather. Structure provides ambush areas and safety.
Places like John's Pass and the Sand Key Bridge are summer spots. Gulf passes like this are where fish go to spawn from May-August. Bridges over passes are going to be PRIME TIME lunker spots especially in the early summer. If these bridges have lights, even better. The basic idea here is to drop baits down right next to the pilings or fenders. This type of fishing will often require some amount of weight to get you bait down depending on how fast the current is moving. On bridges I like big ladyfish, grunts, and lizard fish. Whitebait will work to if the fish are in the upper part of the water column and the bait is schooling on top. Hook your baits in the nose and drop them down and HOLD ON. Strikes in these areas are usually very hard and fast. Trolling parallel to bridge pilings in the shadow line can also be productive with live ladyfish, lizard fish, mullet, or diving plugs. You can also try the swim baits or even a bucktail right on the structure as well. The key here is to get RIGHT ON the stucture. Hit the piling basically with your bait.
Now the bridges are not the only place in the passes to find big fish. Most passes have jetties leading out to the gulf. Lunkers are likely to show up anywhere along the rocks on the jetty but the tips of jetties seem to be the biggest staging areas. This is one of those areas where almost any one of the baits I mentioned could be be eaten. Pitch a freelined live bait up on the rocks and hold on. Also, don't overlook any structure that might be along the beach just outside the pass or just inside the pass. Most passes have docks just inside of them. Look for any with a good current flow or lights to hold big fish from late April-September. Any of the baits will work here as well. When fish are in the passes and spawning they will garbage almost any type of bait when they are in eating mode. However, this is the type of area where you will often see lots of big snook that will not seem to eat anything. When they are being stubborn I can't think of a better bait than a live ladyfish. A big struggling live ladyfish is like a free Porterhouse dinner for a big snook. I have seen big lazy fish laid up in the middle of the day that are turning their nose at everything GOBBLE up a ladyfish that is swam in front of their nose. They do this because ladyfish are packed with oils that provide energy and make their precious eggs buoyant.
There are several deep water ports where ships come in from the Gulf to drop and load cargo. The Port of Tampa is perhaps the most notable one in the bay area. These type of areas hold giants year round. This is a killer spot for GIANT snook because of the extensive structure and huge water depth. The main channel of the Port has to be atleast 40' for the ships to come in and out safely. What ends up happening is that you have big structure in deep water right next to the shore. Giants can hang in deep water, rush into a school of mullet that is hugging the shore for safety and be back in there 20ft hidey hole in one run. Areas like the Port of Tampa don't have as fast of current flow as the passes but provide ideal habitat for big snook. There are many very steep drop offs from rocky shorelines that big fish like to hang on. Slow trolling ladyfish along these drop offs can be a deadly tactic. In the Port, ladyfish and mullet are my favorite lunker snacks. Grunts are not very common up inside the Port in my experience but I know they would work. What you are looking for is steep snaggy shorelines where fish can explode out of deep water to ambush bait. The ideal areas are places where there is a shallow flat (even a very narrow one) near the shore and a steep drop off. These shallow areas are going to attract the smaller fish like mullet, pilchards, and mojarras. There are some areas like this in the port where I often see lunkers laying up near a drop off with the bait between them and the and shoreline. Deep water ports are also excellent places for big mamas to hide from cold fronts or extreme heat. Look for fish in these areas year round but definitely slow down for them if you are looking in the winter. In the cooler months focus you effort on south facing shorelines, boats, or structure in general. These areas see the most direct sunlight during winter months. The structure will hold heat and the water surrounding it may be slightly warmer.
The next series of spots we will look at are the places with brackish water. This includes your spillways, creeks, rivers, and springs. These areas can prime lunker haunts and are my personal favorite type of spots. Let us examine a few of these holes.
Hillsborough River Dam
Lake Tarpon Spillway
Palm River Spillway
So what we are looking at here are areas where fresh and salt water meet. This is attractive to snook, including lunkers, for several reasons. First, freshwater provides snook with a sort of cleaning. Many parasites that live on big dinosaur sized fish out in the open salt water cannot survive in water that low in salinity. Next, these type of spots tend to have darker water and dark bottoms. This dark water and bottom makes a good refuge in the cooler months as it absorbs heat well. In addition, since saltwater is denser than freshwater, the low salinity water heats up notably quicker in winter months. However, the reverse is also true. Many rivers can also contain springs that stay at a relatively constant temperature in the low 70s which makes them a huge attractor for snook. Freshwater springs are IDEAL habitat for winter snook. The last reason I like these spots is because it is where I see the most aggressive feeding activity from big snook. One of the first and most important things about these kind of spots is that they have a tendency to hold snook year around. However, most people think brackish water snook in the winter, unless you live near spillway. But, I see the most feeding activity in the summer when all the big snook are supposedly out on the beach or the river mouth spawning. REMEMBER THAT!! We will talk more in just a second on this.
First lets talk about spillways since lunker snook are commonly associated with these spots here in Florida. To start simple, you are looking for an area where fresh or brackish water spills into brackish/saltwater or some place the snook can get to directly. When most people think of a spillway they think of the giant hydrologic control structures built by the water management districts of the state. However, there are many smaller dams, weirs, and culverts that do exactly the same thing and are not as big or noticeable. I will use the term "spillways" from now on to describe these spots however remember thay do NOT have to be giant hydrologic control features. Look very closely on a high resolution satellite image to locate these areas. They are always going to be blocking a waterway as big as river or as small as a ditch. Some culverts or outflows will be connecting to a larger body of water. Remember, it needs to empty or flow into a body or water where the fish can have access from the saltwater. Examine your maps closely here and you will find some secret spots of your own, I promise.
The key to fishing these spots is rain. Rain makes the spillways, weirs, culverts, etc. flow. That is what we are looking for FLOWING WATER. If there are small fish in the area above the "spillways" then those fish will get washed out and fall down to the water below. This is where the hungry snook lay in wait for a super easy meal. Remember, how we talked about big snook liking really easy meals? Well this is why spillways can be such good areas to hook giants. The harder it rains the more fish will wash out and the more snook will be waiting for them. Now, there is one important thing to know about these areas that many anglers don't seem to understand. What you want is an area with a sporadic and dramatic flow. There are some spillways that flow for months on end. These areas are best when water first begins to flow after a dry spell or when water goes from flowing to FLOWING, meaning from a trickle to raging. You want the baitfish above the "spillway" to get caught off guard when a gush of water comes and sweeps them away. However, there are some of these "spillways" where fish can be reliably caught even when they are not flowing. If the structure has been there a while and flows with moderate regularity some fish will learn to just hang out there 24/7. They can be the first ones to dine on tasty treats if the spillway should start to flow and some of these areas are just prime snook habitat with or without a spillway. Many of the large spillways are like this.
So we know that rain is important. This means we need to focus our efforts on them in the hottest wettest months of the year. Many people know that rain makes the spillway flow, and that big snook are caught when it is flowing. However, many people outside of SE Florida do not want to go up to almost total freshwater on horrible day in July to target big snook. People want to catch that big snook on the beach, or in the passes, on the jetties, etc. in the summer time. To put it short and simple, these brackish areas see the most action from lunkers in the summer-fall. If you really want a giant and you think the spillway might be ticket, (I know this might be hard) you may need to leave the gulf passes, jetties, and bridges behind.
Now when you are trying to catch a lunker on a spillway you have many different options. The size of your tackle depends on the structure and what type of room you have to work with. Tighter quarters and ominous structure means heavier tackle. The bait department varies VASTLY when spillway fishing. When these areas are flowing and fish are feeding they will eat almost anything. But if you are looking for a giant, go back to old rule. Big bait catches big fish. Large topwater lures, swimbaits, and big diving plugs are all top picks here in the artificial department. In the live bait department it is hard to beat a big frisky mullet. However, tilapia, ladyfish, and pogies (if they are near) can be great too. There are some spillways where shiners can catch snook after snook. When I say shiners I mean like a golden shiner that you use for bass fishing. These can be super hot fire in some areas. They work really good in "spillways" that are far up in brackish/ fresh waterways (again with direct access for the fish).
The water in these areas is typically pretty dark so go heavy if you are looking for a lunker. I like tarpon sized gear with a 80-100lb fluorocarbon leader whether I am going live or artificial. Now this may sound like overkill to some of you, but I can tell you through many agonizing defeats that when you hook into a 30+lb snook on a topwater and lose it because your gear wasn't beefy enough, you will beat yourself up bad. This is the one thing I must stress DO NOT BE AFRAID OF HEAVY GEAR. Don't let anyone tell you "that's way to heavy, or many got a big enough rod?". Trust me, even tarpon gear is not enough sometimes around structure.
So the other two spots I listed on here on creeks. Now, the two I listed here can be dynamite. However, there are umpteen creeks just like these two all up and down the gulf coast in snook territory. What you want are long creeks. Creeks that drain a big area. Even ones that don't can still be prime time spots. But the longer the creek, the more water flows when it is raining. Creeks can be almost like nature's own spillways. When it rains hard for a day these long creeks will swell and flow HARD. All those little mullet, killifish, croakers, mojarras, etc. that live in all the little oyster beds and nooks and crannies get washed down. If you have one of these type of creeks near you, you might say"that water is so dirty and all I see is mullet there", EXACTLY!!!! Lots of mullet and dark water is what makes these areas prime feeding spots for giant fish as well as the types of advantages these areas offer in cool weather. I should tell you right upfront, these spots are NOT typically the "old reliable" type of things, some are but not most. These spots tend to be boom or bust. When the bite is on, ITS ON. When the bite is off it is indeed off.
Ideally, what you want to look for is a spot on the creek with good water flow, some sort of bottle neck where the water flows even faster, and something for the snook to hide behind to attack. Often times bridges provide exactly this recipe. However, sometimes it can just be a big gnarly mangrove, or a boat dock, a barge, and tall oyster bed, etc. In my experience, start with the bridges. They are permanent structures that don't move and provide exactly what the snook want.
Now since these spots are very similar to spillways, the tackle and baits are the same deal. I throw lots of topwaters in these small creeks. The loud topwaters will get the attention of fish in dark water and pull their gaze from the thousands of mullet and other fish right in front of their face.
Now I have only hit the tip of the iceberg on spots with you guys. There are many other areas to target big fish in the Bay area. Weedon Island, Gulf Harbors, Apollo Beach, Manatee River, Anclote River, Cotee River, Culbreth Isles, Gandy Bridge, Mirabay, Honeymoon Island, Anclote Key, Bimini bay, and the Ringling Causeway are some more I can think of off the top of my head. What I encourage anyone who reads this to do is to get on the maps. Check these spots out, look for spots in your won backyard. If you live in the southern half of Florida near the coast, I guarantee you live within 20 minutes of potentially dynamite spot.
I am not the authority on big snook. I have not caught TONS of them like the MadSnooker or anything, but I have caught more than most people. However, this is through years spent hunting, observing them, and tragically losing MANY lunkers. Now that I have shared with you what type of baits you can use and what type spots to look for, GET OUT THERE! Get on your maps, go scout spots, look for snook in particular, target them, think like a snook. What I wanted you to get out of this a better understanding of some of the "secrets" that are so hoarded by many snook fisherman. I wanted my readers to see that fishing for big snook is no joke. These fish are rarely caught by accident. They can require special techniques and timing that don't crossover much into other types of inshore species.
I hope all of you found at least a few things in this article helpful and remember, it will happen when you least expect it. You will be fishing and get SMOKED and then you will catch lunker fever. So get out there, get on your maps, get on your bait, whatever you have to do. If you are willing to put in the work it WILL pay.