Bob McNally – USA Guest Author
Sam Heaton was on a mission, and at daybreak that day he was all business.
“We gotta get out Stuart Inlet, jig up some bait, and get back inside the inlet to catch a perfect falling tide,” he said smiling, but with an all-business tone as he pushed the boat throttles to life.
Sam is PR manager for MinnKota Motors. His heart is all about fishing, and snook fishing is just about his favorite. Sam once was an Alabama crappie guide, but years ago made a trip to Stuart, caught a bunch of snook, and moved immediately to perhaps the best address in the world for lots of snook, and big ones, too. He also had a snook tatoo placed on his ankle right after his move.
My family was on board Sam’s Ranger that morning, and we quickly ran out the inlet, found some bait pods, jigged them up, and soon were back anchored near inlet rocks drifting back threadfin herring (locally called “greenies”) about the size of your hand.
First toss with a bait behind our boat my wife Chris had her line go tight, she set the hook, and a 30-pound snook the size of my leg went airborne. The fish jumped three times, Chris was gaining control, but suddenly the snook bore deep, and cut the line.
While Chris had her hands full, my daughter Lindsey let out a whoop, and had another snook, just as big was the one jumping around the boat. She battled her snook for 10 minutes and was working it close, when my son Eric grunted, and a 20-pounder skyrocketed within reach of our outboard.
It was a wild time, having a pair of heavy snook dashing around, jumping, pulling, and nearly tangling lines. But somehow everything held, and soon Eric drew his fish within reach, just as Sam grabbed Lindsey’s estimated 34-pounder. I snapped a few hectic photos, and the fish were released unharmed.
Soon frayed leaders were re-rigged, hooks tied on, and baits barbed, and we were all back fishing, and immediately were into snook again, and again, and again.
Sam thinks we caught a couple dozen snook that morning, and we had no less than three snook each weighing well over 30 pounds each. Most of the others weighed 10 to 15 pounds, but there were some 20s.
Incredibly, fishermen in a couple other boats near us were doing just as well, but the place wasn’t jammed with anglers. Never has been, because this summer fishing is during Florida’s closed snook season. The fish swarm to southeast Florida inlets for spawning, and biologists don’t want the oversize roe-filled fish injured. So it’s all catch-and-release, which is perfectly legal, and a whole lot of fun too, without impacting the resource.
Over the passed 40 years I’ve had the very good fortune to chase snook in many places, spots that have long and esteemed reputations for producing giant snook in mind-boggling numbers. And while I’ve caught plenty of linesiders in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere, none compare to the superb snooking available in Florida. And one of my favorite places for catching them in my home state is Stuart – smack in the heart of the booming retirement home, mega-mansion, golf course-laden land that is Southeast Florida.
I still scratch my head at the seemingly implausible incongruity of catching snook-after-snook from under a dock, where five boats of various designs and sizes are moored in front of a 25,000-square foot mansion worth more than the gross national product of some small countries. And this can be done by anyone with even a small center-console boat – even a nice johnboat – capable of launching into any of a number of Florida east coast rivers from Ft. Pierce to Palm Beach, with Stuart at its central hub.
If this sounds too good to be true, consider also that the state of Florida may extend the closed season this year because last winter was so harsh that many snook died. So it could be all catch-and-release through September and October, when some of the very biggest snook push into Southeast Florida from offshore waters.
The Gulf Coast (west) side of Florida was hammered the most, because the water is more shallow than on the East Coast. Fortunately, Atlantic Coast (east) snook fishing is still outstanding, with plenty of summer catch-and-release fish available.
Plenty of snook. Lots of huge fish. Light fishing pressure. Who could ask for more?
August and September is the tail end of the east-coast snook spawning season in South Florida, and inlets are jammed with linesiders making nooky. Anglers who praise snook, or want to learn why they are so honored, should get in on the action in the waters in and around Stuart, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and Palm Beach. It’s a small boat fishing paradise, with flats skiffs and bay boats ideal for working inlets, beach areas immediately north and south of inlets, and vast “inside” areas of creeks and rivers feeding inlets.
In a typical day of summer Stuart snooking, aces like Mark Nichols of DOA lures fish at first light for giant snook, using jerk baits and top-water plugs on shallow flats 1 to 4 feet deep. Snook cruise flats edges, so anglers cast big mullet-imitating lures into 1-foot depth water, retrieving them out to 3 or 4 foot depths. Snook position on drop-off edges waiting for an easy meal. Other great snook spots at dawn are bridge abutments. But around deep water bridges, anglers should employ plugs and jig-like lures that run 6-to-20 feet down.
August-Septemer night fishing around Stuart-area bridges and docks is excellent, too, and a choice time for fly-rodders, jiggers and plug fishermen to tally fish.
Beach areas just outside Stuart, Fort Pierce and Jupiter inlets are famed for summer snook action. Sight fishing for pods of cruising snook along beach “surf lines,” in 2 to 4 feet of water is extremely productive, especially for anglers tossing lures.
“Every shallow rock pile along the beach, and in the inlets and rivers, have snook on them in late summer,” explains top guide Ed Zyak, who leads his charters to an estimated 1,000 snook annually. “All the bridges, all the docks, marinas, grass flats, ledges, pilings and moored boats hold fish, too. Best tides are strong, during the new and full moons. Clear, hard-running tides are tops, from the last half of the falling to the first third of the incoming.”
As good as snooking is in Stuart and nearby waters, Zyak says odds for record-size fish are not as good as some other Florida locations. But 20-pounders are not uncommon, fish over 30 are caught daily by someone, somewhere in the region.
On an average summer day near Stuart, a pair of good anglers using live bait will catch 20 snook weighing 12 to 20 pounds, says Sam Heaton. But there’s always the possibility of catching a few big fish – ones weighing over 25 pounds.
“If you want heavy snook you’ll probably catch fewer fish, maybe only a dozen or so,” he says. “Big fish are in smaller schools, say 6 to 20 in a pod, while smaller fish [12 to 20 pounders] are in schools of 300 to 400. When you look over the side of a boat, and a huge school of snook surrounds you, it seems like the bottom has risen up. Drop a bait there, and a strike is a sure thing.
There’s no other fishing like on this planet.”