GULF COAST SNOOK EXPAND NORTHWARD

The Snook Population Explodes on Florida's Nature Coast

Snook are populating new territories on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Gulf Coast angler is rewarded with an unexpected trophy snook.Fabian Guerrero

"Whoa, did you see that big mama?" asks an excited Capt. Dan Clymer as we both stare at the giant swirl left on the surface where a trophy-size snook had just swiped at a plug, completely missing the hooks.

“Oh well, they don’t get that big by being dumb,” adds ­Clymer, a full-time guide and native of nearby Homosassa who told me the snook population was thriving in Florida’s Nature Coast. A bit too far north for that to happen, I thought, so I had to see for myself. And here we were — in search of big snook — plugging our way along the dredged canal leading to the Crystal River power plant on Florida’s Gulf coast.

We had boated two respectable fish that morning before the rumble of thunderheads forced us into more sheltered waters. “We can slog out here. There’s always protection, even on bad days, no matter the wind direction,” Clymer explains. “This is where I’ve caught most of my big snook. The water is deeper and there’s plenty of bait, so you can see why big snook like it so much.”

Numerous springs around Crystal River and Homosassa guarantee snook mild-water sanctuary during the occasional arctic blasts.
Historically, Tampa Bay represented the northern extent of snook's range, but suitable temperatures and abundant bait farther north have opened up new habitat over the past two decades, and snook have been on the increase on Florida’s upper Gulf Coast.Dave Lear

POPULATION BOOM

“I caught my first one on New Year’s Eve in 1990, and the snook population has really expanded since then,” Clymer says. “I’m convinced they’re spawning here too. I’ve seen fish ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet, and 6-inchers aren’t swimming all the way up here from Sarasota or Tampa Bay. This fishery is now so good that I can target snook specifically and expect to be successful.”

On his best day, Clymer claims he caught 44 snook on 44 casts, all around the 20-inch mark, which bodes well for the future of the fishery. But he has also landed one measuring 46 inches and pushing 30 pounds, so not all the linesiders in the area are juveniles; there are also some extra-large grown-ups lurking around.

Florida's snook, which are very sensitive to the cold, were caught only sporadically throughout the Nature Coast until ­recently. But it appears the fish have been gradually migrating farther up the Gulf Coast from their traditional northernmost haunts in the Tampa/St. Petersburg region. Surely, mild winters the past couple of years have contributed to the movement, but the numerous springs around Crystal River and Homosassa, which guarantee mild-water sanctuary during the occasional arctic blasts, are another likely factor.

Every few years, some snook are caught even farther north. In fact, one was landed in the Aucilla River, more than 100 miles north of Crystal River.
The snook population of Florida's Nature Coast is steadily growing, and the fish range from 6-inchers to beasts in the 30-pound range. Capt. Dan Clymer operates out of Plantation Resort on the Crystal River (800-632-6262; plantationcrystalriver.com), a convenient starting point with easy access to King’s Bay and nearby Gulf flats, and just a short run south to Ozello and Homosassa or north to Yankeetown.Keilani Rodriguez

BAIT SELECTION

Of course, there’s no shortage of forage along Florida’s Nature Coast where snook ­easily find lots of shrimp, pilchards, mullet and other baitfish to slurp down. “They go absolutely crazy over needlefish,” Clymer says, but rather than pitch live baits, he prefers to toss artificials to snook using light spinning tackle. His top lure choice is a D.O.A. 5.5 C.A.L. soft-plastic jerkbait in Glow — which passes for a needlefish — rigged through the nose on a live-bait hook and worked just below the surface. Other favorite offerings include hard-plastic twitchbaits, like the Unfair Lures Rip-n-Slash, MirrOlure MirrOdine and Yo-Zuri Mag Darter, in natural colors.

Snook make excellent targets for a variety of artificial and natural baits.
Abundant forage allows anglers to fish a wide range of natural baits and lures to fool snook.Dave Lear

LIGHT RIGS AND LOOPS

Clymer spools 10-pound braid on his reels, then splices a section of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader with double uni-knots. All the lures are attached with a MirrOlure loop knot. “I tie everything on with a loop knot,” Clymer explains. “The loop improves the action of the lures, and I firmly believe you get more bites.”

LINESIDER HANGOUTS

When targeting linesiders, ­Clymer focuses on boat docks and rocky flats with deep swashes or nearby channels that the fish are able to drop into during low tides while waiting for rising water to return to their usual hangouts. The downtide side of oyster bars are also prime areas to prospect. The fish lie into the current, waiting to ambush prey swept by the tide.

According to Clymer, the best snook action often takes place during outgoing tides. The Crystal River guide prefers major moon phases, although he says that’s not as critical as the amount of water moving. The bite is also typically better on weekdays when there is less boat traffic to disturb the wary fish.

When targeting linesiders, ­focus on boat docks and rocky flats with deep swashes or nearby channels that the fish are able to drop into during low tides while waiting for rising water to return to their usual hangouts.
Careful releases keep anglers legal and snook populations healthy.Dave Lear

SEASONAL MOVES

Snook’s preferred water temperature range is 70 to 85 ­degrees. Spring through fall, when the water is warmer, is prime along the barrier islands, flats, creeks and tidal rivers. From November through February, snook move into the springs where the water remains a consistent 72 degrees. The fish aren’t as active then, but they still eat between high-pressure systems. Clymer finds trolling Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows (with red heads and white bodies) about 100 feet behind the boat at 3.5 mph often triggers strikes during the winter months.

Every few years, ­especially after back-to-back warm winters, a few snook are caught even farther north. In fact, one was landed in the Aucilla River, more than 100 miles north of Crystal River. But it’s a rarity. “I’m not sure if it’s because of global warming or what,” Clymer wonders. “All I know is my home waters now offer access to trophy snook on a daily basis.”

SNOOK FACTS

There are four snook species in Florida. The common snook is the most widespread and also the one that attains the largest size (20-pounders are considered trophies, but some exceed 50 pounds). Snook season along Florida’s Gulf coast closes from December 1 through the end of February and again May 1 through the end of August. Snook were granted game-fish status (no sale allowed) in Florida in 1957, and an annual $10 permit is required to keep one fish per day. In the Gulf snook-management zone (including Monroe County), only fish between 28 and 33 inches in length may be kept.

Favorite offerings of local guides include hard-plastic twitchbaits, like the Unfair Lures Rip-n-Slash.

Unfair Lures 70 MM Rip-N-Splash

The top artificial selection of Capt. Dan Clymer, especially when finger mullet are aroundCourtesy Unfair Lures
The MIrrOdine imitates pilchards and threadfin herring, both usual prey for snook along the Gulf Coast.

Mirrolure Mirrodine XL

A realistic imitation of pilchards and threadfin herring, two of snook's main forage species along Florida's Gulf CoastCourtesy MirrOlure
The Yo-Zuri Mag Darter is another great choice for Gulf Coast snook.

Yo-Zuri Mag Darter

Terrific swimming action makes this lure another top pick for linesiders.Courtesy Yo-Zuri
Trolling a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow is another way to connect with snook.

Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow

A proven choice to troll for snook along canals, rivers, creeks and deeper shorelinesCourtesy Yo-Zuri
As for soft plastics, the Glow D.O.A. 5.5 C.A.L. jerkbait is a killer needlefish imitation that fools snook.

D.O.A. 5.5 C.A.L. Glow Jerkbait

A terrific needlefish imitation that Gulf snook find irresistibleCourtesy D.O.A. Lures

SWS PLANNER

Gulf Coast snook

What: Florida common snook

When: Year-round, with winter action limited to area springs and rivers

Where: Florida's Nature Coast (Homosassa, Ozello, Crystal River and Yankeetown)

Who: Anglers on shallow-draft center consoles, bay boats and skiffs. Knowledge of the area is a big help. The following guides offer results while you gain the experience to go it alone:

Capt. Dan Clymer 352-418-2160 crystalriver-fishing.com

Capt. William Toney 352-422-4141 homosassainshorefishing.com

Capt. Clay Shidler 352-586-2748 hangemhighsportfishing.com

SWS TACKLE BOX

Gulf Coast snook

Rods: 71⁄2-foot medium-action spinning or baitcasting, like the G. Loomis E6X Inshore series

Reels: 3000- to 4000-class spinning or 200-class baitcasting

Line: 10-pound aqua-green braid or similar

Leader: 30-pound fluorocarbon; 40-pound around docks and similar structure

Lures: Glow-color D.O.A. 5.5 C.A.L. jerkbait rigged through the nose with a 3/0 short-shank live-bait hook; Unfair Lures 70 mm Rip-n-Slash, MirrOlure MirrOdine and Yo-Zuri Mag Darter suspending plugs in natural color schemes like green-and-olive or black-and-silver

Baits: Live pilchards, threadfin herring, finger mullet, needlefish and large shrimp