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By FRANK SARGEANT

Published: Feb 7, 2003




The Fish & Wildlife Commission estimates that there are some 1.6 million snook in the waters of the state, but finding a few of them has proven elusive for most anglers since the spring season opened Feb. 1.
With water temperatures at record lows for weeks, the semitropical species has been near dormant in many areas, moving little and eating little, which makes for very tough angling.

The warmer temperatures this week could bring on good times. The water temperature in the gulf has risen to 62 since last week, up 5 degrees, and the water on the flats is probably considerably warmer on sunny afternoons at present.

However, most winter snook are not found on the flats - in fact, had they been there this winter, they'd be dead - water temperature dropped into the 40s, well below the survival zone.

Most snook are likely to be well up coastal rivers, in deep residential canals, particularly those with spring- water seeps, around power plants, and in the dredged waters reaching out from the Intracoastal Waterway.

I spoke with a commercial castnetter last week who indicated he was accidentally catching a lot of large snook around boat docks in blackwater areas of the Little Manatee River. He said some of the fish weighed 10 to 15 pounds, and that their gill plates were very hard on his nets. (Snook can only legally be taken with hook and line - those caught in nets must be released.)

Snook are also noted for seeking out the deepest water in area rivers, even if those holes are miles upstream into water that's completely fresh. They can stay in fresh water for weeks without harm, and since the black, tannin-stained water absorbs heat, they're apparently more comfortable there. Spring outflows also draw them. The Lithia Springs area on the Alafia sometimes has lots of fish along the shores below its outflow, as do many lesser springs.

Fish also remain in canals inside the barrier islands seeking out lighted docks throughout the winter, though they're less evident than in summer. But water near the gulf usually stays considerably warmer than that in the main bays, so these areas are worth fishing as soon as the water hits the mid-60s.

Whatever the venue, anglers usually report much better success with a much slower presentation than in summer. The skipping surface plugs that draw crashing attacks in May strike out completely at this time of year, and even sardines are not a sure thing. Finding sardines in winter is often as hard as finding snook.

Better baits are slow movers, with live shrimp by far the favorite. Most experts fish the baits tail-hooked, or hooked just under the horn, so that they stay alive and active. Small hooks are the rule-size 1 or 1/0 works best for these delicate baits. If any weight is used, it's likely to be a single BB shot, just enough to get the bait to bottom.

Of the artificials, slow-movers also get the nod; plastic shrimp like the DOA, fished exactly like a live shrimp, just barely crawled across bottom, most often get the bites.

Slow-moving, lightly weighted jigs are also effective, as are slow-sinking plugs like the classic 52M MirrOlure. The latter has to be fished so slowly that most anglers don't have the patience for it; best cold-water action is to simply flick the rod tip every five seconds or so as the lure slowly drifts downward.

Strikes are soft, often just a tick on the line indicates a take. For that reason, many anglers prefer micro-fiber line like Fireline or Power-Pro to mono - it transmits the bites much better.

Some anglers who concentrate on big fish use pinfish or Nile perch in winter. These are slow trolled near bottom around bridges, causeways and in river holes. Again, it takes patience because bites are rare, but when one comes it may produce a fish of 15 pounds or more.

The one advantage anglers have in winter fishing is that when lots of fish move upriver, they soon eat up all the available baitfish. And as the water begins to warm, the fish are likely to become very hungry.

One of the places they like to look for food on warm afternoons is near the mouth of feeder creeks dumping into larger rivers and sloughs. These are best on falling tides, of course, as minnows are pulled out of the creeks.

Snook usually remain in or near their winter refuges until around the first of March. Then, on one of those early spring days that makes you want to play hooky, they all come out in a rush, repopulating the formerly barren flats by the dozens and, in some areas near river mouths, by the hundreds.

The fish typically go on a feeding binge at this time, mauling the baitfish schools that begin to show up at about the same time, moving in from their deepwater haunts offshore. From then until the season closes at the end of April, snook fishing is as good as it gets, and the slow, cold days of winter are easily forgotten.

T<----->Lines
Kozlow
 
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