For those who love to catch snook on artificial lures — and that would include me — there’s no time like the present. The first strong cold fronts of the year push the schools of linesiders that have been milling around the mouths of the coastal rivers and canals up inside toward the warmer “black water.”
In theory, the dark water forms a heat sink, or perhaps it’s because most coastal rivers are partially spring fed; in any case the water has an attraction not only for snook, but also for trout, reds, mangrove snapper and sheepshead among other species.
Pretty much any river that flows to the Gulf of Mexico in the southern half of the state holds winter snook, but some of the best-known are the Alafia, Hillsborough, Little Manatee and Manatee feeding into Tampa Bay, and the Peace and Myakka feeding into Charlotte Harbor. The Anclote and Pithlachascotee, north of the Bay area, are also productive, and there are pretty good numbers in the Homosassa, as well, though it’s at the northern limits of snook country. All the rivers from Marco throughout the Everglades are also good.
While snook can be tough to fool with anything short of live sardines in the clear, shallow waters on the flats, in the darker waters of the rivers — where food becomes progressively scarcer as cold weather wears on — they’re a lot more ready to attack an assortment of artificial lures.
Topwaters are by far the most exciting way to fool them, and for fish to about 10 pounds the floaters work as well as anything. Heddon Spooks, MirrOlure She Dogs and the larger sizes of Rapalas work well.
Slow-sinking plugs like the venerable 52 M MirrOlure are also deadly winter offerings, but in the colder weather it requires a dead-slow presentation to get them down to where the fish are. Also effective is the DOA Shrimp in 3- and 4-inch sizes. And the same sort of swimbaits bass anglers like, including the YUM Money Minnow in the 4-inch size, work very well when fished on a quarter-ounce jig head and cranked just fast enough to make the tail swim.
If you’re after trophy-class snook for catch-and-release action, then a live tilapia or a wild shiner — the type you can buy in freshwater bait shops for bass fishing — are the best bet. Baits of 4 to 6 inches are the best size, and they are typically fished on bottom in the deepest holes you can find. Snook of 40 inches are caught every winter with this tactic.
Areas where snook hang out vary from river to river, but in general if there’s a dam on the flow, you can bet there will be snook in the fast water directly below the gates. Anywhere side creeks flow into the main river can also be productive on falling tides, and deep bends and sharp points also have their attraction.
Areas with rip-rap or shell bottom are also good. And of course any lighted docks can be deadly so long as night-time temperatures don’t get too cold; “Snook Alley” between Venice and Englewood on the ICW is famous for this type of action, and there’s plenty of it in the ICW from St. Pete to Clearwater, as well. Docks inside rivers like the Manatee and Little Manatee also often hold winter fish.
As in fishing the open bays, it pays to find moving water — when the tide quits running at a river’s mouth, you may find it flowing strong 2 or 3 miles inland, so keep on top of the flow and you’ll probably keep on top of the action.
The snook, being snook, don’t always cooperate, but if you take along a bucket of live shrimp and don’t mind soaking them on bottom here and there around hard structure, you’ll probably come home with an assortment of “eating fish” including reds, mangrove snapper, black drum and sheepshead; winter river action is an interesting potpourri, and there’s always something ready to bite.