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Worth the wait

When it comes to catching big snook, you have to be at the right place at the right time - with the emphasis on time.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


HONEYMOON ISLAND -- The sandbar was empty, but Wendell Akins figured his luck wouldn't last past mid-morning.

"This place gets crowded," he said. "It pays to be the first one here."

Like most good snook fishermen, Akins knows the secret to success is timing.

The Crystal Beach fishing guide had spent his share of winter days watching snook stacked like cord turn away from tasty jumbo shrimp dragged right across their noses.

Then again, he'd seen summer nights when a palm-sized pinfish with spines like a porcupine's didn't last 30 seconds in the water before it was gobbled up by a hungry linesider.

"I like to get settled right before the water starts to move," Akins said. "Then it is just a matter of waiting."

Snook, like most predators, don't like to work for their food. Whenever possible, they use structure to hide from their prey. In open-water areas where there is no structure, like this stretch of beach, they hunker down on the sand bottom and wait for the current to bring the food to them.

And that is where timing comes in. You can hit a spot when the tide is ripping and hope that the fish are still feeding. But a bite may last 45 minutes to an hour and then shut down. You may have water movement, but the fish already have fed.

Then again, you can get there before the tide turns, fish for hours as the water slowly moves out to sea and still not get a bite. Disgusted, you head for home, only to discover that the friend who stuck it out had all the luck 15 minutes after you left.

There is no magic formula to catching fish. But seasoned anglers such as Akins will tell you that picking a time of peak water flow will increase your chances for success. A long, slow tidal change may not gather enough momentum to flush the bait fish off the flats and into the mouths of the hungry snook. A short, strong tide, however, will sweep the bait out of the shallows and into the passes.

"We just have to be patient," Akins said as he tossed a pinfish toward the shore. "I know they are here. Whether they eat is another story."

Akins hooked a fat grunt and tossed in the same general direction. Five minutes later, the bait fish was back underneath the boat, hiding in its shadow, from who knows what.

"We need this current to pick up a little before the fish start biting," Akins said. "Those baits aren't going to do much good under the boat."

Akins had been at it for a half hour and his anglers were growing anxious. They wanted results. They wanted action. They wanted a big snook for the camera so they could get back to the dock before the sun climbed high enough to make them sweat.

"Just a little longer," Akins said. "If we don't hook up here, we will move to another spot."

With that, the angler on the bow began to reel in his bait, then the line went taut.

"I think he's got it," Akins said. "Let him have it ... "

The angler set the hook. The snook jumped and tried to shake the hook, then turned and ran back to the boat, trying to wrap the line around the engine.

"Smart fish," Akins said as the angler danced around the deck. "Keep the pressure on."

The angler followed the captain's advice and brought the fish up for a photo, measurement and release. Just then another boat arrived and dropped anchor.

"Here they come," Akins said.

Ten minutes later, another snook, slightly larger than the first, hit a second grunt. Then the fishermen in the other boat hooked up too.

"I knew they would turn on sooner or later," Akins said as his angler fought another snook.

Before the fight was over, two more boats arrived. Then a fourth and a fifth. Then, 45 minutes after the bite began, it stopped.

Akins reeled in his lines and hauled in his anchor. Then he headed for home, knowing he would be back, soon enough. It was just a matter of time.

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