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Sneaky snook tale

Doug Hemmer calls on all his snook knowledge to snag the elusive fish.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2000


FORT De SOTO -- Standing on the beach waiting for the tide to turn, Doug Hemmer began to grow impatient.

"I don't know what's the matter," the fishing guide said. "The water should be ripping through here by now."

Hemmer had timed his fishing trip carefully. He studied the tide chart, identified the time of peak water flow and planned accordingly.

A veteran snook fisherman, he knew the fish would feed only after the moving water had flushed all the bait off the flats.

"That is the key," he said. "Once the water starts flowing, they start hitting everything that moves."

Like most animals at the top of the food chain, snook are ambush predators. They don't want to work any harder than they have to for a meal. Just like lions at a water hole, snook would rather wait until dinner comes to them.

"They'll just sit in the swash channel and wait until the bait comes to them," Hemmer said. "We just need the tide to turn."

The afternoon sea breeze, blowing steadily from the west, might have been strong enough to keep the water on the grass flats. He had seen days when a strong south wind kept the water from flowing out of the bay, and conversely, he had seen days when a stiff northerly breeze kept the tide from coming in at all.

Hemmer also knew all tides are not created equal. He knew better than to fish directly on or near a full or new moon. But three days ahead or behind those dates often provides the best fishing of the month.

Like most successful anglers, Hemmer looked for days with big change in water height. A 6-inch tide change would not move as much water as a 2-foot tide change.

Heavy water flow means fish. That's why Hemmer couldn't understand why the snook were not biting.

"You just have to keep at it long enough," he said. "Sooner or later they will turn on."

It doesn't matter if you are fishing the bridges and passes during the summer months, the creeks and mangrove backcountry during the spring and fall, or residential canals during the winter, snook feed during times of peak water flow.

So if you only have a few hours to fish, you might as well venture out when the tide will work to your advantage, which on this particular day was 4:25 p.m.

"They're here," Hemmer said, pointing to three shadows swimming about 10 feet off the beach. "Get your bait ready."

Hemmer cast up-current and let the water bring the bait back to the fish.

"You want it to appear as natural-looking as possible," he said.

The free-swimming bait lingered for a moment then took off frantically in search of cover. Too late. The snook cut it off before it could get to shallow water and the fight was on.

It took about 10 minutes to bring the fish in on light tackle. Before the hour was over, Hemmer and his friends caught and released three more.

But then the tide began to slow and so did the bite. Time to go home. They'd be back another day. They knew one thing for sure. They could always count on the tide.

Snook season opens today

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Centropomus undecimalis.

SIZE: To about 4 feet, 50 pounds.

RANGE: South Carolina to southern Brazil; in the United States, mainly in Florida and Texas.

HABITAT: Throughout the estuary and near-shore waters, common along mangrove shorelines, in brackish streams, and in freshwater rivers and canals.

STATUS: Designated a species of special concern in Florida.

WORLD RECORD: All tackle -- 53 pounds, 10 ounces, caught in Costa Rica on Oct. 18, 1978.

REGULATIONS: Slot limit -- snook must not be less than 26 inches or more than 34 inches; season is closed in June, July and August, and from Dec. 15 to Jan. 31; anglers may keep two fish; illegal to buy or sell, snook stamp required.

TACKLE: Spinning or bait-casting tackle with topwater and diving plugs or jigs. Live baits include scaled sardines in the summer and shrimp in the winter. Fly-rodding for snook also can be a challenge.

TACTICS: Work the passes and beaches in the summer. Bridge fishing also is productive. Cold weather sends snook looking for warm water in the canals and creeks.

ETC.: Snook are at home in fresh and saltwater. The species is sometimes called a "linesider" because of the distinctive line running laterally along the side of the body.

-- Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Research Institute, International Game Fish Association, Terry Tomalin.

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