Mike Barrett was convinced the approaching storm had shut down the snook bite. But sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine to turn a day around.
"It seems like these waves are getting bigger," he said as we worked our baits on an outgoing tide on Honeymoon Island in Dunedin. "I don't know how long we can last."
Fishing for snook during the summer is always hit and miss. You can pick the perfect tide, then the weather doesn't cooperate. Get a perfect day, then the tide won't move.
"Sometimes you have to wait for hours and nothing will happen," said Barrett, a shore-based fishing guide who specializes in beach fishing for snook. "Sometimes the fish bite like crazy for a half-hour and then shut down. You just never know."
The common snook, the largest of the four species of snook found in Florida waters, is prized for its fighting ability and as table fare. Sometimes called "linesiders" by anglers because of their distinctive lateral line, snook gather in the passes and along local beaches during the summer to spawn.
This top sport fish has been the center of controversy since a series of cold fronts in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts. It was one of Florida's worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery in a series of regulatory moves through Aug. 31 of this year.
But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that the gulf stocks have recovered sufficiently to reopen the recreational harvest Sept. 1. Florida's management of snook is widely considered a conservation success story.
One reason is because over the years an increasing number of anglers has embraced catch-and-release fishing for snook, even when the season is open to harvest. The species is particularly hardy in this respect. Studies by state biologists show that 98 percent of snook, a higher percentage than red drum or spotted sea trout, survive upon release.
Snook are often compared to largemouth bass. Both are ambush predators that use structure to hide from their prey. With snook, the exception comes during this time of year, when they are also found in open water, which is why Barrett staked his claim on a sand spit that stuck out into Hurricane Pass.
"If we toss the baits into that calm water and then let the current take them out into the pass, I think we will have some luck," he said.
A baitfish flushed off the grass flat by a swift-moving tide is easy pickings for a hungry snook. The secret is the delivery.
"Our baits are hitting the sweet spot," I told Barrett, who was beginning to believe the approaching storm cell had doomed our outing. "I think if we wait long enough for the sun to peek out from behind those clouds, the fish will turn on."
It made sense to me. The rough conditions had made it more difficult for the snook to see the bait in the water. So we kept at it, tossing our baits up-current and letting the tide carry them into the strike zone.
After 20 minutes of frustration, the sun broke through the clouds. The large grass grunt didn't last a minute in the light before it got nailed by a monster snook.
"Don't lose it," Barrett yelled. "This might be the only one."
The big breeder made three long, hard runs before it finally gave up. We picked it up and posed for quick photos, then returned it to the water, moving it back and forth in the surf to get water moving through its gills. The fish took off in a flash.
"I think that's it for me," I said as the waves picked up. "They will be here another day."