By DAVID A. BROWN | Times correspondent
When folks head out for a road trip, one of their first moves is to stop and grab some food. Snook are not so different, and in the spring, these feisty fish chow heavily in preparation for an upcoming journey. ¶ Traditionally in the winter, linesiders tuck themselves into the backwater solaces of coastal rivers, creeks and residential canals, where warmer, more stable water helps them survive the cold months. When spring ushers the fish outward, they emerge fixated on feeding. ¶ The reason: They're planning a road trip.
Actually, the snook's trek isn't that far — usually just a few miles from spring haunts — but the significance is undeniable.
Snook move to coastal passes and adjacent beaches from May to September for their annual spawning rituals. Before leaving the inshore shallows, they'll eat gluttonously to fill up their energy supply for the summer procreation.
Not all snook make this trip. Juveniles remain in the nearshore shallows. Nevertheless, feeding competition ensures that all will gobble whatever they can get their jaws around during spring's transition.
Spectacular battles filled with stubborn runs, aerial acrobatics and lots of head-shaking fury reward those who learn to pattern this gamey opponent.
Spring snook fishing epitomizes the angling axiom of "match the hatch." Offer fish what they're already eating and yours is an easy sell. For snook, that means scaled sardines — "whitebait."
March has an explosion of these plump baitfish throughout the North Suncoast region, and if you can sling a castnet, you'll often fill your live well in a few throws.
Chumming with canned cat food or a mixture of jack mackerel and wheat bread lures voluminous schools of baitfish close to an anchored boat. When the little fish come together in a tight knot, toss a quarter-sized wad of chum into their midst to hold them in place long enough for a net throw.
Pinfish usually respond to chumming, and several often turn up in castnets. Their sharp dorsal fins make them tricky to hold, but pinfish make fine snook baits. Holding a dozen or so in your live well allows you to try something different if the snook turn finicky.
Cast your snook baits on extra-sharp, short-shank 2/0 hooks set through the nose or through the soft fleshy area behind the pectoral fins.
Free-lining affords the most natural appearance, but don't discount the value of corking live ones. Hanging baitfish beneath floats keeps them in the strike zone longer.
Snook readily gobble live shrimp, but pinfish, puffers and other bottom pests will nip at the soft crustaceans. Rigging shrimp on a 1/8- to ¼-ounce jighead — set through the tail — and hopping them across the bottom minimizes such theft.
For artificials, use something that imitates the abundant natural forage. Swimbaits, soft plastic jerkbaits and white or chartreuse bucktail jigs do a good job of impersonating baitfish.
Spring snook will test your tackle, so gear up accordingly. Seven-foot medium-action spinning rods with flexible tips and plenty of backbone will do the job. Ten- to 15-pound braided line with 24 inches of fluorocarbon will stop most area linesiders.
A 20-pound leader will suffice on open grass flats, but go with 30-pound fluoro when fishing mangrove edges, docks or any other structure that a cagey snook could use to sever your rig.
Check your leader after every fight and retie if you find any burs, nicks or scrapes. Such damage weakens the leader and makes it susceptible to breaking — usually right as you're about to subdue a trophy fish.
Frayed leaders look funny in the water, and the damaged points can betray the stealth advantage of fluorocarbon.
Revive and release
Snook yield tasty white filets, and during the open season (March-April, September-November), North Suncoast anglers can keep one snook per day, as long as it measures 28-33 inches. But many fishermen release snook.
As with any catch-and-release scenario, hold your snook by the bottom lip at boatside and move the fish through the water to wash oxygen across its gills. The larger the fish and the longer the fight, the more revival time you'll need.
Snook have a unique way of letting you know when they're ready to go — their toothless jaws will clamp around your thumb. When this happens, loosen your grip and the fish will dart away within a few seconds.
A released snook might need an hour or so to nurse its bruised ego, but with proper resuscitation, the fish will swim away and get right back to the dinner table.