The swirls are all around us. Every so often a splash comes out of nowhere. Snook are attacking bait moving on the outgoing tide just off Picnic Island and near MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay. It's only a matter of time before one chomps on our live bait and sends line hissing from the reel. Snook season opened Monday, and judging by a recent trip with Bret Gamrot, it should be an active season. Snook generally feed during moving tides or at night, especially during a full moon. But we are fishing just after noon, and the sun is straight overhead and the wind is minimal. Still, snook are active. "You never know what snook are going to do,'' said Gamrot, 39 and a 1987 Pinellas Park High graduate who has been fishing local waters for nearly 25 years. "They feed when they want to. But it's best to be fishing during a moving tide.'' We have the right bait, the right tackle and an outgoing tide. Throw in a little patience and we'll have a snook in no time.
Wait for bait
Artificial lures and flies are an option when snook fishing, but live bait remains the best choice. There are two musts for the serious inshore fisherman, a sturdy cast net and a live bait well. Gamrot has both.
"(Getting live bait) is the most important part of the day,'' Gamrot said. "You need to be prepared with the right kind of bait. You should take notes about when and where you find the bait at different times of the year.''
The first stop is in the grass flats just off Venetian Isles and north of the downtown Pier. Gamrot breaks out a cast net with quarter-inch mesh to get greenbacks, a smaller baitfish found in shallow waters that will act as bait as well as chum. After just a few casts, the bait well is filled with more than 100 greenbacks.
Getting the bigger baitfish is not as easy.
Our target is threadfin herring, a bait that averages about 6 inches in length and schools near structure in 10 to 15 feet of water in the middle of the bay. The key is to idle close to the school and cast just ahead of their movement. A heavier, half-inch mesh cast net is used because threadfin dive deep when spooked. Netting threadfin proves more challenging than greenbacks.
Several casts land only a few dozen or so threadfin. That causes a now-sweaty Gamrot to switch to the always-reliable Sabiki rig. The rig is attached to a pole with a weight at the bottom. The threadfin are attracted to small pieces of fish skin on the hooks. Before long, 20 more threadfin are in the live well.
We speed in Gamrot's 23-foot Dorado with a 225-horsepower Mercury engine to our Picnic Island spot. Gamrot chooses water about 20 yards off the beach and deploys two power poles from the stern to keep us in place.
The threadfin are hooked through the nose with a red circle hook and cast softly toward the beach. With lines in the water, Gamrot grabs a net full of greenbacks and throws them in for chum (tip: cut off the end of a plastic baseball bat and use it to cast chum). By the third cast, a snook grabs my bait and starts running. I make the novice mistake of trying to set the hook, which actually forces the hook out of the snook's mouth. It jumps once before getting free.
"That was a big one,'' Gamrot said. "Next time, let him take it and let the circle hook do it's job. Once he starts taking line, start reeling in.''
About an hour later, my line starts peeling. This time I let the snook have it. Then I reel in and land the first snook of the day. It's only about 22 inches, but even catching one that small makes you realize why fishermen spend hours trying to catch just one snook. They run. They jump. They put up a huge fight.
There are two more big hits during the day. One gets away. One is landed. The one released is about 18 inches. The one that gets away is about 45 inches. But that may be an exaggeration.
As we idle out about three hours later, snook swirl and splash at the unused bait we throw in the water.
They are out there. Just have patience and the right bait.
And don't set the hook too hard.