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Undaunted angler ready for snook

Most folks would consider it a bad omen when the boat doesn't start.

Not Doug Hemmer.

Wind, rain, even a clogged fuel line wouldn't keep this angler from catching the season's first snook.

"I've got a friend who'll lend us a gas tank," he said as the sun disappeared over the bay. "We're not giving up yet."

A good five hours remained before the season officially opened _ plenty of time to scout a few docks and find out where the linesiders were hiding.

So Hemmer borrowed a tank, then pulled the boat up along a seawall and ran a few blocks to a convenience store.

"Now we're ready," he said, heading toward the first honey hole of the evening. But the delay had cost him. Another angler had gotten there first. "Wouldn't you figure: On a nasty night like this, there's only two boats fishing and one of them is in our spot."

The dock would have been his best shot _ sheltered from the wind, easier for casting. Someone fishing a dock at night must lay the bait in the right spot.

The snook like to hang in the shadows, safe from predators but able to ambush bait attracted to the dock light.

Hemmer knew he still would catch fish. He just might have to work at it a little harder.

He stopped at a light that was hidden from the main channel. Most people would drive right by; maybe that's why the snook felt safe there.

The first cast of the evening proved he was right. His companion tossed a live jumbo shrimp a few feet from the dock, and the water exploded. "Snook!"

With wind howling and a light rain falling, Hemmer's angling accomplice coaxed the fish toward the boat. A few hours later, it would be a keeper. But any fish caught before midnight would have to go back. With the line a few feet from the boat, the angler let up the pressure and the fish spit the hook.

"Professional quick release," Hemmer's companion said.

The second shrimp met with a similar fate. The snook grabbed it and never looked back. The line went limp. The 30-pound leader shredded like ribbon. "Now we know they're here," Hemmer said. "We can come back later."

You can pull the little snook out from under a dock all night. But once you hit a big fellow and it gets off, it runs back and tells the others. "Watch out. That last shrimp had a bad aftertaste."

Time to move on, find fresh waters. And this dock was equally productive. One, two, three snook, then another big one. Line smoked off the reel; the drag system was put to the test.

"You know it's a keep when the line screams like that," Hemmer said. A few minutes later a 26-inch snook, skinny from a long, hard winter.

But still too early. By now, the air was getting colder. The wind still blew at 15 knots, with gusts nearly double that speed. The anglers killed the time with more snook, redfish, and a trout _ an inshore grand slam. At 11:30, Hemmer took the back way to a dock they visited earlier.

He stopped the boat about 100 feet away and used a canoe paddle.

"Stealth pays off," he said. "Noise carries out here on the water, so you've got to keep as quiet as possible, both for the fish and the people sleeping."

He reached into the bait well and grabbed the fattest shrimp he could find. He hooked it through the tail.

"This way, it swims right down under the dock," Hemmer said. "That's where the snook are."

At 12:07 a.m., seven minutes into the 1994 snook season, Hemmer let it fly. The shrimp landed between two pilings, right on the edge of the shadows.

"Perfect," he said.

He left the bail open for a moment, to give the shrimp some swimming room. Then he slowly took in the slack line and watched as the shrimp started to dance.

"Something's got it excited," Hemmer said.

Then the line went taut. Hemmer wailed back on the rod and drove the hook through the snook's steel-plated mouth.

The fish tried to run for the pilings. The 15-pound test line would be no match for the barnacles. But Hemmer turned its head, and by 12:10 he admired the first snook of the season.

_ An expanded outdoors report appears each Friday.