Lessons from a Snook Pro Captain will Up Your Linesider Success
Mike Holliday is not your typical sportfishing captain. Sure, he has more than 30 years of experience guiding in Florida waters, but he is also a noted outdoor writer, with two published books on inshore fishing topics and countless magazine articles to his credit. He’s the former editor of two regional sportfishing magazines, and he’s often featured on the Florida Insider Fishing Reports Show, which airs weekly in primetime on the Fox Sports® Network.
Mike is also a dedicated conservationist. He’s a lifetime member of the Coastal Conservation Association® and International Game Fish Association®. He never shies away from a fight and is currently working with Captains for Clean Water®, pushing hard for responsible action on the water discharges from Lake Okeechobee that have been creating toxic algae blooms fouling Florida’s coastal rivers and beaches. The group, along with others, is working with newly elected Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to make headway on the issue
Mike is a longtime member of Team Pathfinder, and all his boats have had Yamaha power. He currently runs a Pathfinder 23 HPS bayboat powered by aV MAX SHO® 250 outboard; the eighth V MAX SHO he’s owned. During a recent fishing trip with Mike on the St. Lucie river, the experienced captain had this to say about Yamaha.
“I love these engines. They are powerful, super dependable, get great fuel economy and are very stealthy. I couldn’t ask for anything more from an outboard, especially with the hours I rack up each season.”
Scott Deal, co-founder and president of Maverick Boat Works, also joined the group for the fishing expedition. A Florida native and perennial skinny-water tournament winner, Scott’s knowledge of fishing has been instrumental in helping him design and build some of the most popular fishing boats in the country today. The company brands include Maverick and Hewes flats skiffs, Pathfinder bay boats and the wildly popular Cobia® center console line.
While Mike loves fishing and guiding his clients for tarpon, trout and redfish on the inshore grounds of Florida’s Treasure Coast, it’s snook that gets his engine revving the most and with good reason. Snook are structure-oriented ambush predators. They’re powerful and fast, which makes for a great fight on light-to-medium tackle. They have a large mouth for engulfing prey, and will partake of most any baitfish, including big ones. Snook also prey on eel and shrimp, and can be caught during the day or night. Capt. Mike will take clients fishing any time of day, depending on the prevailing conditions.
There are four species of snook in Florida waters. The common snook is the most wide-spread and encompasses the largest component of the total population. It’s also the largest, reaching lengths in excess of 50-inches. They are impressive fish to see and fighting machines when hooked. If you hook a large one near docks or bridge structure, your chances of winning the fight are reduced dramatically, which we found out later in the day.
The second most commonly encountered species is the Cuban snook, which is considerably smaller (rarely reaching eight pounds), followed by the sword spine and tarpon snook, which are even smaller.
“Snook are something of a cult fish,” said Mike. “Once you catch a few of them, you are hooked for life. Pound for pound there isn’t a better fighting fish on the inshore grounds, and they can be lured into striking a wide range of live baits and artificial lures.
“They’re ambush predators that can be found hanging in the shadows of docks during the day and at night,” he continued. “That’s one of the things that make them so challenging and so much fun to hunt. During daylight hours, live bait will get the most attention because snook have keen eyesight. This is especially true if the water is clear, such as during a strong incoming tide. Snook can easily identify an artificial lure under these conditions. Take the same fish in the same conditions, toss them a live baitfish, and their inhibitions disappear.”
Since the group was fishing on a clear day with moderate water clarity, Mike opted to make a run out the inlet to hunt for a school of live bait. It didn’t take long to find several schools of herring, some being harassed by jack crevalle. Scott did the honors of tossing the castnet to fill both live wells aboard the Pathfinder. The anglers also spent a little time chasing the jacks, catching a few in the offing. Then it was back to the St. Lucie River where Mike did a little hunting to find some willing snook to take the bait.
“Snook are not too particular about live bait,” Mike continued. “Herring, sardines, pilchards, menhaden, mullet, even live shrimp, can illicit a positive response. Massive schools of finger mullet migrate through this area, usually from early August to the end of September, and the snook go absolutely nuts. Fishing around inlets and along the beaches can be a blowout. They also become quite susceptible to certain lures cast around mullet schools, and my favorites are the Yo-Zuri® Pencil and Mag Minnow. Both are just deadly during the mullet run.”
After checking out a couple of docks and coves for snook with little to show for it, Mike decided to make a run to another area of the river. Modern electronics with the latest side-imaging capabilities have made finding snook around structure less time consuming. Mike uses a large-screen Humminbird® unit with a sonar feature that can scan horizontally out both sides of the boat to reveal structure and fish up to 50 feet or more away.
“I can cruise along quietly with my trolling motor and see fish sitting alongside pilings, under docks or holding tight to bulkheads or shorelines without spooking them,” said Mike. “I can even tell how big the fish are from the return image on the LCD, which saves a lot of time. Finding fish has always been the hardest part of this kind of fishing because it used to involve a lot of casting to spots when you had no idea if there were fish present. These systems make the hunting a lot easier for pros and novice anglers alike.”
Using his depthfinder and trolling motor, Mike found a bunch of snook along an area of shoreline where a bulkhead ended abruptly, and natural shoreline with rocks and a sand point began. A long dock extended out into the cove another twenty yards down the shoreline with a perpendicular T dock at the end. This great structure created a coral for the snook to use as a feeding station. He pointed out the spots to concentrate our efforts, and the anglers started placing the live baits in the strike zone with accurate casts. Scott hooked up almost immediately, a small snook running some line off his spinning outfit. A few minutes later, Mike slipped the net under the first snook of the day, which was followed with another and another in successive casts to the same point.
While the action remained constant, Mike explained the ins and outs of snook conservation.
“These fish are tightly regulated in Florida waters with restrictive seasons and bag limits,” he said. “There is a one-fish-per-person daily bag limit, and you can only keep fish between 28 and 32 inches (fish that are typically between eight and 13 pounds). Anything smaller or larger must be released. With regulations that force the release of all the larger spawning-size fish, the stocks have remained incredibly abundant in recent years. Anglers must have a Florida saltwater fishing license and purchase a snook stamp to go with it. If you are fishing with a licensed guide like me, we purchase a blanket permit that covers any customers aboard our vessel.”
About that time, one of the anglers placed a cast next to one of the dock pilings about midway between the shore and the T dock. The herring was immediately inhaled by a snook that took off for parts unknown. This was a considerably larger fish and even though it was hooked on the heaviest spinning outfit on the boat, it was impossible to tighten the drag enough to stop it from running in and out of the pilings. The power of the fish was surprising, and it became obvious that this tug of war was a losing battle for the angler as the fish zigzagged between the pilings, eventually breaking the line.
Mike smiled as he watched the outcome of the fight. “That was a really good one,” he said. “Your chances of getting him out of those pilings was slim, and there was little that you could’ve done to change the outcome, which is one of the reasons I really love these fish. They are just so strong that once a big one gets going it’s almost impossible to turn them around.”
Mike fishes snook from Vero Beach to Palm Beach, but feels the very best fishing for linesiders is in the St. Lucie River and along the beaches in this area. His biggest fish to date was a 42-pound monster that tested his tackle, but his favorite place to find them is when they move up onto the grass beds on inside flats in less than three feet of water. This can happen any time between April and November, but the entire coast has seen a drastic reduction in natural grass beds due to run-off pollution. The excessive use of fertilizers in both agriculture as well as residential and business lawns causes water clarity to decrease as turbidity increases due to unnaturally high algae levels exacerbated by the discharge of toxic outflows from Lake Okeechobee the last few years.
“When the snook are on the flats, the fishing can be spectacular,” Mike said. “It’s mostly smaller fish, a lot under the slot-size and some keepers, but the bites are explosive on plastics and topwater lures.”
Mike’s lure selection is small. He uses some other plugs in addition to the Yo-Zuri®Pencil and Mag Minnow, and jigs sporting plastic bodies make up the rest of the tackle box. Bass Assassin®Sea Shad bodies in the four- and five-inch size are productive. In dirty water he prefers dark colors, and in clear water his favorite color is green/silver. Jig head weight varies from one-fourth to one ounce depending on water depth and tide flow.
There are specific seasons during which you can keep a snook for the table and rest assured, they are excellent eating fish with firm, white, mild tasting fillets. The closed seasons are from December 15 through January 31 and again from June 1 through August 31. The summer closure protects the fish during spawning season, and much of the spawning takes place in and around inlets like the mouth of the St. Lucie River. Catch and release fishing for snook is allowed during the closed seasons. Current regulations for Gulf Coast snook are strictly catch and release year-round to protect the remaining stock after the stress of successive years of various toxic algae blooms.
“Since very few of my customers want to kill a snook, I take charters any time during the year,” Mike said. “That said, during the spawning season I avoid fishing in or near the inlets, where spawning activity is highest, and fish along the beaches where post spawn fish tend to hang out. Regardless, the fish are all released, and that’s the way I like it.”
Snook are truly a great gamefish, one that every angler should tangle with at one time or another. Florida’s Treasure Coast is the best place to encounter them, and Capt. Mike Holliday of Fish Tales Guide Service can show you the ropes. You can reach him at (772) 341-6105 or by email at email@example.com.