Terra Cia Bay, Fl.---Steve waded around the end of one of the many islands in the bay, the warm Gulf of Mexico water about thigh deep. With practiced ease he worked his fly rod, the green floating line arcing beautifully through the moisture-ladened, humid Florida air. Dropping the crystal minnow fly gently to the green water, he let the imitation rest for just a second or two before he started to strip it back to him.
Strip...strip....strip...WHACK! The snook pounded the fly like it was his first meal of the week. It wasn’t a big one, but as they say, it was a tight line. The fish ran out across the bay and then launched himself into the air. Back and forth he shook his head as he tried to throw the sharp hook that was firmly implanted in his jaw. Dropping near the hole he had made on the way up, he paused for a second and then made his second run.
Steve Spanger of Newbury had joined Bob Fraser of Amesbury and me for a late-winter, warm-water fishing trip into the mangrove islands of a shallow bay near Bradenton, Florida. Using Bob’s Scout, a 22-ft.flats boat, we were able to penetrate deep into the backwater channels and runs that make this area famous. This fishing platform is equipped with a jack-plated,150-horse Yamaha, an electric motor on the front that is remotely controlled from the cockpit and a hydraulic power-pole for an anchor.
The early morning outgoing tide had drained this whole area, making it a perfect place to wade fish. We were looking for those holes and channels that would hold fish until the incoming filled. Usually around every small island there is a cut caused by the moving water of the tidal flow. Steve had found one and had worked it for this small fish.
In a matter of minutes the snook had tired himself out and came gently to hand. With a quick twist of the shank, Steve released this linesider back to the hole, hoping in the next couple of years he would grow into a keeper.
As the tide slowly creeped in over the bay, the water rose up into the mangroves. We hopped onto the boat and started to work the overhangs. It is in the roots where the water is dark that the really big fish hang out. It was slow going as the big fish were still working their way out of the backcountry where they hang out in January and February.
We switched to white bait and spinning rods. Bob eased the boat along the edges and we made repeated cast in under the branches. We would often hang up in the leaves as we tried to sneak a cast above the surface of the bay but below the grasping limbs.
Bob made the perfect cast. The big blueback dropped into the water just inside an alleyway that ran between two large mangroves. It sat there for a second and then tried to swim back toward the boat. The 20-inch snook was not about to let a free meal slide. He pounded that minnow, tossing it right up into the air. As the bait dropped to the surface, the big fish hit it again. This time Bob set the hook and the fight was on
Rule # 1. Get the fish away from the overhanging limbs and roots.
Rule # 2. Don’t let him back in once you have got him out.
Bob handled him beautifully. Crank and haul. Once the snook cleared the brush he decided to go airborne. After three jumps Bob brought him to the edge of the Scout. As this fish did not meet the slot requirement, Bob twisted out the hook and released him back to his mangroves. The snook’s aggressive ambush behavior and unpredictable runs once hooked is what draws anglers to the challenge of battling these “lions of the flats”
The snook were really beat up in 2010 when it is estimated that there were nearly one million snook that perished in Florida from a brutal winter. It is likely that this event diminished the entire snook population by an estimated 40% or more!. Although they fight like crazy when they are hooked and are a delicious table fare, they can not take the cold.
The numbers are starting to come back, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife folks are protecting them with strict bag limits and a 28-33 inch slot requirement until they repopulate the region. These fish can live for up to 20 years and grow into the 40-inch range, so a big fish is a treasure worth protecting. We just catch and release, use circle hook and hope that others will follow that example for a few more years.
We spent the rest of the day working the flats. In the more open water Steve caught and released a small trout. The gulls spent a lot of energy trying to steal our baits as we cast them into edges. An osprey called from just overhead and a small blue heron chased Steve’s offering through the shallows. Another great day on the water.