From Salmon to Snook

Faced with the prospect of moving from Washington to Florida, I wasn’t thrilled. I grew up fishing trout in the Cascade streams of Washington and the tea-colored coastal streams of Vancouver Island. My professional life has consisted largely of guiding for trout and salmon and marketing products for steelhead fly fishing. I had done plenty of saltwater fly fishing but always on vacation, often for bonefish. Central Florida, where I was going, doesn’t have bonefish. The main target species are redfish, spotted sea trout and snook, although there is a host of others. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how “into” those species I would be. I love the beauty and grace, the cold water habitat, the individuality, the mystery of salmonids. Would these bayou fish hold my interest? But in reality, I wasn’t complaining too hard. After all, Florida calls itself the fishing capitol of the world. My new home would be surrounded by water. I could go cast a rod in mere minutes, but the question was, how would the fishing be? How pressured, how smart would the fish be? Could I get them consistently on flies? For the last 7 years or more I had been tying steelhead intruders and leeches, as well as trout flies for spring and summer. From now on it looked like I would be tying shrimp and baitfish.

Upon arriving in Florida, it didn’t take me long to get on the water. I had plenty of bonefish flies, so I chose a foam backed, tan shrimp that I had tied for Bahamas bonefish. I parked on the side of a highway, being careful to stay above tideline, inflated my Outcast Fishcat Scout, a one person inflatable made for rivers, and rowed it across a channel. Pelicans crashed into the water hunting any fish they could fit in their mouths. The dorsal fins of a pair of dolphins appeared. There was lots of life around. My river boat is not really made to be fished out of, although I often have fished on the move for sea run cutthroat. It’s definitely not designed for what I was doing. Sitting down, visibility is much lower than in modern fishing kayaks, and even lower than in stand up paddle boards. But it floats and it’s what I’ve got.

I rowed over to some mangroves and started casting. I had a 7- weight saltwater rod in hand, and what I considered fairly safe inshore tippet: 12 pound Maxima Fluorocarbon. I feel like I could pull a 20 inch rainbow out of a log jam with impunity on that tippet. Most people I know would feel totally comfortable fighting a 20 pound steelhead on that tippet. It’s super strong and definitely tests well over 12 pounds. I figured it would easily handle any inshore fish I might encounter. I cast my shrimp as close to the mangroves as I could, using fins to keep my boat within casting range. I concentrated on breaks in the mangroves that created little coves where my line could penetrate more easily. After maybe ten minutes, on one of my better casts, my line came tight. I excitedly strip-set on the fish, and a snook I’d estimate at 22 inches rose to the surface and shook its head, flaring its big gills violently. Two head shakes later the line went slack. My first Florida fish had shaken the hook. Confused, I reeled in to see what had happened. No, the fish hadn’t slipped the hook; it had broken me off. Broken, or cut? I inspected my leader. Several inches of my 12 pound was severely abraided. Wow, I thought. That wasn’t even a big fish and it had gone through my freshwater tippet like it was American cheese. Snook don’t even have teeth! But, as I hadn’t appreciated, the rasps on their jaws are like rough sandpaper. I’ve never taken sandpaper and rubbed it on mono tippet but apparently it weakens the line pretty quickly. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. But I wasn’t sure how far to upgrade- 20 pound fluoro? 30? At this point I decided to do what I should have done, and surprisingly didn’t do, from the outset: google the subject of snook fishing. I had decent service about a half mile from the highway. It seemed that opinions on the subject of proper snook tippet ranged from about 25 to 40 pounds, depending on the size of the snook. My expectations were modest, so I chose 25, re-tied with a different shrimp, and kept fishing. After a another fruitless hour I got another bite and pulled in a tough little mangrove snapper. It was a fish, but not what I was after.

I decided to do something that Outcast probably wouldn’t recommend: stand up in my Scout. I moved my fishing pack, fins, pump and water bottles aside and tried to position my feet as far apart as I could, not too close to the bow so as to avoid tipping headlong. I felt like I was on one of those boards that you try to balance on a cylinder. With me, that effort usually results in a dramatic, horizontal, hip-banging fall. I wasn’t much more comfortable on my freshwater boat and the boat lurched side to side as I tried to find a good position. This was not what that boat was designed for. But I could see, and sort of cast. The tide was coming in strongly, so I anchored up and watched for whatever might pass by, hoping for redfish, which I considered a more likely encounter than snook on this relatively open ground. Some needlefish passed by. Numerous minnows and small schools of fish darted around. The base of the food chain seemed very healthy. Suddenly four bottom hugging fish swam within view, noses into the current. They looked kind of redfishy, about 4 pounds, and they were rooting around on the bottom. Were they reds?

They got a little closer. No. Catfish. Oh well, whatever. I made a cast, drifting my shrimp towards the face of the lead fish. When it got close I jigged it with my rod tip. It ate. I set pretty hard with the rod and, for better or worse, buried the hook into this dubious target. It actually fought pretty well, but I remembered from my childhood that these saltwater catfish have spines, so I used my pliers to release it without touching it. I pulled anchor and moved a ways down the mangrove line. Getting within about 25 feet of the mangroves, I made a series of casts with another shrimp pattern. After a few minutes, I noticed a dark shape resembling a small log emerge from under the mangroves. It was pretty obvious that it was a giant snook, trophy status, well over 40 inches and probably pushing 50. The fish approached within a few yards, seemed to study me, determined I was not to be trusted, and then abruptly made an about face and lurked back into the mangroves. Ok, well it’s clear there are quality fish around!, I thought. Since there were snook around, I decided I might as well use a fly dedicated to those sneaky line siders: the Snookaroo, a fly I had had in a saltwater box for literally ten years.

It’s a deer hair bug that’s designed to float and submerge just slightly on the strip, producing a big “gluuuump” sound on an aggressive strip. In retrospect, with what I know about the jadedness of the local snook, it was wishful thinking, tying on that fly. But I made a few casts and a good-sized jack crevalle streaked into view, pectoral fins sticking out like the wings on an F-18. It tracked the fly, zipping back and forth, slashed, boiled, apparently missed, and disappeared in the span of about two seconds. I could hear my heart beating as I stripped the rest of my line in. I had never caught a jack crevalle. To get one on topwater would have been an awesome first. Oh well. Signs were good. I had made a modest first outing and encountered several quality fish, at a spot that’s easily accessible to anyone with a kayak. I rowed back to the launch, deflated my boat, and made the U-turn back home. The future looked pretty bright. Maybe I could get used to this new lifestyle.