In the winter, the fish are in one of two places. They are either back in deep nearshore water at relatively shallow wrecks, and natural and manmade structures. The second place you will find them is deep inside rivers, residential canals, and backwaters including the estuaries and springs. You will find them deep, careful, and not always hungry. You can catch them at night and you can catch them under docks in the middle of the day. Wintertime is snook time for some anglers – their favorite time to fish for the species.
Where the Fish Are in the Winter Months
When the water is cold, the fish avoid it wherever and whenever possible. If the water is below about 65 F, they become dormant, and when it gets colder then can die. A few years ago an extended freeze killed thousands of fish south of Tampa Bay, but the bay’s fish seemed to survive it fairly well. Regardless of whether or not the fish are threatened by extended freezes – they get as deep as they can and as near to warm and consistently warm temperatures.
Catching Snook in the Wintertime in Residential Canals
If you read the articles about catching snook in the spring and fall, you know that the fish are moving out of the residential canals and onto the flats (and then the passes and beaches) in the springtime, and back into those same canals in the fall, as water temperatures drop. By November and December, even in years where the water’s relatively warm all over – there are snook under the docks. The past 10 years or so have been pretty cool, and before that a warming trend kept big snook outside on the flats all year. Despite (supposed) global warming, we caught big snook more often inside residential canals than anywhere else. The docks provide a “roof” of sorts, the pilings plenty of structure, and they attract natural food in the form of shrimps and crabs. Add to that the fact that the dark (albeit oxygen and grass-limited) mud stays pretty hot when the sun heats it up, “December Docks” are very productive snook spots. Every dock in the state might – and often does – hold a snook.
Catching Snook in the Rivers and Estuaries in the Winter
As the water chills and eventually turns downright cold, the snook populations move into the rivers and estuaries. Why? Warmth and consistent water temperatures are the reason, of course. Water temperatures six or eight miles up into big rivers like the Hillsborough or Peace rivers in Tampa Bay or any major “feed” rivers on both coasts of Florida is roughly the same in December (by a few degrees) as it is in June or September. The fish know that. Most move up into those spring-fed (at some place) waters in the winter, and some live there all year round, just like they do in the passes to some lesser degree. Any fish that can handle brackish (mixed fresh and saltwater) and even – in the case of snook – freshwater – run up deep into the rivers. We have caught largemouth bass on one cast, and a dozen casts later a 20-lb. snook high up Florida rivers (the Hillsborough in the case of this story).
Catching Snook in the ‘Backwater’ in the Wintertime
What one person calls “Backwater” another might call “mangroves” or “back country,” but whatever you call it it’s the same – water on the high edges, or the southern or eastern edges of harbors, bays and pockets here on the west coast. On the east coast of Florida, look on the left/west side of deep inlets, pockets and bays. Backcountry can roughly be defined as the furthest place water touches land inside the big entrances, passes, bays and open water locales. They are deep mangroves, they can be small open bays, and they can be a small island deep inside an enclosed feed like Double Branch in west central Florida, or Indian Lagoon on the other side of the state. The same winter rules apply however; the fish are spooky, the fish can become very dormant in the coldest months, and the fish need to be handled with extra care because they’re cold.
An Overview of Catching Snook in the Wintertime.
The winter brings a lot of wind, cold rain, and cold air. The rich schools of scaled sardines we use in the winter are gone or at least hard to find and net (Sabikis in deep water are great in the winter for snook bait). Shrimp rule the day as far as live bait, although anything live – and sometimes a fresh piece of dead bait put near a dock for a redfish – will attract fish. Again, remember that whether you’re fishing for them deep in some mangrove islands or underneath the dock of a multi-million-dollar waterfront mansion, be quiet. They do not eat with the same intensity they do in the spring or again in the fall before they retire for the winter, and you have to approach, present the bait, and even fight the fish a little differently than at any other time of the year.
The best bet in the winter – of all the places we talk about – are docks at nighttime near lights. The best bait is live shrimp and the best artificial bait is one that can be presented and that smells and tastes and even acts like a live shrimp. Jigs on the bottom work well in the winter when you’re looking for that record (or first or thousandth) snook. They’re wonderful to find, catch, and release or enjoy on your table.