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October 26, 2001

Dig Deep for Linesiders

How to Jig Up Hefty Snook from Southeast Florida Inlets

Dave Justice casts into the darkness blanketing Miami's Government Cut. He hopes the 1-ounce shrimp-imitation jig will sink quickly, working its way down the rocky ledge that drops from 5 feet to well over 40 before leveling off. The only sign of Justice's efforts that I can see is the white braided line, as it flows from the reel's spool faintly illuminated by a full moon.
As soon as Justice feels the jig hit bottom, he cranks his reel a few times then lets it sink again. After repeating this a few times, he jerks the rod back suddenly and reels aggressively as a nice snook tries to retreat into the rocks below.
Soon I hear it thrashing off the bow of the 34-foot Sea Vee center console. "It's just a runt!" Justice yells back. Within seconds he hauls the fish over the gunwale and Sport Fishing ad sales rep Twig Tolle of Miami retrieves his jig. His "runt" turns out to be a nice 12-pounder.
We make another drift over the same area and Tolle joins Justice in the jigfest, hoping to score one of the trophy-sized snook that hug the dark depths below. A few seconds later, both anglers hook nice-size fish. They jockey around the boat, following thrashing fish. As soon as Tolle gets his snook boat-side, its sharp gill plate slices through his 50-pound fluorocarbon leader and the fish swims away into the night. Soon after, Justice lands a stout 15-pounder. I discover the prizes that await anglers willing to patiently work Florida's Atlantic inlets after the sun sets and fatigue - along with some midnight hunger pangs - would lead most of us to a warm pillow and mere dreams of hot snook fishing.

Smart Snook
Most anglers with snook fishing experience will testify that linesiders, especially trophy-size, prove among the most difficult of species to coerce into eating artificials. Justice is no exception, having played mind games with these fish since his boyhood days in Miami. His father, Bill, says that as a teenager, Dave used to snook-fish all night for 10 or 12 nights in a row, often waking up and going to school on two or three hours' sleep. "But he usually came home with a big fish and the thrill of the catch kept him going all day," says Bill. Night fishing isn't for everyone, but for night owls like Dave, it can mean the difference in catching snook.
"Snook are more active after dark when they let down their guard," Dave Justice says. "Even so, I want an outgoing tide at night to avoid increased visibility of crystal-clear incoming tides." However, he adds that on windy nights an incoming can work just as well.
Justice stumbled on a deep-jigging approach while fishing Miami's Haulover Cut about 20 years ago. "The people doing it were jigging from shore on the tide changes, but I started drifting with the boat and it worked, even when the tide was running."
His most memorable trip occurred in August 1996 at Haulover. Justice and a friend caught over 40 linesiders during the last two hours of the outgoing tide. These fish held to a ledge between 15 and 30 feet deep. Justice was most impressed at the size of each fish: the biggest tipped the scales at 30 pounds, the smallest at 8.
Tough Fish, Tough Gear
Since snook hang around structure and rank among the most powerful strikers in salt water, it helps to have gear that can turn them quickly. Justice prefers a custom Leeward 7-foot heavy-action rod or a Cape Fear Live Bait 70 model. An extra-fast taper offers a sensitive tip for solid casting and better ability to feel the jig bounce off the bottom. Silicon-carbide rod guides complete the rod setup because they absorb the abrasion of braided line. Other rod companies like Rasta and Chaos make rods to meet individual specifications. Standard tackle manufacturers also make off-the-shelf rods that can stand up to these fish, but most models don't have enough extra-fast taper or the special guide inserts.
Reels should feature tough drags and capacity for least 200 yards of 20-pound mono line. Justice prefers the Daiwa Millionaire CV-Z300A, the Penn International 975 or a Shimano Calcutta 400. He is the national sales manager for Sufix fishing lines and spools each reel with 100 yards of 30-pound neon-yellow Superior mono for backing, then uses a seven-turn uni-knot (or "jam-knot") to add 100 yards of 50-pound Herculine. He says the braided line is all-important because success in deep jigging revolves around how you react to the bottom. "The braided line allows you to feel the bottom, so the instant you feel it, you can pull your jig off the rocks. You have a little stretch with mono and don't feel the bottom until it's too late and you're already snagged in it," says Justice.
For terminal tackle, Justice uses a uni-knot to tie on a 4-foot leader of 80-pound fluorocarbon. In tying the uni-knot, make two to three turns with the mono and six to seven with the braid to get a firm, but not bulky, connection. Attach jig heads with a non-slip mono loop knot. I'd suggest rigging at least a half-dozen extra leaders, complete with jigs, before heading out. Frequent cutoffs combined with the headaches of trying to rig in the dark can lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration.
Carry a large variety of jig heads, from 1/4-ounce to 2 ounces. Take at least a half-dozen of each size. Water depth and speed of tidal flow determine which to use at any given time. Make sure the jig reaches the bottom without dropping too quickly. If you don't feel the bottom after a few seconds, switch to a lighter jig. If you get hung up immediately a couple times in succession, your offering's too heavy.
Jig tails vary according to an angler's preference. Once you find one that works, stick with it - but take at least 20 or 30 per night and carry a variety of colors. Justice raves about his choice for tails, Hogie's Chubbe-Tail Shrimp (409-543-1123). Made in Texas, these shrimp imitations prove stocky enough to handle larger jigs and attract monster snook. Justice finds the avocado color most effective in darker water, while the more natural-looking cuervo gold works well in clear conditions.
Rigs should be ready at all times. Rigging in the dark proves difficult, but necessary. Lights that shine into the water from a drifting boat spook fish. A boat with under-the-gunwale lights creates the ideal setup, though a portable flashlight or headlight gets the job done.

Solving the Puzzle
Most of southeast Florida's inlets hold big snook, but the best jigging conditions exist in the deeper inlets like Port Canaveral, Fort Pierce, Jupiter, Lake Worth, Port Everglades, Haulover and Government Cut. Other inlets, such as Sebastian and Jupiter, hold hordes of snook at times, but depths not more than 10 to 20 feet hinder this type of jigging.
Wherever you go, target the deepest areas along drop-offs. Many anglers only catch smaller fish because they cast too close to the rocks on the shallower part of big ledges. Justice has found that big fish hold in deeper sections most times of the year (except summertime when the fish aggressively feed and occupy various parts of the water column during spawning activity). He says the best ledges drop off gradually from 10 to 20 feet, then ideally drop as much as 50 feet before leveling off. "That gives them deepwater access, but they can still run up and down the ledge," he says. "I like to position my boat over the deepest part of the ledge. Then I can cast and let my jig start "comin" down the stairs" along the drop-off."
A depth finder offers the easiest way to spot a ledge and position the boat. Justice likes to keep the motor running and cast from the bow, which faces toward the ledge. Once the boat is in position, start drifting with the tide. Drifting proves better than anchoring because usually the boat moves at the same speed as the current. Anchoring presents several problems, such as lack of maneuverability and limited range. Plus, jig presentation becomes unnatural and hang-ups occur more frequently due to the boat swinging back and forth.
As with any approach to fishing artificials, proper presentation leads to more hookups. Deep jigging for snook revolves around this concept. Justice likes to use two or three swift reel turns to generate the bounce of the jig. "Use minimal rod action. I use my reel, turning the handle, to work the jig," he says. "It's almost like you're lifting and lowering the jig.
"I use a little more rod action in areas with lots of hang-ups, but if it's a fairly predictable bottom I just scoot the jig along. It will still come 12 to 18 inches off the bottom and then have a controlled sink rate, which is the most important part because snook always hit on the fall."
Snook tend to move around with the tide, so if after several drifts you don't get a strike, scout around over different ledges and be sure to try both sides of the inlet. Once you master the technique and discover the hideouts of these tenacious fighters, your deep digging will help you spend nights living out your snook fantasies instead of just dreaming about them.