Charlotte Harbor Snook on the Rebound

Florida Gulf Coast season reopens following 2010 freezes.

Charlotte Harbor snook

Charlotte Harbor snook

Capt. Philip O'Bannon

Florida's Charlotte Harbor region in the southwest corner of the state features lush sea grasses, pearly white beaches and usually calm sea conditions. At the mouth of the harbor, Boca Grande Pass holds legendary schools of tarpon, but throughout the inshore estuary and along the beaches, snook readily compete for attention.

To sample a taste of Charlotte Harbor's snook action, I asked two local guides — Capt. Philip O'Bannon and Capt. Dave Pecci — to talk about their experiences and recommendations. In fact, this month marks the first time in three years that fishery managers have allowed retention of snook since a severe cold snap in 2010.

Why should an angler come to Charlotte Harbor to target snook?

O’Bannon: The Charlotte Harbor estuary system is one of the last remaining healthy systems in the country. Some of our backwater areas have been diminished due to development, but all in all we still are one of the best places to catch snook. I have been guiding for snook for over 40 years, and they are still one of my favorite species to target.

Pecci: Currently the big attraction is the size of the snook in Charlotte Harbor. The fishery has been catch and release for three years, and the fish are huge.

The reason for the closure was a severe January cold snap in 2010 that killed an estimated 40,000-plus snook in this area. The fishery (on Florida's west coast) opened back up Sept. 1 with a slot limit of 28 to 33 inches and a possession limit of one fish. A snook stamp is required along with a saltwater fishing license. Also there are miles of fishable water in Charlotte Harbor, allowing uncrowded fishing.

What is/are the peak season(s) for snook fishing (both for retention and for release)?

O’Bannon: Snook can be caught year round. In cold-weather months, snook move to warmer water, such as closed access canals and isolated bays. My favorite times to fish are fall and spring, although the summer months can be very good. With the interest we have in our snook fishery, I am a strong proponent of catch and release — so that more anglers can share in the thrill of snook fishing.

Pecci: Fishing is very good throughout the year with the exception of the colder months: late December through February. Spring fishing along the beaches is excellent. Snook move to the beaches and gather before spawning around the full moon in May and stay on the beaches two to three weeks.

Unlike tarpon, snook feed aggressively during pre-spawn staging, allowing for some incredible action on flies and artificial lures. Fishing the troughs from either shore or a boat is a blast, and there are no mangroves for the snook to run back into once hooked.

How big do the snook get there and how many might you expect to catch during the peak season?

O’Bannon: Snook of all sizes are fun to catch. I've caught them up to 50 inches, weighing an estimated 40-plus pounds. In the estuary, a snook over 30 inches and 10 pounds is considered a trophy.

The numbers of snook you might catch varies throughout the season. On an average day chartering, we catch anywhere from about three up to several dozen.

Pecci: Forty-plus inches. Several snook can be caught per trip in sizes from 12 to 40 inches on bait. Fewer fish are caught on flies and artificial lures, but the aggressive strikes and strong fight attract many non-bait fishing enthusiasts.

What general areas in the Charlotte Harbor area do you fish during peak seasons? What tides?

O’Bannon: The areas we fish vary with the tide, water temperature and wind direction.

Pecci: All tides fish well as long as there’s moving water. Transitions from grass to sand or mangroves to sand hold fish consistently, and sight casting is possible in many locations throughout the lower harbor, where the water is clear.

The middle and upper sections of the harbor have brackish water, limiting visibility, but blind casting to moving water around the mangroves is productive. Staking up and broadcasting live bait into the mangroves draws the snook out of the roots, where they’ll attack a live-lined bait.

Early and late in the day are best when it’s hot. Snook go way back in the mangroves to escape mid-day heat, making it tough to get them on anything other than live bait. And as with many other locations, night fishing is quite productive.

For anglers using conventional tackle, what's the basic gear setup (rod, reel, line, terminal tackle), and what bait is most commonly used and most successful?

O’Bannon: The tackle I use for snook is 8- to 15-pound braided line and 30- to 50-pound fluorocarbon leader. I recommend circle hooks for live bait. I use 7- to 8-foot rods, and I really like the new inshore series of Fin-Nor spinning reels in sizes 2500 and 4000. With that being said, if I fish around any kind of structure for big snook much heavier tackle must be used.

In the warmer weather, I use white bait; in cooler weather, shrimp work well. For artificial bait, I recommend the MirroLure hard baits and the Salt Water Assassin soft plastics.

Pecci: Medium–heavy spinning and bait-casting rigs keep the snook out of the mangroves once hooked. Twenty-pound mono or 20- to 30-pound braid is common. Snook can be leader-shy but you’ll need a 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader because of their abrasive mouths and razor-sharp gill plates.

You can get more hookups with 15- or 20-pound fluorocarbon, but getting the fish to the boat is tough. White bait — scaled sardines and threadfin herring — are the liveys of choice. Pinfish and shrimp can produce if white bait is scarce.

For fly anglers, what’s the gear setup?

O’Bannon: I do quite a bit of fly-fishing for snook and several patterns work well: deceivers, clousers, and my favorites — the Puglisi series of flies.

Pecci: Eight- to 10-weight rods, floating line, 7-foot leaders and a 20- to 30-pound bite tippet. Again, lighter bite tippets will increase hookups but decrease the ability to boat the fish. Productive flies include deceivers and synthetic baitfish imitations like the Cowen’s Baitfish in 1/0 to 3/0 sizes. Color patterns vary from day to day and where you’re fishing.

About the captains:

Capt. Philip O'Bannon specializes in all types of inshore fishing and has been guiding for more than 40 years. He says: "Last August, I went to work for Mote Marine Laboratory and established an office in Boca Grande as their executive director. We have initiatives planned to study snook, tarpon and red tide. I'm working hard to protect our estuary system and our fishery."

Phone: 941-964-0359 | Website: obannonscharter.com

Capt. Dave Pecci guides on the Kennebec River and Casco Bay in Maine during summers and in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande in fall, late winter and spring. Pecci is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Charterboat Operators and has served on multiple advisory panels for state and interstate management councils.

Phone: 941-235-1311| Website: obsessioncharters.com

For more information on fishing in Florida, go to Visit Florida.