It’s barely 50 degrees—frigid for South Florida–as I load up my yak and push off at 8:00 a.m. for a day of snook fishing on the Faka Union River, one of my favorite Everglades upcountry waters.
Riding a falling tide, I glide through a tight mangrove tunnel for 30 minutes and finally emerge into the first shallow lake. Belying the weatherman’s prediction of calm winds, there’s a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, and my usual honey hole, where I caught a couple of dozen snook only a few weeks ago, fails to produce. I valiantly try to take a video, but almost get blown off the water. I pedal on dejectedly. I manage a few smaller snook in the next lake and connecting creek but it’s beginning to look like an ecotour rather than the epic fishing day I had hoped for.
Then I hit what I call snook flats, a nondescript stretch offshore of a mangrove-studded shoreline further downstream that produced a couple of 25” plus snook back in February. It may be my last hope. This trip the snook seemed to be ignoring my usual redoubtable white Gulp curlytail, so I switch to a gold DOA paddletail. The old veteran anglers down here swear gold is the ticket for big snook.
I pitch a long cast out in front of the kayak and start to crank it back. Something big swirls and my rod nearly jumps from my hands….a big snook erupts from the surface and a furious fight is on.
(Note: See my December 2016 article for route and gear details for fishing the Faka Union River.)
It’s been a perplexing fishing season in the wake of Hurricane Irma that unleashed her fury here last September. Everglades City and Port of the Islands (just a new miles away from the Faka Union) were ground zero for howling winds and a devastating storm surge. On the surface, these shallow upcountry lakes and creeks look the same, but things have been drastically reshuffled. The 140-mph winds and surging waters rearranged shorelines and sandbars. I find one reliable creek honey hole completely filled in with sand and a new one gouged out on the opposite shoreline. The entry to what I call the North Fork of the Faka Union is almost completed blocked with a big sandbar…meaning I get to drag my kayak about a quarter mile to continue my trip. Then I have to scramble over, under, and around fallen mangrove trees and branches in my search for elusive snook, testimony to Irma’s gale force rage. And to further complicate things, the buckets of rain Irma dumped meant a huge surge of freshwater out of the Everglades to the north that drove the saltwater back out to sea and with it prize game fish like redfish and jack crevalles that like their water briny.
So why are the snook so plentiful post-Irma?? Therein lies a story. Snook not only tolerate brackish water, state wildlife biologists have actually tracked snook far up north into the Everglades freshwater. As one source notes, “common snook do show a tendency to gravitate towards lower salinity conditions in the early stages of their life. By being able to adapt and thrive in both high and low salinity through osmoregulation, common snook display a high level of habitat plasticity.” Ah, good to know!! The bottom line has been that the backcountry waters are just absolutely overrun by smaller snook in the 15-to-18 inch category this year, the best class of younger fish in years. With the absence of other salt water fish, they seem to be flourishing, which has my fishing buddies salivating over future catches. Fortunately, enough big ones are showing up to make things really interesting. Actually it’s been a long road to recovery for the snook from a hard freeze in southern Florida back in 2010. Snook cannot tolerate waters colder than 60 degrees for more than a few days. That 2010 cold spell with temperatures dipping to near freezing for several days caused a massive die-off of snook, particularly the big spawners. Florida quickly slapped protective regulations on snook fishing that prohibited keeping them altogether, a ban only recently relaxed.
Aside from being sleekly beautiful and maniacs on the end of a fishing line, snook are fascinating in other ways. Take the name, for example. Early Dutch settlers in the United States thought they resembled the pike back in their home country (like snook, pike also have a protruding lower jaw) and hence used the Dutch word pike for the New World fish—“snook.”
But in Dutch the “o’s” are pronounced like those in “food.” Indeed, old-time locals in the Everglades use the Dutch pronunciation to this day!
All snook begin life as males, but between 18 and 22 inches long some become females. The really big ones, those longer that 30 inches, are almost all females. Go figure. They are ambush feeders, usually facing into moving water and waiting for prey to be carried to them where with a lighting flash they inhale them, lacking any real teeth. Smaller ones like to hide under the mangroves, but snook, especially larger ones, can also be found cruising the shorelines and flats in search of dinner. Their gill covers have razor-sharp edges, as many an angler has learned when they twist and turn and saw their lines off.
Rightly prized as one of the ultimate game fish in Florida and coastal states, snook continue to be the subject of strong regulations. In Florida only one snook between 27 and 32 inches can be kept…and that is a seriously big snook. They are reputed to be fantastic table fare, but I have never kept one—they are just too beautiful and precious.
As I hit my secret snook flats, I wonder if the cold temperatures today will put the snook off their feed. Fortunately, it’s clear and the sun is out, warming things up quickly, and in any case the water temps are in the lower 70s. Hope springs eternal and my prayers are answered resoundingly on my first cast. The snook erupts in a geyser of spray and then starts towing me and the kayak towards the shoreline. Fortunately I have a new pair of pedals for my Hobie kayak that allow me to shift into reverse and back the fish away from the threatening thicket of mangrove roots. Then she decides to circle the kayak which spins me around towards open water. Finally I work her near the boat, but —AARRGH—my net is at home in the garage. I reach carefully out with my lip gripper, which results in spooking her. The big girl dives under the kayak, bending my road at a perilous angle, and before I can loosen my line there is a resounding crack as my lovely graphite wand is snapped in half. Undaunted, I reach around the front of the kayak with the stub and continue the struggle. In an amazing demonstration of piscatorial perspicacity, I am able to final bring her back to the boat. A quick photo of this beautiful 27-inch trophy, and she is back on her way.
I let my nerves calm for a few minutes, grab another rod from the back of the kayak (I always take three), and loft another cast close to where the first one hit. I crank the reel a couple of turns and WHAM, something crushes the lure. The fish takes of like a runaway freight train, then thrashes on the surface—another monster snook. This one looks even bigger, so I am extra careful as she circles the kayak several times, making sure the fish doesn’t get close enough on one of her runs to dive under the kayak and bust another rod. Sure enough, she goes 31-inches on the handy-dandy measure I have inked into the side of my kayak.
I continue to work the flat and pick up a dozen juvenile snook that are all game fighters for their size. I’m surprised by a couple of high-jumping ladyfish, which I rarely catch on the Faka Union. They are in spots usually reserved for redfish and jacks.
It’s almost 1:30 p.m. and I am tuckered out from all the excitement. Time for lunch so I head my usual spot at the mouth of the North Fork, and do a double take when I see that the creek mouth is almost entirely closed off by a greatly expanded sandbar courtesy of Ms. Irma. Which means I have to drag the yak loaded with all my angling paraphernalia for what seems like at least a half mile, but is probably only a few hundred yards. No fun. But at least I have a civilized lunch spot, something that can be hard to find in the upcountry among all the mangroves.
I’m excited to explore the North Fork which I haven’t been down for a couple of years. I usually catch a bunch of small snook in the nooks and crannies of the creek plus some nice reds. I even was surprised by a crocodile lurking in one of the deep holes. But I notice the tide is still falling, which is odd. Turns out the strong north wind has kept the tide, which was going to be very low anyway, at bay. So the creek is running very thin, and virtually impossible to paddle with all the deadfalls Irma left behind.
After wading and pulling the kayak behind me in the creek and over sandbars for a half-mile, I come to a deep hole that has produced in the past. It’s festooned with broken branches and other detritus, but I’m able to thread a cast into a deep pocket. No sooner does the lure start sinking and a feisty little snook shoots from the depths and wallops it. He cavorts around the pool and miraculously doesn’t get wrapped up in the snags.
That will be the only fish I catch until downstream another half mile I finally through in the towel when faced with the prospect of dragging the kayak through a long stretch of inch-deep water.
I trace my way back to snook flats, thinking maybe I can trick a few more of the small boys. My first cast hooks up on the bottom—curses—until the bottom starts to move. I’m shocked to see another giant snook surface, wallowing and shaking her head then taking off on a screaming run with me pedaling furiously in hot pursuit! She runs in big circles twice around the kayak, spinning me like a top. Then she bolts off on a long run, peeling line off my squealing reel almost down into the backing. It’s the wildest fight I have ever had with a snook, and so I am shaking when she finally comes alongside the kayak—a gigantic 35-incher with a mouth so big I can reach in with a full-hand and remove the hook. The second biggest I have every caught…a real trophy.
But the day isn’t done. Amazingly, a few casts later I am onto another giant that measures at 33-inches after another epic battle. By this time I am just smiling and shaking my head. I even catch a few more of the small boys, but as I release one, I catch a whiff of smoke. I turn the kayak around and am shocked to see a huge cloud of dark smoke billowing up just to the northwest, a little too close for comfort.
I know during our dry season the federal land managers recently lit a few controlled fires in the Everglades to burn off and help renew what is essentially a prairie. But this one is a result of a blustery lighting and thunder storm that blew through before the big cold front that produced the frigid weather that greeted me this morning. I’ll learn later that this latest natural fury closed the Tamiami Trail, the major highway between Naples and Miami.
Now I am worried if I can get out before it gets to my SUV. The billowing smoke looks ominously like a thermonuclear mushroom cloud, and it’s only a few miles away. I stow the fishing rod and start pedaling fast, churning the water behind me. By the time I reach the first lake and get ready to plunge into the mangrove tunnel, the wind seems to have shifted slightly and is blowing the fire away from my parking spot along the Tamiami Trail. So I take a quick breather and pitch a cast under an overhanging mangrove along the shoreline. I’m startled when something whacks it hard. Another big one to cap the day?? No, but I have to laugh when a Lilliputian snook barely pushing six inches tailwalks across the surface.
Talk about your eyes being bigger than your stomach—the lure is almost as big as him. What a great way to end the day…with a good laugh. I bid the little fellow adieu and then hightail it back home through the mangrove tunnel.