By Frank Sargeant, Editor
The rockpiles on the north side of Redfish Pass, at the north end of Captiva Island, are famed spots for producing big snook for much of the year. (Frank Sargeant Photo)
Captain John Houston is a Sanibel Island, Florida, guide who grew up on the backwaters between San Carlos Bay and Charlotte Harbor, building a guru-like knowledge of the movements and preferences of the snook in his areas, and no matter what the weather, he usually is able to solve the daily puzzle and put his anglers on fish.
I was apprised of that fact on a trip with Houston a few weeks back, on a morning when a chilly wind was whistling out of the north at close to 20 knots. Normally, for snook anglers, the best strategy on a morning like that is to turn over, pull the covers up and sleep until noon.
Houston and I didn't have that option--he had one morning when he could fit me into his busy winter schedule, and this was it--we were going snooking. We met at the 'Tween Waters Marina at a leisurely 8 a.m., because the guide had been out since daylight loading the live well with an assortment of pinfish, grunts and pigfish that would allow us to target big snook.
Bottlenosed dolphin are natural snook predators, but some have learned in recent years to pursue flats anglers and grab their catch off the hook, or capture tired fish as they are released. (Frank Sargeant Photo)
"Young snook will take shrimp about as well as anything, but when they get up in the 30-inch range and bigger, they want some meat," Houston told me. "I do especially well with the grunts and pigfish. They make a lot of noise on the hook, so they're snook magnets."
Houston is an easy-going guy who bounces around the world between sessions of guiding on his home waters. He has a second home in Costa Rica and has hiked the mountains of Columbia, including the drug-lord territory, as well as regularly visiting island communities all over the South Pacific. He's also a yoga instructor--needless to say, his resume is a bit different from most skiff guides.
Houston advised me that the south shore of Redfish Pass--which is the cut that separates North Captiva island from Captiva Island proper--is usually stiff with undersized snook (less than 28") along the south shore, while the rock jetties that jut out from the north shore--where the Kohler Plumbing mansion is the most visible structure--is the home of much larger fish much of the year.
"The big ones get in the pass starting in late April pre-spawn, and they're in there pretty much into early November most years," he told me. "A lot of them go out to the reefs when it gets colder in December and January, and some go up into the rivers, but other than that you can catch trophy snook in the pass most any trip."
John Houston shows a nice snook caught near a dock where the dumping of excess bait creates a feeding area. (Frank Sargeant Photo)
We made the 10-minute run across the choppy water, dodging spray blown up by the howling wind the whole way. We were in the lee as we moved in close to the jetties, but waves generated by the combination of the wind and the strong current through the pass had Houston's center-console bucking so hard it was tough to get an anchor to stick.
After a couple of attempts, we were finally in position. I sailed an unhappy 6-inch piggy out toward the end of the rockpile, where the green water of the pass swirled in a foam-capped eddy. The bait went down, the 20-pound-test braid jumped a couple of times, and I was hooked up to what felt like a submarine. One big head roll, mouth the size of a coffee can, and I got the mauled pigfish back sans snook.
Next cast, basically the same result, but even faster. Third cast, a good stick but then Flipper showed up. The dolphin chased the fish around the rockpile at flank speed, and the hook pulled. I couldn't tell if the fish went down the hatch or got away clean, but in any case it didn't come to the boat.
"The dolphins here have really learned to home in on fisherman," lamented Houston. "Some days it's tough to get a fish to the boat, and if you do get one in and release it, they eat it right away."
That was the end of the story for the jetty--the next pigfish that went in the water got chased all the way back to the boat by a dolphin that came up right next to us rolled on his back, I swear grinning an evil grin.
Snook must be released most of the year, and tight size and bag limit regulations keep the population healthy. (Frank Sargeant Photo)
No problem, Houston had plenty more spots up the sleeve of his foul-weather gear.
"There are quite a few people who live on the water and dump their live bait and their fish carcasses by their docks, and the snook get on to that pretty quick," he told me as we motored into a series of canals on the back side of the island. "If you throw a few sardines or shrimp in there as chum to get them started, you can get bit pretty quick."
He wasn't wrong--the second dock we tried produced a pair of 28-inchers, both legal fish if we had been in harvesting mode. The limits on the Gulf Coast are 1 fish per angler per day from 28 to 33 inches long.
We caught a few smaller fish at another location, then finished off with a muscular lunker that was over 30 inches. Not bad for a three-hour trip on a 20-knot morning.
Houston said snooking is good in the area year around except after severe cold fronts, but if he had to pick two prime times they would be April and late October, when water temperatures and weather combine to create the most reliable action.
The Gulf Coast snook season is closed December 1 to the end of February to protect cold-shocked fish, and from May 1 to August 31 to protect the spawning period. For more information, Captain John Houston can be contacted at www.nativeguidesfishing.com. Houston also runs tarpon charters, chases trout and reds, and offers shelling and diving trips as well.