Maybe a lot of us have been spoiled.
The secret of fishing live sardines for snook and other inshore gamefish has been widely known for several decades, and it has made things almost too easy: pitch a few sardines out as chum, slip one on a hook and reel in a trophy fish.
But it doesn’t necessarily work that way now that everybody knows this one-time secret.
Captain Jason Prieto, who plies the hard-fished South Shore region of Tampa Bay between Apollo Beach and the Skyway, has learned that it often takes more than a live well full of the silvery baitfish to assure putting some quality fish aboard for his charters.
I joined Prieto and Jonathan Shute, owner of Pirate’s Pointe Fishing Resort in Ruskin, for a morning on the water recently, and the young skipper put on a clinic in turning out big snook where others catch few or none.
First, we hit a couple of deep drops, docks and bars just off the channel of the Little Manatee River. Small snook, but nothing to brag about. In Prieto’s world, a snook has to be more than 30 inches long to be worth mentioning, and the big mamas were not there among the little males.
We headed up the bay to a well-known canal in Apollo Beach.
The first bit of bad news was that an angler was anchored exactly on the bend in the canal where Prieto had hoped to fish.
The second was that minutes after we got there, two more guide boats cruised past us in the narrow canal and anchored upstream less than 100 yards away.
Confidence in the face of adversity is an admirable trait in fishing.
“The big fish are here,” Prieto said. “We just have to wait for the water to settle down and the tide to start moving.”
Not that there was nothing to keep us busy while we waited for the alleged big fish to bite; a steady stream of small trout and 18- to 20-inch snook blew up on our free-lined baits.
But after an hour, it was beginning to look like the big females had already vacated the back country, headed to their spawning areas down the bay.
That was when the tide started to push in hard.
Within 10 minutes, Shute had caught and released a 5-pounder, and a few minutes later my sardine disappeared in a whirlpool. I immediately felt a lot of weight, and seconds later braided line went zipping from the spinning reel as the fish headed for the mangroves.
I stopped her twice on that side of the canal, and she came across and bored into the roots on the other side. A little luck there and she swam out again, then sawed the line across the Power-Pole anchor, then against the lower unit of the motor.
Somehow everything held together, and a few minutes later Prieto slid the big net under her — a beautiful 35-inch snook that would have weighed more than 15 pounds.
A few high-fives, lots of photos, and she went back over the side. Less than 10 minutes later, Prieto stuck a fish that was almost a twin of the previous one. His battle followed a similar course, and had a similar ending; the 34-incher was photographed and released.
At that point, yet another guide boat came chugging through the spot and Prieto decided we had the best of it — considering we had spent less than three hours on the water, it was an impressive morning.
In addition to patience and perseverance, Prieto is a believer in downsized hooks to fool smart old snook. He uses size 1/0 short-shank Daiichi wide gap circle hooks and very light wire, which allows the sardines to swim more naturally than they do with larger hooks. A length of 30-pound-test Hero fluorocarbon acts as a bite leader, and he uses 10-pound-test braid on 2500-size reels.
“I like a sardine no bigger than 4 inches,” Prieto said. “Even though big snook can eat much larger baits, the 4-inch size seems big enough to attract them and you get better hookups than with a bigger, bulkier bait.”
He also notes that the larger fish tend to find choke points in canals, rivers and on the flats, areas where the current speeds up because of mangrove roots, oyster bars or sea-wall constrictions, but also where there’s a deep hole for the fish to hide in nearby.
“Get to your spot early, anchor down and wait for the tide to get right,” Prieto said. “If there’s a big fish there, you’ll give yourself a better chance of getting her than if you keep moving constantly.”
Jason Prieto is co-host of Tampa Fishing Outfitters Radio airing on 1040-AM Sundays from 8 to 9 a.m. His website is www.steadyactionfishingcharters.com.