CITY-SLICKER SNOOK

TROLLING DEEP-DIV­ING PLUGS THROUGH THE UR­BAN RIVERS AND CANALS OF SOUTH FLORIDA YIELDS SUR­PRIS­ING RE­WARDS

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Adrian E. Gray

Trolling Deep-Div­ing Plugs through the Ur­ban Rivers and Canals of South Florida Yields Sur­pris­ing Re­wards

“Who would have thought I’d catch the big­gest snook of my life while fish­ing in my own back­yard?” Regina Gal­lant, an avid snook an­gler, posed that rhetor­i­cal ques­tion the day after she man­aged that feat.

The evening be­fore, as the sun dipped be­hind Fort Laud­erdale’s soar­ing high-rise sky­line, both Gal­lant and I had hooked good snook. While she kept hers clear of the nearby pil­ings, the mon­ster I had on wove my braided line strate­gi­cally through the struc­ture and broke off. But we re­leased Gal­lant’s 49-inch tro­phy. As we watched that gi­ant fish sweep wa­ter with its tail and fade into the am­ber light of the ur­ban nightscape, Gal­lant ref­er­enced our own twi­light zone, ex­plain­ing, “Well, here we are, all alone with world­class snook, fish­ing in the mid­dle of a bustling me­trop­o­lis!”

CUR­RENT AF­FAIRS

After 25 years of chas­ing tro­phy snook in the far cor­ners of the Caribbean, South Amer­ica and even Cen­tral Amer­ica, I can say most an­glers would ex­pect such beasts to be caught along ex­otic shore­lines, but not here, in the mid­dle of a jun­gle of sub­merged con­crete, right in down­town Fort Laud­erdale, Florida.

I’ve learned bet­ter, from many evenings spent after work fish­ing the maze of wa­ter­ways and canals that sur­round the con­crete jun­gle of Broward County, where I live. While the scenery does not com­pare with the Ever­glades or Costa Rica, the canals of Broward County pro­vide more than a thruway for boat traf­fic. These man-made wa­ters are also home to gi­ant snook.

Li­nesiders are struc­ture-ori­ented, and you can find them scat­tered through many trop­i­cal ur­ban river sys­tems, often prowl­ing close to bridges, docks, jet­ties and spill­ways. Trolling div­ing plugs works ex­tremely well to lo­cate these snook — es­pe­cially tro­phies.

While trolling as a snook strat­egy hasn’t gained great pop­u­lar­ity, the sec­ond-largest snook recorded by the In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion was ac­tu­ally caught on a trolled plug. George Beck, of Fort Laud­erdale, caught his 56-inch 57-pound, 12-ounce snook while trolling a red-and-white Ra­pala Mag­num CD18 at the mouth of Rio Naranjo in Que­pos, Costa Rica. That was enough proof for me to start keep­ing a cou­ple of rods and an as­sort­ment of div­ing plugs in the boat when­ever I went out in search of mas­sive li­nesiders.

Mi­ami-based Capt. Bouncer Smith showed me how to pull plugs in ur­ban wa­ter­ways dur­ing the 1990s. I can still re­call the early Au­gust morn­ing we were go­ing to head off­shore when, mo­tor­ing through Gov­ern­ment Cut, Smith said the tide was just right for snook. He tied on two Ra­pala Mag­num CD18s, one red-and-white and the other or­ange. Our first pass out of the cut along the north jetty pro­duced an 11-pound fish. On the sec­ond pass, we landed a 15-pounder, both on the or­ange Ra­pala. After see­ing that, I was hooked like a snook on a div­ing plug.

“When I troll into the cur­rent, I may not even be mov­ing,” Smith told me, and his words would prove true sev­eral times in my own fish­ing ex­ploits. Smith keeps his cen­ter con­sole al­most sta­tion­ary in the cur­rent, just barely slid­ing for­ward as he moves par­al­lel to the jetty with a feath­ered touch of the throt­tles. “If I give it more juice, the lures will rise in the wa­ter col­umn and get pulled away from where the fish are,” he says.

He also taught me to keep color se­lec­tions sim­ple. His arse­nal con­sists of four main color choices: light (red and white), dark (black or pur­ple), rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent (or­ange or bright pink), and a few that match the hatch (nat­u­ral, sil­ver col­ors that mimic a mul­let). I use these same color prin­ci­ples when fish­ing tight quar­ters of ur­ban rivers and canals on my flats boat.

BIG LIPS, LIT­TLE LIPS

Procur­ing live bait with only a few hours to spare after work can be a tough en­deavor, or — if you must buy it — a costly one. Most of us are not cap­tains who fish day in and day out and con­sis­tently know where the fish are. We just don’t have the time. Trolling plugs is my so­lu­tion.

In the spi­der­web of rivers and canals run­ning through Fort Laud­erdale and Mi­ami, mul­let are the most com­mon for­age fish for preda­tors like snook. For that rea­son, I use plugs that match the pro­file of a mul­let, rang­ing from 5 to 9 inches in size. If there are larger mul­let around, I will fish plugs greater than 10 inches.

When it comes to choos­ing plugs, I think it’s re­ally true: You get what you pay for. The re­sults achieved from fish­ing pre­mium-brand lures jus­tify the higher prices they fetch. Larger sport­ing-goods stores might of­fer their own copy­cat mod­els of div­ing plugs sold for a few dol­lars less than the brand-name lures, but I don’t waste my money on them. These knock­offs are made with in­fe­rior com­po­nents: soft split rings that fail, cheap hooks that straighten out or plugs with bod­ies that lose their in­tegrity — and their proper swim­ming ac­tion.

My own go-to plugs for ap­pli­ca­tions deeper than 8 feet: Ra­pala Count­Down Mag­num with a me­tal lip (CDMAG11, CDMAG14 and CDMAG18) and X-Rap Mag­num plas­tic-lipped plugs (XRMAG15, XRMAG20 and XRMAG30), Mir­rOlure 25+, and Bomber CD se­ries (BSWCD25 and BSWCD30). I’ve also had good suc­cess with Halco Laser Pro 160s (LP160 D, LP160 XDD). For shal­lowwa­ter ap­pli­ca­tions (less than 7 feet), fish­ing near rock piles and bridges, such as Mi­ami’s 79th Street Cause­way, Vene­tian Cause­way and Rick­en­backer Cause­way, I use smaller-lipped divers: Ra­pala X-Rap Salt­wa­ter (SXR12 and SXR14), X-Rap Jointed Shad (XJS13G) and Bomber Mag­num Long A’s.

While these lures are ex­pen­sive and los­ing some is in­evitable, I’ve re­cently re­duced the num­ber of lost lures by chang­ing out tre­ble hooks to sin­gle in-line hooks (Owner 3X 4102139 and VMC ILS In­line Sin­gle 4X ILS#3/0BNPP). I was con­cerned about de­creased hookup ra­tios, but I’ve found that the sin­gle hooks work just as well, and they are eas­ier on fish to be re­leased.

TACKLE FOR IN­SHORE TROLLING

High-vis­i­bil­ity braided line is a must when trolling div­ing lures. The sen­si­tiv­ity and strength al­low for a con­trolled pre­sen­ta­tion in low­light con­di­tions around struc­ture.

My pref­er­ence is for heavy 50- to 65-pound Pow­erPro that can stand up fairly well to oys­ter-en­crusted docks and bridge pil­ings. Three to 4 feet of 60-pound or 80-pound fluoro­car­bon will pro­vide ad­e­quate leader length for most con­di­tions. Even longer leader lengths can be an ad­van­tage when lead­er­ing a fish, and pro­vide some ad­di­tional abra­sion re­sis­tance. The trade-off, how­ever, is more of that thick-di­am­e­ter leader makes for more drag in the wa­ter, which can cor­rupt a plug’s swim­ming ac­tion. Depend­ing on the lure used and the depths fished, along with the speed and di­rec­tion of cur­rent, I place a plug be­tween 30 and 200 feet be­hind the boat.

Troll shal­low-lipped plugs far­ther from the boat, say 120 to 200 feet back. Keep deep divers closer, roughly 30 to 120 feet be­hind the boat when depths range from 6 to 20 feet.

While I’ve had equal suc­cess us­ing spin­ning and con­ven­tional tackle, I’m more com­fort­able trolling with spin­ning tackle on my flats boat. For me, spin­ning rods make it eas­ier to de­ploy plugs in the dark with­out run­ning the risk of back­lashes. In some cases, such as where rivers nar­row near bridges, we’ll need to spin the boat around quickly to cir­cle back to the bridge. Cast­ing the plugs a good dis­tance back be­hind the boat well in ad­vance is cru­cial, so the plug is at the cor­rect depth and speed by the time it en­ters the strike zone.

In the con­fines of a flats boat I troll only two rods — heavy 30- to 50-pound spin­ning rods with Shi­mano Stella 10000 reels. Un­less I’m alone and have to use a rod holder for the sec­ond rod, I al­ways hold the rod when trolling for sev­eral rea­sons. First off, you get to feel the strike. Se­condly, the plugs vi­brate, and if a piece of de­bris is picked up you usu­ally can feel it and clear the lure with a few strong rip­ping mo­tions, and if not, reel it in. Fi­nally, it can be a bit tricky re­mov­ing a rod from the holder when the boat is un­der­way and the rod is bent over with the force of a run­ning fish. If a snook strikes and runs for cover, your re­sponse time when hold­ing the rod is far less.

How­ever you troll, be con­scious of your sur­round­ings. It can be a chal­lenge watch­ing trolling rods in the dark of night while stay­ing alert for boat traf­fic and check­ing the depth sounder. How­ever, there have been count­less times when the bot­tom came up rapidly on the sonar and I had to quickly pull the lure closer to the boat to hook fish (ver­sus bot­tom) along those drop-offs and ledges.

Tom Greene, owner of Tom Greene Cus­tom Rod and Gun in Fort Laud­erdale, is a vet­eran south­east Florida snook guru. He swears that hold­ing and “work­ing” the rod while trolling will al­most al­ways out­catch straight dead-pulling a plug from a rod holder. He tab­u­lated on one out­ing that he had three times as many strikes while hold­ing and work­ing a plug com­pared to an­other an­gler who left his rod in the rod holder. They were run­ning the ex­act same plugs on the same rod, reel and line com­bi­na­tions.

TIDE AND CUR­RENT

Trolling against the cur­rent tends to raise div­ing plugs higher in the wa­ter col­umn; pay­ing out more line helps the lure run deeper. In some in­stances, a deep-div­ing plug can re­quire up to 200 feet of line to keep the lure run­ning near the bot­tom in 10- to 12-foot depths when the wa­ter is mov­ing at 3 to 4 knots. Dur­ing those times, I turn to Smith’s strat­egy of slow­ing down the rev­o­lu­tions per minute so the boat al­most seems to be hold­ing in place in the cur­rent.

Trolling with the cur­rent re­quires less scope to keep the lures down. Find the “sweet-spot” speed/rpm where the

lure starts to wobble the rod tip with­out mov­ing too fast past the struc­ture and fish. But at the same time, keep­ing the lure too close to the boat can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The boat can spook the fish as it passes over­head. It’s a fine bal­ance.

We also criss­cross back and forth through canals, mak­ing passes near struc­ture that might hold snook.

When large vol­umes of wa­ter run through the rivers dur­ing lu­nar flood tides, or when the spill­ways are opened due to high rain­fall, it’s usu­ally a pro­duc­tive time to troll plugs. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing a Novem­ber evening when a stronger-than-nor­mal flood tide roared through the dou­ble spans of Davie Boule­vard Bridge, by trolling a bonito-col­ored Ra­pala X-Rap 30 with the di­rec­tion of the strong cur­rent, we caught an es­ti­mated 30-plus-pound snook. We also caught two snook, 34 and 36 inches, on the same ex­act lure. The X-Rap 20 of the same color pat­tern on the sec­ond rod was not swim­ming deep enough. When the flood gates along state road 84 were opened in June due to high pre­cip­i­ta­tion, we did es­pe­cially well, catch­ing fish all along the mul­ti­ple nar­rower spanned bridges of the New River.

STRUC­TURE IS EV­ERY­THING

While we have caught snook and some­times tar­pon trolling blindly through much of Fort Laud­erdale’s New River, Mi­ami’s Mi­ami River and the In­tra­coastal Water­way, it is much more pro­duc­tive con­cen­trat­ing time and ef­fort near struc­ture. On oc­ca­sion, es­pe­cially Oc­to­ber through May, we some­times catch gag grouper on the plugs, es­pe­cially around the bridges.

The big­gest snook we’ve caught have come on plugs trolled around bridges and docks where there is good cur­rent flow. Con­cen­trate ef­forts wher­ever you find spots for these am­bush feeders — sharp points, pil­ings, bumpers, ir­reg­u­lar bot­tom con­tours and, at night, the shadow lines from lights on the bridge. The snook will lie like trout rest­ing in ed­dies be­hind rocks, only the snook do this be­hind bridge pil­ings. When there is strong cur­rent, the struc­ture acts as a respite from fast-mov­ing wa­ter. Troll close to the pil­ings. I try to do this by po­si­tion­ing the boat so the braided line en­ters the wa­ter as close to the pil­ings as pos­si­ble along whichever side of the bridge the clos­est rod passes by.

We catch large fe­male snook year-round trolling the rivers of Fort Laud­erdale and Mi­ami. My long­time friend and re­tired snook bi­ol­o­gist Ron Tay­lor, from Florida Fish and Wildlife, learned from teleme­try track­ing data that as many as one-third of a breed­ing stock of snook skip their an­nual spawn. “Not all of them head out to the in­lets to sow their oats from June through Septem­ber, which is con­trary to what we had be­lieved for many years,” he says. And if those fish are not stacked dur­ing the spawn ag­gre­ga­tion at in­lets such as Port Ever­glades, Haulover or Gov­ern­ment Cut, there is a good chance they are in the rivers and ICW year-round.

Above: This juras­sic tar­pon took a trolled Ra­pala Mag­num 18 in a mul­let color un­der Mi­ami’s Bear Cut Bridge. Right: While tre­ble hooks might of­fer a bet­ter ini­tial hookup ra­tio, fish like tar­pon are more likely to throw them than a sin­gle hook once it’s found pur­chase.

Nice by­catch! Gag grouper aren’t un­usual in the In­tra­coastal Water­way in South Florida, as the In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion’s Jack Vitek proved on this fall evening.

Trolling at night can be a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant way to fish, es­pe­cially dur­ing the sti­fling heat of sum­mer days.

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