leave them alone for a few months and they get fat, happy and dumb. That pretty much has been the case since the season closed in May, because far fewer anglers chase snook when it's a catch-and-release game, even though they're easy to catch in summer.
But starting Tuesday, the gloves come off.
A lot of fish in the legal slot (28 to 33 inches) are going to wind up on Bay area dinner tables. And with the limit at one per angler per day, that harvest is unlikely to hurt the overall population, according to state biologists.
So, where might one look for that single slot-sized fish? That can be a bit of a challenge. Anglers now report dozens of fish just slightly less than the slot, but few with the magic dimensions - evidence that there's still plenty of pressure on "eating-sized" fish.
In early September, the fish are likely to still be in the areas where they've been spawning throughout the summer, particularly because there's a full moon at the end of this week; spawning always peaks on the new- and full-moon periods.
These areas include the major passes through the barrier islands from Anclote Key south all the way to Marco. Fish in these areas often stack up around the first jetty or side pocket off the main flow, but in some areas, such as Redfish Pass at Captiva Island, they congregate directly in the open pass.
These big females - and many will actually be longer than the maximum slot size - also hang around the beaches on either side of the passes, where they can be caught by walking the sand and keeping an eye out for their dark shadows, often only a few feet from the edge.
Elsewhere, there are often major aggregations of fish remaining from the spawn, as well. Locations such as the spoil island at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay, and Stump Pass and Captiva Pass in the Charlotte Harbor area are famous as spots where catches of 50 or more snook in a few hours are possible for those expert in fishing live sardines. The silvery baits are used as live chum, as well as on the hook.
Strong falling tides in late afternoon this week will mean good numbers of snook - and maybe reds and trout - will gather around the sloughs and runouts along the shorelines of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Many of these areas are so shallow and the water so clear that the only effective way to fish them is by wading. And yes, there are plenty of stingrays around at this time of year, but if you watch your step they can be avoided.
All sorts of gamefish gather on the small cuts through the outside bars as strong falling tides pull baitfish, crabs and shrimp through the slough. The action is usually best during the last two hours of the fall, which occurs near sundown on the new and full moons in the Bay area. (There's also a good morning low on these periods, but it sometimes comes before daylight.)
You can find active runouts by simply watching for popping gamefish. If the cut is "live," the fish quickly announce themselves.
Live sardines are the can't-miss bait, but they're tough to handle when you're wading. Fortunately, all sorts of artificials work well in this environment. Topwaters such as the She Dog, slow sinkers such as the MirrOdine, drift baits such as the DOA Shrimp and swimbaits including the 4-inch Tsunami will do the job.
Whatever the bait or lure, toss it uptide and work it down with the flow of the water, just like the naturals. Standard gear is a 61/2- to 7-foot spinning rod, a 2,500-size open-face spinning reel and 10-pound-test microfiber line such as Power Pro, tipped with a couple of feet of 20- to 25-pound-test fluorocarbon or clear monofilament.
The prime bite for snook lasts only while the water flows. When the tide goes dead, so does the fishing. However, if you keep an eye out on the flats behind the slough, you might get a nice bonus at this time of year, because redfish might start to tail in the remaining shallows. Again, wading is the only effective way to get close without spooking them.
At high tide, snook are likely to move in around mangrove edges and oyster bars. Seek either type of cover in high-flow areas like around points and you'll probably find fish.
Just remember to handle those you are not keeping with care and release them quickly. This year's shorts are next year's keepers.