MIAMI -- The tattoo on captain Mike Smith's right ankle says it all: a hungry snook rising to devour a topwater plug.
"He's an all-around guy, but the best snook guy around," said light-tackle expert/author Jan Maizler of Bay Harbor.
Smith, a veteran Fort Myers skiff guide, is one of the few charter captains who offers a "no-catch, no-pay" policy.
"If you don't catch a fish with a line on the side, or a redfish or a trout, I am not going to take your money," Smith said. "That doesn't apply to tarpon; they're too unpredictable."
Smith backed up his customer-service claims on a recent trip to the Caloosahatchee River when he guided Maizler and I to the release of numerous snook and two redfish. Last winter's cold dented the snook population, but there are still quite a few around. All were caught using live pilchards, or "white bait" -- the West Coast term.
"When you're talking about a guide trip, bait is king," Smith said.
He is usually out on the water well before dawn to cast net a live well full of white bait so that he has plenty for prospecting along mangrove shorelines, brushy overhangs, island points, and creek mouths. Arriving at a fishing spot with his clients, he scatters a couple of handfuls of freebies. If there's no telltale popping noise or surface boil, he moves to the next spot.
At nearly every spot we stopped, snook gobbled the freebies avidly. Fishing two days before the new moon, we enjoyed strong tides, both incoming and outgoing. Smith said that's one of the keys to snook success.
"They love strong moving water," he said. "Full moon, new moon -- I don't care which one. They are ambush fish. They like to sit and stick their nose out and see if they want to eat. They like the shadow."
Water temperature is the second key, according to Smith. He favors 72 to 76 degrees. Once the mercury dips below 65, "good luck finding anything with any size," he says.
Smith also dispels the widely-held theory that there are magic spots that always hold snook.
"It's not so much knowing where to go, but when to go there," he said. "Everybody has their little spots. What time of year, what tide? You might decide to fish them on a particular tide, and they'll decide to feed on another tide. The bait moves; it has cycles as well."
Smith said he agrees with the theory of genetic intelligence, which holds that fish move out of favored lairs when anglers put too much pressure on them.
"Evolution happens," he said. "People see you with rods bent; next day, a boat is going to be there. Take that creek mouth straight ahead. I've caught lots of 20-pounders. But now they're getting the snot beat out of them and they leave. Snook are on wrecks now because they're not molested as much."
Once you find where snook are holed up and feeding, Smith said, it is important to remember that they can be moody. Presentation makes all the difference between hooking up and being ignored.
Besides accurate casting, the guide said he makes sure his live baits behave in a lifelike manner. For that reason, he uses 10-pound braided line with 30-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a small 2 j-hook.
Since snook are fond of swallowing a bait and dashing immediately for the safety of tangled mangrove roots, Smith has his own "down-and-dirty" technique for fighting them.
"Drop to one knee and put the rod upside-down in the water," he advised. "If your rod tip is up in the air, they're going to cut you off."
It almost happened to me when I hooked a nice slot-sized snook tight to the mangroves. My first instinct was to keep fighting with the rod tip up, but when I followed Smith's instructions, I was able to bring the fish away from the cover and up to be photographed and released.
"Good," he said. "You should be dictating the terms to the fish -- not the other way around."
More than a dozen successfully-released snook later, I had to admit Smith had a point.