The crowd begins to thin about an hour after dark. Visitors and residents alike love Clearwater’s Pier 60 because it offers a prime place on Florida’s west coast to watch the sun melt into the Gulf of Mexico.
But on this warm summer evening, my 5-year-old son and I have come for a different thrill.
“Are there sting rays out there?” he asks, pointing to the water below.
“Yes,” I respond. “But we’re looking for Mr. Snook.” Anglers call this famed fighter “the mighty linesider” because of the dark line that runs along the side of its body.
Most Florida fishing piers – and there are many around the state – are known for at least one species. Here on Pier 60, the quarry of choice is Centropomus undecimalis, the common snook.
Though it’s often noted as one of the finest tasting fish in the world, snook can’t be bought or sold commercially in Florida. During the summer months, when the fish are spawning, and for one month in winter, snook are also protected from recreational harvest. For the most current regulations, visit www.myfwc.com.
But anglers may still catch and release as many as they like during the closed season. On a typical summer evening out here on the pier, as many as 20 or 30 of the big sportfish may be brought over the rail in one night.
Snook are said to feed on anything that swims. Shrimp, scaled sardines and ladyfish are just a few of its favorite treats. We’ve brought along a bucket of pinfish for bait and my son quickly learns how these small baitfish earned their nickname.
“Ouch!” he yells, holding his finger.
“Be careful,” I say. “They might poke you, but to a snook they taste just like a candy bar.”
I hook the pinfish and then drop it over the side of the pier where it dangles beneath a large, orange float. Now comes the hard part – waiting.
“Where’s Mr. Snook?” my son asks.
“He’ll be here soon,” I say, quickly switching the subject to pirates and shooting stars. This keeps him occupied for 10 minutes, until he figures out that those lights streaking across the sky are not meteorites, but airplanes bound for Tampa International Airport.
Then, just when I thought I’d have a mutiny to quell, the float disappears. My reel screams as the snook tries to run for the safety of the pilings. I lift hard on the rod tip, hoping to turn the fish, but I’m one second too slow.
“What happened, dad?” he asks.
“I lost it,” I say. He frowns and asks if we can try again.
“Sure, son,” I answer. “We’ve got all night.”
• Visit www.fishingcapital.com for safety tips and to order a brochure