Though a lot of anglers seem to have forgotten it, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission passed a rule last fall adding February to the closed snook season on the state's west coast. The winter closure formerly had run from Dec. 15 to Jan. 31.
In fact, the change was overlooked by at least one major weekly fishing magazine, which ran a front-page story on the season opening last week without mentioning that it opened only on the east coast, where the closed dates were not changed. A well-known television fishing show also touted the reopening of the snook season without mentioning the continued west coast closure.
For the record, then, the season does remain closed in all waters of the west coast, the Everglades and Monroe County through Feb. 29.
"I think a lot of people totally forgot the closure," said captain Scott Moore, who spends most days on Charlotte Harbor. "We had people running all over throwing sardines at the docks down here on the first of February, and when they do that, they're fishing for snook."
The commission sent out a reminder to media outlets, but not until Friday. Consequently, the last publicity on the change came last fall when the rule passed through the commission law-making process.
Most anglers were in favor of the rule change, which state biologists said was needed because not enough snook are surviving to spawning age. On this coast, according to Ron Taylor of the Florida Wildlife Research Institute, the spawning potential ratio (SPR) is 27 percent. The SPR is a ratio comparing the number of fish surviving to adulthood with existing harvest pressure, compared to the number that would survive in an unfished population. Taylor's staff has determined that for the fishery to thrive, at least 40 percent of the fish should reach spawning age.
Taylor said that though most anglers release all the snook they catch, there is still a significant impact from fishing. Anglers catch an average of about 2.1 million snook on our coast annually, and only 68,900 were reported harvested in the most recent survey.
However, Taylor said, some fish die as a result of being caught and released. His staff estimated release mortality at an added 43,000 fish, thus more than 110,000 fish are removed from the population as a result of angling each year. The added month of closure, plus a one-fish daily bag limit and a very tight slot limit - only fish between 28 and 33 inches can be kept - should allow more fish to survive long enough to spawn at least once, Taylor said. West coast fish are also protected by a May-through-August spawning season closure.
On the east coast, where there is a slightly different strain of snook, anglers catch about 527,000 annually. About 30,000 of these are harvested, and about 10,500 die as a result of catch-and-release. The commission dropped the limit in the area from two fish to one with the 2007 rules change.
The closed seasons on the east coast are now Dec. 15-Jan. 31 and June through August.
Overall, Taylor's research shows a huge improvement in total snook numbers during the last 25 years. In the first survey in 1981, scientists estimated the total statewide snook catch was only 66,000. Since then, much tighter regulations have added to fish numbers, and much-improved fishing tactics, including use of live sardines, has added greatly to the catch.
In short, there will be plenty of snook to catch when the season opens, but anglers on this coast will have to wait a few more weeks to enjoy some linesider fillets.
SPANISH MACKS PRESENT: Unseasonable fishing continues in Tampa Bay, with many anglers reporting heavy catches of Spanish mackerel in the open waters from Gandy Bridge to the Sunshine Skyway. Spanish are normally fish of spring and fall, but the warm winters of the last few years have turned them into a frequent catch at a time when they're normally hundreds of miles south of the Bay area.
Anglers find them under diving birds the first few hours of the morning, then around channel markers near the shipping channels and near the Skyway pilings. Live shrimp, sardines or threadfins are the can't-miss baits, but they also readily grab small silver spoons, small jigs and vibrating chrome crank baits.
ETC.: Captain Chet Jennings joins captain Mel Berman of WFLA, 970 AM, for an inshore fishing clinic tonight at 7 at Toyota of Tampa Bay, 1101 E. Fletcher Ave. in Tampa; free door prizes; (866) 438-8696. ... I will present a free fishing clinic tonight at 6:30 at Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club, Compton Center, Tampa Palms.