Big snook like this one exceed the legal west coast slot of 28 to 33 inches and must be released. FRANK SARGEANT
BY FRANK SARGEANT Tribune correspondent
Published: August 24, 2013
Updated: August 24, 2013 at 06:41 PM
Love it or hate it, Florida’s west coast snook season will again open Sept. 1, after more than three years of closure as a result of the 2010 winter kill. Some anglers report loads of fish spotted in the well-known spawning locations between Anclote Key and Everglades City, but others note numbers of slot-sized fish, between 28 and 33 inches, are down very significantly even after so long without harvest. Snook tend to return to the same spawning locations year after year, and so during the annual gatherings, which take place around the larger passes between the full moon in May and the one in September in most years, there’s a good opportunity for a seasoned eye to get an estimate of the numbers of fish. Those who feel numbers have not recovered in a lot of areas point out that the smallest fish suffered most in the freeze, and that new year classes of fish spawned after the event have not had a chance to grow to spawning size yet; snook typically take four to five years to reach the lower end of the slot on our coast. Snook are managed under extremely tight harvest limits when regs return to normal. Anglers are allowed just one fish daily, the legal slot spans a scant five inches, and the season is closed for some six months. All this plus the required snook stamp in addition to a saltwater license makes snook one of the most protected of all Florida fishes. And they’re not all that easy for the average angler to catch, in any case. Their future should be secure.
But nothing can protect this subtropic species from the occasional severe cold front — extended water temperatures in the low 50s are a death sentence, and the kills sometimes reach tens of thousands in a single weekend. And while it seems that climate change is giving us overall warmer winters — a good thing as snook are concerned — the occasional severe front still finds its way down to the peninsula. When it does, snook stockpiled over many years can go belly-up overnight. That’s the reason that many old-time snookophiles say it doesn’t make a lot of sense to manage the fishery as a total catch-and-release like bonefish. Snook are great on the table, and there’s no question that on average every four or five years, we’ll get a freeze that will kill thousands of them — so why not let anglers who want to take one home to eat do so? Otherwise, they “go to waste.” Those on the side of all-release snooking point out that no snook that’s caught and released three or four or a dozen times over a lifespan is wasted — it provides some of the most exciting gamefish action to be found anywhere in the angling world, and is a great lure to anglers from all over the globe for visits to Florida. An abundant snook population is good for business — it sells tackle and lures, flats and bay boats and kayaks, outboard motors and guide trips. Snook are the poster-children of inshore Florida sportfishing, and when the numbers are strong, more people want to get out on the water and tangle with these spectacular creatures. There’s no question that, even as tight as the regulations are today, expert anglers and the considerable number of west coast guides can have a serious impact on snook numbers. Fishing live sardines in the known snook hangouts assures that most fish in the slot are going to be caught in any given year. If all are kept, the quality of the fishery is surely going to be less than it would be without any harvest. Figuring out where the “sweet spot” in managing this species is located is the prickly task left to the Florida FWC, and no matter which way they go, there are sure to be some anglers unhappy. On the positive side, when we look at fish numbers today compared to what they were back in the day when 18-inch snook were legal game and there was no closed season, it’s clear there’s been a dramatic improvement in size and numbers, and that’s a good thing whether you like your snook on the hoof, or on the platter.