Sunshine State Snook Update

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has recently enacted some new regulations for snook. Here's a look at why they are needed -- and some places to put them into practice this spring! (March 2008)

Photo by Capt. John Kumiski.

Florida anglers love snook. What's not to like? They possess all the characteristics needed by a great sport fish: They're wary, they fight hard, they grow to impressive sizes and they're delicious.

We love snook so much that between fishing pressure and habitat loss, the fishery has begun to decline. In an attempt to reverse the trend, Florida's fisheries managers have implemented new regulations.

This article will explore the reasoning behind the new snook regulations, examine those regulations in detail, and then suggest two great places where you can reasonably expect to hook up with some fat linesiders.

Here we go!

THE PLAYERS

The agency that sets the regulations that we all have to live with is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Marine Fisheries Management. This agency holds scheduled meetings throughout the year to discuss a variety of marine fisheries issues. The final meeting that concerned the new snook regulations was held back in June of 2007.

Biologists from the FWCC want a 40 percent Spawning Potential Ratio for the snook population. So what is this SPR they are targeting?

A definition on the FWCC Web site describes it this way: "SPR is the ratio of the total weight of mature fish in a fished population to the total weight that would exist if the population was not fished."

That number is important in measuring whether enough fish -- snook, in this case -- are surviving to maturity to keep the population healthy.

The FWCC had already determined that the 40 percent SPR goal was not being reached on either of Florida's coasts. So how could the agency increase the numbers of snook surviving to spawn?

GULF COAST

The FWCC decided that along the state's Gulf shoreline, increasing the length of the closed season was needed. Consequently, they added the first two weeks of December and the entire month of February to the already closed season of Dec. 15 through Jan. 31. On the Gulf coast, the winter closure now runs from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28. The closed summer season remains the same, with the closure running from May through August.

The FWCC also changed the size limit on snook. On the Gulf coast, the old slot limit was from 27 to 34 inches. By law, fish smaller than 27 inches or larger than 34 inches total length had to be released. The new Gulf size limit is 28 to 33 inches.

ATLANTIC COAST

Snook along the Atlantic coast grow faster and live longer than do Gulf coast snook, so the rules protecting them are a little less strict. However, the regulations for the Atlantic coast also changed.

Atlantic snook fishermen will be happy to hear that the Atlantic closed season remains unchanged, from Dec. 15 through Jan. 31, and closes again in June until the end of August.

The slot limit did change, however. The old slot was from 27 to 34 inches total; the new slot length limit is from 28 to 32 inches.

"These rule changes are to provide additional protection for Florida's valuable snook populations, which are considered to be fairly healthy on the state's Atlantic and Gulf coasts," explained FWCC spokesman Lee Schlesinger. "The reduction in harvest is necessary to help achieve the commission's management goal for snook and sustain and improve the fishery for the future.

"Licensed saltwater anglers must purchase a $2 permit to harvest snook. Snatch-hooking and spearing snook are prohibited, and it is illegal to buy or sell snook. These snook regulations also apply in federal waters."

MEASURING THE FISH

The new regulations also change the way you are supposed to

measure the legal length of your fish.

From the FWCC's Web site, here's the definition:

"Total length" means the straight-line distance from the most forward point of the head, with the mouth closed, to the farthest tip of the tail with the tail compressed or squeezed, while the fish is lying on its side.

Stated plainly, the fish should be lying on top of your yardstick. The tip of its bottom jaw should be at zero. You need to pinch the tail to make the fish as long as possible. If the fish falls within the slot -- and the season is open, of course -- you may keep it. Otherwise, it must be released.

CATCH-AND-RELEASE

MORTALITY

For a variety of reasons, released fish sometimes die. They can be played too long and can't recover. They'll swallow the hook, or while being unhooked and released, they can be dropped or otherwise mishandled. After being released, tired fish sometimes get eaten by sharks or barracudas.

Biologists estimate that 35 percent of the total statewide snook mortality is attributable to deaths that occurred after the fish were released. On the Atlantic coast, that means almost 44,000 released fish die annually. On the Gulf coast, it's more than 10,000. As anglers, we clearly need to do a better job with our catch-and-release techniques.

So there's the background. Now, let's go fishing!

WHERE TO FIND SNOOK

At the FWCC, Ron Taylor is Mr. Snook. If anyone knows where to catch a snook in the March to May timeframe, he's the one to ask.

"Where you find snook from March until the middle of April is entirely different than from where they'll be in the middle of April through May," Taylor pointed out.

"During March and early April, or until the water warms to about 72 degrees, the fish are in transition. The majority of the population is moving from their winter habitats to summer habitats. If the winter is severe, then most snook will still be found in the rivers near sources of warmer water, or in deep bends with structure -- snags, falldowns, or scoured rocky bottoms.

"If the winter is mild or the season is near the spawn, then snook may be found near the mouths of creeks and rivers and out on the adjacent flats. But I would always check the passes and inlets, because the fish may react to conditions that we cannot measure and become ready to spawn before we know it."

Given those general insights, you still need to figure out which water to try.

"Which rivers should you check?" Taylor reflected. "We've found snook in all the major rivers south of Tarpon Springs on the Gulf coast and south of Melbourne on the Atlantic coast. There are reports of snook in the Chasshowitzka and Suwannee Rivers on the Gulf side and the Banana and Tomoka rivers on the Atlantic.

"During mid-April through May, snook are everywhere. They're using all their habitats. But the majority of snook are found in or near passes to the Gulf and the ocean south of the aforementioned locations, along the beaches near the inlets, and on the near-shore reefs.

"Plus, there's always a contingent of snook located in the rivers. In fact, latest research indicates that some snook do not leave the rivers each year, as we once thought.

"It's safe to say that an angler may find at least one snook in any habitat on any day of the year."

That said, let's have a look at two of the best spots in the state in some detail.

TAMPA BAY

Tampa Bay boasts one of the largest snook spawning grounds in the state. This shallow grassy bay is laden with structure, offering prime habitat for linesiders.

Capt. Ray Markham knows this fishery well. According to him, water movement is the key to catching Tampa Bay snook.

Regardless of whether the tide is incoming or outgoing, snook are opportunistic ambush feeders that rely on strong currents to sweep forage into their strike zones. The outgoing tide is typically the strongest around new and full moon phases, peaking in strength about 2/3 down the outgoing cycle. That may be the best time to fish for snook here.

During the summer, snook are on the beaches, in passes, on mangrove points and in swash channels around oyster bars and barrier islands. During the spring and fall, snook are found in backcountry areas with good depth, in rivers and creek mouths. Snook are structure-oriented fish, and most structure like rocks, seawalls, pilings, boats or docks that are in the current hold these linesiders.

Forage changes with the seasons. During the summer, baitfish such as scaled sardines, threadfin herring, and killifish are their prime targets, along with live shrimp and small crabs. All of these make good natural baits.

Artificial equivalents include gold spoons, MirrOlure's MirrOdine, Rapala's Twitchin' Rap, and the DOA CAL Shad Tail Jig.

Effective spring and fall baits include those already mentioned, along with finger mullet and glass minnows. Fake bait equivalents are the DOA Baitbuster, Rapala Skitterwalk, DOA Shrimp, and the MirrOlure MirrOminnow.

Presentation is about getting your bait into the snook's strike zone. Strike zones increase in size in warm weather. Snook can be aggressive feeders, attacking out of both hunger and aggression. Lures should be moved briskly and erratically when water temperatures are greater than 70 degrees.

FLAMINGO & EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK

Bob Stearns has been snook fishing the Everglades for more 30 years and offered the following information.

Snook are found in four distinct places in the vicinity of Flamingo: along the Gulf beaches, around potholes on the flats, along the mangrove shorelines and in channels. Each of these locations provides its individual challenges for anglers.

Along the Gulf beaches, the fish can be found anywhere, usually in three to eight feet of water. They particularly like to patrol dropoffs or hang around points.

Jigs are excellent choices for baits, especially the soft-bodied variety in 1/4- to 1/2-ounce sizes. Any color may work, so keep trying different shades until you find what's working on that day. The retrieve is important regardless of color because the action of the bait has to seem lively.

Sinking plugs of the rattling variety are also very effective. For flies, the traditional snook patterns with a medium to fast sink-tip line are the ticket.

The white sand potholes on the flats seem naturally to attract snook, but as a rule, you won't see them in the pothole. They like to hang around the edges where they blend in with the vegetation.

Use light jigs of 1/4-ounce or less. Light slow-sinking plugs or flies fished on a floating line also work well. Bright colors and white are excellent hues for this action.

Big, bright mullet muds are also prime snook hangouts anywhere you find them, but should be fished carefully. Be careful about making any noise in or with the boat; these flats fish are extremely wary!

Along mangrove shorelines, look for places where the water is less than four feet deep. Moving water near points or creek mouths is often best, and the falling tide is often more productive. This fishing calls for precision casting -- if the lure or fly doesn't land within at least three feet of the edge, you're not snook fishing.

And even closer is better. Fish the lure all the way to the boat because snook sometimes follow a ways before striking.

Use soft-bodied trailers on jigs of 1/4 to 3/8 ounces, medium sink plugs with rattles or noisy topwater lures. If you prefer to fly-fish, poppers or big streamers on floating lines are good options.

In channels and along the edges of flats that border channels, the falling tide is by far the best phase to fish. Work the entire width of the channel carefully as you drift down it with the tide; the snook can be anywhere.

Unless the channel is very shallow, jigs in the 1/2- to 3/4-ounce range are best, especially with faster current. That's because it's important to get all the way to the bottom and stay there.

Both traditional and soft-bodied jigs are good, and virtually any color may work. Fast-sinking rattling plugs are also effective. Flies can work here, if the channel is not too deep or the current too fast. But you probably need to tie on weighted flies with a fast-sinking tip fly line.

If the water is clear in any of these places, skip those hours of the day with bright sunlight. As a rule, snook fishing is always better during early morning hours anyway. But the water is seldom very clear in much of this area, so midday fishing can be very productive. And the tide is often more important than the time of day.

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