For anglers on Florida's Gulf Coast, the long wait is finally over. After an extended closure dating back to winter 2010, snook harvest in the Gulf of Mexico reopened Sept. 1.
Equally prized for its spectacular fighting abilities and its firm, mild filets, snook have long been considered Florida's premier inshore species. The fighting part hasn't gone anywhere – anglers have still enjoyed battling these magnificent fish. But Gulf Coast fishermen haven't been allowed to keep snook since the regularly scheduled closure on December 1, 2009.
Early 2010 brought a severe freeze that pushed the subtropical snook well past the chilly threshold that they've learned to tolerate during normal winters. The extended period of extreme temperatures killed hundreds of thousands of linesiders, from yearlings to the big breeders.
The species has a long way to go to reach its pre-2010 level, but Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that Gulf Coast snook can now sustain limited harvests.
With the reopening, all previous regulations will apply. Licensed anglers may keep one fish measuring 28-33 inches total length per person, per day. Closed seasons will be Dec. 1 through the end of February and May 1-Aug. 31. Atlantic recreational snook season also opened Sept. 1. Daily bag limit is one per person, per day with a slot limit of 28-32 inches total length. Closed seasons are June 1-Aug. 31 and Dec. 15-Jan. 31.
Click the image to see Gulf Snook Harvest photos
Should you keep them?
You'll never hear me trashing anyone for legally harvesting a fish. That means full compliance with size, season and bag limits, along with regulations regarding acceptable gear and catch methods.
That being said, I'd encourage anglers to consider foregoing this recently granted right to harvest snook. I'm not going to base that on anything but my gut feeling that the fish really should have gotten another year or two of protection before reopening the harvest.
Reports I get say snook are certainly rebounding and lots of big breeder class fish have made their way to the passes and beaches for the summer spawn. Nevertheless, the images of canals and back bays literally covered with dead snook are hard to forget.
That was nature; no human did that. However, we humans can have a great impact on the species' ongoing recovery.
I've eaten lots of snook and they are delicious (especially with a dab of Louisiana hot sauce). But there's plenty of trout, redfish and flounder to satisfy my frequent taste for a seafood dinner. I plan on testing my tackle with every linesider I can trick into biting; but for the foreseeable future, each one that I catch will return home with nothing more than a sore lip.
If you opt for enjoying the occasional snook dinner, don't let this dissuade you or mar the experience with guilt or condemnation. There's none of that here. Your saltwater license fee helps fund the people that manage our fisheries and right now, those folks say it's OK to harvest one snook a day during the open season.
However, if you feel like skipping you daily bag limit and sending those snook back to grow and repopulate Florida waters, then they – and I – will thank you.
Release 'Em Right
Of course, we'll thank you even more for sending snook back with proper handling. These fish will fight to exhaustion and extended battles take a lot out of them. Enjoy the challenge, but use tackle sufficient for a quick capture.
When dehooking a snook, keep the fish in the water and use a hook remover or needle nose pliers whenever possible. If you must lift a snook, do so with a damp towel or wet hands. Avoid touching the eyes or gills and handle gently so you don’t rub away the protective slime coating.
A “green” snook will hit the water and run, but a tired snook usually needs a few moments to catch its breath. Snook have no teeth, so grip the stout lower jaw with your thumb and lead the fish through the water in figure-8 patterns to wash oxygen across its gills. A revived snook will harmlessly clamp its jaws around your thumb when it’s revived, so let go and the fish will swim away safely.