A Life History of Snook
A Life History of Snook
By Fred Everson
To appreciate catching a trophy snook, it helps to know just how hard it is and how long it takes a fish to achieve that status. 30-inch snook are trophies for most who would read this, and estimates are that two fish hatched out of every ten million snook eggs make it that far. I think about that every time I catch a big snook. It makes it real easy to let ‘em go.
A snook begins life on the summer spawning grounds — usually in a pass. Large female snook drop the eggs, and smaller males rush in to fertilize them. Once hatched, newborn snook are too tiny to swim against any current, so larval snook just drift with the tide. Snook fry rely on transparency to avoid predators, and luck to keep them from drifting offshore. Those that find their way into shallow water with cover provided by sea grasses and mangrove roots live on small crustaceans called copepods and grow at a rate of about a half inch per month.
Three months after hatching, a snook grows to be about two inches long. A one-year-old snook is around a foot long. In four years a snook can reach two feet in length-- though precious few of the millions of fertilized eggs ever survive that long. The snook that make it this far are already special.
Snook are hermaphrodites, which means that when they grow big and mature, male fish turn into females. The process takes six or seven years and survivors are so rare, it hardly makes sense for fishermen to take even one out of the gene pool. Catch and release of the best fish is the only way to ensure a healthy population of snook, and a big snook’s real value is on the end of a fishing rod — not in a frying pan. Snook are hard enough to catch even when they aren’t scarce.
As I write this, the slot limit for snook in Florida is between 26 inches and 34 inches, with two fish allowed per angler. Pretty generous, but nobody needs to kill two snook a day. And those fish over 30 inches are not the best to eat either. The fish at the bottom half of the slot taste best — but even these snook are too important to be a regular part of somebody’s diet. A snook is far too valuable as a game fish to supplement anyone’s food budget. A complete angler will kill a fish now and then eat it. But with snook, this should be done only on special, rare occasions, because snook are very special fish. Killing big females is stupid and greedy.
Seasons of the Snook:
Mid to Late Winter
In a new year Snook season opens on February 01, after a winter closure that usually begins on December 15. Snook are susceptible to sudden drops in water temperature, which can temporarily stun them, or even kill them. During unusually severe winters, if the water temperature drops into the mid 50’s, a large die-off of snook can occur. The season can be closed early or opened later if the fish are endangered by cold water.
Mercifully, severe winters in South Florida are unusual and snook seem to be doing pretty well. Most recently, a new slot limit was enacted for snook in 1999, which prohibits anglers from keeping snook over 34 inches, and under 26 inches. A few of the structure anglers grumbled, but most grudgingly admit that the moratorium on killing big female snook certainly can’t do anything but improve their fishing. Personally, I wish they had lowered the limit to one snook when they changed the regulations. Nobody ought to kill two snook in a single day.
When the season opens in February, how the snook fishing will be depends upon water temperature. After a recent mild winter, I fished with another captain the first Sunday morning the season opened in February. We caught four snook in 20 minutes and lost as many. Greenbacks were easy to find and good sized, and the water temperature was hovering around 68 degrees — pretty ideal conditions for backcountry snook fishing.
You won’t catch many snook on the flats until the water temperature hits 70. But in the deep holes in the backcountry where the bottom is muddy and dark, you can often find hungry snook in the winter months. Early season snook fishing is most productive with live bait. If the water is cooler than 65 degrees, jumbo shrimp will sometimes out-fish everything else. If you can net enough greenbacks to chum with, finding snook can be easy. Stop at all likely looking spots (passes in mangroves, oyster bars, creek mouths, etc.) and toss out a few greenbacks after giving them a little squeeze.
Many guides use a bait launcher to fling the unfortunate greenies over a wide area. A wiffle ball bat with the end cut off works. So does a two liter plastic soda bottle mounted on a wood handle with the bottom cut off. If you do a lot of chumming, such a device will save your pitching arm.
If snook are there and hungry, you will see some swirls and boils, and maybe even hear a few pops.
Another accessible winter habitat for snook is residential canals. Here deeper water and boat hulls that hold the sun’s warmth are the attractions. Jumbo shrimp are preferred live bait for anglers who ply the docks, because they can be fished very slowly. Small jigs are also effective but they must be fished slowly. Perhaps the most perfect artificial bait for this type of fishing is the D.O.A. Shrimp, which has to be crawled to be effective.
A third opportunity for snook anglers in winter is upriver. Here on the West Coast of Florida, the Hillsborough River, the Alafia River, the Little Manatee River, the Manatee River, and the Peace River are all winter snook hot spots. Snook can exist side by side with largemouth bass if the water is warm enough. You won’t have any trouble making the distinction between the two once you set the hook.
As the weather turns warmer and the water temperature rises, snook will begin to move back out into big water habitat. These fish are hungry and anxious to make up for the lean fare of winter. Again, the 70-degree mark is the key. Once the water temperature reaches that mark, you can find snook on the flats.
A variety of artificial baits can be productive in the spring. The water is often gin clear and weed free. This is the best time of year to throw plugs, as there isn’t much algae to foul treble hooks. Jigs and soft plastic baits are also favorite artificials for pre summer fishing.
The spring months of April and May are two of my favorites for snook fishing. Snook are easy to find and usually active. If you know how to use a tide guide, and you can cast a lure, you can catch snook in the spring.
Snook season closes again from June 01 through August 31. This is to protect them during their spawning season. Many snook migrate into the passes to mate, and many congregate on the shallow water flats. The closed summer season offers the best opportunity to tangle with big snook in shallow water. These fish can be approached with Texas rigged jerk baits better than anything else I have fished. The East Side flats of Tampa Bay are often choked with algae and weeds because of prevailing west winds.
Snook season reopens on September 01 and the flats are still the place to be. Snook are returning from spawning in the passes, and the grass flats are covered with glass minnows, greenbacks, pinfish, and all of the assorted mullets in September and October. These snook are aggressively feeding in anticipation of the water cooling off again, and of their forage fish becoming scarce. Hot fishing will continue until the first cold fronts come bombing through. When that happens, snook fishing can shut down pretty hard.
Late Fall — Early Winter
This can be the hardest time of year to catch snook. They do not seem to like changes in temperature. The flats can become desolate places overnight with the passing of a single cold front. Snook will head to the warm places. I generally abandon any thoughts of snook fishing in early morning this time of year, and save my efforts for late afternoon, giving our Florida sunshine a chance to do its thing. Even then, fishing is hard.
The best tides this time of year are in the middle of the night. Daytime fishermen are pretty much limited to slow moving, rising tides. About the best I can offer for daytime fishing is to stalk the backcountry in low water using live baits, or low impact artificials. A well-thrown streamer fly is often the ticket for sight fishing in the mangroves because of its inherent stealth.