Seth Leto said we should have been there yesterday. "They were biting real well," the Tarpon Springs fishing guide tried to explain. "They must have moved on." But that's often the story when you're fishing for snook. One day it's hot. The next day it's not. Snook have confounded many an experienced angler. Just when you think you've figured out their pattern, a front rolls through and all bets are off. You've got to start over with a new game plan. August is traditionally one of the best months to catch these fish along local beaches and in the passes. Even with the population drastically lower as a result of a series of freezes, the fishing has been good throughout most of the Tampa Bay area.
Snook season is closed for at least another year, but that doesn't mean you can't target these fish as long as you practice catch and release. Most anglers would rather catch one or two monster fish purely for sport. These big, breeding females, regardless of the regulations, should be released anyway, just to ensure the future of the stock.
So I didn't worry about the momentary lull in the action. I knew Leto would find snook. I'd be satisfied with one good fight and call it day.
A tropical fish
Tampa Bay anglers should consider themselves lucky. Technically, snook range from South Carolina to Brazil. But these fish are only found in large numbers in this area and south.
Snook are extremely sensitive to cold temperatures; they become lethargic and even die if temperatures drop suddenly. Last year's fish kill was not as bad as the one that occurred in 1977 (the year it snowed in Miami), but it was worse than one that happened in 1989, an event still relatively fresh in many anglers' minds.
The difference, however, between 1977 and 2011 is the number of anglers that fish for snook. An exact figure is unavailable — the saltwater license law did not take effect until 1990 — but most experts agree the increase in angling pressure has been dramatic.
State biologists estimate that before the most recent freeze, Florida had about 1.7 million snook. About 500,000 lived in the state's Atlantic waters, while 1.2 million snook lived in the state's Gulf of Mexico waters.
A new stock assessment is due later this year. At that time fishery managers will have a better idea how badly the snook population suffered and when the season will reopen in the gulf.
Until then, we anglers must be satisfied with the thrill of the hunt.
A rising tide
All fish feed when the water moves. Anglers may debate which is better, an incoming or outgoing tide, but all will agree that the slack tide is to be avoided.
Here on the Gulf Coast, where the water may fluctuate only 1 to 2 feet on the grass flats, tides play a particularly important role. All the things fish love to eat — crabs, minnows and shrimp — get caught in the current on a strong tide. And snook, like any other fish, will wait at an ambush point for the food to come to them.
From his vantage point on the bow of the flats skiff, Leto could see the shadows of snook lined up in the shallows, waiting for the buffet line to begin. I tossed a pinfish up current and it drifted to the impact zone where it was instantly consumed.
Knowing I might have only one chance at the fish (and a picture), I kept the drag loose and the rod tip high. The snook sped off the flat and jumped as it tried to shake the hook. The fish circled the boat a couple of times but finally tired itself and succumbed to the ritual photo and release. I watched from the bow as the snook lingered for a while and then swam back to the shallows to rejoin his friends.
Live another day
There was a time when if the season had been open I might have considered keeping that snook. They are the best tasting fish in the ocean. But my days of eating snook may be over.
In Everglades National Park, where fishing is tightly regulated and the local guides view snook as a sustainable resource, catch rates have skyrocketed during the past three decades. Before the freeze, anglers were catching an average of five snook per trip, according to state biologists.
"If you kill a lot of snook, it is like shooting yourself in the foot," said Florida Guides Association president Pat Kelly, who guided out of Everglades City for 19 years. "If you put it in the cooler, that is the last time you will be catching that fish."
Luiz Barbieri, head of fisheries for the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said that in areas where recreational anglers and guides promote catch and release, snook populations have improved dramatically.
"In areas such as the Everglades the catch rate has just been phenomenal," he said. "The fishing experience has greatly improved. You find more fish. You find larger fish. Right before the cold kill it was snook paradise."