East coast? West coast? Who has got the biggest, baddest snook?
The boys in Charlotte Harbor might have their share of yardstick-sized linesiders, but guide Mike Holliday and his posse who fish the Indian River Lagoon believe they've got the market cornered when it comes to Centropomus undecimalis.
"We might not have as many fish as you do over there on the Gulf Coast," said Holliday, who targets monster snook in Indian and St. Lucie rivers. "But what we lack in numbers, we make up for in size."
It's a friendly rivalry, so don't expect the sinkers to fly. There will be no Tupac-Biggie battle going on now that the west coasters will be moving in on the east coaster's territory.
Holliday and his fellow charter boat captains are prepared to welcome the influx of out-of-town anglers they expect to see now that the state has shut down snook season in the Gulf of Mexico but reopened it on the Atlantic side.
"The timing couldn't be better," said Holliday, who specializes in catching and photographing oversized snook. "The season won't really get rolling up here in the rivers until the first of October."
The snook know winter is coming, so they will feed heavily to build up the fat reserves that will help carry them through what could be another long, cold winter.
Anglers have another 12 weeks to harvest a snook on the east coast before the season shuts down statewide. And if the recent reopening day proved an indication of things to come, snook hunters should have a great fall.
Rules for two coasts
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously last month at a meeting in Pensacola Beach to extend the snook harvest closure in the gulf until Sept. 1, 2011, but to open the east coast on Sept. 17.
But when the season closes Dec. 15, it will remain so until September, when snook fishing will resume statewide.
State biologists estimate that tens of thousands of snook died all over the state in January when overnight temperatures hovered around freezing for about two weeks, dropping water temperatures into the 50s.
It was one of the state's worst fish kills in decades, so the commission temporarily extended the closed snook season statewide until Sept. 1. That emergency closure was then extended through Sept. 16 to give fishery managers time to address the issue in Pensacola.
Biologists say the gulf snook population was the hardest hit and has been slow to recover. They speculated that Atlantic snook may have fared better because they could retreat to pockets of warmer, deeper water offshore.
Snook, one of the most popular and tightly regulated game fish in Florida, have made a comeback in recent years because of fishery management and changing angler attitudes toward catch-and-release. Even during harvest seasons, size limits and one-fish bag limits were in effect.
As a result, the number of big breeding fish has increased, and guides such as Holliday find no shortage of people willing to pay top dollar for the chance to catch and release a trophy fish.
"It is not unusual to catch a 30-pound fish," Holliday said. "If you can find the mullet, you will find the fish."
An easy run
Tampa Bay area snook fishermen think nothing of running two or three hours down the coast to fish the waters of Charlotte Harbor or the 10,000 Islands area. But for the same time investment, you can fish the waters of the Indian River Lagoon. This 155-mile-long estuary is actually made up of three waterways: the Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River and the Banana River. Covering about one-third of Florida's east coast, the Indian River Lagoon straddles the border of the temperate and subtropical zones, making it the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States.
Sandwiched between the Florida peninsula and a string of barrier islands that stretch from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County in the north to Jupiter Inlet in the south, the IRL, as it is called by the locals, is known for its biodiversity. The state of Florida estimates more than 4,300 species of wildlife call it home, including 310 varieties of birds, 1,350 kinds of plants, 2,956 types of animals, of which more than 700 are fish, including the common snook.
You will find the best snook bite at the southern end of the IRL system, with the biggest fish around the passes and inlets. Anglers should note that snook regulations differ on the east coast. The slot limit in the Atlantic is 28 to 32 inches as compared to 28 to 33 inches in the gulf. Anglers must have a $10 snook permit to keep a fish during the open season.