Scaled sardine is prey of choice for springtime snook

Capt. Chuck Rogers shows off a net full of scaled sardines, known locally as "whitebait." This baitfish is also called "snook candy" by some local fishing guides. TERRY TOMALIN  |  Times
Capt. Chuck Rogers shows off a net full of scaled sardines, known locally as "whitebait." This baitfish is also called "snook candy" by some local fishing guides.TERRY TOMALIN | Times
Published April 24 2014
Updated April 24 2014

Chuck Rogers waited for the other boats to leave the grass flat and then shut down his outboard engine.

"We'll just drift a bit, and then with one or two throws of the cast net, we'll be ready to go," he said. 'Give me a livewell full of bait and I will guarantee you a snook."

Most anglers, at least those who fish the west coast of Florida, will agree that the scaled sardine (whitebait) is the prey of choice for springtime snook.

"They can't resist them," the fishing guide explained. "It is like candy for snook."

Biologists might disagree, insisting that pinfish are found most often when looking at the contents of snook stomachs.

But the average angler banks on sardines to catch the elusive linesider. "It's a very consistent bait," said Rogers, who guides out of Tampa Harbour Marina, "especially if you have enough to use for chum."

According to Behzad Mahmoudi, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, sardines are one of the most plentiful forage fish in Tampa Bay during the spring months.

"Scaled sardines are coastal and estuarine schooling pelagic fish commonly found in Tampa Bay this time of year," Mahmoudi said. "We tend to see a lot of them in April and May."

Scaled sardines are a relatively fast growing, but short-lived fish that have a life span of about one year. They can get to 6 or 7 inches long, but most specimens are in the 3- to 4-inch range.

Scaled sardines spawn offshore year-around. They feed on zooplankton and play an important role in the food chain. While they may be the favorite food of snook, everything from Spanish mackerel to blacktip shark will eat them as well.

While sardines may be a popular live bait for anglers throughout Florida, it has relatively minor commercial importance. Total statewide commercial harvest of scaled sardine in 2013 was 22,763 pounds, while the statewide recreational harvest was estimated at 857,054 pounds in 2013, according to Mahmoudi.

Rogers, meanwhile, loves to grab a handful of whitebait from the dip net and give it a good a squeeze in his fist. "It disorients them," he said. "They sort of swim around in circles, dazed and confused."

Then he throws the baitfish out across the grass flat, just to see if any snook might be in the area. His exploratory gesture was greeted with a loud "pop," the distinctive sound of snook engulfing a baitfish.

"They're here," he said.

It took less than three minutes to land the first linesider, a 24-incher that was no trophy, but a snook nonetheless.

"Do I keep my promises, or what?" Rogers asked. "Now let's catch a few more."

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