Fishing for snook is not a sport. It's a religion.
Anglers who target the legendary Florida "linesider" are the true believers of sport fishing.
They also might catch trout, redfish, even a tarpon or two, but the species that really gets their blood boiling is centropomus undecimalis. This species is difficult to catch, and pound-for-pound, unequaled in fighting ability. And if that isn't enough, you won't find a better fish for the grill.
These hard-core snook fanatics usually fall into one of two distinct sects. In one group, you have the hunters, the kind of fishermen who would like nothing more than to catch and cook a snook a day as long as the season lasts.
On the other side you have the conservationists, some might even call them preservationists, who dare not touch a snook, let alone kill one.
These two camps have been on opposite sides of the battle over snook regulations for more than a decade now. But the rhetoric really heated up in January 2010 when a series of cold fronts killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts of Florida. It was one of the state's worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery in a series of regulatory moves through Aug. 31 this year.
The gulf coast stocks appear to have been harder hit than those on the east coast. As a result, Atlantic anglers were able to fish for three months in the fall of 2010, but then that fishery closed again until it reopened in September 2011. It closes once again today.
The current round of regulations are set to expire in the fall, right about the time the snook finish spawning in the passes and start moving onto the flats to fatten up for the winter.
One of the most popular and tightly regulated game fish in Florida, the snook has become a real conservation success story. Sound fishery management and an increasing number of anglers practicing catch-and-release have made snook one of Florida's top recreational fisheries.
"You could say that all those years of doing the right thing was like putting money in the bank," said Ron Taylor, Florida's resident snook guru. "The freeze hurt us, and we had to spend a little of the interest we made all those years, but the principle is still there."
State officials plan to meet later this month to discuss the future of this prized fishery. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials have two options.
They could vote to keep the fishery closed another year, or perhaps even two, to let the fish that were born after the freeze reach the legal slot limit of 28 to 33 inches in gulf waters. That would be the safe course of action and would surely please the most conservative sector of the fishing public.
Or state officials could let the current regulations expire and go back to the old winter and summer closures. That means anglers statewide would be allowed to catch and keep snook come Sept. 1.
When making such a decision, commissioners must consider not only biological considerations, but also the social and economic impact of another closure.
If they vote to keep snook off limits for another two years, we will no doubt have an incredible fishery in 2014. But can the bait and tackle shops handle another 24 months of snookless fishing?
If they vote to keep snook off limits for just one more year, we will most likely have a great snook fishery in 2013. But will the fishing guides who depend on out-of-state anglers still be in business when the closure ends?
If the commissioners vote to let the current regulations expire at the end of August, Florida's gulf coast will still have a good snook fishery. And in a couple of years, our snook fishing probably will be great, perhaps even incredible.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the kind of snook fisherman who usually keeps one fish in the spring and one in the fall. I love to eat snook, but like I consume stone crabs, I choose to do so only a couple of times a year.
If another angler disagrees, and believes that all snook should be released, then he can exercise that freedom of choice by practicing catch-and-release. And those anglers who want to keep a fish now and then may do so as well.