Thursday, April 19, 2018
Outdoors

The secret life of snook

Many anglers would agree that the common snook is one of the state's most popular saltwater species. But some say lumping it with other "saltwater" species, such as trout and red drum, is a bit misleading.

"We could be thinking about it all wrong," said Ron Taylor who has been studying Florida's snook stocks for decades. "Snook could actually spend most of their lives in the rivers and creeks and only go to saltwater to spawn."

Taylor, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, and his colleagues around the state have been tagging and tracking snook for nearly a decade and found surprising results.

"The data shows that snook probably spend just two months of the year in the saltwater," he said.

Veteran snook stalkers may disagree with that, but Taylor said he is speaking in generalities. Some snook may spend an entire year in an estuary such as Tampa Bay, but at some point, they move back into the safety of the rivers and creeks.

"Snook are used to being at the top of the food chain, but when they get up in the freshwater, they aren't the only apex predators around," Taylor said.

Florida's other premiere sport fish, the largemouth bass, loves to eat snook. And snook love to eat bass.

"It just depends on the size," Taylor said. "Big snook eat a lot of small bass. Big bass eat a lot of small snook."

Since 2004, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists have been following snook in a variety of east coast and southwest Florida rivers. In 2014, the state's snook team plans to continue its research in Tampa Bay's rivers.

You could say snook are the rock stars of Florida's inshore fishery. According to the FWC, in 2004, the last year statistics were available, Florida anglers made 1.8 million snook trips, pumping about $620 million into the economy.

But in recent years, the species has suffered severe setbacks. A series of cold fronts in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts.

It was one of Florida's worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery in a series of regulatory moves through Aug. 31 of this year. But the FWC has determined that the gulf stocks have recovered sufficiently to reopen the recreational harvest on Sunday.

In general, Florida's management of snook is widely considered a conservation success story. One reason is because over the years an increasing number of anglers has embraced catch-and-release fishing for snook, even when the season is open to harvest.

The species is particularly hardy in this respect. Studies by state biologists show that 98 percent of snook, a higher percentage than red drum or spotted seatrout, survive upon release.

It is not surprising that snook are often compared to largemouth bass. Both are ambush predators that use structure to hide from their prey. But what happens when these two apex predators come head to head?

"That's a hard one," Taylor said. "Bass are more active and pretty boisterous. And if you put two of them in a tank together, the snook sort of defer to the bass."

"If you pressed me, and I had to decide," Taylor said, "I'd have to say bass rule."

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