Anglers from all over the globe travel to Florida to catch snook, the elusive "linesider" of the grass flats, a fish so aggressive it's been known to feed on largemouth bass, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the state's rivers and lakes.
Technically speaking, snook are considered a saltwater species, but research has shown that these shallow-water predators may spend up to 80 percent of their lives in fresh water, which is why estuaries such as Charlotte Harbor on Florida's Southwest Coast have become international fishing destinations for the world's top anglers.
The bay, encompassing nearly 5,000 square miles from Venice in the north to Bonita Springs in the south, is fed by two major rivers, the Myakka and the Peace. These freshwater highways flush baitfish and crustaceans into the open estuary waters where snook, some tipping the scales at more than 30 pounds, lie in waiting ready to pounce.
But what makes the state's second-largest estuary so good for fishing? The answer is one word: wilderness. This sheltered bay has miles and miles of mangrove shoreline, which is protected from development under the auspices of the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.
In the summer months you'll find snook along the banks and in the passes that lead to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass and San Carlos bay also provide prime feeding grounds for this shallow-water hunter of the grass flats.
For nearly three years, fishing has been strictly catch and release, as state officials worked to rebuild the stocks after a series of freezes decimated West Coast snook. But fishing recently reopened and anglers can once again catch and keep these prized sportfish.
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.
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 for red drum or spotted seatrout, survive upon release.
The common snook, the one most commonly caught by anglers, is one of four species found in Florida waters. The other three are the sword-spined snook, fat snook and tarpon snook. This fish, prized for its fighting ability and as table fare, is easily identified by the black lateral line running from gill to tail, hence the name "linesider."
Snook, called robalo in Spanish, can reach lengths of up to 4 1/2 feet and weigh 54 pounds. While they may range from South Carolina to Brazil, the bulk of Florida's snook population can be found south of Sebastian Inlet on the Atlantic coast and south of Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast.
Common in nearshore waters, snook can tolerate a wide range of salinities, and have been found 90 miles up rivers and 8 miles offshore. Marine biologists believe snook can live for more than 20 years.
Protandric hermaphrodites, all snook start off as males, but some later change into females. The largest fish are usually females. There is no physical difference between male and female snook so anglers cannot tell the difference.
Snook are also extremely sensitive to cold. If the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, snook become sluggish. If the temperature drops to 54 degrees, they die.
Veteran anglers often compare snook to largemouth bass because both species are structure-oriented and often lurk along shadowlines and dropoffs to ambush prey. In the winter, these fish move from the beaches and passes into the residential canals and sheltered rivers and streams that make up the state's estuaries.
In the spring, as the fish move to the passes to stage for the spawn, anglers can use a variety of live and artificial baits because the fish are hungry. The spawn, which begins in April, may run as late as October.
If you're looking to land one, remember that snook feed during times of high water flow. Anglers should fish one hour before the high tide and several hours thereafter.
Before World War II, snook were called "soapfish" because if the skin was left on a filet, it made the flesh taste like soap. Snook were considered cat food and commercial fishermen were paid less than a penny a pound.
But people eventually figured out how to clean them, which led to a commercial harvest that ended in 1957. Today, snook are one of the state's mostly prized sportfish.
If you're lucky enough to catch a snook, let it go to be caught another day. To help increase its chance for survival, keep the fish in the water and use a pair of pliers to remove the hook. Barbless hooks simplify the process. Handle the fish as little as possible, and odds are it will swim off, no worse for wear.
This story originally appeared at Visit Florida.