Welcome to the summer snook factory.
On this day, 10 anglers towing black-and-yellow bait buckets stuffed with live grunts, pinfish and scaled sardines are lined up along the color change at the island's north end. Scores of linesiders, inspired gulf-side by the need to spawn, sit in the stiff current along this beachside drop-off, waiting for the goodies of the afternoon outgoing tide.
"There he is," yelled Rich Knox. Twelve pounds of summer snook was in the air, displaying aerial skills that explain why this gamefish garners great angling attention, even at a time when it must be released. Screaming runs belittled Knox's Daiwa long-caster, playing runaway train with his tiger-striped 12 Fathom Jig and 8-pound test. He pumped and reeled, pumped and reeled, only to have more line disappear in a battle that tested skill and patience.
But Knox hung in, maneuvering the fish into ankle-deep water. He removed the jig, briefly admired his catch, and sent it on its way back to spawningville.
In a stretch of 20 minutes, the scenario was played out by several other anglers. A dozen snook from 7 to 25 pounds were released back in to the Gulf of Mexico, where, besides making marine pigs of themselves, the fish are spawning up to once a week.
"We know they're (snook) multiple spawners within a single season," said fisheries scientist Doug Haymons, who has been studying snook and release mortality since 1991. From his research, he has been able to determine that the fish's spawning cycle ranges from 4.6 to 6.1 days.
He also has been able to determine that fishing for snook during this spawning period has very little effect on snook populations.
"It's okay to catch snook in the summertime," Haymons said from his office at the DNR's Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. His studies have determined that there is only a 3-percent mortality rate among caught-and-released snook. This is good news for local anglers seeking guiltless action, but snookers can make small adjustments in their techniques to help even more fish survive.
Haymons discourages the use of ultralight tackle such as 2- to 6-pound test in fishing for snook (or any other fish) in warm water. Extended battles because of light line can produce fatal amounts of lactic acid in fish, especially during the summer months, when higher water temperatures mean less oxygen.
"Ultralight is bad," said Haymons, who has found a one-third-higher mortality rate among fish released in warm water. "That may be fine from November to April, but the bay temperature was 90 degrees
the other day."
Haymons also encourages anglers not to cut the yellow streamers off tagged fish they catch. Rather, he asks, write down the tag number, fish length, location and date of catch, then call in the data to (800)-367-4461. This will better allow biologists to track the fish's seasonal movements.
Where to catch (and release) your snook: Knox has been finding the snook in large numbers from the north end of Anclote Key south to Caladesi Island. This week, he and Jim and Eric Ayers released seven of up to 20 pounds in a morning of working live bait in the gulf passes. Farther to the south, the fish are thick near Clearwater Pass and down to Redington Beach, St. Petersburg Beach and Shell Island. They pattern continues around the tip of Mullet Key to Weedon Island and across the bay to Port Manatee _ just about everywhere, actually.
The key is the bait. The fish sometimes will eat only whitebait (scaled sardines); other times, it will take only a live pinfish or grunt. Artificial-lure enthusiasts should bounce jigs near the bottom.