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A Florida Fish Story

The snook is a muscular torpedo of a fish given to reel-screeching runs and hook-throwingSnook, Florida Aquarium acrobatics.  Probably only tarpon and bonefish rival it in the esteem of Florida’s coastal anglers. Yet it is revealing that you will find The Florida Aquarium’s snook in two exhibits: The Wetlands Trail and Bays and Beaches. The locations convey its ability to survive in both fresh and salt water. 

Eric Hovland, Aquarium associate curator, said snook are unlike some species that may be born in fresh water and return to spawn, but otherwise remain in salt water. He explained, “The snook can go straight into fresh water and back. They are not like salmon. They are more transient.” In general, snook fry and juveniles inhabit bays and rivers, finding sanctuary in the mangroves and shoreline vegetation. They move to the flats as they grow, and large females spawn during the summer in passes and along beaches. However, depending on the temperature and food supply, mature snook can be found virtually anywhere in coastal waters, including reefs, grass flats and the upper reaches of a river.

When I was a kid, my uncle, Ed Campbell, one of the best fishermen I’ve ever known, amazed everyone in our Wellswood neighborhood by catching a 17-pound snook in the Hillsborough River under what is now the Martin Luther King Bridge. It attacked a Zara-Spook, a top-water lure that, to be effective, has to be retrieved with “walk-the-dog” twitches that jerk the lure side to side like a crippled fish. I never quite mastered the skill, despite Uncle Ed’s mentoring, and found more success with other lures (especially MirrOlures and D.O.A. plastic shrimp) and live bait. 

Hovland says snook can live 20 years or more. That is about the age of the seven Aquarium snook (four in the Wetlands and three in Bays and Beaches), which were obtained as fingerlings from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They’ve have grown upwards of three feet, a trophy in the wild. But Hovland says their robust size should not surprise: “They get free health care, safe habitat and safe food.”

The Aquarium’s snook are fed cut fish, squid, shrimp and such. The food is first frozen, which virtually eliminates the possibility of contamination. Aquarium fish are never fed live creatures, which could carry disease or parasites. But Hovland says the staff strives to make feeding an “enrichment” experience, explaining, “We don’t just dump the fish at one end of the exhibit, but put it in at different sides encouraging exercise and hunting behavior. We also accustom them to swimming into a rubber-mesh net that we use to catch them for examinations by having them swim through a bottomless net to get to their food.” The Aquarium always makes sure a fish is with other fish, as it would be in the wild.

According to Hovland, “We even have real mangroves in the Wetlands habitat. And we try to keep changing the environment, whether it is someone cleaning the plexiglass or replanting plants. There is always something going on to keep them interested.” Such practices stimulate the fish. Hovland jokes, “We are not reading them poetry. We try to let fish be fish.” Predators such as sharks, and particularly dolphin, will eat snook. But a healthy adult snook, fast and wary, is no easy target, though anglers should take care that their catch has sufficiently recovered before releasing it.

The hardy snook, so tough on tackle and anglers’ arms, does have a critical weakness: cold. Hovland says you can draw a line roughly from Crystal River across the state and south of that is the extent of its range, though there are, obviously, plenty of exceptions. Snook is also found in Southwest Texas and Central and South America. “It’s pretty much the frost line,” he said. “Snook start getting uncomfortable when the water gets to 50 degrees.” Prolonged freezes can be deadly. Biologists estimated one-third of the snook population died in 2010 when there were 11 consecutive days of freezing temperatures. Truckloads of juvenile and adult fish perished.

Sometimes cold-shocked snook appear to be dead, but will recover when the water temperature rises, which is why stunned fish should be left alone immediately after a cold snap. The 2010 freezes unfortunately didn’t provide many reprieves. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission promptly imposed an emergency statewide ban on taking snook. It later was lifted for the East Coast, which was spared the worst weather, but remained in effect on hard-hit Gulf of Mexico waters until 2013, when the snook season was reopened, albeit with tighter regulations than those in place before the freezes.

The Gulf snook season now prevents keeping a snook between December 1 and the end of February and between May 1 and August 31. The winter closure is intended to protect the fish during cold months when they may be lethargic. The summer closure is aimed at protecting spawning fish. Only one fish can be kept by a fisherman during the open season, and it must be at least 28 inches and not more than 33 inches. Many charter captains, appreciating the sportfish’s value and vulnerability, discourage keeping any. The state’s management appear to be successful, and biologists report the snook population has rebounded, though this year’s persistent red tide may prove a setback to Gulf of Mexico fish. The FWC is allowing only catch-and-release snook fishing this fall in areas with red tide.

The snook’s best known feature is the black lateral line down both its sides. Indeed, snook are often called “linesiders.” Most fish have lateral lines, but not as distinctive as the snook’s. The lateral lines help the fish “hear” vibrations in the water. Hovland likens it to how the breeze feels blowing through the hairs on your arm. “If a fish is struggling nearby, they will know it,” he said.  Florida actually has five kinds of snook. The well-named “common snook” is the largest and most widely distributed. Smaller and far less common are the large-scale fat snook, the small-scale fat snook, the swordspine snook and the tarpon snook. All have the black lateral line.

Hovland said the snook is a “protandric hermaphrodite.” “Sometime between one and seven years, the male changes into a female,” he explained. This occurs with some other fish. “The clownfish does the same. Some fish change back and forth.” But with the snook, Hovland said with finality, “daddy changes genders.” This means a fish may fulfill both breeding roles during its life. This also means all smaller snook are males. The term “snook,” Hovland found, derives from the Dutch work “snoek” for pike, not surprising given the given the snook’s resemblance to a pike. Both have what Hovland terms a “duckbill.” There are no teeth in its primary jaws, but a snook does have teeth for gripping inside its mouth. This ensures, Hovland said, prey is given “a one-way trip.”

The snook also has a razor-sharp gill plate that fisherman ignore at their peril. I found that out the hard way many years ago wade fishing along Cockroach Bay’s mangrove islands. I fought a decent snook to the shore, and just as I reached to grab his jaw, he swirled, cut the line and began struggling through the shallows. Being young and stupid, I impulsively jumped as the fish neared freedom, miraculously nabbing it but slicing my hand. I didn’t care. This was a snook, after all, and I had not caught many.  My wife still recalls the ridiculous sight of me jubilantly carrying the fish in my bloody hands, as if I’d accomplished something. The antics embarrass me now.

This remarkable fish possesses another memorable characteristic. As former The Tampa Tribune Outdoors Writer Frank Sargeant once observed in his excellent, “The Snook Book:” the “snook is found in some of the most beautiful ecological country our nation has to offer.” It likes clean water, wild mangroves and abundant grass flats, so keeping a healthy snook population requires maintaining a healthy coast, something that should be a priority for all Floridians.

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune