By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The recent chilly weather has wreaked havoc with local fish populations. In a period of 48 hours last week, state officials received more than 50 calls concerning fish kills up and down the coast.
Plummeting temperatures have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ladyfish, jack crevalle and snook. But it is the last species, the coveted linesider, that causes anglers the most concern.
Historically, the worst cold fronts occur in late December and January. That's why state officials changed the closed season for snook to Dec. 15-Jan. 31, to protect these fish when they are most vulnerable.
Snook don't like cold water. They prefer temperatures of 74-76 degrees. If the water dips below 65 degrees, snook become sluggish. If it drops another 10, they die.
One of the worst fish kills occurred Dec. 31, 1989. More than 60,000 snook died and it took years for the population to recover.
Local snook are particularly vulnerable to changes in weather. Tampa Bay lies at the northern terminus of the species' range and that is why we don't have the big snook like Charlotte Harbor, which seldom sees a killer freeze.
The best-case scenario is a good cold front early in the season. This sends the snook on the move to their winter haunts in the protected rivers and creeks. Then, if a subfreezing front hits in January or February, the snook are acclimated.
The snook fishery has continued to improve in recent years, thanks to sound management by the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission. Biologists at the Florida Marine Research Institute have used the data they accumulated over the years through tagging studies and field research to build a quality fishery.
The majority of snook anglers today are conservation-minded and practice catch and release, particularly with the larger, breeding fish.
Today's average angler also is more sophisticated. Ten years ago, the only hope many anglers had of catching a snook was to hire a guide. Now, thanks to the countless seminars offered by fishing organizations and tackle stores, everybody knows how to catch snook.
That is why it is so important that the large fish be released. The big ones are always females. A male snook 24 inches long (the minimum legal size limit is 26 inches) is usually 4-9 years old. A female of the same size is usually 3-5 years old.
Even though snook season is closed, many anglers still target the species this time of year in areas that hold warm water, such as residential canals with mud bottoms.
Despite their vulnerability to cold, snook usually survive after being released by anglers. Studies show that only 11 of 271 (2.2 percent) of snook caught and released into observation pens and held for 48 hours died.
But these were healthy snook. A cold snap can easily stun these fish and anglers might see them moving slowly on the surface, or even floating belly up.
These fish, however, might still recover once the sun comes up and the water warms. So leave them alone. Snatching or snagging snook is not only unethical, but illegal.
Anglers fishing during winter might come across a tagged fish. Don't attempt to remove the tag, but copy down its number. Make a note of the date, location and an estimated size and weight of the fish. Then call FMRI's fish tag hotline at (800) 367-4461.