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It's a tale of two coasts for snooks

Large snook are plentiful on the state's east coast, but very rare on the west coast. Biologists are searching for the reasons.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 8, 2001


JUPITER INLET -- Jim Whittington likes a sure thing.

For more than a decade, he has been drifting this pass that feeds the Atlantic in search of snook. Not any old snook. Just the big ones.

"A 40-inch, 25-pounder isn't uncommon over here," Whittington said as he tossed live bait toward the jetty. "During the summer, you can pretty much count on it."

Whittington, a biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute's Tequesta field office, "samples" the local snook population the way the average angler does, with rod and reel. On this summer afternoon, he achieves a level of success that would make most snook fishermen salivate.

"Two, three, four fish with every drift ... this is how it always is," he said. "This is nothing out of the ordinary."

In less than an hour, Whittington and his crew caught and released 10 fish. And they weren't the only ones. Six boats anchored in the same area all enjoyed double and triple hookups during the feeding frenzy sparked by an outgoing tide.

"During the summer, it is normal to have spawning congregations of 1,000 or 2,000 fish," he said. "It is not that we have more snook than the west coast -- we just have more fish in the slot size."

When snook season reopens Sept. 1, fishermen across the state will be targeting fish within the legal range of 26-34 inches long. But while snook that are too big to keep might be the norm on the east coast, anglers on Florida's west coast, especially those in Charlotte Harbor, are hard pressed to catch a fish outside the legal limit.

"The anglers and guides down in Southwest Florida say they just are not seeing the big snook anymore," said Ron Taylor, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "But there seems to be no problem on the east coast. The question is how do we address one problem without creating another."

Last month, state officials held a series of workshops on the west coast to examine management options for the snook fishery. The last time any major changes were implemented was 1999 when the minimum size limit was increasedfrom 24 to 26 inches and officials eliminated the trophy fish allowance.

"There are a lot of options," said Roy Crabtree, director of the state's Division of Marine Fisheries. "It depends on how precautionary you want to be and on how fast you want the stock to recover."

Officials are looking at several options, the most popular of which is reducing the bag limit from two to one per angler. Other options include expanding the closed season to May and/or February or establishing a catch-and-release-only fishery for two or three years.

"It seems that the one fish bag limit would be embraced by the majority of anglers," Taylor said. "They seem to be willing to do it to show their willingness to do the right thing for conservation."

While Tampa Bay's snook population appears to be healthy, researchers don't know why Charlotte Harbor's snook population is in such a precarious state. But the most popular theories involve weather and overfishing.

Snook, as a species, are extremely vulnerable to cold. In one particularly bad year (1989) Tampa Bay lost 60,000 fish. That freeze wiped out 30-50 percent of the local snook population in a matter of days.

Snook prefer temperatures of 74-76 degrees. If the water is colder than 65, snook become sluggish. If it decreases another 10 degrees, they die.

Tampa Bay lies at the northern terminus of the species' range on the west coast. For years, Charlotte Harbor was known for its big snook because the area seldom has killer freezes, unlike Tampa Bay, which experiences one every decade or so.

The worst cold fronts have historically occurred in late December and January, so that is why snook season is closed during those months, when the fish are most vulnerable to predators.

But that changed in January when a killer freeze struck Charlotte Harbor for the first time in years.

"They got hit pretty hard," Taylor said. "People found big snook just floating in the water."

Fishing pressure also has increased. The number of snook tags sold annually has doubled in the past decade.

Today's average angler 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 many charter boat captains favor protecting the larger fish.

Yet it remains a mystery why the east coast produces more "trophy-sized" fish than the west coast.

"It seems to be true with all our saltwater species," Taylor said. "They seem to grow bigger and faster over there than they do here."

One possible explanation is the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream.

"The water over here on average is much warmer than the west coast," said Mike Holliday, a Stuart-based fishing guide who catches about 1,000 snook a year. "In the middle of winter, I can hit a wreck 2 miles offshore and catch snook in 40 feet of water. They are all slobs -- too big to keep -- but they are feeding."

In the dead of winter on the west coast, the snook are in a survival mode, living on stored fat. An angler is hard-pressed to tempt one to bite, even with a lively jumbo shrimp.

"We just have a longer growing season," said Holliday, who regularly fishes both coasts. "The fish have more of a chance to get big."

Taylor said there is biological reason to manage east and west coast populations separately.

"It is an option," he said. "That is something they will take a look at."

State officials will take public testimony when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meets again next month at Amelia Island. But it will be 2002 before any new rules go into effect.

Common snook

(Centropomus undecimalis)

SIZE LIMIT: No shorter than 26 inches or no longer than 34 inches.

BAG LIMIT: Two fish per angler.

CLOSED SEASON: Dec. 15 through Jan. 31; June, July and August.

SPECIAL NOTES: May not be bought or sold; may only be taken by hook and line.

For a complete list of saltwater fishing regulations, go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site at www.marinefisheries.org.

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