Mike Barrett was convinced an approaching storm had shut down the snook bite. But sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine to turn a day around.
The common snook, largest of the four species of snook found in Florida waters, is prized for its fighting ability and as table fare. Sometimes called “linesiders” by anglers because of its distinctive lateral line, snook gather in the passes and along local beaches during the summer months to spawn.
This top sportfish has been the center of controversy since a series of cold fronts in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts. It was one of Florida’s worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery in a series of regulatory moves through Aug. 31 this year.
But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that the Gulf stocks have recovered sufficiently to reopen the recreational harvest on Sept. 1. Florida’s management of snook is widely considered a conservation success story.
One reason is that over the years, an increasing number of anglers have embraced catch-and-release fishing for snook, even when season is open. The species is particularly hardy in this respect. Studies show that 98 percent of snook, a higher percentage than red drum or spotted sea trout, survive upon release.
Snook are often compared to largemouth bass. Both are ambush predators who use structure to hide from their prey. With snook, the exception comes this time of year, when they are also found in open water, which is why Barrett staked his claim on a sand spit that stuck out into Hurricane Pass.
A baitfish flushed off the grass flat by a swift-moving tide is easy pickings for a hungry snook. The secret is the delivery.
“Our baits are hitting the sweet spot,” I told Barrett, who was beginning to think the approaching storm cell had doomed our outing.
“I think if we wait long enough for the sun to peek out from behind those clouds, the fish will turn on.”
It made sense to me. The rough conditions had made it more difficult to the snook to see the bait fish in the water. So we kept at it, tossing our baits up-current, and then letting the tide carry them into the strike zone.
Then, after 20 minutes of frustration, the sun broke through clouds. The large grass grunt didn’t last a minute in the light before it got nailed by a monster snook.
“Don’t lose it,” Barrett yelled. “This might be the only one.”
The big breeder made three long, hard runs, before it finally gave up. We picked it up and posed for some quick photos, then returned it to the water, moving it back and forth in the surf, to get its gills going. The fish took off in a flash, no worse for the wear.
“I think that’s it for me,” I said as the seas picked up. “They will be here another day.”