By Terry Gibson

Common snook, (Centropomus undecimalus) are a Florida celebrity. Within the waters of the United States, except for a small fishery in Texas, these wily, aggressive, delicious fish almost exclusively inhabit the coastal ecosystems of the southern half of the Florida peninsula.

This late in the summer, snook hookers planning to fish along the Atlantic Coast have made arrangements with an expert guide or are doing their own scouting ahead of the Florida snook season opener, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on September 1st. The season remains open until midnight, December 15.

During the open season, anglers possessing a Florida saltwater fishing license and snook stamp may keep one fish per day, as long as it is between 28 and 32 inches in length, measured from the chin to the tip of the tail (total length). All summer, we've enjoyed superb catch-and-release fishing for the species and their close relatives, the small-scale fat snook, large-scale fat snook, swordspine snook, and tarpon snook.  And we're champing at the bit for the chance to bring a fish home for a feast.

The season-opener anticipation is part of the fun. Anglers share a strong common passion for the species, and through organizations including the Snook & Gamefish Foundation, we work with managers to ensure that the fishery remains robust. Most anglers come to appreciate the cautious snook regulations once they learn about the species' unique biology and other management challenges that we face in ensuring a longterm, robust snook fishery. There are several challenges.

First, keep in mind that the Gulf and Atlantic populations are distinct and must be managed separately. For now, the Gulf Coast snook fishery remains closed to harvest. Several protracted freezes a few winters ago substantially reduced both populations. But the impacts along the Gulf Coast were severe enough that the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recently opted to protect that population until they have more confidence that the population has stabilized.

While historically the size limits, bag limits and seasons have been slightly different in the Gulf and Atlantic, the guiding management principles are the same.

The bag limit is one of the most important snook regulations in terms of preventing "overfishing," which is defined as removing fish from populations faster than they can reproduce themselves. It is currently one fish per day along the Atlantic coast, during the open seasons.

The closed seasons are also important. Snook are one tough fish, except when it comes to the cold. Managers give the species a break during the coldest months of winter, when they are most vulnerable to potentially lethal water temperatures brought on by cold snaps. They are also protected during most of the spawning snook season, which occurs from May through September. Along the Atlantic Coast, the fish are protected during June, July and August--the peak spawning months. Protecting fish while they're reproducing is a scientifically sound and common-sense approach to ensuring great fishing year-in and year-out.

The size limits, or "slot," is what puzzles anglers the most. But it reflects a scientific understanding of the snook's fascinating reproductive strategies. Florida snook are protandric hermaphrodites. The fish are all born males, and a small minority of the males reverse sex to become females once they reach a certain age and/or size--somewhere around 22 inches.

Obviously, we have to protect the most successful breeders. The 28- to 32-inch slot is designed to allow anglers to harvest sizeable fish while protecting the older, larger females, which are the most fertile fish. Also, males reach sexual maturity earlier than females, within two to three years, vs. three to four years. A 28-inch male has spawned many, many times. Since the majority of the population is comprised by males we can harvest a limited number of older males and younger, less productive females while maintaining a healthy breed stock.

There's good news for Florida snook and anglers. A recent assessment of the Gulf and Atlantic populations shows that on both coasts the species is responding well to temporary closures put into place after the 2010 freezes.

Snook faired better on the Atlantic side because of the influence of the warm, Gulf Stream current. The Stream comes so close to the coast from Palm Beach southward that water temps didn't plummet to lows capable of causing fish kills.

From Jupiter northward, it seems that a significant percentage of adult breeders managed to escape their wintertime haunts in the backcountry shallows for warmer ocean water in the nick of time. Large schools of big fish also inhabitat offshore reefs and wrecks, in water that rarely if ever gets cold enough to kill these fish.

Since Gulf coastal waters aren't directly influenced by the warm Gulf Stream Current, and plummeted to lethally low temperature, the Gulf population was hit harder. That's why the FWC commissioners decided to keep the fishery closed to harvest at least through 2012.

And stay tuned for season-opener tips on locations and tactics.