TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — With its torpedo shape, mother-of-pearl belly and signature black line slashing from gill to tail, snook command the respect and attention of game fishermen from Cedar Key to the Florida Keys. The fish has such an allure that when the state's snook population nearly succumbed to 11 consecutive days of sub-freezing mornings in 2010 — a freeze that killed off nearly one of every three — the hunters and researchers of snook mounted an unprecedented rescue mission.
Snook seasons were closed across the state and any snook caught was returned to the water in hopes of replenishing the diminished stock. Everyone was on board, even sport fishing guides who made their living angling for the prized gamefish.
"I built my business on snook fishing," said Capt. Billy Nobles, a guide who used to fish exclusively for snook. "They are the most sought-after fish in our area and they've been good to me and my family for 15 years or better. So I'd like to give them a break."
This weekend, anglers and researchers will find out if the snook population took advantage of that break. After three years of closed season for the state's iconic gamefish — the first time that has ever been done in Florida — snook once again become legal to keep in Tampa Bay starting Sunday.
No one is sure what will happen. No one can remember such a devastating cold spell for snook — for weeks afterward, shores were covered with the rotting carcasses of the gamefish. Three-plus years is an eternity when it comes to keeping a season closed for such a popular gamefish, but plenty of people argued one more closed season would be a good idea.
The passion of the debate is no surprise for those hooked by snook.
"It has an allure," Nobles said. "They're like catching a large-mouth bass on steroids. The big ones are really tough to catch and they are fantastic on the table."
"It's an icon," said Ron Taylor, a snook researcher with the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. He becomes animated when he talks about the species and is the coauthor of an extensive profile of the gamefish on the state's wildlife website.
"Snook," he said, "is Florida's fish."
After the freeze in January 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission imposed emergency ordinances that closed snook season throughout Florida. The season has since reopened along the Atlantic coast but remained closed along the Gulf shores because that is where snook took the biggest hit.
Researchers and anglers found snook floating, belly up, across the estuaries of Tampa Bay in January 2010 and figured as much as 28 percent of the population perished during those 11 days. Though many of the casualties were juvenile fish living in shallow water, large snook also died.
"It freaked a lot of people out. It freaked me out," said Capt. Jon Brett, a local fishing guide. "I was out on the water. I saw first-hand what had happened. You could walk across (parts of) the Bay on the dead snook. It was incredible, in a very bad way."
As the day draws near for snook season to finally reopen, researchers say the recovery has been robust, using terms like "spawning potential ratios" and "spawning stock biomass" to back up their arguments.
Some — including those who stand to profit by the opening of the season — say the species numbers are not yet where they should be, that the ban on taking snook should continue.
"The season shouldn't be opened yet," said Nobles, the fishing guide who, before the freezes of 2010 attributed 80 percent of his business to fishing clients who wanted specifically to hook snook.
"We've got a lot of big snook but we're missing" snook measuring around 25 inches, he said. "I personally don't think they have recovered enough yet. I don't have scientific data like spawning ratios or things like that. I just know what I see."
When the ban went into effect, Nobles changed his trips, taking clients farther offshore, looking for different catches in deeper water. It was a difficult transition, but a necessary sacrifice for a fish that had played such a big part in his life.
Now that the snook season is opening, he will return to his old fishing holes in Tampa Bay and the region's estuaries, if his clientele so wishes, but he plans to encourage his anglers to practice catch-and-release when it comes to snook.
"A lot of guides, even though the season will open soon, will not allow snook to be kept on their boats," he said. "And, I will do my damndest to talk (my clients) out of keeping them. I'm a believer in karma.
"I've made a ton of money off those fish," he said. "It's a good relationship. But, like being a farmer, if you don't give something back, pretty soon it's going to dry up."
Snook are found in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico as far south as Brazil. They are abundant as far north as Cedar Key and Cape Canaveral, and Florida is the only U.S. state where they thrive.
The state has collected and relied on data taken from Tampa Bay south to Charlotte Harbor, gathered by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Researchers there concluded that re-opening the season, with the usual restrictions, won't impact the species' return to its glory days. That should happen, they estimate, in about five years.
Among the restrictions: Anglers can take only one snook per person, per day and only if the fish fit into the "slot" — bigger than 28 inches but smaller than 33 inches. That's to protect smaller juvenile fish and the larger breeder fish. Taking snook still is prohibited from Dec. 1 through the end of February and between May 1 and Aug. 31.
"Harvest has been prohibited for more than three-and-a-half years," researchers said in their presentation to the commission in June, "and extending the closure for one or two more years may not result in any great increase in stock size."
Snook are considered a premier gamefish, and the state first banned commercial harvesting of snook in 1985. The only way to legally catch one is with a hook and line. Researchers said that last year, sport fishermen landed 1,034,083 snook in the Gulf, and if they obeyed the law, they released all of them. The record take was in 2005 with nearly 2.4 million snook landed.
"They're not to the abundance level they were in 2009, but they're approaching that," said Taylor, the research institute biologist.
There is a reason fishermen go after snook, he said. "It's a voracious eater, an excellent fighter. And, he said, snook can bring in the dough.
In 2008, an economic study showed that fishermen went out on 1.5 million snook fishing trips in Florida, he said, and each angler dished out an average of $455 for the trip and associated expenses.
"You do the multiplying," Taylor said. "That's what people spend on snook fishing in Florida."
He's not surprised that snook anglers generally backed the closing of the season to replenish the stock.
"If you abide by the rules, this fishery will sustain a normal harvest," he said. "The saving grace is that 95 to 97 percent of all snook caught are released. We harvest only 3 to 5 percent of the catch. That's because snook is an icon. There is respect in the minds of the anglers; a respect for the fish."
Anglers agree that there is something special about landing a sizeable snook.
"On top of being the hardest fighting fish out there," said Brett, the fishing guide who also is Gulf regional director for the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, "they are just beautiful."
He said the state is doing the right thing, that opening the season now won't impede the success the species has made during the past three-and-a-half years.
"I know there is a lot of frustration among fishermen, but based on what the data says, we are going to support what the commission decides," Brett said.
He predicted, based on data gathered by the state, that anglers won't catch a lot of snook between 28 and 33 inches. Researchers said fish that size now mostly are the survivors of the crop that was decimated by the freeze. So, he said, if few snook are taken within that slot, the impact on the recovery will be slight.
During the past three-plus years, serious snook fishermen have gotten used to catching and releasing. Many hope that change in mindset is permanent.
"It boils down to the angler," Brett said. "Everybody goes fishing for different reasons. But for me, one of the most gratifying reasons is catching an oversize snook, releasing it and watching it swim off."
During the past few decades leading up to the freeze, spawning in waters where snook fishing is allowed had steadily increased, said Ken Leber, program manager for marine stock enhancement at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. Since the freeze, though, the numbers have nearly tripled, and that's largely because of the closure of the snook seasons, he said.
"That is a phenomenal recovery of the West Coast stock from the lows in the 1980s and 1990s," he said. "Although the cold kill wiped out a lot of juveniles, the adult stock is healthy enough to maintain juvenile production well into the future. What will be missing in the stock is nearly a full year class of snook, which is expected from time to time."
He also admitted to being hooked by snook.
"Snook is a spectacular sport fish," he said. "It's sleek and beautiful and a cagey fish to catch that is not easily brought to the boat. Snook are like the salmon of southern Florida. To me, catching a big snook is the closest thing I know to catching a big salmon, except snook are foxier and not as easy to land as a salmon."
Catching and releasing is always a good policy when it comes to snook, he said. Why take chances with the fishery?
"There's an opinion out there that goes something like this," he said. "'Snook are too great a sport fish to harvest and eat; if you're fishing for food, you can easily catch plenty of mangrove snapper and sheepshead. We don't have to be eating snook.'"
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com