Decimated Florida Snook Population Rebounds

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Capt. Brian Sanders and Gregor Dornau with a snook caught and released fishing in Everglades National Park.

Nearly four years ago, a devastating cold spell decimated Florida’s snook population, especially along the Gulf coast.

Thanks to a quick and smart response by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the snook population is once again healthy.

Snook can tolerate cold water temperatures for a few days, but in January 2010 the cold spell lasted for about 10 days and killed thousands of snook.

The worst carnage was in the shallow, frigid waters of the Gulf coast, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, where so many fish had no access to deeper, warmer water. The effects weren’t as bad on the Atlantic coast, where there was plenty of deeper water that the snook could get to.

Under the guidance of then-FWC chairman Rodney Barreto, the agency immediately closed the snook season statewide. The season reopened along the Atlantic coast in September of 2011 but remained closed everywhere else until this year.

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Capt. Rick Stanczyk and his father, Richard, with a snook Richard caught and released fishing in Everglades National Park

At its meeting this past June, where biologists reported that the Gulf snook population has recovered and is growing, the FWC voted to open the season statewide on Sept. 1.

Recreational anglers fishing waters of the Gulf, the Keys and Everglades National Park can now keep one snook per day measuring 28-33 inches in length. The season is closed from Dec. 1-Feb. 28 and reopens March 1-April 30.

On the Atlantic coast, anglers can keep one snook per day 28-32 inches. The season is closed from Dec. 15-Jan. 31 and reopens Feb. 1-May 31. Catch and release fishing is allowed for snook during the closed seasons.

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Capt. Brian Sanders lands a snook fishing in Everglades National Park

Charter captains like Brian Sanders, who fishes in Everglades National Park along Florida’s Southwest coast, have seen the improvement in snook numbers.

He’s also seen a change in angler attitudes about keeping snook, which are delicious.

Even when the season was open, most anglers released legal-sized snook, which Sanders says are more fun to fight than they are to eat.

“They’re really exciting to catch, they jump, they run,” Sanders said. “They’re a true gamefish.”

Capt. Rick Stanczyk of Islamorada used to spend the bulk of his time fishing for tarpon in Florida Bay and in the backcountry of Everglades National Park.

As snook numbers increased, he has devoted more time to fishing for them.

One of his frequent fishing companions on days when he is not booked is his father, Richard, who pioneered daytime swordfishing in Florida, but who now would rather fish for snook.

“I’ve fished back there a lot with my dad the last few years. I never did a lot of snook fishing as a kid, so it’s kind of him and I learning together,” Rick Stanczyk said.

“For me personally, snook are probably my favorite thing to go for. Casting up in the trees, you never know when you might hook a 15-pounder.”

Stanczyk encouraged his customers to release all their snook when the season was open this fall and they enjoy catching and releasing snook now that the season is closed.

Sanders also has customers who love releasing a dozen or more snook a day this time of year. If they want fish to take home, Sanders puts them on redfish or tripletrail.

One offshoot of the 2010 freeze is that populations of redfish and sea trout, which were better able to deal with the cold temperatures, expanded to fill the void created by the snook die-off.

“Redfishing has really been good the past couple of years,” said Sanders, whose customers might catch and release 30-100 redfish on a good day.

“We are second to Louisiana with our redfishing.  Our tarpon and trout fishing is really good. We catch tripletail.

“Who needs to eat a snook? Let ’em go.”

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Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn't long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.

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