The feisty snook's acrobatic aerial maneuvers have made it arguably the most popular target of anglers in Tampa Bay. While snook populations in Tampa Bay are relatively healthy now, the species is still extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and overharvesting. For that reason, restrictions on the number and size of snook that can be taken by fishermen have been increasingly tightened in recent years. Fishermen can help preserve this fixture of Florida's inshore waters by obeying the catch limits and practicing proper catch and release techniques that boost the fish's survival chances after capture.
Juvenile snook depend heavily on estuaries such as Tampa Bay for food and protection from predators. There is much scientists don't know about the early months of a snook's life, but evidence indicates they move into quiet upper reaches of Tampa Bay as larval forms develop into recognizable miniature forms of the adults. These low-salinity creeks and marshes provide shelter, shade and food as they grow and begin to travel more. But even as adults they are not long-distance voyagers, and tagged fish from Tampa Bay stay inside the bay when released.
Snook are long-lived fish: males may live 20 years and females 17-18 years. And they can become very large. The Florida record snook weighed more than 44 pounds, but typical catches are in the 5-8 pound range. Snook on the east coast of Florida tend to be larger overall than their Gulf Coast cousins.
Snook are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning they change from male to female. The sex change happens when male fish reach a certain size, usually 28-30 inches, and is likely a natural adaptation to population imbalances within a group of snook. In other words, because the largest fish are always females, a group that loses its largest fish has therefore lost its mist valuable breeding stock, so some males undergo a sex change to ensure the survival of the group. This sex change can happen in just 2 to 3 months.
As adults, snook of both sexes are commonly found along mangrove shorelines, where they hide among mangrove roots to ambush prey; brackish streams; and in freshwater rivers and canals. In fact, snook have been found far upstream in the bay's rivers because they are equally at home in both fresh and salt water. They also are found in the summer months patrolling area beaches, sometimes just a few feet from swimmers who are totally unaware they are there. They hang out in the surf zone during this time because they spawn in passes along the coast.
Snook are opportunistic feeders, and eat many types of baitfish, as well as shrimp and crabs.
Snook are a warm-water species and are very sensitive to cold. Prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 60 degrees shocks them, making then sluggish and causing their protective slime coating to slough off. When this happens, snook are more vulnerable to infection. A sudden, severe freeze in the Tampa Bay region in the winter of 1990 killed as many as 60,000 snook in the bay.
Today, snook catch rates in Tampa Bay are among the highest in the state. But continuing destruction of their key habitats, especially the low-salinity areas that serve as their nurseries, threatens their long-term health. The increasing numbers of anglers targeting snook also takes a toll: research has shown that 2-5% of all snook taken by anglers die as a result of stress or wounds associated with capture. For this reason, anglers are urged to use barbless or mashed hooks, to handle the fish as little as possible (with wet hands to avoid removing their slime coating) and to release them as fast as they can. Ideally, anglers should not take the fish out of the water but should remove the hook while the fish is in the water by the boat.