Common Snook: Centropomus undecimalis
The common snook, Centropomus undecimalis, is one of Florida's most popular inshore game fish because of its spectacular fighting ability and merit as table fare.
Anglers call the common snook many names, but the two most common are robalo and linesider. The word "snook" comes from the Dutch word "snoek," meaning pike. The majority of anglers pronounce the name as "snook" (like took), but in parts of south Florida, it is pronounced "snuke" (like fluke). Five species of snook occur in Florida:
- The common snook is the largest and most common and is the species caught by most anglers. In Florida waters, it may grow to 48 inches and 38 pounds.
The small-scale fat snook, C. parallelus, which seldom reaches 24 inches, has a squarish-shaped body covered with scales that are smaller than those on the common snook.
The large-scale fat snook, C. mexicanus, was confirmed in 2006. With slightly larger scales and fewer gill rakers than the small-scale fat snook, this species has been found only on Florida's east coast between Sebastian and Jupiter.
- The tarpon snook, C. pectinatus, is another small form with a squarish body, but it has larger scales than the fat snook does and has an upturned mouth, similar to a tarpon's mouth.
- The swordspine snook C. ensiferus, is rare; it is the smallest species and has a disproportionately large anal spine. The four smaller species (2 through 5) are found in south-central and extreme southern Florida, usually upstream in coastal rivers or less saline habitats in upper estuaries.
Common snook are normally found in southern coastal Florida, from about Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast, around the peninsula, to about Tarpon Springs on the gulf coast. The distribution then becomes disjunct, and they are found again from southwest Texas, south along central and south America, to about Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The northern distribution is limited by the 50° F water isotherm, but during warm winters, some individuals may move north of this usual range. In the summer of 1989, after twelve years with mild winters, a 16 pound common snook was caught at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Because this species is associated with land masses that have freshwater rivers, it is principally a continental species, but it also occurs on larger islands that have rivers, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands.
Common snook are moderately long-lived and fast-growing fishes. Females live about 21 years and can grow to lengths of 48 inches. Males live about 15 years and can reach 39 inches. Females attain legal minimum size (26 inches fork length) in about four years, whereas males require five to six years to reach that size. Fifty percent of male snook reach maturity at about 18 inches total length and about two years of age, whereas 50 percent of females are mature at about 30 inches total length and five years of age.
There are no physical differences between male and female snook, so anglers cannot tell the difference between the sexes. In fact, snook are protandric hermaphrodites: meaning the males reverse sex and change into females. This reversal occurs during the fall after the spawning season, sometimes in a short span of ninety days. Microscopic observations of specimens from the Atlantic and gulf coast indicate that the age of individuals at the time of reversal is between one and seven years. Biologists have documented this phenomenon by placing and holding "ripe and flowing" male snook in a pond during the summer and then during the fall, finding some females in the group.
Spawning occurs in Florida from April or May through September or October, depending on annual variations in climate and temperature. Actual release of gametes occurs during the late afternoon and early evening hours on all tides and during all lunar phases. Individual females may spawn every two days and release about one and a quarter million eggs per episode. The mouths of coastal rivers and major inlets to the ocean and Gulf of Mexico have been identified as spawning locations. Some of these sites include Jupiter and Lake Worth inlets on the Atlantic coast and John's Pass and Clearwater Pass on the gulf coast. It has been shown that snook also spawn inside Tampa Bay near the mouth of Terra Ceia and Miguel bays and around the Port Manatee spoil island.
Schools of reproductively active snook may contain as many as four or five hundred individuals that return to the same location each year to spawn. Small immature snook are found in a variety of habitats that range from quiet, mangrove-lined swamps and bayous to freshwater rivers and creeks. Characteristics common to these areas include good water quality, moderate to slightly sloped banks, minimum currents, overhanging vegetation that provides the shade that facilitates capture of prey, and some type of structure, either mangroves, rocks, or pillings, that provides cover. These young-of-the-year snook remain in this habitat until they are about ten to fourteen inches long, at which time they begin to sexually mature and migrate toward the higher-salinity areas of the lower estuary. After they become members of the spawning stocks, they utilize most areas of the estuary over the course of a year.
Mature snook do not normally migrate great distances, especially those on the gulf coast.
However, in the late spring and early summer they leave their over-wintering locations, which are usually in the low-salinity portions of the upper estuary, and move onto their spawning grounds, where they spend the remainder of the summer. Sometime in late summer or early fall they return to the upper estuary, where they remain during the colder winter months. Because snook are tropical fishes, they become lethargic in water less than 65° F and the upper estuary provides sanctuary from some of their major predators-sharks, porpoises, barracudas, and, to some degree, man. Some Atlantic coast snook make longer migrations than gulf coast snook do. For example, snook that were tagged in Jupiter and Lake Worth inlets have been recaptured in the middle Florida Keys. Also, snook that were tagged in Jupiter Inlet have been recaptured in Lake Okeechobee and in Charlotte Harbor, indicating that they crossed the peninsula. Because no tagged Atlantic coast snook have been recaptured in Florida Bay or in the Ten Thousand Islands, it is believed that Atlantic coast snook may use the St Lucie-Caloosahatchee Waterway to cross Florida.
Fishing for Snook
Angling for snook is always challenging and many times frustrating. They readily take both artificial and live bait. Generally, it is best to fish with artificial lures in the winter and to fish with live bait in the spring and summer. Fish for snook when there is current, preferably in the outgoing tide. Likely locations are in cuts between islands, points adjacent to sandbars, and in channels through the flats. On the coldest, windy days, find a bar or sandy bank on the northeast shore of canals or bayous in the upper portions of the bays and work the area well with a Mirror 7-M, Yozuri Crystal Minnow, or plastic grub.
Be careful not to disturb the area on approach, but if you do, move off and return about 30 minutes later. Snook don't move far in the winter and will return later to the same spot. The deeper holes at the mouths and in channels of coastal rivers always contain some lunker snook, and they may be enticed with a live sardine fished at the begining of an outgoing tide. If there is a choice, fish for snook on days when there are four tides; on two-tide days, the currents are slow and the bite is weak or non-existent. In the summer, if you prefer to fish at night, find a dock light that is close to the water and soak a shrimp just at the edge of the light-not in the light, but at the edge of the light. If shrimp are not available, use a goldeneye or chartreuse bomber.
For lunker snook, fish the bridges at night during the first two to three hours of the outgoing tide. Anchor up-current from the bridge or pilings, and cast a live ladyfish, pinfish, or grunt to the base of the structure. You could also try using a chartreuse or red and white Long-A Bomber. Then hang on! To catch the large snook-the large spawning adults-your chances are best around the bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway and inside inlets or the Skyway. Smaller snook are found "inside"-on the flats and around near shore structure. Of course this rule doesn't always hold; some big fish are found in each kind of habitat in each month of the year.
Fishing with fly rods at the beaches near inlets during the peak spawning months can be rewarding also. Walk the beach in the late afternoon on a calm day with the sun at your front and watch for shadows ahead of you in the surf zone. These are probably snook and they will take flies that resemble shrimp or anchovies. Don't cast over or directly at the fish, but cast near it, in front of it. All snook are conservative ambush predators, and won't pursue their prey great distances. When snook fishing, regardless of the terminal tackle, don't hit the fish with your bait, but don't throw it out of reach either.When everything else fails, collect ample sardines and lightly crush a few in your hand and toss them to a likely spot. Then place a nice lively fresh one in the midst. If you can't find sardines or thread herring, tilapia, mojarras, killifishes, or small grunts will work fine. Sometimes small blue crabs will also bring a lazy snook to the strike.
Proper Release Procedure
Release any undersized or out-of-season snook. Research shows that only two percent of released snook die as a result of being caught and released. Releasing your snook with a minimum of handling practically ensures that the fish will be taken again. Fish with crimped barbs for reduced injury. Set the hook immediately so that the hook doesn't pierce an internal organ. Leave the fish in the water while taking the hook out with pliers or a special tool. If you must handle the fish, wet your hands or wear wet cotton gloves. If the fish is exhausted and has lost equilibrium, properly orient the fish and hold it lightly into the current, preferably in the shade. After the fish has gained equilibrium, release him immediately. Do not forcibly move the fish in a jerky back and forth motion. Gently support the fish into the current and release it as soon as possible. Nature can revive the fish much faster than any angler can!
Preparing Your Catch
Once you have ole' linesiders at home, there are two tried and true recipes for your dining pleasure. Skin the fillets, bellies included. If you want to get your money's worth, include the throats and cheeks as well. All of this flesh tastes excellent if the fish is fresh and has been kept iced. Heat corn oil or peanut oil in a deep fryer to 375° F. Cut the fillets into ¾" X 2" pieces and dip them in a beaten egg. Roll these pieces into Italian bread crumbs and drop into the hot oil. Cook until the pieces float. Remove from the oil onto a paper towel and lightly salt. A few drops of fresh lime juice and you are ready to enjoy. The other recipe involves grilling the fillets. Cut them into portion sizes and brush them with olive oil. Make a marinade of lime juice, finely chopped garlic, and olive oil. Place the snook on a medium hot grill in a fish screen. Paint several times with the marianade while turning and lightly browning on both sides. Served with fresh mangrove chutney and hushpuppies. Bon appetit!
Always practice a conservative fishing ethic. During the closed seasons do not keep any snook that you catch. These closures are meant to protect snook during their most vulnerable times: during cold periods and during the height of the spawning season. Throughout the open seasons take no more than you need. Always follow the bag and length limits published in the current, official saltwater fishing regulations.
Releasing large fish helps to build a "trophy" fishery, which means that your chances of catching a large snook are greater if anglers release the larger lunkers. If we all take only what we need, then one day Florida waters may produce a record snook larger than the current world record of 53 lb 10 oz.
Image Credit: Diane Rome Peebles
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