Tides   

Loch Ness Snook

Understanding the history of a lake near you.

Titles are important, so using the old Gaelic word for lake seemed appropriate. It is likely that deep (or not so deep) in the recesses of your highly active brain the term Loch Ness is ready to get fired up. The huge lake in Scotland has long held a (likely) mythical sea creature called Nessy. You know, the Loch Ness Monster. That’s not what I’m talking about here, but if I can attract you with a title about Loch Ness Snook to talk about mythical Snook in our freshwater lakes, I’m going to use it. And if you’re reading this, it worked. Now I can tell you about fresh water Snook.

Loch Ness SnookThere are plenty of dragons out there and some might live in a lake near you. And some of those lakes might actually hold Snook.

Slightly Salty

Florida has more springs than any state in the union, and a lot of those springs are near saltwater. Most, if not all, including the aquifer lying underneath us, eventually lead into that same salty and very different world. There are thousands of them that were above ground as recently as 7,000 years ago when the Gulf of Mexico suddenly rose 300 feet. They were all used by indigenous peoples and they all undoubtedly still hold evidence of man’s presence here for twenty thousand years. However, those underwater springs are not the subject of this story. I want to talk about spring fed lakes.

Both worlds have plants, both worlds have fish, and both worlds have a lot of other stuff, but for the most part, freshwater is freshwater and saltwater is saltwater. Where the two meet–estuaries and rivers and spillways–each have their own unique environment, but the fresh side is fresh and the salt side is salt. Bass do not live in saltwater and Snook do not survive in fresh water, right?

Not right. There are places they live together. We’re going to talk about a few of them, but the ones we know about–which we know because we live there now or did live there once–cannot be the only ones. If I had the time, I’d personally research every one of Florida's vast wetlands and the residential areas that now cover them but still hold fish, but I don’t. What I can do is talk about a few lakes that hold Snook right now and will probably be holding Snook in three thousand years. I can also mention a stocked private lake in Costa Rica that was built by a scientist friend of mine that has a thriving Black Snook population. We haven’t found Bass living in brackish salt water, but we know that Snook can live and obviously breed in sweet, fresh water.

Baby Snook

If you live somewhere in the southern half of our state where there is a lake, or what was once a spring feed that reached the saltwater, you can catch Snook in that sweet water. You might not succeed, but they are there. We’ve caught them once we knew they were there.

Lake Maggiore: The Salt Lake

I live on the Pinellas County peninsula, an area with a lot of lakes. In the days before white guys from Europe landed here in Florida, the indigenous people invented fired pottery to carry water, but they still lived near water sources. Just south of my house–less than a mile–is a lake called Crescent Lake. Spring fed, it sits slightly above sea level and is pure cool water all year. Just south of that is Lake Maggiore.

Lake MaggioreLake Maggiore was a salt marsh before it was closed with a small dam in the 1920s.

Although the land here was largely empty fields, just like the natives before them, new residents arriving in Florida wanted to be by the water. The lake began to attract homes, and in 1926, to support the development, the city of St. Petersburg decided to build a dam at the eastern side of the lake where the bay tides made their way into the marsh. The dam let the lake fill with freshwater. Soon after, Black Bass were introduced into the lake and it became a popular fishing site.

A newspaper article from the time described a massive Snook kill that happened following the building of the dam and before the Largemouth Bass were stocked. The article says it was so bad it created a health hazard and the city was forced to clean it up. Over a period of a few years, the lake was allowed to revert back to salt when a drought emptied it. killing all the Bass, then made fresh again when luxury homes started popping up. Today it is fresh and full of fish.

What kind of fish? You can hear them at night. Big Black Bass making that bowling ball splash they make when attacking a surface bait to let you know they’re still eating and eating strong. It’s the popping sounds, though–the feeding Snook–that will really turn your head because it lets you know they are there. In that sweet water are also Bluegill, Black Bass, probably a Catfish or ten thousand, and Snook. You see, back in the 1920s when the city of St. Petersburg figured they would kill all the Snook (nobody ate them back then because without skinning they taste distinctly like Dawn dishwashing detergent), they failed. It seems that Snook can live in freshwater. In fact, they can breed in freshwater. A lot of biologists challenge me when I say this, but the man who knows more about Snook than anybody on the planet–Ken Leber–not only supports the idea that Snook can breed successfully in fresh water, he's the one I mentioned above who built private lakes in Costa Rica where the local Black Snook, closely related to our common Snook, thrive.

Not a Unique Lake

Not all the Snook died when the dam was built. And the ones that didn’t found interested members of the opposite sex that also survived. One fin lead to another, eggs were laid, and despite the fact that tidal flow did not support their normal breeding behavior, there were enough little minnows for them to eat. The cycle is still alive in that lake, and any lakes like it anywhere in southern Florida that were once accessible, however slightly, to salt water before being sealed off can hold the same kind of adjusted Snook. The Loch Ness Snook.

The history of this one lake is not unique. On the north side of Tampa is a development called Bay Port Colony. For eighteen years I lived on that lake. In the 1960s, before mangroves and sensitive watersheds meant anything, springs fed a few estuaries. One is called Rocky Creek and another Double Branch. In between is a cut canal called A-Channel. It enters a series of residential canals that eventually reaches a boat lift. Once upon a time this lift–and the small dam underneath the device–was open. When it was, there were about ten acres of open spring. It now forms a small lake within an upscale residential neighborhood. But it was a lake and it was spring fed.

It still holds Snook, and unless those Snook are fifty years old, they’re descendants of the Snook that got locked into that gin-clear spring water. It stays 72°F year round. There’s also ten pound Black Bass there. They probably eat each other's babies on their way to adulthood, but there are plenty of Bluegill and Crappie to make up for any protein shortage they may encounter. Without Sharks, their biggest enemy is the flocks of cormorant that come to the area each spring and lower the Bluegill population before they leave.

Lake Maggiore 1This entire area was a spring fed lake before the 1970s, when it was largely developed. It’s rich in Indian artifacts and the (now locked and dammed) lake holds both Black Bass and Snook.

Try It

You’re not going to use live whitebait to catch Snook in a lake like you do in saltwater, but they’re still live bait eaters, so use small fish, from minnows to lures that look and act like small fish. We haven’t tried it, but there is a good change a piece of cut lady fish from saltwater would not work. They haven’t been in saltwater for generations, but their taste for salt might very well be implanted in them generationally. The ones we have caught, we caught on topwater at night, so that’s the first thing we would try. You can tell if they’re present by the sound.

Listen for the pops, but watch out for dragons.

Here are a few interesting articles about Lake Maggiore:

  1. Here is one about the dam being removed
  2. Another one about fish kills
  3. Stocking it with Bass
Ken Leber, Snook scientist. And here is Ken Leber, extraordinary Snook scientist.

By: Gary Poyssick



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