MANATEE -- Snook used to be called "soapfish" because its skin tasted soapy. They were used for fertilizer.
Then someone peeled all the skin off and cooked the rich meat underneath. From that moment, snook became prized, said Neil Taylor, a snook expert out of Safety Harbor.
"Florida is known for tarpon, snook and grouper," Taylor said. "But grouper is groceries, fantastic eating. Snook are above-average eating and have fight. They are a good opponent. Their sheer power and speed is in a class by itself. And they have that beautiful black stripe down the side."
Snook also are at the center of a controversy.
In June, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to reopen Florida waters to recreational snook fishing beginning Sept. 1.
Snook fishing has been closed for more than three years since a massive number died during a five-day stretch during a 100-year freeze in January 2010 where air in Florida warmed to a high of only 49 degrees, Taylor said.
Some snook survivors found the heat of deepwater springs and power plant runoff, Taylor said. Many others froze to death.
Guides such as Taylor and Capts. Rachel Nobbe-Cato of Terra Ceia and Scott Moore of Holmes Beach applaud the snook recovery. But those same captains say they are angry the FWC is not allowing more time -- two years at least -- before reopening the vulnerable and recovering snook fishery.
A group of concerned captains will
hold an emergency meeting Tuesday morning at the FWC office in St. Petersburg to discuss the matter, Taylor said.
"I do believe that the species can return to prominence and be a sustained species again, but I am not alone in questioning this decision," Taylor said. "I can honestly say that I am disappointed still with our numbers of this species. I would enjoy seeing this decision overturned and the species given a longer reprieve. It's really disappointing to think of the 3.5 years of recovery being eradicated by this ruling."
FWC officials say research reveals snook spawning has been successful the last two years and populations have recovered. There are strict catch limits in place and snook appreciation is soaring to such a degree that catch-and-release has become part of snook culture, they say.
Amanda Nalley, FWC spokeswoman, said the decision to reopen snook to fishing was based on "numbers that are exceeding management goals."
"We also have protections in place to protect snook, like a one fish per person, per day limit," Nalley said. "And a lot of people now prefer to catch-and-release snook. In fact, our research reveals snook has a 90 percent to 99 percent release rate."
Moore, who grew up in Manatee County and lives in Holmes Beach, is considered the grandfather of snook fishing in the area. He takes charters into Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
Moore said some areas could be fished for snook, including Lemon Bay and Charlotte Harbor, but Tampa Bay is definitely not one of them.
"Here in Manatee County, we live on the most northern range of snook," Moore said. "We lost 80 percent to 90 percent of all our snook below 32 inches. Terra Ceia got hit hard and the Manatee River got hit really hard. From Port Manatee to Sarasota Bay snook got hit really hard. Snook survived in the upper reaches of Tampa Bay in deeper water and around the power plants."
Moore said snook didn't spawn well the first year after the historic freeze.
"Some didn't come out of the rivers," Moore said. "The second year they got a good spawn. But the problem is regional. There are plenty of fish now in Lemon Bay. Charlotte Harbor is completely different from Tampa Bay. The freeze really messed with the fish. We are seeing snook in places we never saw snook."
Moore said snook are most plentiful now in Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. But that shouldn't be, he said.
"Homosassa Springs is out of the snook region completely," Moore said. "They have thousands of snook there."
Snook can be taken beginning Sept. 1 at 28 to 33 inches, a measurement known as "the slot," said Nobbe-Cato.
"There are huge numbers of breeding snook that are now in the slot," Nobbe-Cato said. "We have the potential to remove those females that are breeding and it will set things back. I would say, give it two years and let some of these fish grow out of the slot and become the new over-slot breeding fish."
Nobbe-Cato said she used to be able to catch 60 to 80 snook in Manatee County waters during a season. Now, she figures this season she will catch about 10 snook, she said.
She said the FWC is basing its decision on snook counts out of the Everglades and Southwest Florida, where numbers are higher.
"The quantity is not out there in Manatee County waters," Nobbe-Cato said.
Many captains are so protective of snook, they say they won't recommend clients take them, even though catching fish is what they are hired to do.
"I will not support any removing of snook," Nobbe-Cato said. "Although I can't keep people from what they are legally allowed to do, which is one snook per person per day, I don't feel right about it. It's my occupation and how can you do something that is not good for the long haul?"
Said Moore: "I am 62. I may live to see the day when snook are like they were before 2010. But my philosophy now is, 'Save a snook, catch a grouper.' For every snook in Florida waters, there are 1,000 groupers. I am asking my customers to release the snook or limit their snook catch to two fish if there are four people in the boat. I am telling them to go for the groceries and catch grouper instead."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.