Snook appear to have made full recovery in Everglades National Park

The Miami HeraldJuly 16, 2014 

— The fishing near Flamingo in Everglades National Park is so good these days you almost forget about the bloodthirsty insects descending on you and the cloying heat enveloping you the minute you get out of the car.

Snook fishing, in particular, is spectacular for catch-and-release with the harvest season closed until Sept. 1.

Fishing with captain Shafter Johnston of Islamorada and his friend Tyler Vick, I caught and released an estimated 15-pounder near Ponce de Leon Bay casting a root beer-colored D.O.A. Baitbuster along a tide line during low water. We also released four smaller snook and jumped two tarpon to about 100 pounds in the same general area before getting chased back to the dock by thunderstorms.

Summer is also prime time for scientific studies of the popular gamefish that call the region home.

Scientists from Florida International University's Southeast Environmental Research Center led by associate professor Jennifer Rehage are conducting acoustic tagging studies on snook in the remote Shark River system. And researchers from Everglades National Park continue their longtime creel surveys � questioning anglers and reviewing guides' logbooks for numbers and sizes of snook they catch and release in park waters.

Ten months after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lifted a three-year ban on all snook harvest in the Gulf, Keys and Everglades, the popular linesiders seem to be doing just fine in Flamingo, according to the scientists studying them.

"On a general level, I think the snook are doing pretty well in the park," said Tylan Dean, the park's biological resources branch chief. "It looks like the population is holding steady and continuing to improve a little bit."

Added FIU researcher Ross Boucek: "We haven't formally analyzed the data to see if there's complete recovery. I'd speculate there's full recovery now."

Untold numbers of snook died in an extended cold wave that enveloped the state for more than two weeks in early 2010. The Gulf, Keys and Everglades were particularly hard hit, prompting the long harvest closure. Snook on the east coast did not suffer as drastically.

Last year, scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg conducted a stock assessment and found the west coast fishery had recovered enough to reopen on Sept. 1, 2013. Another assessment will be conducted next year.

Meanwhile, the FIU scientists are busy studying how snook respond to changes in fresh water delivery � how increases and decreases in fresh water flow in the Everglades affect feeding and movement patterns. It's an important avenue of research amid the billions in taxpayer money being spent to re-plumb the River of Grass.

To figure out where snook are traveling and when, the researchers are using an existing array of 47 acoustic receivers extending from the headwaters of the Shark River at Tarpon Bay all the way to the mouth at Ponce de Leon Bay. Over the past three years, they've implanted acoustic tags inside the body cavities of 83 snook that ping when the fish swim near the listening stations.

Rehage and Boucek say they've lost several of their study subjects to hungry sharks and others to hungry anglers. But they have enough data from the remaining marine lab rats to learn several important things about snook in the Glades.

For one thing, snook � which require warm, salty water to spawn � do not spawn every year, the researchers say. Similar to the results of studies conducted by colleagues in Charlotte Harbor and along the southeast Atlantic coast, the FIU group has found that some mature snook "skip-spawn" � and they don't spend nearly as much time in saltwater as they do in freshwater.

"Skip-spawning makes a lot more sense in the presence of sharks," Boucek said.

Big slugs of fresh water pouring out of the Glades from tropical systems such as Isaac in 2012 seem to put snook in an amorous mood.

"With rapid changes in rainfall, you see a huge percentage of the population goes to spawn," Boucek said.

So far the scientists haven't pinpointed exactly where the fish reproduce, but they theorize it happens in river mouths or well offshore. They plan to install more receivers to narrow down spawning locations. One surprising finding: spawning has occurred as late as November. Scientists previously figured the breeding season lasting roughly from May to October.

Ron Taylor, a veteran snook researcher at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, is not surprised at some of the new snook findings.

"Five years ago, we were smug in our understanding," Taylor said. "We thought we knew everything. The variations in individual biology are so great, it's almost like you have to study every animal individually. Things are not like we originally thought."

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