by Brett Fitzgerald, SGF Executive Director
It's chilly out there. In fact, it's downright cold in some of Florida's typically balmy coastal regions. Whether you appreciate the break from the heat or you are suddenly longing for our typically warm weather, it is worth taking a minute to think about how the weather impacts our snook and other tropical fish.
For many, the current dip in weather immediately reminds us of how badly snook were impacted back in 2010. Luckily, the current weather event is not projected to be nearly as impactful. Back then, we had freakishly cold temperatures for over a week, with drizzling rain and consistent wind. That led to a lot of 'cold kill' fish deaths.
So far, this event is shaping up to be less severe for a few reasons. First, it shouldn't last nearly as long. Water cools much slower than the air, so a couple days of chilly nights and cloudy days is far less damaging than a week or more. It also has been a little cooler for a few days, which might have provided a signal for snook up in shallower waters to skedaddle to deeper, safer waters before the chill sets in.
Another difference between this snap and 2010 is the wind direction, which has a bigger impact on the fish along the west coast. Waters from the Everglades up through the Tampa area are a lot more shallow than on the east coast, where deeper waters - warmed from the tropical Gulf Stream - are right next door to many fish hang-outs.
If you'll recall, the 2010 freeze featured consistent NE winds which blew the west coast tides out and never let them come back in. That trapped a lot of snook in the shallow back country, where they froze by the tens of thousands. If the current winds hold, there might be enough water in the cuts and runs for snook to head to the safety of warmer, deeper waters for a few days.
All that said, there will be cold related fish kills over the next week or so, and many of them will be snook. As usual, you can expect to see more of that along the northern fringes of the snook populations.
Usually, as the trapped snook start to chill, they will slow down and start to swim erratically near the surface, then eventually roll on their side or back and lay still in a stunned state. If it is only a short cold snap and the sun warms water right away, they might survive - at least for a while. But more than likely this leads to death.
As retired FWC snook guru Ron Taylor has pointed out to me many times in the past, many snook that survive the initial cold blast end up dying within a few weeks because their slime coating and/or immune system is damaged, and they are more susceptible to parasites and diseases.
If you are on the water a lot, you will probably see some stunned or dead snook. Here's what you should do.
First, don't touch them. If they look dead, they might not be and bothering them in their severely stunned state won't be doing them any favors. And if they are dead and an FWC officer happens to find out you are grabbing them up, you won't be doing yourself any favors either.
Speaking of FWC, I was recently reminded that the winter closure in Florida is directly related to weather events just like this. SGF member Capt. Danny Barrow called me after he filmed an episode of "XGEN Fishing Show" with owner Andy Alvarez, and they were talking about snook closed seasons on the show (https://vimeo.com/channels/xgenfishing). A question arose as to exactly why there is a winter closure. A quick call to Jim Whittington at FWC reminded us that the closure was originally put in place because of weather events just like the one we are experiencing. It is illegal to harvest cold-stunned or killed snook, for a variety of reasons (which we hope are obvious to you). To keep FWC officers from having to investigate every snook they encounter in a cooler during an extreme cold snap, it was agreed that the most prudent move would be to eliminate any harvest, making life better for our officers, our snook, and in the long run us snook anglers too.
Back to What-To-Do: Your second move should be to report the killed fish to FWC's Fish Kill hotline. You can do this by phone (800-636-0511) or online at http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/health/fish-kills-hotline/. This is actually better than calling your regional FWC office, even if you know there are snook researchers there. The reason is, the hotline is where the information is consolidated across the state, and that is the source of info that will tell the regional offices where to look for issues.
- 1. Finally, this little snap needs to serve us all as a reminder of the importance of logging all of our catches in iAngler, using the app or website (www.angleraction.org). The 2010 snap is what started the iAngler program in the first place. Since then, the data has been used in stock assessments for a variety of species in Florida, and has branched out to help other fisheries better their understanding of the fisheries (most recently Atlantic Red Snapper). But it only works if we log our catches. It's free, and it is a superior personal log book for you. Visit your app store and download the free app, iAngler, and start logging ASAP. This will help across all facets of fishery conservation, including how best to respond after a cold episode like this one.
In summary: Keep your eyes open for stunned or killed fish for the next couple weeks. Report fish kills to FWC. And log your catch in iAngler!
Brett Fitzgerald served as Chairman from 2009-2011, and as Regional Director (SouthEast) for three years prior. He is a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor at in the Palm Beach County school system for 16 years where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Brett served in the United States Army in both Intelligence and as a Paratrooper with Special Forces Operations. He attended University of South Florida and holds a Bachelor's and a Masters degree in Communications Sciences and Disorders. He is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman. Brett was chosen as Snook and Gamefish Foundation's 2009 Person on the Year for his accomplishments on behalf of inshore fishing, and in that year he also completed the book, Sportsman's Best: Snook.