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Snooking

by Andrew Furman


“The Fish I observed here mostly, were what we call Snooks, neither a Sea fish nor a fresh Water fish, but very numerous in these salt Lakes.” So observes William Dampier in his 1699 travel narrative documenting his voyage to Australia and New Guinea, one of the first British voyages of discovery and the earliest known written mention of a fish called snook. At least since 1791, you could “cock a snook” at someone if you wished to deploy a derisive gesture. You can play snooker if the mood strikes, a billiards game in which opponents use a white cue ball to pocket other balls (fifteen red and six colored) in a set order. You wouldn’t want to be a schnook, from the Yiddish: a patsy, dolt, sucker, sap, milquetoast. Nor would you want to be snookered: thwarted, tricked, enticed, trapped. But you might be a Snook, if that happens to be your surname. 164 Snooks fought for the Union during the United States Civil War; only six fought for the Confederacy. One Snook, first name Kelly, apparently lives in my little burg today.

Livies work best. Try a pilchard, pinfish, mullet, or greenie, quivering beneath a popping cork. Or a brown shrimp pierced across its horny ridge on an eighth-ounce jig. Quarter-ounce in stiff current. Cut-bait works in a pinch. Ladyfish. Heads or tails. Or go artificial. Topwater plugs and poppers on cool mornings. Skitterwalk, zara spook, super spook, popa dog, glad-shad, bangolure, high rollers. Mind your retrieve. Walk the dog. Switch to suspending twitchbaits once the sweat beads on your lip. Bomber long A, goldeneye, cisco kid, X-rap, rat-l-trap, crystal minnow. Young guns favor soft plastics. Jerkbaits, Texas-rigged and weedless, dunked in Carolina lunker sauce. Paddletails, splittails, curlytails, shadtails, baitbusters, worms, frogs, what have you. Don’t forget your colors. Natural presentations a good rule of thumb. Match the hatch. Rootbeer or motor oil for daylight dark bottoms; gold flake at night. Chartreuse, all else fails. Salts swear by white bodies and red heads.

Centropomis undecimalis. Common name: snook. Salts pronounce its common name to rhyme with “Luke,” but from the mouths of most anglers the name rhymes with “book.” Snook range in color from amber to silver, depending on how much shrimp they’ve been eating. The snook boasts big yellowish fins. A dark lateral line streaks down the length of its body on both sides and accounts for one of its more popular aliases (linesider), while its long tapered head and underslung jaw accounts for another nickname (bucketmouth). Common at 18-35" long but individuals may reach 55" and weigh nearly 50 pounds. Imagine a really long bass stretched absurdly at the snout before a funhouse mirror and you have the general idea.

Discovering a few years ago that a fish called snook actually lurked beneath my feet in the sulfurous mangrove estuaries, concrete canals, and dredged inlets blocks from my home was sort of like discovering that a bird named snipe existed. I had to lay eyes on that skulking bird some ten years ago in a nearby wetland—and did, and do. I had to catch this fish, but haven’t. It’s not from a lack of trying.

I’ve done the research. I’ve sat at the knees of Florida’s most venerable fishing writers, reading cover-to-cover Frank Sargeant’s authoritative The Snook Book (1991) and (somewhat presumptuously) The Masters Book of Snook (1997), as well as Vic Dunaway’s Complete Book of Baits, Rigs & Tackle (2002) and his encyclopedic Sport Fish of Florida (2004); I’ve maintained subscriptions to Florida Fishing Weekly, Florida Sportsman Magazine, and Florida Sport Fishing. When my wife’s attention flags, I sneak new issues of Shallow Water Angler into our shopping cart at the grocery store. I watch the Florida Fishing Report television show every Thursday night and scribble notes as the legendary Captain Rick Murphy and his congenial, crackerjack fishing cronies throughout the state offer the latest information on this most elusive piscatorial prize. I regularly comb the Snook Foundation website for angling tips. (Visitors to the site can also locate a professional guide, share snook photos, buy snook paintings, sculptures, license plates and decals, learn about local snook events, such as the Surfin’Snook Summer Jam concert, brush up on the ever-changing snook regulations, or report violations they might have observed at their local docks.) I eavesdrop daily on the Florida Sportsman Fishing Forum website, where members with user-names such as Joe Snook, Playin’ Snooky, Snook Shaker, Joe Snook, and Snook Daddy offer their most recent digital photos and fishing reports. Anglers at one end of the disclosure spectrum share the exact location, time, and go-to bait with their snook-drunk brethren, while anglers at the other end of the spectrum use Photoshop to superimpose, say, the New York City skyline behind their catch so that no one can horn in on their honey hole.

Salts use simple spoons. Johnsons and Krocodiles. Copper in stained streams; silver in gin-clear passes and channels. Skip them like stones beneath mangrove ceilings. You’ll need strong terminal tackle. Ditch mono for braid, though watch out for wind-knots. A five-foot stretch of fifty-pound fluoro to breast the mangroves, bridge pilings, and razor-sharp gill plates. Stout hooks too. No light wire. Most prefer the J-style over newfangled circles, the occasional esophageal or stomach puncture be damned. Wet your knots for strength—no need to snell—before tightening. Try the palomar, loop, trilene, surgeon’s, or uni. A simple clinch knot works fine too.

If anyone deserves to catch a linesider by this time, I figure it’s me. Yet I haven’t gotten so much as a strike, a bite, a nibble, or even a window-shopper far as I can tell. Snook are still just a rumor to me, as much fuss as everyone seems to make over them. For I haven’t so much as witnessed someone else catch one of these prized creatures. Instead, I’ve had my ear bent plenty, haunting my local boat docks and fishing piers at darkest night, when linesiders purportedly bite—hook, line, and leader extra stealthy under a sheet of black water. Something I’ve noticed about late-night dock fishing in south Florida amid the mewling feral cats and raccoons: it’s tough going. You have to put in your time to catch much of anything for the dinner table, much less the single, slot-sized keeper snook to which you’re entitled, per day, during its intermittent open season. Swordfishermen rambling into the boat dock at night in their souped-up trucks seem to know this too and cast pitying looks my way as they lower into the drink their behemoth offshore vessels, festooned with gargantuan electric reels and menacing gaffs.

To go swording, head for deep water, clear out into the gulfstream. Clear full-moon nights and the swords rise up the column some. Drop mops of defrosted squid on stout 8-aught J-hooks under glow-lights (purple, chartreuse, pink, what have you) 500 feet down. Or deeper. No closed season but only one fish per person to a maximum harvest of three per vessel. So bring at least three people, even if one just sleeps in the cuddy. Minimum size 47" lower jaw fork length, the straight-line measurement from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail. Report all landed fish to NOAA within 24 hours. 800-894-5528. HMS permit required.

The latest snook regs: Closed seasons December 15th-January 31 statewide; June, July, August in the Atlantic; May June, July, and August in the Gulf, Keys, and Everglades National Park. Only one fish per harvester. Slot-size 28-32" Atlantic-side; 28-33" in the Gulf, Keys, and ’Glades. It’s illegal to buy or sell snook. Spearing or snatch-hooking prohibited. State regulations apply in Federal waters. Two-dollar snook permit required when saltwater license required.

You need not notify the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration once you land a snook, but the regulations for harvest are far more restrictive on the whole than the regulations for swordfish. That said, you don’t need a fancy boat or a big expensive rod to catch a snook. You don’t even need a saltwater license if you fish from shore. Unlike the deep bluewater specimens mostly targeted by the Florida boat crowd—swordfish, mahi mahi, tuna, wahoo—the snook haunt our inshore waters within easy range of beach, bridge, and dock, making themselves available to anyone with a rod and reel. While they treasure the mosquito-ridden redoubts deep in the ’Glades, they also stack up to ambush prey in our most urban canals, making snook one of the few inshore fish to have survived the rampant development along my stretch of inshore waterway. (Long gone, the redfish and seatrout, both of which rely more heavily on cordgrass and spartina, dredged up years ago in my immediate environs to make room for deep-water boat channels, wooden docks, and concrete seawall.) The snook’s accessibility summons the broadest spectrum of Floridians, from genteel fly-fishermen who stalk their prey from costly technical poling skiffs to adolescent boys and girls who wet their lines in backyard canals along scruffy, weed-choked banks. It’s the most democratic of fish. Which isn’t to say that linesiders are easy to catch. Prone to what angler’s call “lockjaw,” snook are notorious for turning up their noses at a squirming shrimp plopped down perfectly in their field of view. I suppose you can say that the snook give everyone equal opportunity not to catch them.

Now that we play fair, anyway. Now that we use hook and line.

Truth is, the snook’s inshore habitat—its cavorting with us hominids—hasn’t exactly played out to its advantage. During the 1940s and ’50s in Florida (the lean war years and immediately following, when protein sources were scarce and of value) commercial harvesters deployed their haul-seines and gill-nets from shorelines with cataclysmic success. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that between 1941 and 1955, commercial fishermen harvested an average of nearly 500,000 pounds of snook annually. The fish stock declined so rapidly during this period—mostly on account of the shoreline commercial harvest, partly on account of the rampant development just underway in Florida, transforming the snook’s prized mangrove shoreline into concrete canal—that the state legislature instituted the first meaningful regulations in 1957, setting a recreational bag limit of four snook per day, making legal capture of snook by hook and line only, and closing the commercial snook fishery entirely. If you’ve never heard of a fish called snook—as I hadn’t until a few years ago—it’s probably because you’re not so long in the tooth, and so the snook, unlike the swordfish, has never been a candidate for your dinner plate. Which doesn’t mean it’s not mighty tasty.

Snook boast ample “shoulders” (anglers revel in personification), which yield thick white fillets, succulent beyond compare—at least so I’ve heard. In Sport Fish of Florida, Dunaway describes the fillets as “mild yet flavorful . . . ranked at the top of nearly everyone’s list of favorite fish.” A quick internet search reveals euphoric exchanges of snook recipes among anglers, including Vickie’s snook parmesan, Lance Boutcher’s snook sandwiches, barbecue snook, snook salad, herb baked Florentine snook, beer-battered snook, Cajun snook, southwest Florida broiled snook, snook fillets with oyster sauce glaze. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission weighs in with its own culinary recommendations on its website, which appear, somewhat ironically, just after a paragraph on proper release procedures. “Skin the fillets, bellies included,” reads one of their recipes:

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 3/4" 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. 

I catch and eat fish. It’s part of what got me into this snook mess in the first place. Having then lived in Florida for a decade, chastened by stories of commercial long-lines and depleted fish-stocks (swordfish anyone?), and having read my Frances Lappé, my Michael Pollan, I decided that it was time to develop a more intimate relationship with my food. Some words of my wife’s deceased stepmother, a vegetarian, also belatedly echoed in my mind. “My grandparents lived on a farm and slaughtered their own chickens,” she had mentioned to me years ago over an impossibly spicy Indian meal she had prepared. “They tried to teach me to cut their throats, but I couldn’t do it. I just figured if I couldn’t kill them, I shouldn’t eat them.” The words didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, but they began to clatter around inside my older skull. And so at about the same time I heard about the snook, I began to fish for yellowtail snapper with a friend who owned a small boat, whereupon I discovered something about myself. I could kill certain proteins, fish specifically. What’s more, I could scale them, slit them throat to vent, scoop out their viscera with my fingers, free their fillets from their ribcages, spines, and skin with a slender, sharp blade, and bury their carcasses beneath my vegetable garden.

Yellowtail snapper: included within the 10 per person per day snapper aggregate bag limit. Minimum size 12". Closed season: none. Same regs apply to snappers mahogany, queen, and dog. Your muttons must stretch 16". Fear the cubera. Big ones can carry ciguatera, a deadly toxin. Schoolmasters and mangroves need only be 10", but only 5 mangroves per person per day allowed. Vermillions don’t count within the snapper aggregate bag limit. You can keep up to 10 per person per day, above and beyond the others you’ve bagged; minimum size 11".

And so I became a killer of fish. What did this mean? Up until a few years ago, bird-watching had been my principal outdoors hobby. A decidedly low-impact, unbloody avocation. Suddenly I had become a fisherman too, which struck at least a few friends as an incongruous development. “Fishing and birding”—a colleague in my department tasted the words in his mouth, a Cheshire grin surfacing on his face. “They sound the same, but they’re not the same.” A graduate student whom I (perhaps carelessly) introduced to Sartre, Peter Singer, and J. M. Coetzee wondered whether I had properly taken the “animal gaze” into account. How to explain to such an earnest soul that Benjamin Franklin’s terse rationale for eating fish—fish eat fish so why shouldn’t he partake, he observes in The Autobiography (1791)—held greater sway over me than Singer, at least when it came to matters piscine?

I get it, of course. I don’t kill and eat the birds. I wield binoculars to admire the avian creatures (to exchange an uncomplicated gaze, if you will), not a gun to shoot them. Still, both birding and fishing root me to this place I’ve called home now for almost fifteen years. Both activities put me in close contact, intimate contact, with separate outposts of my immediate environment, and a broader swath of the nonhuman and human persons inhabiting this place. It’s this hunger to know my place more fully that accounts, I think, for the snook’s hold on my imagination.

After freeloading off my vessel-owning pal for a couple years, I broke down and bought a boat. Not a deep-hulled offshore vessel like my friend’s, but a small bay boat. The boat would allow me to head out of the inlet into the nearshore sea for snapper on calm days, while its shallow draft and electric trolling motor would also permit me to stalk snook in skinny water branches here and there beyond the boat ramps and bridges. I searched them out for months. No luck.

Snook, like most creatures, are creatures of habit. Yet it’s taken scientists a long time to figure out the snook’s predilections, and they still don’t fully understand them all. Only after nearly decimating the snook population in this northern fringe of their tropical range did we decide—in the ass-backwards fashion that has long characterized our relationship with the nonhuman natural realm—that it would be a good idea to study its mysterious life-cycle in earnest. And so this much we know is true. Snook are protrandic hermaphodites, meaning they reverse their sex from male to female as they age and grow. Unbeknownst to many anglers, four distinct species of snook roam Florida’s inshore waters: the fat snook, swordspine snook, tarpon snook, and the more common, common snook. Snook can live to be over twenty years old. Pretty long compared to the venerable mahi-mahi’s paltry four-to-five-year lifespan. Snook stress easily, unlike their inshore cousins the redfish, and so aquaculture efforts at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have met with mixed results. Linesiders abide various salinity levels but don’t tolerate the cold. A roughly horizontal “snook line” from Port Richey on the Gulf Coast to Cape Canaveral on the East Coast marks the traditional northern boundary of snook habitat, as 54°F is considered the lowest water temperature they can handle. (Florida cold snaps in 1977, 1989, and 2000 killed off tens of thousands of snook.) During winter, they favor the warmer shallow water and dark bottoms of inshore mangrove swamps and channels. As the days lengthen and the waters warm in spring, mature snook head oceanward to deepwater passes and inlets and remain there to spawn until September or so. But snook aren’t always in the mood for amour even when it’s warm. Spawning picks up three days or so before the full moon and continues in earnest for only three days afterward. The small males bathe the larger females’ eggs (over a million of them per “episode”) in their frothy milt. Strong incoming tides channel the larvae inshore, where a lucky few fingerlings survive, hidden within the grassy bottoms and beneath the overhanging mangroves of the swamp. Juveniles migrate to salt marsh habitat and remain there for sixty to ninety days, then swim to seagrass beds, where they remain for up to five months, after which they decamp to various freshwater, brackish, and marine areas. Other than their temperature- and spawning-induced travels, snook don’t appear to be highly migratory. Still, linesiders tagged around Jupiter and Lake Worth in Palm Beach County have been recaptured in the Middle Keys. Jupiter-tagged snook have also been recaptured in Lake Okeechobee and in Charlotte Harbor, clear across the peninsula, indicating that they crossed the state from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. What’s more, big snook startle divers every so often at deep ocean reefs, slumming it with their snapper and grouper cousins.

The snook predictably returned this spring from their inshore winter digs to the intracoastal, the inlet, and the beaches. I finally saw what I’m pretty certain was a school of them, big females stacked up like copper logs beside the illuminated bridge piling at the inlet. Incoming tide. Clear water. They undulated there, six feet down or so, doing a better job of holding their place in the stiff current to ambush their prey than I was doing in my small boat to ambush mine. I cast an artificial shrimp lure between my harried, amateurish negotiations of the steering wheel and throttle, but only managed to set the bait down into the zone a couple times. They weren’t having any of it. After nearly colliding with one vessel charging through the narrow corridor beneath the bridge, I gave up and headed out the inlet for snapper. “Fucking snook,” I muttered to my friend, out with me that night, who didn’t care a whit about snook.

The snook maintain their powerful hold on my imagination. I think about them all the time—embarrassingly often, really: whenever I light out to the boat ramp, whenever I pass beneath the inlet bridge, and often during those blessed few unhurried moments of my day when my mind simply wanders. “I was determined to know beans,” Thoreau declares in Walden (1854). I seem determined, in similar fashion, to know snook. For reasons not altogether clear to me, however, I’ve pretty much given up on the linesider as a fishing target. Every once in a while I’ll throw a plug or plastic shrimp toward a seawall or a lit dock, but only in an obligatory, desultory fashion. I ponied up the extra $2 this year to renew the special snook permit on my saltwater fishing license, but I know I won’t harvest (i.e., kill) a snook even if by some miracle I catch a linesider during open-season and within its legal slot-size. It may be that I don’t want to catch a snook. More, that I’ve never truly wanted to dupe a linesider into striking my barbed offering. Not so much on account of what the snook represents to me—although I can’t deny its mythical, Faulknerian resonances—but mostly on account of what the snook simply is. Smart. Strange. Scarce. Dear. Too smart, strange, scarce, and dear for the lowly likes of a fisherman like me.

Andrew Furman teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author, most recently, of the novel Alligators May Be Present (University of Wisconsin, 2005). His memoir about his high school basketball team and the effort to desegregate the Los Angeles public schools is forthcoming from Syracuse University Press in fall 2010. His shorter work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Ecotone, Image, ISLE, and elsewhere, and he is a frequent reviewer for the Miami Herald. (12/2009)


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