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Outdoors - October 1, 2003

Got snook? Want some?

With just a few helpful tips from veteran fisherman Byron Stout, you might get a little closer to catching and eating your first one ....

By BYRON STOUT, [email protected]




Whoever it was who spun that old statistic — the one about 10 percent of the fishermen catching 90 percent of the fish — must have been talking about snook.

It would be hard to argue that snook aren’t Southwest Florida’s most popular fish. Lee County has about 17,000 card-carrying snook anglers — licensed saltwater fishermen who pay an extra $2 for the right to keep a snook if they catch one. Between Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties, we account for one out of every five snook permits sold in all 67 of Florida’s counties.




A school of snook swims near the safety of DGH artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico about five miles west of Big Carlos Pass. news-press.com file photo

Yet lots of anglers complain they’ve never caught a snook. Never even seen one.

Or maybe they can see them lying like logs under their dock light. But they can’t get one to bite.

The problem is, snook don’t bite all of the time, like catfish — inept bottom feeders forced to scavenge for whatever their whiskery noses sniff out. Nor are they compulsive feeders like redfish, single-mindedly bent on bulking up in the shortest possible time, en route to reaching sexual maturity and moving offshore to join the adult brood stocks.

Snook are comparatively slow growers, and they are very efficient predators, so they only feed when they feel the need. During winter, when a snook’s metabolism slows to a clam’s pace, they can live off stored fat and not eat for days or weeks.

Even when they’re feeding, they’re so good at catching a meal that they might be active for only a few minutes.

So a good snook fisherman’s job is mainly to be in the right place at the right time.

Because a snook — when it decides it’s hungry — will devour almost anything. During the summer spawning season, they favor oily fish — a diet that ultimately helps float their eggs. But they also love shrimp, they’ll eat crabs, and they don’t turn up their noses at cut baits on the bottom. They especially endear themselves to sporting folk because they’ll take a chew at all manner of metal, plastic and wooden imitations of true food — even flies crafted of hair and feathers.

One type of bait in particular has revolutionized snook fishing, not to mention the snook-fishing industry. Scaled sardines and a couple of other species of herrings are so favored by snook that many snook fishing boats now are designed around livewells in which to keep them. And anglers who balk at spending $100 on a snook rod might think nothing of laying out twice that amount on a cast net for catching prime baits.

Part of the magic of sardines is their ability to excite snook into feeding. Crippling a handful and tossing them into a known snook hole can inspire recalcitrant fish to shake off their lethargy for an easy meal. And once whipped into a feeding frenzy, little is more tempting to a snook than a herring haplessly struggling against the burden of a hook and line.

Another secret bait of tournament snook anglers is the pigfish — a dusky little fellow with the fatal flaw of emitting distressed grunts when hooked. It is your basic disposable organic snook call.

Other anglers use snook habits to their advantage. As the fall season opens and September finds still-spawning snook in the salty waters along the beaches, many anglers intercept them there. Dawn and dusk are particularly good times for the crepuscular feeders, and they also are apt to feed at low tide, when baitfish are forced out of the shallows.

Snook holes are identifiable by two or three almost invariable commodities — structure, foremost, followed by shade and a modicum of current.

A snook axiom is that bigger fish like deeper water, so the whoppers might favor the wooden fenders of a highway bridge over the shaded roots on a mangrove point. And the exception that proves the rule is the affinity of snook for docks with bright lights, which tend to attract baitfish, and which also are handy for silhouetting shrimp migrating at the surface against a night sky.

Statistically, at least, there is nothing difficult about catching snook. Current state studies put the number of Gulf Coast snook two or more years old at about 900,000. Those studies also estimate some 1.3 million snook are caught each year from the same population. That means snook are dumb enough on average to get caught 1.4 times per year, each. (Fortunately, 90 percent are released, mostly because they are too small or too big to be legal, or because the season is closed for 46 percent of the year).

Thus, the only real secret to catching snook is persistence. Those who fish like Chicagoans are said to vote — early and often — learn patterns that pay off time after time.

For many, the trouble hardly seems worth it. And the rest of us are glad of that.

Byron on snook

SEASONING SNOOK

Snook lore holds that Florida’s pioneers were disenchanted with the fish many now consider an epicurean delight. The skin is said to impart a soapy flavor to the meat if left on during the cooking process — the traditional Cracker method of dressing and scaling a fish before coating it with cornmeal and dropping it in deep fat.

That all changed after World War II — possibly due to the influence of servicemen in the Army Air Corps who trained in Lee County — to the point that by 1957 state Rep. Walter Sheppard foresaw the necessity of making snook a game fish, lest we commercially fish ourselves out of the tasty, skinless filets.

The law that protected snook from sale was a political tradeoff that eliminated closed seasons on mullet during the fall and winter spawning run. Mullet, after all, wouldn’t bite a hook anyway.

Doubtlessly one of the greatest appeals of snook flesh is that no amount of money can buy it, at least not legally. It thus has been elevated to great status, never minding the fact that anyone with a cane pole can get it.

And anyone with a little heat, or at least a few limes, can “cook” a snook, which rhymes with hook, and sometimes fluke. One way to pass oneself off as a veteran snooker is to use the long-U pronunciation.

Traditional fried snook

The mild, white, firm flesh of snook is ideal for deep-frying. Deep-frying means the fish must be submerged in oil of 350 to 375 degrees until it just stops sizzling, at which time the water content has been perfectly reduced, leaving the flesh at its firmest without sacrificing all of the flavorful juices.

Key to deep-frying is to “finger” the fish — cutting it into uniform pieces no thicker than about 3ž4 of an inch, so no portion fries dry before all of it is thoroughly cooked.

For extra-crisp snook, dredge it in seasoned flour, dip it in beaten eggs, and redredge or shake in a bag of commercial breading, cracker meal, fine white cornmeal, or (the writer’s personal favorite) Kellogg’s Cornflake Crumbs. For battered fish, use a mixture of beer and flour in the final step, dropping the fish directly into the deep fryer. Remove to newspaper before serving.


Snook any other way

Snook flesh is adaptable to almost any recipe — baking, grilling, poaching, or (you should be shot) blackening, which utterly hides the fish’s delicate (some would say bland) flavor.

— Byron Stout

SNOOK CEVICHE WITH JALAPENOS AND COCONUT

• 1 pound snook fillets, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick strips

• 1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice

• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

• 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

• 4 jalapeño chiles, seeded; 2 minced, 2 thinly sliced

• 1/4 cup toasted unsweetened shredded coconut

• 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

• Saltines

Combine fish, lime juice, and oregano in large glass bowl. Sprinkle with salt. Chill until fish turns opaque, stirring occasionally, about 50 minutes.

Strain almost all lime juice from fish; return fish to bowl. Stir in onion, minced and sliced jalapeños, coconut, and cilantro. Season with salt. Chill at least 20 minutes and up to 2 hours. Serve in Martini glasses. Pass crackers separately. Makes 6 first-course servings.

— Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine

Just gotta catch me one now.:D
 
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