We launched our 14-foot skiff just before daylight. The river was calm and it wasn’t long before we had our final destination in sight. I hit the kill switch and made our small outboard sputter for its last breath. The electric motor was all I needed to finish the rest of this trip.
My son was already standing on the front deck waiting patiently for us to draw close enough for a cast. I saw him flip the bail and make a perfect sidearm shot, skipping his soft-plastic bait up under the end of the dock. Seconds passed.
The fish hit the surface and rolled in the dock light, flashing its black lateral line: a snook. But today we weren’t looking for just any snook, we were looking for the elusive tarpon snook, a little-known species in the Centropomus family. The fish lost the battle with my son. Inside the boat, we confirmed that it was, in fact, a tarpon snook. Tremendous luck for a first cast.
We quickly released the fish and a couple casts later hooked another tarpon snook. We fished our docks for a couple hours until daylight had taken over the night sky. We caught six tarpon snook and two of the familiar common snook.
By now it was late enough to make a call on my cell phone to a biologist friend who I’ve been working with for three years. I called Jynessa Gianelli, a Florida Institute of Technology doctoral candidate, and caught her at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce. She was waiting for my call because she was planning to join me the next day. I couldn’t wait to let her know the bite was on.
“Better bring lots of spaghetti tags because you’re going to need them,” I said.
The next morning Jynessa made the trip to Stuart and we launched our small boat and headed for the docks. Once again, my son hooked up on the very first cast. Another tarpon snook. Jynessa quickly went into action and began measuring and tagging the fish. Before she had the first one tagged, I had our second specimen swimming in the livewell.
Soon, Jynessa looked at me and said, “I’m out of tags.”
“How many did you bring?” I asked.
I looked in the livewell and there was still a tarpon snook in it.
“I need one to take back to the lab and do some tests,” Jynessa said.
Number 11 was not as lucky as the first 10.
The sun was getting high and the bite was over at the docks so we headed for the mangroves in search of another snook species. Jynessa picked up a fishing rod, cast at one of our favorite tree limbs and hooked up. When she flipped her fish over the gunnel, the two of us looked at each other in disbelief. It was a swordspine snook, rarest of all the snook species in Florida. As a scientist, Jynessa was in seventh heaven and I, being a photographer, quickly realized the photographic potential on hand. We already had a tarpon snook in the livewell and now we had a swordspine. It was no great feat to add a common and fat snook. We finished the day catching and documenting all four species, a feat I had never done before.
Jynessa and I have a special permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allowing us to catch and keep any snook species for scientific study. Although there has been a lot of scientific information collected about common snook over the years, there has never been any significant study of our other three snook species. Little is known of their feeding habits, spawning habits and life histories.
The next phase of our studies will involve tagging snook with radio receivers and tracking them as they migrate up and down the rivers. Common snook move to inlets and into the ocean each summer to spawn. Nobody really knows if tarpon, fat and swordspine snook do this also, but we aim to find out with our tags.
Tarpon Snook (C. pectinatus)
As the name implies, this fish looks somewhat like a tarpon. The body is very thin laterally like a tarpon, but most noteworthy is the long head and upturned jaw. Is this a result of tarpon and snook interbreeding? Not so, say scientists. The two probably share feeding habits, keying on prey swimming overhead, and so over time their bodies evolved similarly.
A tarpon snook’s eyes are much bigger than those of other snooks; it may be that the species relies on sight more so than its cousins. Or perhaps it’s related to a chiefly nocturnal lifestyle. Very rarely do I catch tarpon snook during the day.
One of the key differences among snook species is the size of their scales. All fish, including snook, retain the same number of scales on their body no matter what their size. The scales just get bigger with age. I’m not recommending you try to count every scale, but it’s worth noting that the scientific community has figured out that tarpon snook have 65 scales that stretch from the head down to the tail, following the lateral line.
If you gently open the gill of a snook and look behind the red gills you will see white cartilaginous structures; these are gill rakers and they help keep small prey from escaping through the gills when a snook closes its mouth. Each species has a different number; on a tarpon snook you will find 21 to 22 gill rakers, the most of all the snooks.
The anal fin is another key characteristic. Common, fat and swordspine
snook all have one large hard spike followed by six soft rays. The tarpon snook is the only snook that has seven soft rays on the anal fin, not counting the first hard spike. The spike is always shorter than the longest soft ray.
Tarpon snook are very territorial.
Lastly, the tarpon snook is the only snook that has dark tips on the ends of the anal, ventral and pectoral fins. But, these dark tips fade with age, so don’t assume it is not a tarpon snook if it doesn’t have dark tips on the fins.
We catch tarpon snook throughout the estuary but have noticed they seem to congregate in specific areas. I know of three spots where we catch tarpon snook on a regular basis. The first one is the dock we fished in the beginning of this story. We have caught hundreds of tarpon snook on it but very rarely do we catch one on the docks just adjacent to it. The same is true for a point of land about a mile away. We catch them right on the point but don’t catch them on the bank to either side. This all tells me that tarpon snook are very territorial and stage at the exact same area.
Tarpon snook don’t get real big, topping out at about three pounds.
Fat Snook (C. parallelus)
This is perhaps the most difficult snook to identify because its anal fin goes through a change and juveniles look different from adults.
As the name implies, these snook are just plain fat. They closely resemble a football but don’t be fooled: tarpon and swordspine snook also have proportionately larger bodies than common snook, so be sure to check for other characteristics.
The head and eyes are similar to those of common and swordspine snook. The fat snook has the smallest scales of all the snooks. It has 83 scales down the lateral line.
The fat snook is the second largest snook and it has the second least number of rakers. This may reflect the fact that it eats larger prey, and so doesn’t need as many rakers. It has 15 or 16 gill rakers.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The anal fin is really the key to identifying all snooks, but on the fat snook I have seen variations on the size of the anal fin spike. I was first told that the fat snook is born with a long spike and it gets shorter with age. Problem is, I’ve never seen a fish with an intermediate size spike. I have seen hundreds of fat snook and they either have a long spike or a short spike. I’m on a mission to get to the bottom of this mystery. Besides the spike, the fat snook does have six soft rays on the anal fin.
World record for the species is around 10 pounds. Unlike the diminutive tarpon and swordspine snook, it is possible to catch a fat snook exceeding Florida’s minimum legal size for retention of snook, 26 inches. Not much is known about their range, but I do know there are healthy fat snook populations in the Stuart area (Atlantic coast) as well as Fort Myers (Gulf side). What these two areas have in common is they are located at either end of the Okeechobee Waterway; this suggests that fat snook like to be near a source of fresh water. Backing that up is the fact that fat snook are very plentiful at flood-control spillways when large amounts of fresh water is pouring over them.
Swordspine Snook (C. ensiferus)
These little guys seldom exceed one pound and are so rare that a catch is something to really be proud of. Body shape is much like that of a young fat snook: stockier than a common snook. The scales are the biggest of all the snooks: just 54 scales going down the lateral line. Swordspines have 18 or 19 gill rakers.
The name comes from the large size of the spike on the anal fin. This is the only snook on which the anal spike is so long that it can actually touch the tail fin. One theory is this petite fish evolved a long spike as a defense against predation. Most swordspine anal spikes are bent but I did catch one that was perfectly straight. Like the common and fat snook, there are 6 soft rays on the anal fin and they are always shorter than the spike.
You won’t find these guys out in the open. They like the safety of mangroves or docks, and frequently range well up into freshwater systems.
Florida law lumps all snooks into one set of regulations, limiting retention to fish between 26 and 34 inches, with respective bag and season limits for Atlantic and Gulf coasts. That means it’s unlikely you’ll be taking one of the three lesser species to the frying pan. Their apparent scarcity may also soon make them eligible for special protection.