Saga of the Snook
By David Sikes
During the past 10 years, more snook are being spotted in South Texas waters. Can this recovery continue?
Rounding the rock jetty at the tip of Texas, three anglers contemplate the jagged line where granite blocks greet the state’s most tropical tide. Tarpon roll and chase baitfish near the surface within a rod’s length of our boat. But these magnificent silver kings are mere distractions for us.
Our quest is for the fish with the funny name. We have come for snook.
Young Port Isabel guide Todd Casey, whose success at catching snook is equal to that of his older colleagues, welcomed this September trip, for early fall offers the greatest mix of sport-fishing opportunity near the South Padre jetty. And in that mix might be snook, a predator whose pulverizing attacks and writhing surface antics place it among the coastal angler’s most coveted rewards.
Twenty feet below the flat surface, a dozen or so snook measuring up to 30 inches are mooching along the bottom in aquarium-clear water. Unfortunately, snook are as finicky as they are ferocious. The school refuses our numerous offerings, both natural and artificial. Eventually we hook a snook, but it is a small one fooled by a chartreuse Clouser in nearby South Bay, hardly what we had come for.
Except for this southernmost outpost of the Texas Coast, most snook that tighten the lines of Lone Star anglers are not caught intentionally. They often are met with puzzled reactions: “What the heck is it?”
Even experienced anglers lucky enough to hook one sometimes are baffled by the fish’s unfamiliar underbite and thin lateral line. But it hasn’t always been this way. Much like tarpon, which also no longer swim Texas waters in historic numbers, the virtual disappearance of what turn-of-the-century Texans called pike has been the topic of baitcamp banter and scientific speculation for decades.
So what became of the snook, a fish coveted as much as a sport-fishing prize as for its flavor? Some say pesticides that seeped into coastal marshes may have contributed to the decline. But pesticide use was not unique to Texas, and certainly these chemicals were used in Florida, where snook still flourish. Others suggest a series of cold Texas winters took a toll. Snook prefer water temperatures above 60 degrees.
But if periodic freezes are to blame, how did the commercial snook fishery survive for 50 years? Commercial landings in Texas peaked at 220,000 pounds in 1928. The last commercial landing was recorded in 1961, and commercial sale of snook in Texas was outlawed in 1987.
Perhaps overfishing in Texas and Mexico contributed to the snook’s disappearance in the Lower Laguna Madre. Hal Osburn, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s director of coastal fisheries, suggests that a significant portion of Texas’ historical snook population might have consisted of overflow from Mexico’s Gulf Coast. It could be that only a fraction of Texas snook were homegrown, Osburn says, adding that as Mexico’s snook population waned from overfishing, the flow of snook into Texas waters could have dried up.
Probably a combination of factors has led to the decline of the snook. Among the suspected culprits is the damming of Texas rivers, which has stifled the supply of fresh water necessary for larval snook to survive. Along those lines, Randy Blankinship, a TPWD fisheries biologist who is considered the department’s snook expert, believes that the recent silting in of the Rio Grande could jeopardize the state’s only significant spawning population of snook. At risk is the continuation of a 10-year rise in the Lower Laguna Madre snook population, Blankinship says.
Just as difficult to explain as the crash is this apparent upswing in Texas snook numbers. Albeit a subtle trend, Blankinship says recent catch rates during TPWD gillnet surveys show a 15-20 percent increase compared with catch rates in the early 1990s. In some cases, the difference involves only a handful of additional fish caught during these 10-week surveys, compared with samples taken about 10 years ago, Blankinship cautions.
To put this into perspective, biologists counted a total of 171 snook in Lower Laguna Madre gillnets they set from 1982 to 1998. “We’re not talking about a lot of snook here,” Blankinship says.
Recreational landings, a large percentage of which involve catch and release, are considered virtually insignificant by state biologists. Statewide sport catches declined considerably from the 1940s to the 1960s. Between May 1974 and March 1985, TPWD biologists interviewed 100,000 sport anglers, who reported catching only 14 snook along the entire Texas Coast, nine of them in Lower Laguna Madre.
Through the early 1990s, Texas anglers were allowed to keep three snook a day measuring between 20 and 28 inches. In 1995, the daily bag was lowered to one fish between 24 and 28 inches in length, in an effort to lower harvests even further.
Today, snook comprise a tiny fraction of 1 percent of recreational anglers’ take, with most catches isolated to the tropical waters near South Padre Island and Brownsville. Most are caught along the South Padre jetties, in nearby South Bay or in the Brownsville Ship Channel. The most popular techniques used to catch snook include fly fishing, soft plastics or topwater plugs with light tackle. But nighttime fishing with live bait, generally mullet or shrimp, could be the most effective.
Snook are common enough near South Padre for them to be at least the occasional target of a handful of anglers and fishing guides. But even during prime conditions, the odds of catching one are 50-50 at best, says longtime Port Isabel guide Skipper Ray.
A legal or oversized snook caught anywhere in Texas gets attention. Landings are so rare north of Port Mansfield that such catches appear as curiosities in newspapers and Internet chat rooms, awakening tales reminiscent of the early 1900s. Few anglers recall when snook were common to the passes, jetties, piers and surf of the Texas Gulf Coast.
As with many mysteries, dubious lore is mixed with truths, many of which are difficult to verify. Scuba divers who explore various Gulf jetties just north and south of Corpus Christi sprinkle fantastic tales of massive Goliath grouper sightings with those of snook as big as a man’s leg lurking among the darkened recesses of these granite groins.
Texas snook have been confirmed as far north as Galveston and the Sabine River, but only in summertime. Biologists believe these fish are not native to those waters and suspect they followed warm currents from Corpus Christi or Port Aransas, which is generally accepted as the snook’s northernmost range. Even so, an unspecified number of snook were killed in Galveston and Matagorda bays during the 1983-84 freeze, according to TPWD literature.
Snook range from Delaware to Florida and from Texas to Brazil, with most snook stories coming out of Florida and Costa Rica. In many areas they move freely between fresh water and salt water. Interestingly, snook are caught in Texas at about the same latitude as they are in Florida.
Perhaps the best documented indication that Port Aransas holds a small native snook population occurred during a hard freeze in January 1973. Biologists counted 64 dead and dying snook in the boat basins and harbors there, as water temperatures dipped into the upper 30s.
San José Island’s North Jetty at Port Aransas produces an estimated dozen or so mostly undersized snook landings each year. No doubt, the Corpus Christi Ship Channel provides safe haven for this snook population during cold snaps. Because of the small size of most Port Aransas catches, it’s hard to say whether these represent fat snook or common snook. Both are native to Texas waters. Actually, two types of fat snook — the smallscale fat snook and the largescale fat snook — are found in Texas, according to Blankinship.
Padre Island historian and favorite son Billy Sandifer says that a healthy native population of common snook — the larger subspecies — lives in the surf off Padre and Mustang islands near Corpus Christi. He believes that they escape the hooks of anglers more often than these anglers know. They tend to congregate near historic passes, even though these Gulf passes only flow during storm tides.
While gill-netting in 1980, before Texas banned the practice, Sandifer says, large and powerful snook sliced seven or eight circular holes in his nets with their razor-sharp gill plates. This may explain why anglers using monofilament line catch so few snook. A trusted old salt told Sandifer at the time that only snook produce such perfectly round cuts in nets.
In May 1981, David McKee, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, caught a 26-inch male snook between Baffin Bay’s Penascal Point and Rocky Slough. Snook are among the marine species that change genders as part of their maturation process. Generally when snook reach lengths of 30-34 inches, they morph into females. The next month, McKee caught a 30-inch female in the same waters. Nearly 20 years later, two Upper Laguna Madre snook of similar size were caught and released by anglers fishing Rocky Slough during the summer of 2000.
Corpus Christi fishing guide Mike Singleterry says that when conditions are warm and calm he catches snook — possibly the smaller fat snook variety — using black plugs near the pilings of Bob Hall Pier on Padre Island, within the city limits of Corpus Christi. He speaks of this in hushed tones, torn between an urge to broadcast his good fortune and a desire not to reveal the whereabouts of his treasure.
The late Louis Rawalt, commercial fisher, historian and arguably Padre Island’s most colorful character, holds the record for the largest snook taken in Texas waters. There are contradictions and fuzzy details surrounding this fish story. But most sources agree the 57.5-pound common snook was caught on New Year’s Day 1937, either near the Arroyo Colorado or Newport Pass, which once divided Mustang and Padre islands at Corpus Christi.
Sandifer’s version of the story goes like this: Rawalt, who was living on Padre Island at the time, used a cane pole with a 10/0 or 12/0 hook tied to a short wire leader. With only a strip of white cloth for bait, possibly a piece of undershirt, Rawalt swirled his line in the tide of Newport Pass in a figure 8 motion, a method still used by some commercial fishermen to catch tuna.
On that day, Rawalt’s catch was said to total 999 pounds of snook, according to Sandifer. Had Rawalt known how close he’d come to the half-ton threshold, the flamboyant fisherman would have caught one more fish just so he could say he had caught 1,000 pounds in a day, Sandifer says.
Rawalt’s snook was sold in Port Aransas. It’s unclear whether the fish ended up fried on a platter or mounted on a wall. But few doubt this record ever will be erased. O
David Sikes is an outdoor columnist for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, covering fishing, hunting, camping, paddling and outdoor news.