The 1966 children’s book Fish Do the Strangest Things by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow comes from a long-out-of-print series. This relic of my childhood told of odd and fascinating adaptations from the animal kingdom: color change in chameleons, bat reliance on sonar and the habits of the duck-billed platypus. On the piscine side of things, the old books described spitting fish, walking fish, air-breathing fish, blowfish and other finned wonders, but I don’t recall any mention of the life cycle of the sex-swapping snook.
By Dan Oko
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
Photo © Erich Schlegel
Common snook, which in recent years have begun to increase their range across the Texas coast, universally begin their lives as males. But as the species matures, snook uniformly find themselves transformed into females (protandrous hermaphroditism), a matter to keep in mind for anyone who catches a 2-foot-long-plus brawler. Releasing the feisty females is key to improved reproductive success.
Once an important commercial harvest in South Texas, an industry that survived until the early 1960s, snook today mainly draw value from their importance as a sport fish, though many Texans might not recognize the high-flying, hard-fighting target.
“They’re one of the big four, in terms of tropical in-shore fish,” says Captain Eric Glass, a veteran fly-fishing guide based on South Padre Island. Glass has spent a million hours chasing snook and tarpon in local waters, which (biologically speaking) resemble Tampa Bay more than Galveston Bay.
“You’ve got snook, tarpon, bonefish and permit,” Glass says. “In Texas, snook are nowhere near as common as trout or redfish, but over the last couple of years, they have been on a noticeable upsurge.”
Like a lot of coastal anglers, I’d been captivated by recent reports of the expanded range of this hard-fighting species. Guided by Glass, I hauled in several from the Brownsville Ship Channel last December, and little did I expect the wallop that arrives when you hook a mighty snook. When it comes to fish that will smash a fly, you’d have a hard time coming up with a combatant as worthy as a snook. My best ran fast and deep, pulling line like a tugboat.
According to fisheries scientists at TPWD, the upsurge in state waters has been amplified by warming water temperatures along the entire Gulf Coast. As a rule of thumb, wherever you find mangroves, a tropical shrub making steady gains across Texas’ broad coastal wetlands, you will find snook. As mangroves replace the seaside marshes of the upper coast, snook have followed. Indeed, recent gill net samples have bagged snook from the Matagorda Bay system all the way to Louisiana.
Like freshwater largemouth bass, common snook are also suckers for a little bit of structure. And like the redfish and tarpon that share their range, they can be found in pods around brackish estuaries nearly year-round.
Notably, the increase in snook comes at a time when the state is seeing a downturn in the productivity of southern flounder stocks. Indeed, last year, TPWD saltwater researchers tracking finfish continued to see low abundance and reproductive rates for flounder, a species that appears to be suffering from ongoing warming trends throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal Fisheries science chief Mark Fisher explains that flounder eggs and larvae cannot survive outside a narrow temperature window, part of the reason the popular flatfish continue to decline.
If flounder stocks keep shrinking, Fisher says, within the next decade anglers chasing the Big Texas Three — traditionally redfish, speckled trout and flounder — may have to substitute snook.
“We still have a lot more flounder, but that could change,” Fisher says. “Both species are sensitive to climatic conditions and water temperatures, and in the past few years, we’ve definitely seen snook expanding their range, moving northward.”
Greg Stunz, director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute, says that snook remain a trophy that anglers cannot catch without some effort.
“They’re a ‘rare event’ type of species,” he says. “Back in the day, there was enough of a fishery for commercial gill-netting, but since the 1940s, they’ve been rare and incidental. We don’t even really study them, they’re so rare.”
In addition to the common snook, which fisheries experts consider the only species of snook worth targeting as a sport fish in Texas, the state is also home to a variety called fat snook and, occasionally, the swordspine snook. The largest snook ever taken in Texas waters was a 57-pounder off Padre Island reported in 1937.
Though a common snook of even 10 pounds beggared my imagination, hearing stories of the hard-hitting pike-like fish on the rise across Texas piqued my interest. Not unlike certain birders, I’m an angler who has spent a lot of time chasing new species. Raised in New York and New England, I spent a few years as a Montana trout bum after college. Later, I carried my fly rod to the Himalayas, faced freezing rain in Washington State’s rainforest as I cast for steelhead returning from the sea, and trolled for Texas tarpon.
I never pursued snook, though, or even ever saw one except in photos. Their torpedo-like profile and weird, protruding lower jaw, which looked designed to slam a well-placed streamer or swimbait, awakened in me a life-list obsession. So, I tracked down Captain Glass.
Years ago, Glass and a few other South Padre guides unlocked the secret of the snook.
Photo © Erich Schlegel
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
I step aboard Glass’ compact skiff to head for the Brownsville Ship Channel to seek my prized catch. Unlike the natural azure flats of the Lower Laguna Madre or the churning, wind-tossed surf of the Gulf of Mexico, the canal is a strange place to hunt fish. Dominated by the busy Port of Brownsville, the borderland shipping lane has seen heavy industrialization since the middle of the 20th century. Dredged to a maximum depth of 42 feet decades ago, the shoulders of the 17-mile manmade canal are dominated by offshore rigs, cargo ships and a daunting ship-breaking operation, where the U.S. Navy sends nearly all its decommissioned destroyers, aircraft carriers and other warships to be dismantled.
Brownsville also offers many snook-friendly characteristics, including protected coves dominated by black mangroves and deep pockets of water that assure steady temperatures well into the winter months (when Texas’ shallow bays get too cold for the tropical species to tolerate), not to mention a wealth of bait and pilings and holes that favor these ambush-feeders.
As we cross the waters south of Port Isabel and trundle toward Glass’ preferred snook spots, I sit tight and marvel that the channel is sort of a microcosm for America’s much-maligned but still incredibly productive Gulf of Mexico fisheries. “Used” is not the same as “used up.”
“I’ve been fishing since I was born, and I’ve been here since 1986,” Glass, 56, tells me.
He strings me an 8-weight rod and ties on a specialized fly, a custom mullet imitation. We’ve already caught a few ladyfish while spin casting, but with the sun hiding and the tide turning, the longtime captain decides it is time to get serious. From my time in the Rocky Mountains, I feel pretty competent casting a fly rod, and the deep pockets of the ship canal mean that I do not have to perform any double-haul heroics.
“I moved down here because I’m a fishing nut, and now I’m too old to do anything else,” he says with a shrug. “There are lots of days when it’s still pretty awesome.”
Though I’ve met quite a few guides with an elastic relationship to the truth — I suspect there could be a book titled Guides Say the Strangest Things in my future — Glass is true to his word. After a couple of warmup casts, working along a gray boulder-strewn riprap, I sink the weighted deceiver into the hole my captain points out, where a slim riffle indicates moving current. As I swiftly strip the fly, something strikes hard and sends the line sideways in a hurry. I lift the rod, put a deep bend into my shaft and spin the slack onto the reel. Soon, my snook breaks the surface, and then makes another deep run. I keep the pressure on, and time slows as I bring that first sweet snook to the boat, where Glass reaches down to retrieve it.
Given that I had barely spotted the fish upon its strike, I’m surprised to not only identify the telltale black racing stripe but see its pretty yellow highlights.
“Tarpon can be feeding all around you and just not bite,” Glass tells me. “The way snook feed is a lot more honest. Maybe that’s why I prefer fishing for them.”
As I pose for pictures, the length of the fish — stretching a muscular 2 feet, give or take — indicates my catch was likely female, which Glass confirms. He points out the razor-sharp gills and, after submerging the fish to revive it between snapshots, warns me to keep my hands clear.
“She’s a beauty,” he says. I concur.
By the time the tide slackens, we manage to boat five snook in total. As far as all are concerned, it’s a truly awesome day.
Although snook are also rumored to make an excellent meal, I was more than content to abide by my guide’s strict catch-and-release rule. I suspected most, if not all, of the fish were female; all were hard fighters, none under 2 pounds. I remember that the historic demand for meat, along with the impacts of dammed rivers and heavy pesticide use, nearly wiped out the state’s once prolific snook fishery. So, even though TPWD allows anglers to keep one snook between 24 and 28 inches, I was happy to turn them back in the hopes they might grow huge.
Though he claimed never to have eaten one, Glass also claimed snook didn’t taste “any better than a 3-pound black drum.”
Beaming on my way home to Houston, near the far northern edge of what’s now considered the range of modern-day common snook, I hungrily spied the newly restored Bahía Grande bay system, part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Ironically, the construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel — which TPWD’s Fisher considers “the center of Texas snook abundance” — cut the tidal flats off from the Laguna Madre. But thanks to ongoing efforts by state agencies like TPWD, the General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, along with national partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Association Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, new channels have allowed the basin to refill. A Fish and Wildlife ranger I met at the refuge mentioned that snook have also returned to these bays, and eventually the refuge plans for 10,000 acres of wetlands recovery.
I don’t know that I’ll ever have a chance to fish for elusive snook on the upper coast, where I know I can expect tarpon each summer. But as long as we keep caring for the Texas tropics, there’s no reason that either fish should go out of style.
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
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