It looked a whole lot like 2009 again.
That was the year the west coast population of snook, so carefully nurtured by anglers and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, hit a modern high. Fish were everywhere in every size from 10-inch yearlings to massive 10-year-old females. It was a great time to go snooking, from Clearwater to Marco Island.
A cold-kill the next winter made all the conservation efforts for naught. Tens of thousands of fish died, up to 70 percent in some estuaries, and the forecast was gloomy. Snook fishing would not be as it was for years.
But a few weeks ago along the South Shore of Tampa Bay, it looked a whole lot like before the Big Chill. Snook were popping everywhere around Captain Jason Prieto's boat, blasting the live sardines he chummed into the tidal creek and running the bait back into the mangroves. At times, there were schools of fish blowing up on all sides, giving Jonathan Shute of Ruskin so many targets he could pick and choose.
"Little fish there, little fish there, big one back under the trees," he noted, skipping a bait sideways to land inches from the mangrove roots.
The sardine came darting frantically to the surface, hopping completely out of the water – and landing in the jaws of a 30-incher, which promptly bent Shute's soft-action live-bait rod into a complete "U".
It was the 10th snook of the morning, and we had been fishing less than 30 minutes.
Like all the rest, this linesider was eventually wrestled to the boat, held briefly for a grip-and-grin photo, and then sent on its way to make more snook. The harvest is closed and will stay that way until at least next fall. Fishery managers hope to give the fish a spawning season to recover before any take is allowed.
But catch-and-release fishing with single hooks has shown to have little impact on snook mortality, so Prieto exercises a few each morning before heading elsewhere in pursuit of "eating" fish such as trout and reds.
"The snook came out way early this year from the rivers, and it's been gangbusters ever since," Prieto said. "There are just dozens and dozens of them in some of these creeks, and if you get in here early, anchor down and chum with sardines, you'll turn them on."
The added good news is that most of the fish we saw in the clear water of the creek were solid 24-inches-up fish, including a fair number in the 28- to 30-inch range, prime spawners.
"It's not as good as it was everywhere, but get in the right spot and you can have great fishing," says Prieto. "And that's going to get better and better thanks to the closed harvest."
For more information, visit Captain Jason Prieto's website at www.steadyactionfishingcharters.com.