Fishing report: Gulf snook mostly survives cold

Capt. Brian Sawyer with 8-year-old Trenton Hart and a Homosassa snook.
Capt. Brian Sawyer with 8-year-old Trenton Hart and a Homosassa snook. (Photo by Greg Brown)
Photo by Greg Brown

It has always been expected that a strong push of cold air lasting for several nights running will bring about a major change in our fishing.

The “Christmas Freeze of 2022” certainly should have qualified.

Many (myself included) feared the worst for the newest favorite sportfish in our nearest gulf shallows, certain that four nights of hard freezes would be lethal to the prized gamefish that, up until a couple of decades ago, rarely ventured north of Waccasassa Bay. 

Long considered a South Florida resident, snook have made a steady push northward since the Y2K or so.  And, since their history includes consistent incidents of cold-induced mortality, we knew North Florida fans have worried for the snook’s health each winter.

At the end of this most recent cold spell, anglers poking around our nearest gulf coast shallows have, indeed, reported some disturbing sights. The Withlacoochee and Waccasassa Rivers both saw significant snook mortality with floating fish “in the hundreds” between them.

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But, apparently, the Crystal River fish succumbed to the cold in much greater numbers.

Those with an understanding of how many snook reside in the Cedar Key/Suwannee stretch of coast feel that the fish there didn’t fare so badly at all.  In fact, most Cedar Key and Suwannee anglers seem relieved—and puzzled—as to why there were more cold-killed fish to the south.

I spoke to our most knowledgeable local snook scientist on Wednesday.

Director of the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key, Mike Allen, said, “Given how cold it got for four nights, I think we got out lucky so far.”  

Further explaining the good result around Suwannee, he said, “This past cold front event came after a particularly warm winter thus far, with water temps in the estuary and the river in the mid to upper 60’s prior to the cold nights. The water had a long way to drop to reach the 50-degree lower lethal temperature for snook.”

He went on, “Water temps in the gulf did plummet and the gauge in Cedar Key was registering 48 degrees this morning, which is a lethal temperature for snook.  However, two different guides reported water temps of 57 degrees in the Lower Suwannee River on Monday and Tuesday this week, which is well above lethal lows for snook.”

It has been theorized that the snook we have in our nearest gulf waters are somehow more cold tolerant than their notoriously frail South Florida counterparts. This thought, however, likely turns out to be incorrect. 

“Initial work that UF has done with FWC in this region does not suggest that snook in the Suwannee Sound area are more cold tolerant than fish farther south,” Allen said. “However, the fish up here are genetically distinct from those to the south and it’s possible that some adaptation could occur. There is a need to test more fish for sure, as uncertainty remains about this.”

So, if not on account of genetic advantage, why do the Suwannee snook seem to be hardier?

“Most of the snook in our region have adapted a strategy to be close to the river or creeks by early November, so they are close to warm water refuge,” Allen said. “I think the evidence so far suggests that the fish have adopted a strategy to find warmer water in this region during winter.”

But Allen is not saying the snook residing in Suwannee Sound are safe.

“All that said, I believe that our region remains in the zone where the combination of several cold nights after water temps are already low could cause a much larger snook kill,” he said. “We were fortunate this time that it only lasted a few nights, and it came after a period of very warm water for this time of year. Eventually, I believe we will have a much larger snook kill, but fortunately, some of the fish are using the springs for warmwater refuge and those would survive even a drastic cold event.”

Looks like snook in Cedar Key and Suwannee waters are here to stay.

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