If the bad news is that Florida's snook population is facing troubling times and it is then the good news is that the Sunshine State lacks not for suitable alternatives.
Topping the list, redfish and spotted sea trout stand ready and able to pick up the slack over the next several months as a closed season and heightened consideration will likely mean decreased snook focus.
Much has been written, broadcast and otherwise disseminated regarding the plight of Florida's premier gamefish. We journalistic types generally disdain repetitive rehash, but this one merits frequent reminders.
Briefly, January's brutal stretch of extremely cold temperatures killed a lot of fish, and snook sustained the biggest hit of all native species. Early estimates place the losses at over 100,000 linesiders potentially twice that.
The state's prompt move to extend the winter harvest closure through Aug. 31 will help the recovery, but anglers should seriously consider taking that a step farther. While catch-and-release snook fishing remains a legal activity, backing off entirely will give the species some much needed breathing room.
Fortunately, two popular inshore species trout and reds offer plenty of sport and some fine table fare.
While snook generally occur only in the state's central to southern waters, trout and redfish live in varying densities throughout Florida's coastal shallows. One of my favorite areas for both species is Homosassa. The jewel of Citrus County, the namesake river meets the Gulf of Mexico through a smattering of rocky islands and the fertile surrounding waters offer an abundance of prime habitat for trout and reds.
Capt. William Toney, a third-generation Homosassa guide, says the winter trout bite is hot around hard bottom and rocky outcroppings from Bayport to Crystal River.
Toney likes the extreme low tides that occur on and around the full and new moons. The low water reveals key bottom features and provides a road map to where trout will move, stage and feed during higher water. DOA jerkbaits in glow color, nose-hooked on a 2/0 Owner live bait hook are Toney's go-to presentation.
With many giant trout roaming area waters during winter, Toney advises anglers to forego the legal option of keeping one trout over 20 inches in the daily bag limit.
"The best way to cook up one of these big Gator trout is to not do it! Take a picture and brag on that," he said. "Save the slot sized fish (15-20 inches) for the pan. These big 'she' trout are the mothers to the survival of our awesome inshore trout fishery."
Toney said he expects good redfish action this month, particularly on incoming tides. He'll look for reds around rocks on island points and often find them right alongside trout. Toney teases reds with soft plastics like the scented 3 ¾-inch MirrOlure Lil John. For hard baits, he likes the 17MR MirrOdine a suspending plug that he can fish deep or hold it right in the shallows where reds often feed.
South of Toney's area and on the east coast, you can't go wrong by looking for trout and reds over fertile sea grass beds with scattered potholes. Oyster bars also attract both fish, and when incoming tides flood mangrove shorelines, redfish will often feed right under the overhanging limbs.
Florida loses a legend
One of Florida's foremost angling personalities, Capt. Mel Berman, passed away on Feb. 5 after developing complications from a recent heart surgery.
Berman, 81, hosted the popular "Capt. Mel Berman Show" on WFLA 970 AM for 25 years and was widely known as "The Voice of Tampa Bay." An accomplished angler with a kind, down-to-earth nature, Berman was a gifted communicator, a staunch conservationist and a tireless promoter of the Tampa Bay fishing scene.
Like most who've worked this region's media, I have a Capt. Mel story that typifies the endearing nature of a man who we will all greatly miss.
It was about 1993 when I found myself sharing the bow with Capt. Mel, as he and I participated on a media team in a tournament based in downtown Tampa. As we approached a shoreline in Hillsborough Bay, we spotted a school of jacks crashing bait. Knowing that redfish often run with jacks, we eased into casting range.
Capt. Mel held a baitcaster rigged with a topwater plug, while I stood ready with my trusty spinning outfit and a gold spoon. I can still hear Capt. Mel whispering "Steady, wait, wait, OK now." Although we cast in unison, only my bait found a taker and I came tight on a spunky redfish while Capt. Mel courteously cleared his line.
As our guide netted the fat 26-incher, two thoughts raced through my mind: First, I was thrilled to have a strong contender for the event's redfish division; but second, I worried that I might have inadvertently appeared to be upstaging the man who had surely caught more reds than I would even see for many moons.
I mean, c'mon who am I to snag a redfish out from under Capt. Mel Berman? I feared a stern look or some curt reprimand was heading my way.
But, alas, that was never Capt. Mel's style. I don't recall his exact words, but I clearly remember his trademark grin sparkling through that grizzled beard, as he extolled his sincere praise for what he described as a job well done.
A few years later, Capt. Mel and I ended up in the same conversational group at an industry event and to my utter surprise, this gentleman's gentleman retold the tale of my tournament catch and gave me far more credit than I deserved for a good cast that probably bore more luck than skill.
Those who knew Capt. Mel Berman count themselves fortunate for a lot of reasons; some publicly known, others just the quiet, personal moments that a special person can generate. It took Capt. Mel's passing to remind me of that day in Hillsborough Bay, but I doubt I'll ever forget it.
Farewell, Capt. Mel.
Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.