Being kind to snook by using humane circle hooks

A lesson in responsible catch and release practices

The worst thing that ever happened to snook, from their point of view, was the discovery that they are good to eat. Everybody knows that now, but there was an ancient time when snook were nicknamed soapfish.

Right, they tasted something like soap or whatever soap tasted like way back then, so most fishing-doers released most of the snook they caught. Thus there were so many snook in Florida’s coastal waters that, the oldtimers used to say, you could walk on their backs like stepping stones from South Beach to Tequesta.

All that changed when one day someone skinned a snook before cooking it and blurted out the news: “It’s only the skin that tastes soapy. Other than that, snook are delicious.”

It’s his fault that now we’re allowed to keep only one per day — if we’re lucky enough to catch one between 28 and 32 inches long from Florida’s Atlantic waters or 28 to 33 inches from Gulf waters. We don’t get nearly as many days to try, either.

This is important stuff right now because snook keeper season reopened Feb. 1 on the Atlantic coast and reopens March 1 on the Gulf side. Monroe County (the Keys) waters are considered Gulfside.
Snook are strong and battle violently but they’re pretty fragile. Their cartilaginous faces are easily torn by hooks and badly strained by lip-grip weighing scales.

I can recall keeping and eating three since 1968. None would have been legal with today’s 28-inch minimum. I’ve caught a fair number of snook, only dreaming of one that size.

In order to sustain its snook populations, Florida keeps the keeper seasons short. In Atlantic waters, it’s until the end of May. Then it will close from June 1 to Aug. 31, reopening again on Sept. 1. Gulfside snook may be kept only until the end of April. The season there will be closed from May 1 to Sept. 1.

If that feels too restrictive, bear in mind that you can catch snook any size, any time, as long as you turn them loose. And there’s no point in turning them loose if they’re badly injured by hooks and rough handling, so here are some tips for responsible catch and release: Instead of standard J-shaped hooks, use circle hooks when fishing for snook with natural baits. They gulp their prey rather than biting, and it’s mighty hard to remove a J-hook from down deep.

Instead of a violent hook-set, tighten your line by winding your reel as the fish swims away. A circle hook should come up without snagging until it sticks the fish in the corner of its jaw. Backing it out of there is easy.

I like using circle hooks with soft plastic artificials too. Circle hooks on hard-body plugs are supposed to work well, but they haven’t worked at all for me.

Instead, I’ve always modified plugs for snook by cutting off two hooks from each set of trebles. When I think of it, I flatten the barbs. From long lures with three sets of trebles, I remove the middle set entirely.

We had a lively discussion about all that at the Fish or Cut Bait Society, where my ideas are not unanimously accepted. Some of my fellow fishing-doers think I’m a radical nut. A lot are reluctant to change the way they’ve done things for decades.

At times like this, though, I usually draw a reasonable audience for my snook lure modification demo. I bring out the tools — a split-ring pliers and an end-nipper pliers.

Kerf Sawyer, well-known local woodworker, introduced me to the end nipper. “I use it to cut the heads off common nails after driving them into wood, not quite all the way down,” he said. “If you use your fishing or wire pliers for that, you’ll ruin them.”

I began the latest session with big hard-body plugs that have two or even three sets of treble hooks. End nippers are ideal for reducing treble hooks to singles. I nipped two hooks off each set of three, leaving just one hook forward and one aft.

“The ones to keep are those that lie in line with the lure body, not sideways,” I preached. “Grab that one hook and cut off the other two. Do it with something between your face and the pliers or wear
safety goggles.”

I also advised using strong pliers to flatten the barbs on the remaining hooks. As usual, that got me accused of excess.

I argued back that barbed hooks are harder to remove without tearing a snook’s jaws. That’s all right if you’re keeping it but what’s the sense of turning loose a fish with its face torn up? It won’t be able to eat. That’s also why you should never dangle a snook from a lip-gripper.

Another method is to remove treble hooks entirely and install single replacement hooks. The hook eyes are arranged to ride inline beneath a lure. I learned about them recently, and they look neater than bobbed-off trebles.

You can use ordinary bait hooks, but they will ride sideways. I’m not sure it really makes a difference, but it looks like it does.

Single replacement hooks for saltwater are made in Japan by Owner, and they’re not cheap but they’re good. A package of four hooks in size 1/0 cost me $3.49 at Bass Pro. VMC makes freshwater replacement hooks; the only source I’ve found is where the price is $3.85 for a package of 25.

If the treble hooks you’re replacing are hung on split rings, use the specialty pliers to open the rings and remove the hooks. Then slide the replacement hooks in, using the same rings. It’s easy because the hooks’ eyes are larger than the eyes of conventional fish hooks.

I ordered the guys to copy me using my own lures and replacement hooks. Some of them probably wouldn’t have done it with their own stuff. I warned them to be very careful not to stick their
fingers with the extra-sharp replacement hooks and they didn’t but I did.

“Profanity!” I cried and my friends laughed. We changed hooks on a few more lures and it happened again.

“Blasphemy!” I shouted and they laughed some more.

Well, I declared, I think you get the idea. Practice on your own while I make a run to the first aid kit.

When I got back, they had changed the treble hooks on all the lures and were listening to Headwind’s story about his first love, Helen Highwater.

“I met her in third grade,” Headwind was saying. “She came from a whaling family and wore deck boots to school. Her notion of fun was to follow the janitor as he mopped the cafeteria floors. He used a little extra water just for her.

“Squish, squish went the boots on the wet floor. Gawd, it was so romantic. Then the principal, a stuffed shirt, thought up a rule against it. Helen refused to give up her boots. You can see why I loved her.”

The guys applauded. “Did you two live happily ever after?” Tyro, the new guy, asked.

“I thought we would,” Headwind went on, his voice sad now, “until one day the janitor caught us behaving inappropriately in his mop closet. He chased us out, swinging a long-handled squeegee that hit Helen on the rear end.

“She ran home crying, dropped out of school and enlisted in a dubious religious order. Last I heard, she was writing fiction for a political cult’s website. I can’t imagine she’s happy.”
I wiped away a tear. “What’s a great story,” I told Headwind. “Is it true?”

“No, but you can write it anyway,” he said.