June 09, 2016
Fly Fishing Snook: DIY sight fishing on Florida's easy-access beaches
Billowing columns of bright white cumulus clouds ringed the horizon, placid and pretty, but sure to become black and boisterous by mid-afternoon. Postcard Florida sunshine illuminated the white sandbar before me, where ankle-deep water was flooding the deeper shoreline trough.
Looking much like a Bahamas bonefish flat, the shallow point up ahead extended 50 yards out where it dropped off into waist-deep water. It's this kind of "flats topography" that makes Hobe Sound Preserve a favorite stretch of Florida Atlantic beach for sight casting to snook and the occasional tarpon. Conditions, and my timing, were perfect.
My hopes of success soared as a dark ribbon of baby anchovies began running parallel to the beach. As I shuffled along barefoot, nearly transparent juvenile whiting and croakers jetted out of my path. Okay, so the food was here. Where were the snook?
Motion caught my eye up ahead, so I picked up my pace a bit. I closed in on the ribbon of minnows, and a telltale "hollow," a nearly perfect empty circle, formed within the tiny baits. In the center of the circle the gray, ghostly silhouette of a snook materialized, baitfish parting to give the predator space. The fish made no raid on the baits however, and hovered menacingly as if to be picking its moment.
Once I was within accurate casting distance, a second circle opened 15 feet to the right of the first. But this snook had other ideas. The attack was immediate, and two fish tore through the minnows, one doing a showy somersault in its effort. Baitfish showered in a fountain and the staccato pop-pop-pop of the carnage was music. I laid out a 60-foot cast, and turned the short leader over smartly to put my Deceiver on their table. I moved it immediately with three successive 12-inch strips and a fish rose, flashed as it missed, then made a solid grab.
I set the hook and the snook came to the surface, making a half-hearted jump. Its run down the beach quickly cleared my fly line and 10 yards of backing from my stripping basket. The bright fish then switched up and made two clean jumps and tail-walked a bit before tiring. I cranked while walking toward the 10-pound snook, touched its tail and it surged anew, but shortly thereafter I was able to get my thumb and forefinger on its lower jaw. I plucked the streamer free and guided the fish along in the knee-deep water. I scanned the area for sharks before letting the revived fish swim from my hand.
I looked up in time to spot a string of 10 or so smaller males shouldering their way along the ribbon of baits, but the fish ignored them. I cast well ahead of them and slightly beyond the line I thought they'd continue on. I allowed my fly to settle, and made a few strips to catch their attention. The lead fish sped up, but was beaten to the fly by a follower. It shook its head violently after I set the hook, did an about-face, and raced through its schoolmates. They flushed but reformed quickly and continued on, leaving the hooked fish to fend for itself.
As I landed the 5-pounder, I glanced up in time to see a big female, easily 20 pounds, heading my way. I struggled with the fly and by the time I removed it and released my fish, she was only 20 feet away. I only raised my rod a bit to get my line moving and she exploded in fear, leaving a sandy plume as she was raced for deep water. "Well, you've seen it all, haven't you sweetheart?" I said under my breath.
Just as I thought this might be an easy afternoon, the breeze freshened to 10 knots and a wind-generated swell formed. Nothing major, maybe knee high, but enough to throw more challenge into the game. The slow-rolling swell would come every 15 seconds or so, tightening up and cresting over the first bar before leveling off. It was still fishable, and I could keep my stripping basket above the swells.
The 2 P.M. sunlight was brilliant, and I could easily make out shell bottom and the occasional rocky patch over 150 feet away. This set the stage for my favorite snook of all, those challenging single females that are unpredictable. The first big girl was obvious — a mint-green, arm-long fish—swimming in 2 feet of water, smack against the bottom, pausing and then continuing. She was hunting for sure, and more tuned in to the bottom than the baits near the surface, so I hurriedly swapped my Deceiver for a large Clouser Minnow, dressed with tan and white bucktail and a bit of muted pink flash. It is my favorite juvenile croaker imitation. The medium lead eyes would allow me to bounce it along bottom, creating the sand puffs that seem to turn the snook on.
I cast the fly about 6 feet ahead of her, and waited. As she closed in I made 2-inch strips—just enough to make the fly plow along the sand. Finally, she locked in on it. I saw her tail and dorsal fin flare and body language change. When she tilted—bonefish style—I felt the tension. She had the fly pinned to the bottom! I stripped hard and glanced at my line coils in my stripping basket. Everything looked good.
She surprised me by swimming evenly and calmly at first. Then she jetted, and took my spare line in seconds. Now on the reel, she took another 30 yards of my backing before she stopped. A respectable run for a snook. The rest of the fight was typical — a short burst, some tug of war, then another burst. I led her inside the bar, and out of the waves, and got a tape on her. She measured 34 inches, 2 inches over the "keeper" maximum of 32. But she was safe anyway, in the middle of Florida's closed summer harvest season for snook.
Three more opportunities at big singles failed to draw a strike but made for an exciting afternoon of fishing. Fly scrutiny for the most part seemed to be the deal breaker. After all, snook don't become big females by being pushovers. It's all part of the game when you're walking-and-spotting along one of Florida's many incredible public beaches.
A Sight Bit Better
Though many fly fishers hit the beaches at first light to beat the heat, and find some of the most active feeding fish, the most exciting and productive fly fishing is when you can sight cast during the 9 to 5 window. Snook are tropical fish and aren't fazed by water temps in the 84 to 88 degree range, which is typical midday in Florida's late-summer surf.
The challenge of hooking a large post-spawn female (which all snook over 34 or 35 inches are) is the big draw, but that's not to suggest that the smaller females and males under 30 inches are pushovers. Interestingly, snook are protandric hermaphrodites, which means the males change sex to become females after a number of spawns. Any snook weighing over 8 pounds or so is a female.
It can be frustrating some days, with the surf seemingly devoid of baitfish, snook, and other gamefish such as tarpon, ladyfish, and jack crevalle. On the brightest days when conditions are calm, surf snook — which see plenty of fishing pressure on some beaches — are as tough to fool as Florida bonefish. On the flip side, when it's a bit windy and the water roiled, or overcast (or around sunrise and sundown) they let their guard down a little. Toss in schools of baitfish and they can sometimes be "easy," though that's the exception.
Snook that have been spawning in an inlet or pass become lighter in color than those farther inland in tannic waters. On the beach, the snook are largely silver, often described as "clean" and their fins are light yellow. They can blend in well with white sand, though their olive-colored backs stand out well. When the fish are swimming right at you, the darker back stands our especially, so they can be spotted with good light and a little practice. The key is to look for movement first, and then zero in on that until the fish is obvious.
Timing and Tactics
Though snook can be found in the surf in varying numbers from April through November, the height of the season is from June through September, coinciding with spawning time (and closed harvest season on both the Florida Atlantic and Gulf coasts). By October, most fish are heading inland to bays and rivers, even into fresh headwaters for the winter. October usually offers big surf conditions, making fly fishing impossible.
Many anglers report seeing far fewer snook along the beaches on the full and new moons, which coincides with stronger spring tides. Looking over my catch records for the past five years, I see and land more fish during quarter moon periods. It is not surprising to have a slow day numbers-wise, only to return the very next day and see hundreds of fish.
When the fish leave the inlets and passes, they move along the surf line either alone (primarily the bigger females), paired up, or in schools of five to ten fish. Sometimes smaller males travel in schools of 15 or more fish. They typically move along in single file, not unlike those strings of oceanside Florida Keys tarpon that can be so tough to fool. Luckily, snook don't tend to be as finicky as those big, hard-fished tarpon.
Competition comes into play between the individuals, so a fly cast ahead of the school is eaten, so long as it is retrieved in a manner that looks like an escaping baitfish. The Golden Rule of all flats fishing is that a fly that "charges" toward fish is alarming, and only spooks a fish.
A fish's body language will tip you off as to the level of difficulty involved with feeding them. Snook that race at a fast clip parallel to the beach are travelers that rarely stop to strike a fly. Those that move along slowly, or even better, stop and face the shore and swim into the shallowest water are most likely feeding, and will eagerly take a well-presented fly.
The Best Beaches
Snook travel long distances in the surf, but the largest concentrations of fish are found closest to an inlet or pass, particularly in the summer and early fall. Bait schools moving in and out with the tide also give the snook reason to stay in the vicinity. Plus you'll find more structure, including hard bottom rubble, rocky outcroppings, and of course, manmade stuff such as jetties and groins near inlets, and these are all snook magnets. Snook range as far north as St. Augustine on the Florida Atlantic coast and roughly Homossassa on the Gulf coast, but for fishable numbers, consider Tampa Bay beaches (Gulf) and Sebastian (Atlantic) to be the northernmost range for them.
Here are some popular Florida Atlantic beaches, from south to north, all with good public access:
Atlantic Coast: Palm Beach County's MacArthur Park and Juno Beach, Carlin Park, Coral Cove Park, Blowing Rocks, Martin County/St. Lucie County's Hobe Sound Public Beach and Hobe Sound Preserve, Bathtub Beach, Stuart Rocks, Tiger Shores, Jensen Public Beach,
Walton Rocks, Ft. Pierce Jetty Park, Avalon Beach, Round Island.
Gulf Coast: Entire shoreline of Cape Sable in Florida Bay, small Gulfside beaches of largest islands in Ten Thousand Island tract, Marco Island, Cape Romano, Naples beaches (particularly at Clam, Doctor, and Wiggins passes), Carl Johnson City Park at Ft. Myers Beach. Beaches of both Captiva and Sanibel Island.
Sarasota: Beaches bordering Longboat Pass, New Pass, and Sarasota passes.
Tampa: Anclote Key, Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island State Park, Fort DeSoto Park, Egmont Key.
Fly fishing becomes a struggle, if not impossible, either from building ground swells (waves generated from offshore storms) or local wind-generated swells. Heavy seaweed can also make fishing impossible because you'll spend more time cleaning weeds from your fly than fishing. A floating line readily funnels surface weeds and grass right down to a fly. An intermediate sinking line (my favorite surf line) can help, but only to a point. With moderate seaweed, add weedguards to your flies, or tie Bendback-style streamers.
Deal with small swells by casting straight into the waves rather than at an angle. It allows you to better retrieve your fly and keep a taut line and leader. Casts parallel to the beach (which are normally desirable when the fish are tight to the sand) might call for corrective measures such as traditional reach casts or an occasional mend (if using a floating line). When the surf is a bit "tossed," but still manageable, fish with weighted flies such as Clouser Minnows and Half & Halfs to help keep your line and leader taut. You'll get better strike detection and hooksets this way.
Even if the surf is flat, a stripping basket is a "must have" item to contain your line. I wear a Line Tender (made by HMH) that measures 17 by 16 inches, and is about 7 inches deep. A mesh bottom drains it quickly after the occasional soaking.
Whether or not baitfish are present, they constitute most of the snook's beach diet. Stick with baitfish patterns primarily, and if you see bait, try to match your fly size to the prey species you see along the beach. In clear summer surf, I use white or white-and-chartreuse flies. White-and-blue or white-and-olive are also good choices. Enrico Puglisi finger mullet and anchovy patterns are popular, as are traditional Deceivers. Many anglers swear by pilchard (scaled sardine) patterns tied with a basic white wing, pearl flash, and an olive topping for the back. Try adding some pink flash to the center of the fly to emulate the pink lateral flank of most baitfish.
Many Florida fly fishers create their own patterns for the typically clear summer surf. Among them are the Dirty Squibbster created by Gulf Coast fly fisher Pete Squibb, the DT Special by Capt. Steve Gibson, and the versatile and easy-to-tie Norm's Schminnow, by fly shop owner and author Norm Ziegler.
Crab patterns occasionally score on fish that you observe hovering head-down or "grubbing" along the bottom. In those cases, I also do well with large Gotchas and white or cream-colored Crazy Charlies. Fish them "bonefish style" by bumping them smack on the sand. Once a snook tracks this fly, let it drop and the fish will pin it down just like a bonefish or permit.
Mike Conner is a former editor of Shallow Water Angler magazine, and managing editor of Florida Sportsman and has hosted television shows for both publications. He has written numerous columns on fly fishing and fly tying, and is a licensed Florida charter fishing captain specializing in fly fishing.