Fishing for Snook on the Florida Beaches: Sight Fishing?

I have heard about the possibility of catching Snook in the summer on the beaches in Florida for years.  Now that I am a full-time Florida resident I will have the opportunity to fish for them allot, especially in the summer when they are cruising the beaches. In the past I have only been in Florida in the winter or spring when my wife Martha and I could vacation here and visit family. Snook are definitely my favorite salt water fish to catch because they are very strong, make several runs once hooked, they usually make several jumps, are unpredictable in their feeding habits, and they really like to eat streamers, especially minnow patterns. A 16 incher can put on a great fight and there is always the possibility of hooking a 20-30 pounder. Snook are beautiful fish with a huge mouth that opens up like a scoop, perfectly suited for catching bait fish. They have a lower jaw that is longer than the top jaw, sort of like a male Brown Trout kype.  Their pectoral and anal fins have a yellowish cast. Their body is mostly silver in color and darker on top, with a black lateral line that begins behind their large and sharp gill plate and extends back to a large, darker tail. When they first leave the darker, stained, brackish water in the spring their body is darker, but turns lighter as they stay on the beach. I have seen several Snook that look almost black on top as they cruise through the mangroves searching for food. They have eyes positioned not on the side, but forward and upward, making them able to ambush their prey from below and in front.  They are designed to be the perfect predator for eating minnows, but they will also eat shrimp and crabs. They feed mostly by sight, primarily at night, and early and late in the day.

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Lower jaw is extended longer than the upper jaw like a male Brown Trout’s jaw

In Florida Snook start leaving the mangrove laden, brackish tidal streams in the spring and head for the beaches in April as the water warms up. They spend the summer cruising the beaches looking for food, primarily bait fish.  They spawn close to the beach by broadcast spawning. The females spew their eggs and the males dart in and fertilize them in the water. They don’t create spawning redds like trout. Usually a larger female will be accompanied by several smaller males. They start returning to the brackish, tidal streams in the fall when the water on the beaches begins to cool, and they will stay in this area until the spring. Currently I am enrolled in Snook Beach Fishing School. It is a course I have designed by myself and for myself. The professor is Dr. Snook and the classroom is the beach.

The curriculum is as follows.

  1. Read articles and books about Snook fishing and watch You-Tube videos. Several good articles are:  Fly Fishing for Snook on Beaches, Key Factors to Sight Fishing Snook on the Beach. Several good books are: Snook On A Fly by Norm Ziegler and Snook Flies by Drew Chicone. Two good YouTube episodes are: Beach Snook Tutorial and Beach Snook on Fly by Steve Gibson, a local Sarasota Kayak Fishing Guide.
  2. Obtain local fishing knowledge. I have joined the local chapter of Federation of Fly Fishers called Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers a very active fly fishing club founded in 1992. Interestingly I reconnected with John, a Blue Quill Angler customer that I have known over the years in Evergreen CO. Recently I attended a presentation hosted by the club and  presented by Steve Gibson of Southern Drawl Kayak fishing on fishing for Snook on the beach. Steve has been beach fishing for Snook for over 30 years and has a wealth of  knowledge, experience, skill in fly fishing, fly tying, and confidence in finding Snook on the beach. He seldom casts unless he sees the Snook first and uses a white fly called Gibby’s DT Variation almost exclusively. I recently visited CB’s Salt Water Outfitter on Siesta Key and talked to an employee named Timothy who was very helpful and passionate about catching Snook on the beach. He recommended  flies, and showed me an access point where I could get on the beach. Whenever I meet another fly fisherman on the beach, (I have only met a couple) I try to share info with them, give a fly or try to make a friend.
  3. Tie up a fly box of Snook beach flies. Including, Gibbys DT Variation,  Norms Scminnow, my Holy Mackerel Ultra Hair Clouser, and several other patterns with my own added adaptations. The Clouser is weighted and I use it in heavy waves so it will sink down below the wave and not get carried onto shore. The other patterns are white and sink slowly so you can see the fly in relation to the fish, if sight fishing.
  4. Walking the beach and fishing. I am getting an A+ in this part of the course! By using Google Earth I am selecting local beaches within an hour and a half  from my home and going out and exploring. Google Earth is especially great at finding access points to the beaches and finding those beaches that may have some type of structure on them. I have walked over 70 miles of  beaches so far. I am keeping note of where I see Snook, where fish are caught, effective flies, and especially recording places on beaches that have some type of structure that I will want to return and fish. So far I have explored sections of Longboat Key, Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria, Fort Desoto Park, Lido Key, Turtle Beach, Nokomis Beach, Venice Beach, Casperson Beach, Blind Pass Beach, Englewood Beach, and Stump Pass Beach. This is just the beginning. There are many more miles out there to explore.
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Great structure that will probably hold Snook and other fish as high tide

The beaches in Florida belong to the people and just like fishing Montana streams, legally you can walk the beach, swim and fish as long as you stay below the high wave mark. There are some areas around the access points that have designated swim areas and several beaches where you can bring your dog, let them off the leash and have them swim with you. Legal rules ensure that the Florida coastline surrounded by  public land can still be accessed by every American. At the beach access points there is usually lots of sun bathers and swimmers but if I walk for a half mile or so, there is usually only a few people. It is important to watch your back cast so as not to hook someone walking on the beach. This is often hard to do once you spot a Snook coming your way. Probably the most important part to “Snooking” on the beach is finding the fish. Not all beaches have Snook on them all the time. The fish move up and down a lot. Some of the beaches have recently been reclaimed. This is when they pump in sand from out in the gulf to restore the eroding beach.  Millions of people come to Florida each year to experience the white sandy beaches. The beaches that have recently been reclaimed often have milky water churned up by the waves and not as much available natural food like mole crabs.  Anglers I have talked with have complained that the fishing for all species has been dramatically decreased on beaches that have been reclaimed. Reclamation is a necessary evil to keep the Florida beaches from eroding but it may take a few years for the beach to come back to its natural state. My goal this summer is to walk and locate as many prime beach areas as possible. A prime area would be a beach that not only has a trough along it, or a sand bar, but also some other structure where Snook and other fish would likely locate themselves.

I would rather see a Snook and cast to it, than blind cast, just like I would rather see a rising trout, make the cast and hook him on a dry-fly. But for me and my Snook hunting, I have only seen optimal conditions for sight fishing a few times. Optimal conditions are low waves, one foot or less, little wind, clear water, full sun, and Snook. At this point in my Snook hunting, I am not going to wait around for a clear, cloudless day, with low waves, little wind, and clear water to go after them.  I have been on the beach 25 or more times. Much of the time there have been waves a little too high to see clearly in the water, overcast conditions, wind, or milky water close to shore. Several times I got to the beach and didn’t fish because of the high wave action. I have since heard that there is a web cam available where I can see wave height before going. Oh don’t get me wrong, I have seen some Snook. I have had some sunny, quiet times and I have seen single Snook, doubles, and triples swimming down the trough.  I have seen groups of a half-dozen Snook attacking a bait fish school and running them right up on the beach. I have seen groups of 30-50 Snook swim by me quietly in single file. I have seen some really huge Snook, 20 – 30 pounders, in deeper water that wouldn’t look at my fly. I have seen skittish Snook that quickly sped away when I raised my arm to cast, and I have seen docile Snook that were cooperative in eating my fly. I caught one by making a 6 foot cast as it came by in a foot of water close to the shore , and I caught one on an 80 foot blind cast out into the open water. I targeted one Snook out of a string of fish as they came by. It left the squad to take my white streamer. But most of the Snook I have caught so far have been blind casting down the trough, casting next to some type of structure, or out in deeper water. I have caught Snook on the first cast of the day, and on successive casts. Two casts caught two Snook. Too easy! Four  times I have had two Snook on at a time. I started fishing two flies but after losing three flies and three fish to break-offs, I am back to only using one fly at a time. It is almost impossible to land two Snook with a double fly hook up, but I did hook and landed two small Snook on the same cast. Three times I have fished the whole day and caught no Snook. I have also caught Sea Trout, Jacks, Whiting, Lizard Fish, Mackerel, Hound Fish, Pinfish, Puffer Fish, Cat Fish, and something else that I am not sure what it was.

huge pod of minnows moving
The dark area is a huge school of minnows about one inch long heading North in the trough next to the beach.

I have seen huge schools of minnows,  a variety of Crabs, Dolphins, Manatees, Giant Rays, Turtles, Tarpon and Cobia.The beach is alive with wildlife, especially the birds, and its all new to me. It is so very exciting to experience the joy of the hunt. I am getting very tan! I have caught over 70 Snook, the biggest was around 12 pounds and when I went to unhook the fly, my whole hand disappeared into her mouth! A strange feeling after using a hemostat for decades to remove a fly from a trouts mouth. Several fish have broken off 25 lb fluorocarbon.

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These Pelicans and Sea Gulls taking a rest after stuffing themselves on abundant bait fish. Wherever there are sea birds there is bait fish and where there is baitfish there will be predator fish.

 

One of the greatest things about fly fishing is there is no right or wrong. There are some flies, techniques, and places on the beach that seem to work better than others in catching Snook.. Right now I am just filling up my data base with as much info as possible. If I want to go out and just look for Snook and only cast to those I can see, I can do this just like in Colorado I can go out and wait for the Trout to rise before I make a cast. At this point I am most comfortable with a combination of walking slowly down the beach sight fishing, with the sun at my back, in ankle-deep water. I will stop and fish structure which can be almost anything, a group of rocks, a depression in the ocean floor, the trough next to the beach, a patch of sea grass, a sand bar, or sea wall. If there is a large pod of minnows that comes by I often cast into it or behind it, especially if they are moving fast pursued by predator fish like Mackerel, Jacks or Snook. I have caught several Mackerel behind bait balls and several Snook as they explode on bait fish.One day I was on the beach at 6:15 before the sun came up. My first cast was sloppy and got tangled. When I got the line straightened and tried to make another cast. there was a Snook on the end. I caught 4 more in the next 45 minutes. Once the sun came up the “bite” was over. I fished the next two and a half hours with not a strike. I didn’t even see a fish when the sun was on the water. It was a high tide with big waves, the sun was perfect with no clouds but the Snook had vanished. At least I couldn’t see them. That’s why I love Snook fishing, it is unpredictable, sometimes it is very easy and sometimes you can’t buy a fish. There are so many variables in salt water fishing, like the tides, the moon, the waves, the wind, the clarity of the water, drifting sea grass, the water temperature and available bait fish. At times the Snook turn on and eat your fly, at other times they spook at the cast or even the lifting of your arm to make the cast. For decades I have taught anglers to cast using their arm and keeping their wrist straight. When there is a Snook coming close I often find myself casting by just using my wrist to reduce any unneeded arm motion that might “spook the Snook”. Sometimes a Snook may “spook” when the fly hits the water and sometimes the plop excites them into a strike.

This Snook was caught just before the sun was on the water, fishing around some rocks

Here are My rules for Snook fishing. Rules are merely patterns that are formulated from experience fishing. If you can find an experienced angler or a good guide, then you can use his rules and have a jump in your success rate. The thing to remember is these are my rules and they will change as I get more experience and my database enlarges.

1. Snook are where you find them so go hunting. There is nothing more important then getting out there and fishing and there is not a better teacher.

2. You won’t catch Snook if your fly isn’t in the water. If I come to a place on the beach that looks “fishy”, and feels “fishy”, then I stop and take a few casts whether I see a Snook or not. I realize some veteran Snook anglers only cast to fish they can see. I am not there yet, perhaps I will never be. I am catching too many Snook and other species fishing around structure, sandbars, depressions and troughs, besides I love to cast. I have spent all day casting in drizzle, sleet, snow and wind, floating on a high Wyoming lake hoping for that moment when a huge rainbow takes the streamer. I have fished  the North Platte River in a February with its unmerciful howling wind, sleet and snow only to get broken off from a wild brown trout because my reel was frozen. I surely can beat the sun, heat, and wind that often comes when fishing a Florida beach! Besides if it gets too hot I can just go for a swim. The only thing I can’t deal with is the lightning accompanying the afternoon storms. When the lightning starts I find shelter quickly. Fortunately the weather app on my phone gives accurate storm information and warns of lightning strikes. Most of the Snook fishing is in the AM and done by noon when afternoon thunder storms begin to build. Summer is the rainy season in Florida. When it rains here it is like taking a shower. Inches of rain can come down in a short time and the rain is warm!

3. There are some places on the beach that have Snook on them most of the time when you go there in the summer. Those place have some type of structure. Structure is considered rocks, points, depressions, sand bars, troughs, docks, bridges, sea walls, and sea grass. A beach that has no structure doesn’t  seem to be as good a spot to consistently find Snook, although you might find them migrating from place to place down the trough anywhere and at any time. Just because you found Snook at one place doesn’t mean they will be there next time. Snook move up and down the beach for reasons we try to understand but may never.

4. Snook have times when they feed and times when they don’t.  If you can find a group of Snook actively chasing minnows, cast your fly in the midst of the feeding flurry you will get a hook up for sure. These aggressively feeding Snook will eat your fly with abandon. Other times they just don’t seem interested in feeding at all and don’t want to be coaxed into feeding. They spook at the cast or sight of the fly.

5. Use an Intermediate Salt Water Fly Line unless you are fishing a popper. An Intermediate Salt Water fly line is a clear line that sinks slowly, 1.25 to 2 inches per second. It is invisible to the fish and your eyes also. This line will sink slowly and get below the waves. It also help you keep in contact with your fly as there is not as much slack in the line. Use 4-5 feet of 25 to 30 lb fluorocarbon tippet on the end of the fly line as a leader.

6. Use a Salt Water Weight Forward Floating line when you are using a popper fly or fishing in very shallow water around mangroves.  A 9-10 foot, 16 lb leader works great with an added foot of 30 lb shock tippet on the end with a blood knot. Use a loop knot to attach the fly to the tippet as this gives the fly move action in the water.

7. Local knowledge is the best information you can get. If you can find a Snook fisherman that will share with you some local knowledge, it may save you hours of  walking, searching, and experimenting. Even though the beaches here are a vast  resource, I have found that most anglers, guides and even fishing shops in Florida are not as open with their information as I am used to in Colorado. It is an unwritten rule in Florida that you do not ask “where were you fishing” or “what did you catch them on”. It seems much more secretive here. At the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen CO if someone comes in looking for info we pull out the maps and go over access points, flies to use, when to be there and what technique would be most productive.

8. Setting the hook. If possible, point your rod streight down the line keeping the rod tip close to or in the water and set the hook with a “strip-strike” and not by raising the rod tip. Setting the hook by raising the rod tip is a hard habit me to break, as I am used to lifting the rod tip quickly to set the hook in trout fishing. A strip set is where you make a long pull with the line-hand to set the hook. This is often done several times to assure the hook penetrates a bony mouth, especially in Tarpon Fishing.

9. Be thankful if you get hooked up to a Snook, even if it’s a little one. There are no bad fish! Even a sixteen incher will give a great fight, usually jump several times, and can break 25 lb tippet if your line gets caught in its gill plates.

10. Use at least 25 lb Fluorocarbon tippet. Use 3-5 feet of streight tippet on the end of your intermediate line and a foot of fluorocarbon shock tippet on the end of your leader if you are using a tapered leader.

10. Move slowly and carry a big stick.  A 6 weight fly rod is on the low-end. I suggest a 7-9 weight. A 6 weight will handle most Snook hooked on the beach but when you hook the trophy you are looking for, you will want a larger rod.  If you hook a huge female you should have at least 150 yards of backing and a reel that has a good drag. You still might have to run up the beach or out into the water. Wear light-colored clothing that will help to camouflage your position. Walk slowly and keep sudden movements to a minimum.

11. A stripping basket is very helpful if the waves are high, but unnecessary and can seem cumbersome when the waves are low. For the most part you can stay in ankle deep water or on the beach while casting.

Of the 25 times I have been on the beach, I have only seen six other fly fishermen, and only two of them had caught a Snook. I am sure there are some areas that get more pressure from anglers but at this point I am not aware of them. The population of Snook is coming back from a fish kill in 2010. Up to a million Snook may have been killed due to cold water. There is a slot limit in Florida where you can harvest one Snook a day not less than 28″ and more than 33″ inches. Most guides and conservation minded anglers are against this harvest and would rather the State of Florida go back to a “no kill” on Snook. A special Snook permit is required to harvest one and there is a set season depending where you live. personally I am not going to kill a Snook. It is important to make sure barbs on hooks are pinched down. Snook can inhale the fly deeply and the fly can lodge in the gills. When you hold a Snook in the water they feel very slimy with a thick mucus layer covering their body. If possible do not drag them onto the beach where the sand can take off  this protective layer of slime. I like to wade into the water which will put me at waist deep, there I can cradle the fish, remove the fly, revive it and let it swim away. Also for picture-taking it is best not to hold the fish vertically from its gill plate or lips. One fun thing to do when you catch a Snook is to put your thumb in the its mouth. It will clamp down on your thumb until it is ready to swim off.

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This Snook was motionless, on the bottom, in a depression next to a submerged piling. I thought it was a Snook, I cast and when my fly came by him, he couldn’t resist it.

I know that lots of anglers don’t want to come to Florida and fish in the summer because of the heat. I have found it bearable, especially by fishing in the morning and the evening hours. There are hundreds of miles of beaches in Florida with little pressure from fly anglers. Because of the Snooks beauty, strength and ability to jump, it is, and always will be on the top of my list of Florida game fish. But I haven’t caught a Florida Tarpon, yet. Several of my friends have said that once I catch a Tarpon on a fly, everything else will seem minor. We will see. For now Snook is number one.

2 thoughts on “Fishing for Snook on the Florida Beaches: Sight Fishing?

  1. great article on snook Jim! I think I have told you but I spent a dozen or so weeks in July beach fishing for snook from Captiva up to Boca Grande and what you write is exactly what I experienced. My favorite snook event of all time was one morning when I had worked myself out through the first “through” and was casting into the second. I happened to glance over my shoulder towards the beach and saw this big snook cruising toward me, just a foot off the sand. I made a good cast and the fish hit. It jumped…. and landed 3 feet up on the beach! I walked up and landed him. First time I ever caught a fish when I was in the water and the fish wasn’t! Snook are great!

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    1. Wow. That’s a great experience. Am hoping the waves will calm down some more. Would love to fish some of those more southern beaches, take another vacation. What flies do you like to use?

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