Fishing for Snook at Night Under Dock Lights

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A nice group of Snook under the dock lights.

After living in Florida for over a year now, I have come to love Snook. They are by far my favorite fish to catch. They are an inshore species whose young are spawned on the beaches and grow up around the Mangroves. They are available to be caught by the angler in every season. In the summer you can find them just off the Florida beaches where they spawn, in the fall they move into the passes and inshore bays, and they spend the winter in the tidal creeks. As far as their power, they have been called “a cross between a Trout and a Bass on steroids”. Even a small one, under 20″, will give a great fight and usually jump several times. They love to ambush minnows, and also feed on drifting crabs and shrimp. They feed primarily at night or in low light conditions but can be caught in full sunlight on the beaches. They are also very moody in their feeding habits and seem to be where you find them. One day you might find a bunch of them only to come back the next day and they are all gone. Saltwater has no fences! Because they feed primarily on bait fish and shrimp, they are vulnerable to the fly angler armed with small minnow and shrimp patterns.

IMG_6073I have heard about fishing for Snook under the dock light for years and several of the guides here offer night trips to catch them. Last year I decided to go out and find some lights, hoping there were Snook around them. My first Kayak outing under the lights was a total bust. Using Google Earth I found a “put in” on the nearby Manatee River. I paddled a couple of miles but even though there were some docks, there were no underwater lights around them. The lights I am referring to are the green ones that are lowered into the water. These lights attract all kinds of bait fish that in turn attract predator fish, of which the Snook is #1. The second time I went out was on a small creek that enters into Sarasota Bay. By creek I mean it is a brackish canal. It is lined with houses, boats and docks, and in places still lined with mangroves. I went with my good friend Peter, a fly fishing guide with the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen CO. He was really wanting to catch a Snook so we went out hunting. We found a half-dozen  lights and there were certainly some Snook around them, but they didn’t want to eat our flies. I managed to catch one small Snook. It was a little disappointing as I had heard catching Snook at night under the dock lights was almost cheating. Well Peter and I  got cheated alright. We could see the Snook gathered around the lights but they were very inactive. There was little to no current in the canal, which I later learned was not ideal, and they just weren’t interested in our offerings, although we tried a host of small, glass minnow patterns.

Since I really needed some help in fishing around the lights, I decided to go on an outing sponsored by the Mangrove Coast Flyfishers, an International Federation of Flyfishers Charter club based in Sarasota of which I am now a member. They are a well established club with many experienced anglers willing to share their knowledge. We met at 7:30 pm and paddled out to a canal coming out of a small creek. We fished the area where the canal entered the bay for a while until it got dark. I caught a Mackerel and had a couple other strikes. As darkness approached, we ventured up into the canal where we could see an occasional submerged green light. Gathered around each light were numerous Snook and also a few baby Tarpon. Some of the lights had been placed way back in the dock where it was impossible to get a cast under the dock. Of course these lights were packed with Snook. At other docks the lights were submerged in front of the dock or to the side, and easy to cast around and into the lighted area and suspended Snook. I had put two seats in my Frontier12 NuCanoe. My grandson Gabriel, age 13 was in the front and I was paddling. I would paddle him up to a dock and then hold the boat within his casting range of 30-40 feet.

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Gabriel’s first Snook casting under the dock lights. It a little bigger than his smile. The next ones came a lot easier.

At the first submerged light we saw a dozen or more Snook lounging around the perimeter. Gabriel made a dozen or more casts. He got several follows but no takes. The fish were beginning to get wary and fade into the darkness when he got a strike and a hook up. After a couple of minute fight with several jumps he landed the Snook. It was a little bigger than his smile! Size certainly didn’t matter! The first one is always the  hardest to get. The “skunk” had been broken and the anticipation level of hooking another fish was raised to a much higher level. After releasing the Snook our attention focused back to the dock lights. All the Snook had vanished so we set off into the dark in search for another light.

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Ken’s baby tarpon put up quite a fight and made several jumps before it was landed, photographed  and released.

We continued up the canal to a dividing point where another smaller canal emptied into the one we were paddling. There was a dock light close to the shore and we could make out a kayak positioned in front of it. I heard Ken Babineau’s voice come out of the darkness, “I have on a Tarpon!” Then there was a couple loud splashes. (Ken is president of the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers and donates much of his time taking out members of the MCFF fishing.) After a 5 minute battle, Ken boated the fish for a picture and it was quickly released, a 10 lb baby Tarpon. That night Gabe and I continued fishing until 3:00 am. He landed another small Snook and hooked three baby Tarpon that broke off or tossed the fly after jumping. A very successful night, especially for a 13-year-old and his grandpa.

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Gables personal best Snook at 31″

We have been out many more times since that memorable night. The best night Gabe landed 17 Snook and lost several others. We also found two lights that were loaded with Sea Trout. He also caught a really nice Mangrove Snapper. His personal best was a 31 inch Snook that he landed on a six weight rod. 

 

 

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Small swimming crabs and shrimp like these are often drifting through the lights.

At times the Snook were very active chasing one another around and popping the surface eating glass minnows, floating crabs, and small shrimp. We found small poppers are often effective if you see and hear fish popping bait in the surface film. Small glass minnow patterns and Shrimp are also effective. 

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Tiny glass minnows are abundant around the lights and the reason the fish are there ready to eat them. Picture on the right. This little minnow came out of a Snook caught on a #6 glass minnow pattern.

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SeaTrout on a Gurgler style flyfullsizeoutput_826


 

Tips on fishing under dock lights: Please note I am just a beginner at fishing dock lights but have learned a few things that might be helpful.

  1. The best docks to fish are those that have lights that are bright green and have been lowered down into the water in an area that you can cast into. Docks that have a white light suspended above the water may also have bait around them and Snook, Tarpon, and Sea Trout nearby and are worth casting around. The best time to fish is usually when there is a current flowing around the lights.
  2. Approach the light quietly and anchor up current from the light. Since you will usually be within 50 feet of the light try not to rock the boat sending out shock waves or create any noise. Start on the outside of the light and work towards the fish you can see in the middle. If fish are very active chasing each other or popping bait, cast your fly quickly at those fish. Vary the strip until you find the speed that triggers the strike.
  3. A Salt water floating line with a 9 foot 25 lb leader is a good choice with 25 lb Fluorocarbon tippet. The fly should be tied on with a loop knot. An intermediate slow sinking line or a sink tip line can be used if you are not fishing with a popper.
  4. When a larger Snook or Tarpon is hooked try to pull it away from the dock before it wraps your line around the dock supports.
  5. There are often Snook that are outside the light that will eat your fly and are sometimes easier to hook.
  6. If you hear or see Snook or Sea Trout popping shrimp or minnows on the top of the water a Gurgler will often fool them.
  7. The Snook or Sea Trout will often follow the fly. Keep on stripping until you see or feel the take. Sometimes they will follow right up to the boat.
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It doesn’t get any better than this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Yourself Safe in the Florida Environment

Since the Florida environment is so very different from Colorado and most of the USA, it necessitates living in it for a while before being able to understand it’s seasons and fit into the environment safely. After a year of living full-time in Florida, I have found out by experience that there are some things out there that you should watch out for. Things that can bother you and hurt you while fishing. I am not talking so much about the more obvious enemies like sharks and alligators, although they need to be understood and respected. I am talking about some of the more common things you will almost surely run into on a daily basis when fishing. Things like the heat, sun, rain, hot sand, bugs, fish with teeth and spines, lightning, oyster beds, sting rays, jellyfish and even cold weather.

 PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN, HEAT, LIGHTNING, AND THE COLD. 

 The first time I went out in my kayak fishing this past summer it was for around 6 hours in June and under direct sun. I have never been one who gets sunburned easily. I have dark eyes and am dark complected. I put on sunscreen in the morning and figured that would be enough. I wanted to get a tan so I didn’t wear a shirt and I had on shorts. I got consumed in the fishing and didn’t reapply the sun screen until the afternoon. By then it was too late. My back, shoulders, and thighs got cooked and I was in pain for several days. It was hard to sleep at night and every tiny movement rolling over in bed was painful, even the weight of sheets on my burned skin caused pain. Eventually much of the burned skin peeled off. It’s been 50 years since I had such a burn. You’d think I would have learned about the sun by now, but I underestimated its danger. In Colorado I never wore shorts while fishing and always had on a long sleeve, sun protective shirt. In Florida it was a temptation to take off my sun protective clothing and I fell for it.When fishing  out of a kayak, which is how I fish the most, your legs are horizontal, so the angle of the sun’s rays hit the top of your knees and thighs, tops of the feet, shoulders, ears, and back of the neck. It is easy to get a burn in a short time.

In July one of my friends came from Colorado and we went out on the beach fishing for Snook. We walked about 4 miles. I told him of my experience in getting burned. He put on sun screen but by the end of the day he was also burned, only worse. The sand working in between his sandals and his skin rubbed him raw, plus the sun burned the tops of his feet, shoulders, arms and legs. Walking in the hot sand from the water’s edge to the parking lot also burned the bottom of his feet. He was pretty miserable for almost two weeks. Needless to say, the sun is of major concern, so is walking on the hot sand. In the afternoon during the hottest time of the day, the hot sand or even worse, the hot pavement, may burn the bottoms of your feet. You may have to wear some type of beach shoe when walking the beach. If you are going to be out in the sun in Florida in the summer you are going to sweat. I sweat so much, I actually sweat off the sunscreen. I am covering up a lot more now with quick dry, long sleeve shirts, pants and a wide-brimmed hat, and of course drinking lots of water and  reapplying sunscreen. Without water you are flirting with dehydration and heat stroke. When choosing a sunscreen I would suggest you get one that is friendly to the salt water environment. One example is  Stream2Sea. Chemicals such as oxybenzone in many sunscreens have been proven to destroy coral reefs.

If you are coming to Florida in the winter you should bring your waders, a breathable rain coat and a good sweater. This past winter in Florida was cool at times. I saw temperatures in Bradenton Florida reach into the 30’s. Early one morning I actually saw ice on the grass. It was refreshing! Northern Florida received some snow this past winter. When it gets below 50 here, with high humidity and wind, you can get chilled very quickly. If you are going to get out and wade fish in the winter, you will find waders are necessary or you will get very cold. If you are fishing out of a boat or kayak and getting wet, I would suggest you wear a slip over breathable pant that will keep you dry. Many years ago I bought an Orvis breathable, pullover wind shirt. All it does is hold in body heat. It has proved to be the most valuable garment I have to keep me warm. It is light weight and packable. I take it everywhere I go. WHEN YOU GET COLD IN FLORIDA, YOU ARE REALLY COLD, AND IT CAN HAPPEN QUICKLY.

Florida is the #1 state in the USA for lightning strikes with around 1.5 million strikes per year. Most of these are in the wet season which begins in the spring and lasts into the late summer. In the winter there is little rain or lightning, at least in Bradenton where I live. Once the rainy season arrives in the spring, rain and lightning will be a daily afternoon experience. When it rains here in Florida it really comes down. A breathable raincoat is a necessity to bring on all outings, walking or boating. The Weather Channel on your phone should be your best friend before and during your fishing trip. It will alert you to upcoming storms and lightning. Storms in Florida come in fast and move out fast. I thought Colorado’s South Park and Cheesman Canyon were bad for lightning, but Florida is worse with around 25 lightning strikes per square mile per year. In the summertime wet season, most anglers will fish early in the am and be off the water as the thunder storms come in during the afternoon and evening.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM MOSQUITOS, NO-SEE-UMS, AND FIRE ANTS

There are places and times in Florida where the mosquitos and tiny no-see-um will drive you crazy. So far in Florida I have not seen the huge numbers of mosquitos that I have heard about. I have been bothered by the no-see-ums occasionally. Bugs are more of a problem as you move south in Florida down by the Everglades. In the summer months the bugs and heat in southern Florida are almost unbearable. I spent four days fishing around Chokolosky on the edge of the Everglades in mid December but found only a few mosquitos. I fished along Alligator Alley in the Everglades in February but didn’t even see one mosquito. I spent two days in the Keys and two days in Chokolosky in April and was not bothered by bugs. My wife Martha finds a dozen mosquito’s every time she walks the dog. Some people are just bug magnets. It is a good idea to always have insect repellant. Eventually you will need it.

I remember vividly my first and hopefully my last experience with the Florida fire ants. They are very tiny and not an insect that you would think could cause burning and itching that can go on for a couple of weeks. I was bass fishing by one of the many  canals on the east side of Florida. As I was walking along the rim of the canal and casting into the far side, I felt a sting on my right leg and looked down to see hundreds of ants, each about the size of a pepper grain, crawling up my pants. I shook them off quickly but it was too late and I received two dozen bites. They made little red welts that  lasted for two weeks, often burning and itching like crazy.  Not fun! Stay away from tiny ants! The main way to keep them off you is to be observant of your surroundings. They don’t make huge mounds like the red ants in Colorado and they are often hard to spot until it is too late.

Florida also has a host of other insects that could cause irritation and pain such as bees, wasps, and poisonous caterpillars. For the most part if you are in a boat you won’t come into contact with these creatures. Of course if you are allergic to bee stings you should always carry your epi pen. I have seen several paper style wasp nests in the mangroves so it’s best to look out for them if you are very close to mangroves.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE RAZOR SHARP TEETH AND NEEDLE LIKE FINS PRESENT ON MANY SALT WATER AND FRESHWATER FLORIDA FISH.

I have caught thousands of Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout and Brookies in the West. I rarely got a nick from their teeth or fins.  I have been cut a few times by the teeth of a trout while removing the fly with my fingers. The cuts were easily avoided if I would have used a hemostat to remove the fly instead of my fingers. The teeth of fresh water trout are small  in relation to most salt water fish, and the fins of trout are harmless. Not so with many salt water fish.

Generally speaking, salt water fish have more teeth, larger teeth and stronger jaws that like to “chomp”. There is a reason a Snapper is called a Snapper. Once that jaw snaps shut it is hard to get it open, even with a pliers. If your finger is in the mouth those teeth will cut you badly. I caught my first Blue Fish in Sarasota Bay few years ago. I didn’t know a Blue fish from a Sucker. Blue fish have a row of small, shark like teeth on the top and bottom of their very strong jaws. They have lips that cover over the teeth. You might not realize they have teeth until too late. My fly was engulfed deeply in the Bluefish mouth. Like an inexperienced Colorado Trout fisherman, I reached my thumb and index finger into its mouth to get the fly. Chomp, chomp goes the Bluefish and there was sharp pain in my thumb. By the time I got my fingers out, I was cut pretty bad and blood was running down my thumb and wrist. There was enough blood in my kayak, most of it mine, to attract sharks! My only revenge was that I ate him for dinner. A general rule in saltwater fishing is never put your fingers in a fishes mouth, no matter how big or small. Even little fish can do immediate and severe damage. A pair of saltwater pliers is a necessary investment. Not only will the pliers help remove the hook without putting your finger onto the fishes mouth, most pliers will have a cutter necessary to cut the larger tippet diameters uses in Saltwater fishing. Make sure the pliers you get are aluminum and not stainless steel as they will rust.

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My bait ball pattern tied on an Umpqua U505 hook with a 4x long shank allows you to grab the hook with pliers without damaging the fly. It also helps keep the fly from breaking of due to toothy critters.

I am tying most of my flies on 4x long hooks that are easier to grab onto with the pliers without ruining the fly. Sometimes if your fly is hooked deeply into the fishes throat, the best thing to do may be to just cut the line.

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This Bowfin clamped its mouth shut and I never could get the fly out. Luckily my fingers were not in there too.

When fishing an Everglades canal I caught a Bowfin. It is an indigenous fish to Florida. It is on top of the food chain. It is very strong, will jump and has the strongest jaws I have ever seen. My fly was deep in its mouth and I couldn’t get the mouth open. I used two pair of pliers but couldn’t open its mouth.  I ended up just cutting the line. Later I was cautioned to be very careful with this fish. Once it clamps on to you it may not let go and can cause extreme injury, having rows of tiny teeth and very powerful jaws that clamp shut.
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The fins on many Salt water fish are like needles. The saltwater catfish is the most dangerous, as it’s spines have a poison on them that can be very painful and could get infected.  This catfish (left) caught me good on my right index finger. I was in pain for several hours and almost quit fishing. He stuck me while I was trying to remove the hook.  From now on I will use a FishGripper in one hand and saltwater pliers in the other. I am not touching another one of these critters. Catfish are powerful fighters for their size and fun to catch, but the risk of getting stuck is high.  The barb on the dorsal fin is serrated and won’t come out easily once it penetrates your body. Make sure to wear the Catfish out in the water before netting it or bringing it into the boat as they like to flip around uncontrollably. As you begin catching and releasing salt water fish just assume that the fins will stick you and the teeth will cut you. You will soon learn the species that are ok to handle but they are few. Pinching down the barbs of your hook will really help in getting the fly out of the fish and out of your body. Because you will be casting in windy conditions, often with force, it is only a matter of time before you will hook yourself. You will not be using a #18 trout fly with a small barb! Even a small fly can be hard to get out of your skin. You will probably be using at least a #6 salt water hook which has a much larger barb. Best to pinch the barb down. Just remember, “I told you so”.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM OYSTER BEDS AND BARNACLES: 

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Oyster beds like these are home for millions of sea creatures and magnets for predator fish. They are also very dangerous to walk on and touch, they will also tear up your wading shoes, kayak or boat.

Oyster beds create homes for billions of small fish, crabs and other sea life and are fish magnet areas for Red fish, Snook, and Sea Trout. Eventually, when an oyster bed gets large enough, a mangrove seed will drift in and get planted among the oysters. Over time,  an oyster bed can become a mangrove island, an interesting development to watch over the years.  Oyster beds are great to fish around but never get out and walk on one. Oyster shells are like thousands of knife blades and because they are very uneven, can cause you to lose your balance and fall down. You could get seriously injured if you trip and fall down on them. Oyster shells can also cut up your flats boots. If you are fishing around oyster beds make sure your fly line, leader and tippet does not get caught on them, as they can quickly cut though your terminal tackle. If you hook a fish around an oyster bed, be sure to raise your rod up high and try to keep your fly line from touching the shells. Walk around Oyster beds just like you would walk around the spawning beds of trout in a stream. Oyster beds are  the homes for billions of sea creatures and they filter and clean the water.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM STINGRAYS AND JELLYFISH:

thI see lots of Stingrays especially if I am wading on the beach or sandbar. Around 1,500 people a year are stung by a Stingray in the USA and many of these accounts are in Florida. Stingrays may lay on the bottom and get covered over by sand. They may also have camouflaged coloring and be very hard to see. If you step on one you can receive a very painful, debilitating injury. You may have to go to the doctor to get the barb out and you will be in great pain. There are many different kinds of rays. The ones you will encounter are usually small but have a very bony, sharp, striated spine that can penetrate deeply into your muscles causing extreme pain and infection. The best way to avoid getting stung is to look ahead in the water as you walk, slide your feet across the bottom, and do not lift your feet so you step down on one. Stingrays can bury themselves in the sand where they are not visible. More on the Stingray shuffle.

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Don’t touch Jelly Fish like this one which is almost impossible to see in the shallow water.

There are many types of Jellyfish in the ocean. Some of them can sting you. Some are translucent and very hard to see. The main thing is to just stay away from them. If you wear long pants while wading you have less possibility of contact with a jellyfish.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM ALLIGATORS, SHARKS, AND SNAKES.

If you are fishing in fresh or brackish water in Florida you will come in contact with alligators. There are over a million of them in Florida, however officials put the odds of someone being seriously injured by an unprovoked alligator in Florida at roughly one in 2.4 million. You are many more times likely to get bitten by a dog than an alligator. There are 8-12 unprovoked alligator attacks a year in Florida. Common sense is the best protection from alligators which means don’t feed them, don’t swim in areas where they are present, don’t drag fish behind your kayak on a stringer, don’t wade fish in areas where there are alligators, don’t bother their nests, pull your fly away from an alligator if it is following your retrieve, and remove yourself from areas where you see babies or an alligator nest. If you want to have an incident with an alligator you can probably create one. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. The alligator I met on the Myaka river in the video below just sat there as I paddled by. I didn’t bother him and he didn’t bother me, except for a minute or too when I held my breath!

 

 

Sharks are common on Florida beaches, intercostal bays and brackish streams.  Sharks that eat your fish once hooked has become a problem in some locations, especially when fishing for Tarpon or Bonito.  I have had a shark eat my Sea Trout as I was reeling it in. There was a quick tug, I saw the shark, only a 3 footer, and all that was left on my line was the Seatrout head. I often see sharks when out around sandbars and grass flats in my kayak. Common sense prevails in dealing with sharks. Personally I don’t swim far out on the beaches or wade much past my knees. I don’t have a stringer of fish trailing behind my kayak or with me if I am wading. Sharks can easily be chummed up if you want to fish for them, and they can be caught on a fly. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM SNAKES

Florida is the home for 45 different snake species of which only 6 are poisonous. My general rule is be on the outlook for them and leave them alone. I have only seen couple of snakes on Florida but I am always on the lookout for them. More on Florida Snakes.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM POISONOUS  PLANTS

More on Florida poisonous plants. 

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM HOOKS

Fly fishing necessitates casting a fly that has a hook and probably a barb on it. Everyone who fly fishes will eventually encounter the hook getting caught in one’s skin. If the barb has been pinched down, the hook can easily be removed. Casting, especially in the wind, requires some type of eye protection to be safe. All anglers should wear a shatterproof sun glass. Because of the power of many salt water fish, I do not advocate using two flies while saltwater fishing. One hook can be in the fish and the free fly could easily get caught in the angler. More on removing a hook

 

 

ITEMS HELPFUL WHEN FISHING IN FLORIDA

  1. Salt Water Plier. Used for pinching down barbs, removing hooks from fishes mouth, tightening knots, and cutting tippet and wire. A necessity for Salt Water fishing. Stay away from Stainless steel as it will rust.
  2. A Fish Gripper.  It holds a fish by the lip so you do not have to hold it in your hand. It keeps you from rubbing of the protective slime of the fishes skin and keeps your hands from getting pricked by the sharp fins.
  3. A DeHooker. This is a tool that slides down your tippet to the hook and then with a quick snap will remove the hook from the fish, some of the time. It really helps to pinch down your barbs. The hook comes out of the fish much easier and out of your body too when it has no barb.
  4. Hook sharpener and a good snip. Your hooks may get dull by hitting barnacles or  bony mouths. Keeping them sharp will insure more hook ups. Most  salt water fish have very bony mouths and can dull your point. Best not to use your teeth to cut 20 lb fluorocarbon but I still do it when i can’t find my nipper. Use a nipper and save your front teeth.
  5. Hard bottom wading shoes. Flats booties or salt water wading shoes that will protect feet from barnacles and other salt water hazards are necessary. There can be glass and even used hypodermic needles on the beaches. I don’t go barefooted but may be a little paranoid. Flats booties do not give much arch support so you may want to pay the extra money and get a salt water wading shoe with better support and a firmer sole. If you are going to wade around in a soft, muddy bottom you will want to have a wading shoe that you can lace up tight and not one that zips up the side. It is easy to lose a zippered shoe in a soft, sticky bottom. If you walk the beach fishing your zippered booties will get filled with sand and you may have trouble using the zipper. Best to have a salt water shoe that laces up.
  6. Protective Clothing. Q+qJmhDVQgmQExlNJonS+AA wide-brimmed sun shield hat, long sleeve sunshield shirts and pants, sunshield gloves and face shields help to protect from the sun.  A Buff turns your cap into a sun protected garment. Always have a breathable, light weight raincoat nearby. Storms come in fast and leave fast in Florida. In the winter, while kayaking I have on a breathable rain pant the keeps my legs dry from paddle drips.
  7. First aid kit. IMG_2101Just like when you go camping, a first aid kit is a necessity. Bandaids and disinfectant pads are necessary in case of minor cuts. It is possible, and I have done it several times, to cut yourself with the fly line, backing or leader. I carry waterproof first aid tape to protect my fingers if they get cut. Fishing in saltwater with cuts in your fingers can be “a pain.” You can get cut from teeth, fins, spines and may need immediate first aid to guard against infection.
  8. Polarized Sun Glasses are a must. Many prices, styles and types available.
  9.  Cell Phone. Almost all of Florida has cell phone access. Everyone I know who carries a cell phone while fishing, including me, has destroyed a phone or two by getting it wet. Just go ahead and invest in a good waterproof phone case. I also cary a small recharger and cord. I use 5 apps on my phone. They are the Weather Channel, Navionics, Google Maps, Windfinder and Tides. The Weather Channel gives daily weather estimates, send out alerts to dangerous conditions, coming storms and lightning. Google Maps is great for road information and driving directions to the fishing location. When in my kayak fishing I turn on Navionics which shows me where I am located in relationship to mangrove islands, grass flats, cuts and streams and keeps me from getting lost when in my kayak. It can map your route and save it so you have a history of the trip. It can give a good estimate on how deep the water is and where access points are located. Many of the fishing spots I go to have been found by using Navionics or Google Maps. Windfinder is an app that shows current and coming wind conditions in relationship to where I am fishing. The wind speed and direction will help tell you which spots you should fish. Tides gives me an idea of incoming tides which is crucial information for Salt Water fishing.
  10. Stripping basket. Striping baskets are not used much in Western trout fishing but I find them very useful in Florida. I use one when wade fishing or walking the beach. You can strip your line in so that it falls into the basket. The basket keeps your line out of the water and keeps the line from getting tangled in weeds and waves. If you want easier casting with less tangles a stripping basket is very helpful.
  11. Sunscreen and insect repellants are a must. Best to use sunscreens that are not harmful to the environment. Some sunscreens actually are harmful to Coral Reefs and fish. Really? If you go to a popular Florida beach you will easily smell the sunscreen. Gallons of it enter the environment every day. Insect repellant are necessary at certain places and times of the year.
  12. Drinking Water. Just like in Colorado fishing and hiking you will need water. This can not be over emphasized. I take water with me when fishing and have back up water on my kayak and in my truck at all times.

Just like in Colorado where we have powerful sun, a high altitude, lightning, fires, snakes, mosquitos, bears, mountain lions, elk and deer, poison ivy, bees and wasps, Florida has many harmful things you might encounter. I find the Boy Scout motto, “be prepared” is a valuable attitude to have when going outdoors. Nothing is more important than knowing the environment you will be fishing in and having the right gear, so you can go out there and confidently “rip some lips”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

First blog post

I founded the Blue Quill Angler, a fly fishing retail shop, fly fishing school, internet store, and guide service in Evergreen CO in 1988. I had the privilege of fishing and introducing others to many of Colorado’s great trout streams including the South Platte, Blue, Arkansas, Roaring Fork, Frying Pan, Gunnison and Colorado Rivers, plus a host of smaller high mountain streams and lakes. Over the last 29 years I have had the opportunity to help hundreds of anglers develop skills for freshwater fly fishing, including casting, tying knots, reading trout streams, aquatic entomology, fly tying, and how to fish dry flies, nymphs and streamers. My only regret is that as the business grew I spent less time fishing and guiding and more time running the business.  In November 2016 my wife Martha and I sold our interest in the Blue Quill Angler and in May we moved to Bradenton Florida to be close to family and of course explore the multitudes of freshwater and saltwater fishing opportunities available in Florida. It is my hope that this blog will help me share with, and  keep in contact with my many friends,  and business relationships developed over the past 30 years. For new anglers I have not yet been introduces to, I hope this blog will be a source of  encouragement and information about the transformation that takes place in learning a completely different fishing environment.  Kayak fishing in a NuCanoe Frontier will be my means of exploration unless I am walking a beach looking for snook!