Fishing for Snook at Night Under Dock Lights

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.

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.

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.

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. 



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. 




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.


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.
It doesn’t get any better than this!