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!












Fishing for Snook on the Beach: Blind casting in the surf

The next time I got out on the beach the waves were back up and so was the wind which was coming from the south west. It was overcast and stayed that way most of the day with periodic times when it would clear up with momentary sun. It was actually a dreary day, if it is possible to have one on a Florida beach. The water was grey and dirty next to the shore where the waves crashed in churning up the sand and shells. Then going out a few feet the water turned to a sandy, milky green color and out 20 feet or so the water cleared up. There was an obvious current moving from south to north.

Big waves crashing on beach looking south
Big waves with wind made sight fishing impossible

The waves were coming in every 3-8 seconds, were 2-3 feet high and big enough to put you off-balance or knock you down if not careful. On a big wave I would stand sideways to lessen the force. Even though it was impossible to spot any fish, I wasn’t about to go home without trying to catch a snook. There were areas on the beach where the bottom was flat and shallower, and areas where there was a several foot drop off into a  trough running along the beach.

Holy Mackrel

The “Holy mackerel”, an Ultra Hair Clouser type fly

After rigging up my fly rod with  a floating fly line, a 10 foot leader with 3 feet of 25 lb  fluorocarbon tippet, I tied on a #2  “Holy Mackrel”, a  Clouser style fly tied out of  Ultra Hair. At this point in my salt water fishing experience, this is my “go to” fly I have the most confidence in. It is a minnow pattern that I have caught mackerel, , redfish, pompano, sea trout and flounder on in the past. The fly was heavily weighted with large, red, barbel eyes. I felt a heavy fly was needed to get down below the waves. Confidence in the fly has always been important to my fishing. If you believe in the fly, connecting with the fish seems to follow, most of the time. I selected a “fishy looking” spot where the trough faded out into a deeper area. I waded out a few feet into the surf and began casting to my left, parallel to the beach and straight down the trough. I heard that snook travel down the trough close to the beach so that is where I started casting.

Waves were big enough to knock you down

The waves were so strong that they would take my floating line and wash it back onto the beach. After several frustrating casts, I realized that I should be using an intermediate sinking line that would sink down into the water below the chop, and not get washed ashore as easily.  I changed to a clear, intermediate fly line with 4 feet of 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet to the fly. Because the waves were coming in at an angle from my left or south, and the wind was coming from the south, I couldn’t cast to my left or the waves and wind would push the fly line back into my position and I would have a tangled mess.

I started casting along the trough and systematically worked out into new water.

I changed direction and facing north I began working the beach from my left to my right.  The wind was now at my back, the waves were taking my loose fly line away from my feet, the intermediate fly line was sinking below the waves, and now I just had to time the cast to hit the water right after the wave crashed into the shore and before the next one came in.  I was working the water in a systematic way, starting parallel to the shore at the edge of the trough, then casting out to a perpendicular angle straight out in front of me. It was nice to have a long 10 foot rod that could extend out past the incoming waves.

7c779da2-001c-4dfa-a7bf-522c0a8107bcI fished for a half hour until I got my first hard strike. I set the hook and the fish was on. It felt like a good one.  I quickly got him on the reel. He made several runs and then several jumps when he got closer, about 20 feet out. Sure enough I could see the black, lateral line stripe and silver body of a 20″ snook. As the fish got closer and I thought I could control him, I made the mistake of reaching down and grabbing the tippet while he was still hooked up.  At the same time the snook took off again and the fluorocarbon tippet zoomed through my fingers cutting a small but painful slice in my fingers. A bloody mistake I will remember not to make again. I was learning that salt water fish, especially snook have a lot of power!

Snook with fly enhansed
My first snook from the beach

I finally got him close, waded out into the surf,cradled  him in my hand and arm and removed the barbles hook. Letting him go he disappeared back into the water, like a ghost.  By noon I had hooked and landed three more, all about the same size. The wind and waves had increased to an impossible level. making fishing next to impossible.  While walking back down the beach to my parking spot with a big smile on my face, I marveled at the power and jumping ability of the snook I had caught. I wondered what fighting a really large one would be like. I was satisfied with my first day of snook fishing on the beach. At least I had begun to “crack the code” of beach fishing for snook, even if I couldn’t see them under the poor conditions. I had waited a long time to spend a day on the beach, now only a few miles from my new home. I’ll certainly be back. In good weather or bad!

snook with fly