When you live a short 15-minute drive from world-class beach fishing you can get spoiled. You wait for perfect conditions, and meanwhile, as you are studying your tide chart and following the crawler on the Weather Channel, some guy from Arkansas on a three-day visit catches a 35-inch snook in your favorite spot. I’m never surprised to hear that a visiting fly-rodder had a banner day in less than ideal conditions. In fact; I almost expect it.
Typically, beach snook fishing conjures images of crystal-blue waters, a gentle breeze, bright sunshine, and plenty of cruising fish moving up and down the beach; and rightly so. But there are other days and other conditions. Being able to adapt will make all the difference.
Looking for Love
April through late October, snook move from the backcountry to the beaches with one thing on their mind: making little snook. A typical adult snook will spawn two or three times per week during the summer. As with other species, the largest fish that you will encounter are females. The odd thing about snook is that most fish are born male and at about 24 inches in length, change sex to become females. When snook take to the beaches they change habits, personalities and appearance.
The Eyes Have It
Sight fishing is the method of choice when fly fishing. While the snook can be very spooky and at times non-cooperative, in general, a thoughtful and skilled presentation will get you hooked up.
The first order of business is spotting the fish. Early in the summer, while the fish are darker in color, this is easy. As the summer progresses and the fish change to take on a silvery appearance, they become much harder to spot. Here is a tip for bright days: instead of looking for a fish that blends in with the surface, focus on the sandy bottom and look for shadows. Visitors are usually surprised at how close to the shore the snook really are. Norm Zeigler, author of Snook on a Fly, will tell you that when sight fishing, if you are wet above the ankles, you are wading too deep. Sight fishing is done from a “fly-in-hand” position- and minimal false casting is crucial, as the shadow that is cast from the line will put your fish on high alert. When possible, fish into the sun, so as not to announce your presence by casting a long shadow.
Once you have spotted a target, the temptation will be to fire off a cast, but take your time. Snook spend their time on the beach cruising up and down, rarely darting around or swimming erratically. Determine the direction that your fish is traveling and don’t take your eyes off of her. She will likely keep heading in that direction.
Baitfish never swim to the mouth of the predator, so make your presentation such that it swims away from your target. This may require that you move well ahead of the fish, make your cast and wait until she is close to the fly, then strip away to trigger a strike. When there is mild wave activity, you may only see the fish between waves and will have to do some guesswork. For what you lose in visibility, you will gain in ease of presentation. The fish are less spooky and the wave action will give your fly a little extra motion.
When you spot fish, it will usually be one or two snook together, often moving slowly and steadily, or not at all. But schools of up to 50 fish are not uncommon, and they will likely be on the move. Target the lead fish if possible and then look for others that may be off to the side. A cast placed directly over the school will almost never produce.
Ebb and Flow
Tidal movement is key to beach snook fishing. Any moving water is good but the preference is to fish on the incoming tide. The middle of the tide cycle will have the most water movement and the most available bait. If low tide is at 6 am and high tide is at noon, be there at nine. I find that there will be a 30-minute window in the middle of the tide when the fish become particularly aggressive. The best sight fishing will likely be when the middle of the tide cycle occurs during the brightest part of the day. During slack tide periods, even though you may see fish, it will be difficult to draw a strike.
Baitfish are often easier to spot than the snook themselves. Find the bait schools (the tighter the better) and look around the edges. Often, you will see a “bald spot” in the middle of the bait pod. Closer examination will usually reveal a snook lying in the midst of the bait, with the wary baitfish giving her plenty of room. The most exciting fishing comes when the schooling snook “round-up” the bait into a very tight ball and attack all at once. The busting fish are hard to miss and placing your fly in the middle of the action will almost always result in a hook-up.
In very short order, that glassy beach can swell and send all but the heartiest anglers packing. Remember the guy from Arkansas? Trout fishermen usually adapt well by putting their water reading skills to work. Rough, cloudy water for the most part will require a blind casting strategy.
When choosing a stretch of beach for blind casting, look for the same characteristics that you would in any other type of fishing. A straight shallow beach is not nearly as interesting to me as one that has points, bars, and drop-offs. Looking at how steep the beach rises out of the water will give you a good indication of how it looks underwater. Any change in bottom or current is worth a few casts.
One thing that I never pass up is what I call “Beach Boulders”. These are places where the water running off the beach forms a small channel in the sand. When the returning water collides with the surf, a chocolate-colored ball of moving sand and tiny shells is formed. Approach the “beach boulder” just as you would a boulder in a stream. Make a curve cast around the back side of the “boulder” and work your baitfish pattern as you would dead drift a nymph, letting the surf impart the action rather than stripping. This will imitate a disoriented baitfish better than a retrieve and a silver flash from the “boulder” will be your reward.
Troughs are another key feature. Usually, there are two, one just off the beach and one further out. The trough is formed where the waves break and are usually one-to-three feet in depth. Snook and other fish use these troughs as a combination super-highway and buffet line. Often you will be standing at the water’s edge and see a snook sitting in the trough, uncomfortably close. If possible, slowly move away from the fish and make your cast from farther away.
When the beach is populated with shell hunters and sun worshippers, you will still see snook, but they are usually spooky, and making a back cast can be dangerous to passers-by. Now is the time to move out and either fish the first trough from the outside, or move on out to the second trough. Heavier surf breaking on the beach will move the fish out slightly. I like to wade out to the breaker line and cast on the back side, keeping my fly in the swell by repeatedly mending my line over the wave, allowing a to-and-fro motion to the fly.
One of my best days came in early May, fishing with my friend Max Galmez. The surf was very rough, but still blue in color. We had the beach to ourselves. At one point I looked over to see only Max’s arm and bent rod sticking above the foamy surf. In two hours’ time, we landed 17 snook from 24-30 inches. Persistence pays.
Choosing the Right Fly
Fly selection is not nearly as important as presentation-as long as it meets a few criteria. The flies that I carry on the beach are white or silver. Beach snook eat mostly baitfish, and mostly glass minnows. A good Glass minnow pattern such as Gibby’s DT Special, or Norm’s Crystal Schminnow is a great start.
For sight fishing, the Schminnow is hard to beat. I like it because it stays nicely suspended and allows me to wait on my fish. The Gibby’s DT special is my choice for blind casting in calmer waters and low-light conditions. I believe that the little bit of red on the collar gets a little more attention.
The main variation in flies for me is size. Size #2 or #4 will do the trick. Some have luck with weighted flies, such as Clouser minnows, but I find that in sight fishing the splash of the fly usually sends the snook on its way. A good look at the position of the snook’s eyes and slight underbite will tell you that the snook is an upward feeder. Certainly, they will eat shrimp and crabs off the bottom, but in general, the snook is looking upward for her meals and that’s where I like my fly to be. Whatever your fly choice, be sure to pinch the barbs for easy removal.
The right fly will not work without the right action. It is common to see anglers make a nice cast to a fish and strip like there is no tomorrow. A long slow strip will usually be your best bet. Make your slowest strip and then strip half that fast. Many times I have been talking to someone on the beach or getting a drink of water and “WHAM!” What was I doing right? I was doing nothing at all. Another strip that works well is the “shrimp strip,” that being two or three quick micro-tugs followed by a LONG pause.
A Fight to the Finish
Once the strike occurs, a strip-strike is mandatory for a solid hook-set. After making the cast, the rod tip should be placed in the water or very near it. If the rod tip is left in the air, slack will develop immediately. And when you strip, you will simply be moving the slack up and down. If a fish hits while your rod tip is raised, you will have to remove the slack before connecting with the fish. By placing the rod tip in the water, there is no slack to remove, so when the strike comes a sharp strip will drive the hook solidly home.
Landing a snook on the beach differs greatly from a backcountry battle. While snook can make long runs, the fight is usually more of a back and forth “bulldog” kind of event. Side pressure applied in the opposite direction works best. As with tarpon, “bowing” to the fish when it is jumping is especially important when fighting a big snook.
I believe that most fish are lost when they swim toward the angler. When this happens, the natural tendency is to raise the rod tip and reel quickly to eliminate slack. As the reel is cranked, the tip wiggles back and forth- the same motion that you might use to free a snag. The best bet is to drop the rod tip into the water and then reel. The water resistance will keep tension on the fish until the slack is gone.
When you land your snook take care not to lift the fish by its lower jaw alone, but rather support its underside as well. A long battle can be fatiguing on a large snook, particularly in the summer. Subdue the fish quickly, never dragging her onto the sand, and be sure she is strong enough to swim away on her own when released.
Equipment and Rigging
The equipment choice is simple. A nine-foot, eight-weight outfit is the perfect rod for beach snook. Many visitors bring nine and ten weights, but a day or so of blind casting will usually justify the purchase of an eight before the trip home. Certainly, you can catch snook on a lighter outfit, but picking up and swiftly delivering a #2 fly in breezy conditions can be a tall order with lighter equipment.
A floating line will work well for most situations. A line such as a bonefish taper will load the rod quickly, shoot well and allow for gentle presentations on longer casts. Intermediate lines have their place as well. In sight fishing, when the snook are at their spookiest, a clear intermediate line will provide a stealthier presentation and allow for use of a shorter leader. The downside is a slower, more difficult pick-up when taking a second shot at a moving fish. Intermediate lines really shine when there is wave action. A floating line will follow the contour of the surface and every wave adds just that much more slack. An Intermediate line cuts through the wave to give a direct connection to the fly. A stripping basket or good line management skills are a must.
Finally, we come to the leader. A simple formula works best. For sight fishing, I prefer a nine-footer that follows the 50%-25%-25% formula. The butt (4.5 feet) is 40# test, the mid section (2.25 ft.) is 30# test, and the tippet (2.25 ft.) is 20# test. In addition, a 12” bite tippet of 30# test may be added if you suspect that larger females will be encountered, as wear from their rough mouths can substantially weaken the material. I prefer mono for the butt and midsection and fluorocarbon for the tippet and bite tippet. On the terminal end, I use a no-slip loop knot that allows the fly to swing freely. When fishing clear intermediate lines, the leader may be shortened to 6 feet.
Beach fishing for snook is one of the great and most accessible challenges in saltwater fly fishing. Find a beach, take a few flies, and start walking. And if you run into that guy from Arkansas, tell him I said “hello!”