Thursday, June 11, 2015

Now is the time to sight-fishing snook in the surf

A sizable school of snook swims in the surf along Casey Key south of Sarasota.
I have conducted seminars on fly fishing for snook for the past 30 years.

In almost every session, a majority of folks that I talk to have yet to catch their first snook on fly.
I live in Sarasota, Fla., on the Gulf Coast. The area offers some great sight-fishing for snook from May through August. We walk the local beaches and fly fish snook in the calm, clear surf.

The author shows off a fine beach snook.
Sight-fishing, for those who aren't familiar with the activity, is spotting the fish before making a cast.  It's considered the ultimate activity for many fly anglers.

We slowly walk along local beaches and look into the surf. When we spot a snook, we'll present it a fly. There are times when we'll see 300-400 snook in a morning.

This activity isn't beyond the skill level of most anglers. If you have the desire to sight-fish a snook, you can do it. All you need is a quality pair of polarized sunglasses, hat or cap and the ability to cast a fly.

It's that simple.

And if you can follow a few simple directions, you're on your way.

Prime months are June, July and August. If I had to pick my peak times, it would be mid-July to mid-August. That seems to be the time when the most snook are in the surf.
Scott Dempsey of Savannah, Ga., succeeded.

Snook take to the surf as early as March. It all depends on the water temperature. When it hits 75 degrees, snook will move from the bays through the passes and spread out along the beaches. You can find them along Florida's west coast from Anna Maria Island to Marco Island.

While you might find them at any beach, realize there are some better than others. That's where I come it. I have spent a lot of time walking the beaches, so I know which are holding fish and which aren't.

I don't like to waste my time.

What I look for is good weather conditions. I like a bright, sunshiny day with a gently easterly breeze. 
This usually results in a fairly calm surf with clear water. And that's what you need when you're trying to sight-fish.

A "healthy" snook forages in the feeding zone.
When you're looking for snook, don't make the mistake of trying to look for a whole fish with eyes, mouth, fins and tail. If you do, you probably won't see very much. What you're looking for is movement, a shape, a shadow or even just a fin.

It's much like sitting in a tree stand, looking for deer. If you look for a whole deer complete with antlers, head, nose, mouth, body, four legs and a tail, you'll likely fail. When you're deer hunting, you might see just an ear twitch. Or the subtle movement of a tail.

Once you spot your first snook, it becomes pretty easy.

Where do you look? Well, the surf is an arbitrary thing that can be pretty large. I divide it into two pieces: the feeding zone and the trough.

Gibby's DT Variation is the fly of choice.
The feeding zone is that area from the dry sand out to four feet. Snook will cruise parallel to the beach in this zone looking for food.

You'll often find them in the trough (that deep area just off the beach) lying on the bottom and facing west. These fish usually aren't hungry and tough to fool.

I usually arrive at the beach about 8 a.m. Doesn't do much good to get there any earlier because the sun won't be high enough in the sky to light up the water. Your "window of visibility" will be very small early and it will open wider as the sun rises. By 10 a.m., you'll be able to spot a snook 150 feet away.

When you spot a snook, first determine in which direction the fish is swimming. If it's coming toward you, all you have to do is stand still and wait for it to come into range. If it's swimming away from you, you'll have to get in front of the fish in order to make a cast.

What's the proper cast? For me, it's a perpendicular cast (straight out from the beach). I like to time my retrieve so that the fly and fish meet at the same spot at the same time. When this happens, two things can happen. The fish will begin to track your fly or it will ignore it.

If the fish begins to follow, it's up to you to trigger a strike. This can be tricky because you only have a few feet of water to work with. I'll usually speed the fly up just a little. If the snook wants your offering, you can't retrieve it too fast.

Diagonal or parallel casts work at times, but there's a good chance you'll spook the fish if you're off-target or cast too far.

First thing I do when I get to the beach is to pull about 20 feet of fly line off the reel. I will then  hold the fly  and rod in my right hand, with the fly between my thumb and index finger. I allow about 10 feet of line out the rod tip, with the rest trailing behind me as I walk. Remember, short casts are the rule.

Some opt for a stripping basket, but I've found they only get in the way. The sand will not hurt your fly line. Just wash it off in warm soapy water when you get home.

Snook are structure-oriented, so don't overlook fallen trees, grass or rocks. Those are likely snook hangouts. Shadows can be, too! Shadows often are created by houses and trees along the beach.
If you spot baitfish in the surf, there likely will be snook around. I've often seen snook crashing the bait. A quick cast to the feeding fish often will result in a hookup.

Most of the snook are small males. The average snook is 20-22 inches. However, I've seen them up to 30 pounds or more. My largest snook on fly is a 20-pounder that measured 40 inches.

I've had clients catch a number of slot (28 to 32 inches) snook. I've also had them hook some monster. Just last summer, I guided outdoor writer Mike Hodge. He caught and release five average snook, but lost a monster that I don't think he really believed would hit. In fact, he didn't think that dark spot on the bottom was even a snook!

After I convinced him it was not only a snook, but a big one, I advised him to cast a couple of feet in front of the fish. As the fly was sinking, the big snook seemingly levitated off the bottom, eyed the fly and inhaled it.

Hodge did a good job of strip-striking, but forgot to let go of the fly line as the fish surge off.
Pop! The leader broke.

"I'm not sure what I did that," the bewildered Hodge said.

I took Jack Littleton on his first beach-snook outing and he hooked a monster early on. The big snook (I estimated her at 25 pounds) was tight to the beach. Littleton made a perfect cast and the fish hit almost immediately. He did a good job of strip-striking and clearing the line. He was "on the reel" is just a second or two. The fish made a lengthy run, then changed direction. The line went slack.

The hook simply pulled.

"I couldn't believe the speed and strength of that snook," Littleton said.

He did nothing wrong. He made a good cast, set the hook correctly, cleared the line and kept pressure on the fish.

Snook generally aren't easy. I've been skunked, but not often. My best day took place in 2009 when I caught and released 41 snook in a morning. I'd say an average day is five snook.

Snook aren't the only species you'll find in the surf. I've hooked or landed tarpon, redfish, spotted seatrout, flounder, mangrove snapper, ladyfish, jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel, pompano and cobia.

You never know just what you'll encounter.

When I fish, I carry one fly rod (usually a 7- or 8-weight), with a sinktip line and 6-foot , 20-pound fluorocarbon lure.

My fly of choice is my Gibby's DT Variation. I've caught more than 1,000 snook on this fly over the years.

I also wear a fanny pack tackle bag in which I carry extra flies, leader material, pliers, nippers and a bottle of water.

Don't forget your sunscreen!

You can go barefooted, but I opt for neoprene boots that I purchased at a dive shop. They protect your feet and also are great when the sand is hot. Sandals are abysmal. They are great for collecting sand and shell. Ditto for tennis shoes.

A camera is also essential. You'll want it when you land that snook of a lifetime.

A few years ago, I guided a couple of fellows on a beach-snook trip. When we arrived, there were already 14 members of a local fly-fishing club spread out along the beach, beating the water. About half were wading -- which you don't do. If you're wading, a majority of fish will be behind you!

I ran into one of the guys from the fly club a few months later. He said the 14 of them didn't hook or land a fish. My two clients didn't set the world on fire, but they did combine for seven snook and three Spanish mackerel!

I also asked why they were wading?

He said, "That's what they told me to do."

I've given beach snook presentations to that club on at least three occasions. I've stressed not to wade!

If you want to sight-fish a snook in the surf, give me a call (941-284-3406) or email me (

I think you'll like it!

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