What you see is what you get.
The surf is barely there, just a gentle washing of the sand, enough to turn up the sandfleas that the sanderlings race to capture, always an inch ahead of the foam. Gulls are crying, high and far off. Crabs track sideways, their feet making crosshatched trails to their holes. The sand squeaks under foot.
And down the trough, between the sand and the bar, comes a silver-gray shadow longer than a man’s leg.
It is a “beach bomber,” a giant snook, in water barely deep enough to float its bulk. The fish actually swims the waves up on the sand, grabs a crab, and then swims back into the trough, zigzagging its way along the shore toward where you wait, hoping.
Flip a plastic shrimp down the beach, to the place where water meets land, and wait until the fish swims close enough to see it. Twitch it twice, little puffs of sand coming up beneath.
A rush, a thump as the bait goes down the hatch—and 10 seconds later you’re looking at the spool as the last few turns of line threaten to disappear. And then running hard down the beach, trying to crank, screaming like a madman, tourists scattering, convinced that there must be a shark close by.
If you’re lucky, in 10 minutes or so, you’ll wade out, cradle the big old gal in your arms for a few minutes, maybe ask a beach hiker to snap a photo with your pocket camera, and then let her swim off while you head back to the sand to do it again.
Catching a 40-inch snook is never a gimme, and it probably never was, not even in the days when the snook was the “soapfish” that nobody wanted on their table or on their hook. But odds today are likely better than they have been in at least 50 years, thanks to years of no-harvest on big snook. And a few savvy anglers are learning where these monsters can be found with some regularity. With careful handling, these great catch-and-release giants can provide lifetime memories, and still complete their part in the spawning ritual year after year.
One of the places the big fish show up most consistently is along the beaches within a mile or so on either side of the spawning passes. Prime time is delineated by the closed season; May through August on the Gulf Coast, June through August on the Atlantic coast. And the east coast gets lots of bonus fish during the annual mullet migrations, as well, typically in October and in April.
For those concerned about impacting spawning fish, remember that most of the beach bombers have already done their thing inside the passes at least once, usually on the new or full moon, before they begin making feeding excursions along the beaches. Biologists think the fish may move out to feed, then return into the passes several times over the course of the summer before the breeding cycle ends and the fish disperse to other habitat.
John Romil and son Chris of Tampa have become expert at finding big fish along the beaches. Their preferred tactic is to swim a large sardine or threadfin in front of the giants. The exact beaches they prefer remain their secret, of course, but in general any beach from Anclote Island southward is likely. Captain John Griffith of Tampa is also a fan of chasing shoreline snook.
“The fact that you can see a lot of these fish before the hit really adds an element that you don’t get in fishing the backwaters,” says Griffith. “It’s absolutely addictive.”
Best gear is probably the same spinning tackle you’d use for all-around applications on the flats; a 6- to 7-foot medium-action rod, 2500 size or slightly larger reel, and microfiber line testing 15 pounds. A leader is a must for big snook; 30-pound fluorocarbon is the best bet because it’s both less visible than mono, and also harder. Two feet is about right. If the water is extremely clear and calm, a 20-pound leader may be necessary to get bit, but you can expect a really big fish to cut this off. (Set your drag very light if you have to go with 20—the leader usually gets cut when it’s drawn very tight against a strong drag; if you keep pressure moderate, there’s less chance of the fish slicing it off.)
Live sardines are the prime offering, but dragging a bucket of them down the beach with you is a pain. Jumbo shrimp work equally as well, but again you’ll be doing the bait-bucket drag. For the sardines, a size 1 or 1/0 livebait hook is the ticket, while a size smaller hooks are best for the shrimp. Despite the size of the fish you’re after, the smaller hooks get more bites.
Artificials work well, with the more realistic stuff like plastic shrimp and crabs at the top of the list. Suspending sardine imitations also catch fish—the Mirr-o-dine from MirrOlure is hard to beat—and so do soft jerkbaits and swimbait type jigs. If the water is a little roily, they will also occasionally wallop topwaters like the venerable Spook, Spittin’ Image, She Dog and others. Getting a topwater strike from a visible giant will truly make your day.
Flies work well for surf snook, too. Eight-weight gear with plenty of backing on the reel will do the job nicely, and the typical inshore flies including Clousers and Deceivers in lighter colors are a good bet. The soft delivery with the fly rarely spooks the fish, though you have to be able to cast quickly and not wave a lot of false casts over the fish’s back.
Also consider the wind’s direction and its strength. A strong onshore wind completely wipes out the action. But the more common summer breezes—off the land in the mornings—means slick surf, clear water and fish will be easy to spot, particularly on the West Coast, where you have the sun behind you in the a.m. You’ll need good Polarized glasses of course, with side shields and a hat. Walk the edge of the surf and look ahead, watching for a fin, a swirl, anything out of the ordinary.
Tides don’t make as much difference on the beach as they do in some other snook habitat, but I’ve always had best luck on a rise—fish know there will be food getting submerged as the water goes up higher, so they go on the prowl.
Just don’t make the classic Yankee-tourist mistake of wading out to your belly and then casting as far beyond that as possible, because if you do, most of the fish are going to swim behind you. On extreme low water, some fish likely will be outside the first bar, but otherwise they’re usually inside the trough.
Because prowling fish swim down the trough for considerable distances, it’s often possible to make several presentations to those that don’t take the first time. Simply get back up on the sand a few yards so they won’t see you, run ahead of them, and let them swim into range again.
Small stingrays are a common part of the fauna along the beach, and these little guys often take on the color of the sand, or cover themselves lightly with it, so you have to watch your step anytime you go in the water. The little ones won’t send you to the hospital like their mamas, but they can sure ruin your day.
Snook are somewhat tolerant of swimmers, but many swimmers are not tolerant of anglers. So your best bet is to hit the beach at first light, and quit wh
en the bikini crowds start to arrive. Best luck will be between about 8 a.m. and 10—light is good enough to see into the water then, but the swimmers are few. On the Atlantic coast, there’s always a good sunrise bite, but actual sight-fishing is best from noon to 5 p.m.—which is problematic on many days, as seabreezes and afternoon storms are typical of summer.
Another approach is to fish along beaches where swimmers are rare. For instance, island beaches with no bridge access are often good. Pick a calm day and you can park your boat just off the sand, hop out and start walking. The usual precautions for anchoring off an exposed beach are always wise, of course, no matter how flat the surf; run a long line off the bow to your heaviest anchor placed well offshore, and another from the stern cleat to the beach. That way, boat wakes or the occasional swell won’t give you a nasty surprise when you get back to the boat.
Our 20 Favorite Snook Beaches
On the Gulf Coast, some of the prime beaches would include the following:
1. Anclote Key, pretty much the whole length of it, holds big fish in May and June. (Boat access only.)
2. Honeymoon Island, within a quarter mile of both the north and south ends. On the north end, (a long walk) the inside beach facing St. Joseph Sound sometimes holds large fish, as well.
3. Fort DeSoto, both on the west shore next to Bunce’s Pass, and on the south shore facing Tampa Bay and Egmont Pass.
4. Anna Maria’s north end, plus Longboat Key, particularly near the inlets on each end.
5. Beaches either side of Venice Inlet.
6. Little Gasparilla and Gasparilla. Fish the groins on the south island.
7. LaCosta Key and Cayo Costa State Park. (Boat access only.)
8. North Captiva. (Boat access only.)
9. Captiva and Sanibel—some of the state’s best.
10. Marco Island, particularly the north end.
On the Atlantic Coast, some of the favorites include:
1. Spanish House, first public beach access north of Sebastian Inlet (itself a fantastic area for beach snooking).
2. Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
3. Walton Rocks, just south of the FP&L nuclear plant.
4. Jensen Beach, several access points along Hutchinson Island. Best after several days of calm, as post-hurricane beach fill fouls the water on choppy days.
5. Bathtub Beach, southern tip of Hutchinson Island. Classic sight-fishing waters.
6. Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Some of the prettiest surf-fishing in the state. Walk the surf at south end, or access the remote northern beaches by boat out of St. Lucie Inlet.
7. Blowing Rocks Preserve (and pretty much any of the rocky stretches on Jupiter and Singer Islands)
8. Lake Worth Pier—the pier hasn’t been reopened yet, but nobody told the snook…
9. John Lloyd State Park. Between the Dania Pier and Port Everglades is a nice stretch of public beach with good snook action for Broward County anglers.
10. Miami beaches. Find an accessible public beach that hasn’t been dumped on by recent beach nourishment and you’ll find snook, even in this urban jungle. Fish first light, or even earlier, for best results.
Snook Friendly Beach Fishing
Catching spawner sized fish during the closed season remains a bit controversial for some anglers, but biologists report that most snook are caught and released, without injury, many times during their life span, so it’s likely a bit of exercise won’t cause any harm. Here are a few tips:
1. Debarb all hooks. Pinching them nearly flat with pliers works best.
2. Use circle hooks with live bait. These are less likely to be swallowed. They also hook up very well, so long as you simply reel them into the fish rather than using a hard rod set.
3. Use single-hook lures where possible.
4. Release fish promptly after removing the hook.
5. If you do a “grip and grin” shot, make sure to support the fish at the base of the tail as well as at the jaw. Hold them up horizontally rather than vertically, and don’t put a lot of pressure on the jaw. An in-the-water shot also works nicely.
6. Help tired fish revive by walking them in knee deep water until they swim on their own. FS
FS Classics, June 2007