Discover the thrill of sight fishing the surf for Florida snook
I turned my body sideways as another small swell came over the sand bar, without taking my eyes off a shadow that caught my attention. As the foamy wash subsided and the sand settled out, there it was. A single snook, easily 10 pounds, swimming right at me, now within 30 feet and closing fast. I made a side-armed flip with my spinning rod, plunking the light jig four feet ahead of the fish. It didn’t spook as I had feared it might, so I crouched down lower to the water to shrink my profile, and hopped the lure enticingly on the sand. The snook paused but then changed its course. It was now heading straight away so I reeled in quickly, opened the bail and made another cast ahead of the fish.
I might as well have thrown the rod and reel at the fish. It exploded off the bar, leaving a silty trail in its wake. I reeled in my jig, and called out to my partner, standing in the knee-deep water 30 yards to the south.
“Typical single female,” I shouted out. “No wonder they get so big!”
Bill shrugged, and chuckled at that, keeping his eyes glued to the white sand bar between us. We were fishing low water, with a young rising tide, allowing us to stand on the first bar about 30 yards off the beach in knee-deep water. There wasn’t a breath of wind, so the water was super-clear, as is typical in the late-summer Florida surf. It was 11 a.m. and the unobscured sun lit the place up. It looked more like a Bahamas bonefish flat than a Florida beach, which is much of the appeal for me.
When a patch of water just out of casting range came alive with sizzling glass minnows, I started to walk toward it. Bill had spotted the bait pod, too. He flashed a thumbs-up and slowly waded in that direction. I decided to stop and watch him fish the bait pod, glancing over my shoulder for any fish sneaking up from the rear. Bill stopped, looked at me and held up three fingers, signaling he had spotted a group of three snook in the bait. He crouched down low, made a short, sidearm cast and waited. He was fishing a white, 1/8-ounce swimbait with a 10-pound-class spin outfit. As he twitched the lure, he crouched so low that I thought his chin would touch the surface. Obviously, a snook was tracking his lure. When the strike came, Bill set the hook with a side sweep of his rod and let out a triumphant yell that made three pelicans on the beach take flight!
His fish streaked in my direction, and within seconds I saw it—a decent fish of about 7 pounds. It turned seaward just before reaching me, and a slightly larger one trailed behind it. After two impressive surface-clearing jumps, his snook made a final, shorter run before head-shaking at Bill’s feet. I walked over to give him an extra hand to revive it before release. A tired snook needs extra care in hot summer surf water, otherwise it may not be able to escape predation by the sharks that often patrol the same beaches.
As the afternoon wore on, we had dozens of shots, and landed six more fish between us, one just under 10 pounds. I hooked one from a school of 10 or more, and they fought for my jig. The rest were swimming in pairs or alone, requiring good presentations to get the bite. Though we had shots at over a dozen big female snook swimming solo, none wanted to play. We even scaled down our fluorocarbon leaders from 30- to 20-pound-test (for lower detection), and changed out our jigs for small swimming plugs to no avail. Those big girls simply were not hungry, and even ignored the juvenile croakers (a favorite snook prey) that were swimming in the wash.
Once you sight-fish for surf snook and enjoy some success, you may not look at other styles of snook fishing the same way again. Catching snook in this manner is the ultimate challenge, and you have to be prepared for frustration. Some days you’ll wonder whether they ever eat at all! This lockjaw behavior is not unusual in fish that are just coming out of inlets post-spawn. Big females and smaller males both take a little time to recover from spawning rigors. And the fish spawn multiple times in large aggregations from late-May until late-September. Since the fish return to the inlets multiple times over the 3-month spawn, the best beaches to fish are those in close proximity. This is not to say you won’t find fish on beaches miles from an inlet.
The bigger fish cruising the beach alone present the biggest challenge. A pair of snook or a small school of snook, is always a better bet for hooking up because competition for food comes into play. When their feeding switch turns on—normally triggered by the increasing numbers of baitfish in August and September on the South Florida Atlantic beaches–these post-spawn snook are ready to pack on the calories.
I am a life-long bonefisherman, so much prefer to see snook before casting. But some of the fastest feeding action can take place at first light and then it repeats late in the day, particularly when the tide is near high, and an onshore breeze pins baitfish against the shore. The snook seem to feel less conspicuous in low light. I’ve witnessed very spooky, lock-jawed snook in mid-afternoon go on feeding frenzies in the very bait pods they previously ignored as soon as dusk closed in. It’s as if a switch is thrown. The key is to walk along with your bail open, ready to cast. As soon as a snook busts bait on top, get your lure there pronto while the fish is “hot.” When tiny marine minnows such as juvenile anchovies are the entree, all you can do is cast something on the small side, like a slim-profile floating/diving plug, small jig, or soft plastic. If mullet or scaled sardines are in the mix, there are many lures such as swimbaits and soft-plastic jigs perfectly suited to imitate that prey.
During the height of the surf snook season, you’ll find spin fishermen on the beach. If there is an advantage to spinning gear, it is that longer casts can be made to snook before they come close enough to spot the angler when the water is super-clear. Another is that live bait can be used, though most sight casters fishing on foot don’t care to tote live bait buckets. Some do toss a cast net on bait schools, and then toss out a livie, but that’s the exception on the Treasure Coast beaches that I fish. An occasional angler does come in close to the beach by boat, but most opt to fish on foot.
For either sight casting or continuous blind-casting whenever conditions make it hard to see snook, I like a 10-pound-class spinning rod paired to a 2500, 3000 or 3500 series spinning reel. The lighter combos are more pleasant to cast repeatedly for hours. I prefer spinning rods longer than 7 feet for longer casts that are sometimes necessary, and the extra length helps keep my line a bit higher over any breaking surf close in. My choice is a 7 1/2-foot, medium-action rod with a fast tip.
Be aware that on Florida summer afternoons, onshore winds occur, along with wave action against the beach, so your tackle can get wet. A “splash-resistant” spinning reel, such as the PENN Slammer III, with its new IPX6 system sealed gear box and drag assembly, would be an idea choice for that environment. Second to that feature, a smooth, dependable drag is a must, especially when you are armed with light to medium spin gear, and 15- to 30-pound female snook and the occasional 40- to 100-pound tarpon shows up in the surf, typically in late August and September. The Slammer III’s drag is sealed, and the company’s proprietary Dura-Drag system utilizes the same material used in the transmissions of racing cars. In short, heat dissapation is ensured, greatly decreasing chance of failure, and increasing durabilty over the long haul. Line capacity comes into play with the bigger specimens of snook and tarpon, and the Slammer III 3500 and 4500 models spool up in the neighborhood of 300 yards of 10-pound or 15-pound-test braided line. So chances of getting spooled are slim.
Gel-spun polyester line (braid) allow for longer casts in the wind, and solid hook sets due to its no-stretch quality. I spool up 10- to 12-pound braid because it allows for distance with the lightest lures, too. I prefer lighter colors, such as white or yellow to better track the location of my lure in the surf. I tie on a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader testing 20- to 40-ponds, depending on size of the snook I am finding, and the clarity of the water.
A snook has raspy lips that abrade line quickly. I tie my lures to my line with a 3-foot bite leader of fluorocarbon in the 20- to 40-pound-test class, depending on water clarity and the general size of the snook on hand. A loop knot gives the lure maximum freedom of movement.