July 15, 2022
Flashes of silver on the outside bar. Buttery silhouettes traversing the trough. Flurries of baitfish. Anglers watching with heron-line intensity, making repeated casts, hoping.
The scene is typical of summer along southern Florida’s Atlantic beaches, as snook and tarpon fuel up on the seasonal abundance of pilchards, threadfin herring, glass minnows, croakers and whiting.
Snook are here after pushing out of the estuaries and congregating in the inlets and along the beaches to spawn. Tarpon make a much longer journey, some traveling from as far as the Caribbean and West Indies. Tarpon gorge on bait and then often disappear come the new or full moon. Out to sea they go, and although information is limited, it is believed that these fish spawn over 100 miles offshore, according to Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. One thing is pretty evident: They come back hungry.
LEARN THE SAND
The topography beyond the water line is ever-changing, and no two beaches are the same. Take note of what you see when you walk over that dune. Deep trough? Shallow sandbar? Worm reef?
“Figure out what structure the fish are going to be holding on or using as highways when they are on the move,” advises Jose Martinez, co-founder of No Live Bait Needed Lures.
A deep trough may house bait along with a few snook once the tide has fallen out. A protruding bar may give you opportunity at intercepting tarpon as they push down the outside edge. Once you know the topography, there are other factors to consider, including wind, swell and water clarity.
For snook sight fishing, sun is essential. You want the sun high for best visibility, so don’t rush out the door before the rooster crows. Ten a.m. is usually when I like to hit the beach. Typical shots will be fish cruising the trough, no more than 20 yards out. It’s a close game, and these fish have great eyesight. Keep your profile low once the fish are spotted, even crouching if they’re close.
You want to lead these fish as much as possible, reducing the angle of your presentation. Ideally you want to be casting parallel with the trough. This makes for the most natural presentation, mimicking a baitfish swimming away from a predator. I like to drop my fly or jig six feet in front of the fish, let it sink for a second and then proceed with a quick retrieval. Short, fast strips seem to work best with a fly and a fast reel with quick pops for spinning tackle.
Martinez and business partner Brandon Ramos like to fish the beach under the moonlight, for big snook. Around the new and full moon, congregations of fish often move down the beach from inlets to structures, like a pier, during their spawning rituals. Martinez and Ramos figured out that if you can intercept these fish (which is why knowing the topography is so important) nights of countless giant snook can happen.
“We usually fish the three nights before through the three nights after the moon. One of those nights will be insane fishing, with bites every other cast,” said Martinez. Martinez and Ramos like to start with their 5-inch swimbait on a ½- to 1-ounce jighead.
“This size bait mimics a lot of forage found on the beach, be it pilchards, croakers, sand perch and so on. If we see a lot of mullet or ladyfish hanging around, we often jump up to the 8-inch to match the bigger profiled baits.” Almost all of the above-mentioned baits are silver and white with light hues of green, so sticking with a natural color when the water is clear only makes sense.
“If the water is stirred up from wind and swell, I will switch to something that gives off a better silhouette,” said Ramos.
Tarpon from the beach are a bit different. Most of the opportunities presented are from fish feeding on bait schools, typically glass minnows, pilchards or mullet. Heavy feeding periods are typically at dawn and dusk around the bait. Shots at rolling fish are possible, but blind casting is most of the fishing at these hours. Given that they have an abundance to choose from, make it as easy for them to find your offerings as possible. Focus on the edges of the bait schools, like a bait astray from the pack, an easy target. Slow things down and fish below the school, like an injured baitfish, again, an easy target.
During high sun, tarpon will often mill around, not feeding. You will see them roll, make perfect casts, only to get denied over and over. There will be a small window, sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes an hour, that they will feed during the day. Take note of the time and tide when this happens, as it can help you in the future. My one piece of advice would be to go small on your presentation. It seems they are more apt to eat a “chip” over a whole “burger” when lethargic.
Sometimes you will be snook fishing and a pod of tarpon will roll in, or vice versa, so having the right sized gear for both makes sense. For snook a 7-foot, 4000-sized spinning outfit is perfect. An 8-foot, 7000-sized spinner works great for tarpon, especially when needing to make a little longer cast. Fly rods? A 9- and an 11- or 12-weight will cover both categories.
Fifteen- and 50-pound braid are my choice for the spinners. For fly line, intermediate is a must to keep a straight connection to your fly, due to the varying swell and current. I wear a hydration backpack that has a few straps that gives me a spot to hold my spare rod when walking. If fly fishing, a stripping basket is a good accessory to keep your line from tangling at your feet.
White bucktail jigs and small swimbaits are killer for sightfishing snook in the trough. If I’m not throwing white, it’s usually tan or silver with a green back. If I notice follows and refusals, I will drop down in the size of bait I’m throwing. When it comes to flies, a white craft fur baitfish and a tan-and-white Clouser minnow are my go-tos.
Tarpon baits vary a bit, typically a bit bigger for spin fishermen. Large gliding style or lipped plugs as well as large swimbaits allow for long casts and a larger profile that these tarpon like. “We had a ton of guys doing really well on our 8-inch straight tail swimbait last summer when the tarpon were thick on the minnows. Our theory is they were eating this thinking it was one of the ladyfish corralling the glass minnows,” said Martinez. Fly anglers tend to go one or the other with fly selection for tarpon: really big or super small. In my experience, the bigger flies work best when blind casting the bait schools as fish crash through them. Cruising or milling fish seem more receptive to a smaller presentation in green-and-white or black-and-purple.
RESPECT FOR THE FISH
Beachfront summer snook and tarpon fishing is quite popular, but with social media and the “picture or it didn’t happen” mindset of many, we’ve seemed to lose some respect for these incredible fish.
I got to talking with Dr. Zack Jud, a Marine Ecologist and Director of Education at Florida Oceanographic Society on south Hutchinson Island. The man has dedicated his life to the preservation of sportfish. Let’s not forget he is an avid fly fisherman.
“When it comes to snook, I don’t think it’s as much of the fight that hurts these fish, it’s more the handling that causes damage,” he said. “Avoid dragging these fish up onto the sand. Instead, walk out into the water and grab them and do your best to keep them in the water until you are ready to snap a quick photo.”
As for tarpon: “Fight time kills tarpon, period,” said Jud. “They can’t handle the the physiological damage of a long fight and often fall to cryptic mortality,” said, referring to episodes when fish die unobserved after being caught and released.
Jud recommended two ways you can go about fishing for tarpon from the sand. “Either fish them with really light hooks and light leader, get a couple jumps out of them and bend the hook out or pop them off, or go heavy enough that you can confidently stop these fish in their tracks.”
Jud prefers the latter, fishing a 12-weight fly rod on the beach. “I apply max drag from the get-go. My rule is fight them as hard as you can for 15 to 20 minutes and if you can’t beat them, break them off.”
Once you get the tarpon close, get in the water and land it. Like the snook, dragging on the sand can hurt these fish, plus it is illegal to remove a tarpon over 40 inches from the water. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2021