June 15, 2012
Where linesiders are targeting small prey, there's no better fishing tool than a fly rod.
Double-striped snook caught in the surf.
It's nearing noon on a Saturday. Kids chatter in a park nearby. I can see people walking on the pier, enjoying the sun. Pods of finger mullet ripple the surface, then scatter under the shadow of a tern.
I've been paddling my canoe for an hour or two, attempting to set up sight-fishing shots at snook and seatrout holding in skinny water. An algae bloom had made for tough visuals; I'd gotten a refusal from a flounder the diameter of a manhole cover, and landed one 24-inch snook blind-casting near a dock.
I've made dozens of probing casts, blown several fish I couldn't see, and all in all had a thoroughly typical morning doing things the hard way, the way I like it when the only person I'm trying to entertain is myself.
One last cast, and I'm reeling up my fly line in preparation for leaving. My thoughts turn adulterously toward castnets and finger mullet.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the wake, a wide 'V' right behind my tiny white Muddler Minnow. Before I can switch from reeling with my right hand to strip-striking with my left, there's a loud Pop! and the wake turns hard left. I don't have any line to clear; the spool whirs, and a yard-long composite of honey-colored fins, black lateral stripe and underslung jaw erupts from the surface.
My canoe surges with the pull of the fish. I drop the anchor, get out and finish the fight in knee-deep water.
Driving home, I'm tempted to enter the catch in my log as just another snooky surprise, but I sense it was more than random chance that impelled a wise old fish into singling my fly out of a soup of genuine prey—at midday, no less.
A snook's makeup, reminiscent of a largemouth bass, suggests a lifestyle of eating super-size meals. Indeed, at certain times of the year, you'll find them gulping foot-long mullet or Frisbee-size pogies. But there are also times when they tune into much smaller prey items. It can be a function of what's most available and easiest to catch (glass minnows or shrimp, for instance), but sometimes—as on that bright Saturday morning—I'm convinced snook are simply responding to the offer of a snack, like how you'd happily chomp a pretzel, even if you weren't hungry.
If you're a diehard fly fisher, you can tie up burly mullet or pogy patterns and lob them on a 10-weight until you dislocate your elbow. As for me, I tend to divide my snooking between general tackle and fly, reserving the latter for special cases when it just seems more effective than anything else. Snack time, in other words.
When tiny minnows and shrimp ball up under the nocturnal glow of a dock light, that's an ideal time to pick up a fly rod. You'll know a good light by the bubbles drifting on the tide: foamy signatures of snook on the feed. But even in this apparent free-for-all, snook retain a selectivity that can be maddening. In areas where they've seen fishing pressure, they're notorious for swimming right up to a lure or hooked live bait, nosing it, then flaring away.
Docklight success is a classic matter of matching the hatch. Small, translucent fly patterns, sizes 1/0 to as small as 6, excel as representatives of the tiny forage under a dock light. A lure of such proportions would be awfully hard to cast with a spinning or plug rod, and you might have buddies asking for flycasting lessons after fishing alongside you for a few nights. A white bucktail or marabou streamer, perhaps with a tiny bit of tinsel or Mylar, works wonders on docklight snook. Summer is a good time to fish the lights; darkness chases away that blazing heat, and closed seasons chase away “meat” fishermen. But it's a year-round possibility, if you follow the fish on their basic migratory routes: Downriver in spring; near the inlets in summer; upriver in fall.
Don't make the first cast right into the lighted zone. Start upcurrent somewhat, allow the fly to settle for a moment, then begin stripping in 6-inch intervals. A strike may be instantaneous—but if a fish pulls up behind your fly and scrutinizes it with an air of suspicion, keep stripping, perhaps a bit faster. Docklight snooking offers a classic example of the law of diminishing marginal returns. If you don't hook up on the first few casts, the fish may be wising up to your presence. Good time to look for another light.
Last spring a buddy and I found a gold mine on the river near our office: a double-lighted dock, one at each end of a 40-foot “T.” We could pull a fish from one light, release it, hit the other light, release a fish, and return. Back and forth we went, giving just enough time for the fish to settle down.
The fly rod has long been accepted as a first-class snook-catching tool in mangrove country. You can put your bug where you want it, strip until you feel you're out of the feeding zone, then pick up and in one quick shot move it a few feet down the line. A caster who's donated a few pints of blood to the mosquitoes knows how to thread the tangles without getting snagged. He forms needle-tight loops on his cast and tucks a fly into the darkest recesses. The trick is giving about 50 percent more on your forward haul, and dropping the rodtip low to the water. Aim to land the terminus of your fly line outside the bushes first, and let the leader unfurl into the shadows quickly, low and fast. It's almost a controlled slap—though done right makes little unnatural disturbance. Sometimes a fish will eat the fly the instant it splats in the shadows; other times one will ghost through the murky water, and the explosive strike next to the boat will make you jump out of your skin. A sidearm shot, low and fast, also works.
It's hard to say what fly patterns work best in the bushes, as the strike is probably more opportunistic than targeted at some particular forage item. If you're filling your first fly box, Deceivers or Sea-Ducers in white or yellow—soft, hackly “breathable” patterns—are good starts. Sizes 2/0 to 2 represent a useful range for bush snooking; no need to go chucking something the size of a Zara Spook. Deerhair sliders and other surface “bugs” no larger than your pinkie finger can provoke outrageous surface strikes. Clouser Deep Minnows and other sinking patterns are handy, as well, and can earn you a bonus redfish. Definitely hunt for flies with monofilament weedguards, or snag-reducing body configurations, like the Bendback.
Crystal-clear beaches on Florida's southwest coast provide sight-fishing opportunities reminiscent of tropical bonefish flats.
Breaking away from the shoreline, a fly fisher can find no more exhilarating challenge than stalking snook in shallow water. The fish are at their wariest in water that barely covers their back. Many times it's been said, if you can see them, they can see you. Moreover, they have a preternatural ability to sense pressure waves in the water. Often they'll flee from minute disturbances caused by your boat, long before you're in visual range. On the other hand, snook are all about efficiency, and they don't expose themselves to danger without reason. If you find them on the flats, you can pretty much count on them feeding.
You can hunt snook in the poling mode, as you would for bonefish, but don't expect to see tails or wakes or many other surface clues. Mostly snook hunker down and merge with the background. They tend to orient to edges—like the seam along a sandy pothole in a turtlegrass flat, or the shadow line under the mangroves. But sometimes you'll find them cruising open water.
A “waking” snook is usually a spooked snook, but one that's idling along making barely a ripple—or sitting still as a log—is an ideal target. How far to lead the fish is a complicated decision involving many factors—not least of which is the need to minimize false-casting. Be prepared to shoot line on your backcast, and know your equipment so that you can measure the correct distance without waving fly line in the fish's field of vision. A spin- or plug-fisherman has something of an advantage on the wind-up, but when your fly settles without a splash, four feet from a laid-up snook, your odds of connecting go way up.
For the record, sunrise and sunset aren't the only times when snook feed in shallow water. Tide and the presence of baitfish are the primary triggers, and if you approach cautiously, you can take advantage of high-sun periods for optimal sight-fishing.
Beaches in summer are an excellent place to sight-fish snook. The fish move toward saltwater inlets to spawn May to September; wind and waves are generally calm this time of year; and light-colored sand makes it fairly easy to recognize a snook swimming your way. From a stealth standpoint, beach fishing is nice because you leave behind your greatest liability—your boat. Most often it's smaller males you find patrolling the suds, but even big breeder females pop out of the inlet now and then for a snack.
Ditches and Water Hazards
Snook hold a peculiar affinity for inland canals and golf course lakes. They seem to thrive in these nutrient-rich, mud-bottom waterways, enjoying an abundance of small mosquitofish, bass fry and other vulnerable edibles. No porpoises, Jet Skis or tower boats to disturb them here; only an incoming hubcap or Titliest now and then. Fresh water is no problem, and snook will slither through the tiniest culverts in their pursuit of the good life. These are places where a plugger might fling more expletives than successful casts. Streamers of freshwater trout proportions—sizes 4, 6 or 8—are often what it takes to connect. Look for “sprays” of tiny minnows near the shoreline, as well as characteristic frothy boils.
Biologists tell us snook don't fare well north of the freeze line in Florida—around about Cape Canaveral—but evidently they forgot to tell the country club set.
Snook take flies in surprising places, and if 12 inches of water under the noonday summer sun seems odd to you, try booking a weekend at the Amelia Island Plantation in Fernandina Beach. There's a golf course here a few long drives from the Florida-Georgia line, and near as I can tell the lakes are full of juvenile snook. I caught a half dozen in 30 minutes last summer—reminiscent of the fast action I've enjoyed in southern locales.
If your golf game is as good as mine, you'll relish having a good excuse to hang around those water hazards.
Here's a list of some of the author's favorite spots for fly fishing snook in Florida:
Tamiami Trail, U.S. Hwy. 41, around Everglades City and Marco Island exits. Look for the white birds. Pull off on the shoulder and fish the tiniest streamers in your box.
Spillways: Parrot Jungle in Miami; Palm-Aire in Broward; pretty much any that's got running water and public access.
My in-laws' seawall on the Caloosahatchee River, North Fort Myers. Always dependable, barring heavy Lake Okeechobee releases.
On the Beach
Sanibel-Captiva Island in early summer. The fish lie right where the water meets the sand, and with moving water bite right on through the midday.
Hutchinson Island, late summer when the glass minnows are on the beach.
On the Flats
Indian River, between Stuart and Fort Pierce. This is the land of the giants. When they talk about catching a “25” or “26” here, they don't mean inches.
Florida Bay, flats potholes and “moats” around mangrove islands.
In the Bushes
Everglades, accessed by skiff under guidance of veteran navigator, via Flamingo or Chokoloskee.
Pretty much any stretch of mangroves with moving tide and no boats pitching live sardines nearby.
Dock and Bridge Lights
St. Lucie River, Stuart.
Loxahatchee River and Jupiter Inlet.
North Biscayne Bay, right in the heart of urban Miami-Dade.
If I had to pick one outfit for tossing snack-size flies, I'd take a 9-foot, 8- or 9-weight stick, a weight-forward floating line, and 150 yards of backing. Nail-knot a 5- or 6-foot piece of 40-pound mono to the flyline, then use the Uni-knot to attach two feet of “class tippet” (12-pound is about right for open water; perhaps slightly heavier around structure), followed by shock tippet (a foot or more of 40-pound for open water; perhaps lighter in clear water or near dock lights). You might be inclined to scale back on shock tippet to better “fool” fish, but that can cost you dearly if you hook a good one. Snook often inhale a small fly, and if the hook ends up inside the mouth, the shock tippet meets considerable abrasion. One caveat: If you plan to use shock tippet that's more than a third the size of your class tippet, or you wish to join fluorocarbon to regular mono, you'll need to learn the Bimini twist; this enables you to form secure, dependable knots using doubled sections of class tippet.