Surf Fishing for Snook
By David Brown
Winter visitors are long gone now, having run from what many of them call Florida’s “oppressive” heat. But I welcome our stifling humidity, and don’t at all mind when a miniature waterfall courses down my back at 8 a.m. so long as I’m shin-deep in the Gulf surf.
Walking along the beach peering through clear water over sand reminds one of Bahamas bonefishing. But that’s where the similarity ends. Those island bones may come in droves, but a mature female snook in skinny water lapping against the sand is equally exciting. Maybe more so.
Snook patrol the surf between the swash channel and the whisker thin shorebreak that tumbles shells and sharks teeth. It’s one of Florida’s most anticipated migration fisheries. There are loads of fish, many legitimate whoppers in this fishery, and it is far less complicated than snooking in the labyrinthine habitat of the backcountry. You don’t need a boat, survival gear, a GPS, or even shoes for that matter.
“Snook bite more aggressively (on the beach) and you can catch fish after fish while standing in one spot,” said Capt. Stewart Ames, who targets St. Joseph Sound just north of Tampa Bay. “You also have a great chance of catching a real trophy snook during the summer. Beach snook definitely don’t feed nonstop. You might get a great bite for 30 minutes and then they shut off,” Ames said. “I’ll go back and try a stretch with a concentration of fish two or three times a day. Usually, the bite’s related to a tide stage.”
Favorable beach structure includes fallen timber and breaks in the first sandbar that create swash funnels. Points are always great places to search. Between spawns these wily predators favor such natural ambush points to feed on baitfish and crustaceans, but snook also swim along a flat, featureless stretches of beach.
“I commonly fish bays, passes and rivers, both day and night, but some of my most dependable snook fishing is on the beach. I’ve done well with snook just cruising in the trough where there’s no structure,” said Sarasota guide, Rick Grassett. “But on structure-free beaches, there has to be baitfish around to attract the fish.”
Grassett lists south Siesta Key (Turtle Beach/Old Midnight Pass area), Casey Key (from Nokomis Beach north), Casperson Beach (south of the Venice Pier), Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa (south of Boca Grande Pass) among his favorite summer snook beaches. Heading north, Bird Key (south of Pass-A-Grille, St. Petersburg area), Treasure Island (Johns Pass) and Sand Key (Clearwater Pass) hold plenty of beach-run snook.
At the upper end of Pinellas County, Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands, along with Three Rooker Bar, you’ll find some of the Central Gulf’s top summer snooking, while Anclote Key, North Bar, Durney Key and Hudson Beach give Pasco anglers plenty of options.
Though live-baiting is deadly on the beach, Grassett is an avid fly fisher, and when baitfish are in the trough, he recommends like-sized streamers that are mostly white with some flash. Or, casters can opt for white jigs or small white-and-green shallow-diving plugs in the 2- to 4-inch range.
“I prefer to fish from the beach in the morning until noon due to better visibility with the sun behind you,” Grassett said. “In the afternoon, there is better visibility from a boat, when fishing toward the beach.”
Finding pods of scaled sardines (whitebait) or glass minnows flashing in the surf zone puts odds in your favor. Blind casting near bait schools can produce, but also watch for the faint outlines of cruising snook. The fish “pale-out” significantly on the beach, as white as sand. Look for silhouettes, a dorsal outline, the dark lateral line, a dark eye or yellowish pectoral fins. When in doubt, cast.
The summer beach run can start in late May and run through September. Snook usually spawn during the strong tides around the new and full moons—a day or two before and after. Most spawning occurs at night, with heavy feeding during the day, but the smaller males do most of the feasting. And on some days, males escorting those big brood fish have lockjaw, too. Many anglers are convinced that beach snook turn off a bit during the midday heat of summer. Many report more successful outings at dawn or dusk, when sight fishing is not an option. Weekend swimmers can keep fish on edge, so fish during off-hours or on weekdays if you can.
Beach snook dine on pinfish, grunts and even ladyfish, but the hands-down favorite is the scaled sardine (a.k.a. pilchard, or whitebait). For waders, flow-through bait bucket tied to your waist keeps the ammo handy, but don’t overfill the bucket—this weakens the baits and mars their performance. Another option: Carry a 5-gallon bucket with a few dozen baits and trade out the water every 10 minutes or so.
Boca Grande snook pro Capt. Van Hubbard slides a rigging bead on the bend of his live bait hook. Without this precaution, baits often slide too far up the shank of a hook and the point ends up stuck in the minnow’s side. “Double hooking,” as it’s called, usually spells doom for the bait. Moreover, this fouling almost always prohibits a hookup. In the absence of beads, use chunks of soft-plastic baits as the stopper. In shallow beach water, nose-hooking allows the bait to swim more naturally, and facilitates easier retrieves for repositioning. Also, double hooking is less likely than with baits hooked through the pectoral area. Freelining is most common but corks help when you fish with friends and have multiple baits out there. Always use circle hooks to avoid gut-hooking fish.
If you don’t want to hassle with live baits and would rather walk a lot of beach, just strap on a chest pack filled with a selection of artificials and start walking. Imitating baitfish or shrimp is the goal, so go with light jigs, soft-plastic jerkbaits, plastic shrimp, swimbaits and shallow-running plugs. Fly boxes should be stocked with Clouser Minnows and small Deceivers and similar baitfish patterns tied on No. 4 to No. 1 hooks. Chest packs can handle lures and flies plus extra leader, even a spare spool or reel, pliers, sunscreen and importantly, a water bottle (or two).
Whatever you’re casting, don’t “flock shoot” a group of fish. Rick Grassett says, “The large females are wary and the smaller males are much more aggressive. An accurate presentation to the larger fish may allow the larger fish to beat the smaller fish to the bait.”
Closed Season Release Tips
Florida Gulf snook harvest is closed May through August. Catch-and-release is wide open, but it’s not without responsibility. Snook will fight to near exhaustion, and that’s especially tough on their metabolism in hot summer water. Even though this is open water without “hazards,” leave the ultra-lights at home. Seven- to 71⁄2-foot medium or medium-heavy spinning outfits with 20-pound braided line will put the brakes on most beach snook. Rig with 12 to 18 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon bite leader. Check for abrasion after each fish and retie if you detect any weak spots. After the fight, take time to fully revive a tired fish by griping the lower jaw and leading the fish around in the water to wash oxygen across its gills. A revived snook will firmly clamp its toothless jaws when it’s ready to go.