Fly Fishing for Beach Snook
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Snook are one of the most popular inshore fish throughout South Florida. They swim on both the Gulf and Atlantic sides of the state, with most found on a line from about the middle of the state on south. Snook can literally be had just about anywhere in these zones including some freshwater golf course ponds, canals, bays, backwaters, and even open water offshore structure. While some snook fishing requires a boat of some sort, there are plenty of opportunities for shorebound anglers, with the beaches being some of my all-time favorite hunting grounds.
The beaches offer such unique fishing because they are so easily accessible and you can sight-fish. As long as the water is calm and clear, snook can be seen cruising along the shallows, often just feet from shore in extremely shallow water. This makes them awesome targets for the fly angler and doesn't require any specialized tackle, long casts, or a even a huge array of flies. But, just because there may be fish all over the place in plain sight doesn't mean they always come easy. It can still be quite challenging getting them to eat!
While summer is often touted as prime time, in my experience the fish generally chase and eat flies better earlier and later in the season when the water isn't quite so hot. In mid summer here on gulfside beaches, fish seem to often slow down a bit as water temps can hit around 90 degrees! One bonus here is that thunderstorms are common in summer, and fishing after a sizable rain storm can be really good as it stirs up the environment and cools the water.
I go fishing regardless of moon phase; as long as conditions are fishable, I'll head out. I care more about tide times and overall water/weather conditions. With moon phase, I've had good days when I didn't think I would, and vice versa. As they say, "you'll never know unless you go." However, I like days with the bigger tide swings (if I HAD to choose), meaning more difference between high and low water heights.
For tides, I aim to plan a beach trip around the time of high tide. I have caught fish around low tide—especially in areas with a little more depth or on days where the low tide isn't that low—but fishing anywhere from about two hours before to about two hours after high tide is a good starting point for many beaches. As an example, if high tide is at 11am, I would aim to be fishing from roughly 9am till 1pm. If I had to pick just one tide movement it would be outgoing—for whatever reason, it has often produced better for me even beyond just beach snook fishing.
On either coast, an ideal wind will be one that's coming off the shoreline. With the wind at your back, this keeps the water along the beach calm and clear. Here on the gulf side, we're blessed with easterly winds pretty often, particularly through the summer months. While the wind may shift onshore many afternoons and ruffle up the water, overnight it often switches back around and slicks out again. The wind is just something you'll have to keep a watchful eye on, and sometimes it can prove challenging lining up good winds along with good tides. Pro tip: find a local live online beach cam and check it before you go...it's an ideal way to check wave action quickly without walking out the front door.
If the light is low or surf is up, you can certainly catch snook blind-casting (not being able to see any fish) as long as it's not muddied up or choked with weeds. In my experience on the Atlantic side, blind-casting has been more common due to there often being more wave action to contend with. Here on the west coast, however, we typically have much calmer, shallower waters that are perfect for sight-fishing. To make sure I have good sunlight for sight-fishing, I seldom begin my day super early on gulf beaches; starting around 9am and finishing up whenever the fishing falls flat, clouds thicken up, or crowds get too heavy works out just fine.
Lots of beaches can produce, but one that is at or somewhat near the mouth of a pass and has irregularities like troughs, sandbars, and/or structure is often the best pick. But don't think that the best beaches are ones that are less frequented by people. Most of the time, I'm fishing beaches right in town that are heavily visited. Now, I don't usually fish near people swimming and such (though I have!), but often there are sections of beach that are quieter or even completely void of people for at least a couple hundred yards—a nice ample amount of good fishing space. Just come prepared to walk a bit.
What to Look For
When sight-fishing the beaches, the fish can be very, very close to shore and often hang along or near the first "trough" which is the first little slope/dropoff close to shore. However, they can also be found on flatter, more featureless areas too if the bait is there. If the water is low or the bait is hanging in slightly deeper water, then sometimes the snook can even be spotted out a bit further. To give some perspective, I personally don't think I've ever caught a beach snook more than 40 feet out and in water deeper than maybe 4 feet. It's mainly a shallow water game which is why it's so much fun!
Beach snook can be seen doing everything from sitting motionless to cruising in large packs. I typically pay little to no attention to laid-up (sedentary) fish in open, shallow, still water. They are often both inactive and extremely spooky, but that can change. If there is some type of other factor at play like some ripple/wave action going on, they are sitting among massive bait schools, or they are in slightly deeper water—basically stuff that masks my presence and/or makes them less spooky to some degree—I'll cast at these lazy fish at least a few times. These usually aren't the high percentage fish, but occasionally I'll get one to eat.
What really gets me excited are the cruising fish—especially when in large schools.
Cruising fish are often active and looking for a meal, and when swimming along in a group I believe that they become more competitive. I have to reiterate, though, that casting at these fish is not a guarantee. It can be incredibly frustrating to cast at a large group of fish and get nothing but maybe a half-hearted follow or two. You just gotta keep casting at new fish to find the right ones.
A good pair of polarized glasses is essential for spotting snook. Sometimes the signs are obvious as the whole fish can be clearly visible, while other times it's much more subtle as snook will just look like grey lines or blobs in the water. I don't go crazy with different lens colors—I've mostly just stuck with straight grey lenses since most of my beach fishing is sight-fishing when the water is clean and there's a fair amount of sun out, but if the water has some color or it's not bright sun out, I'll wear amber to help things pop more.
Most of the time I do not wade much for beach snook, but at some places or times it might be necessary. At my home beaches, I usually stay on the dry sand or in water no more than maybe shin-deep and scan the water both left and right, regardless if I'm walking or standing still. I'm mainly focusing on the water within about 20 feet of shore, but this can vary depending on the beach and tide stage. Once you start seeing fish, you'll know where to focus. Sometimes, other species will cruise through, too, particularly out a bit deeper. I've caught plenty of spanish mackeral, jacks, and ladyfish, but I've also witnessed tarpon, cobia, blacktip sharks, and even a rare sawfish swim by.
When fish are spotted, I like to lead them (cast ahead of their path) by a healthy amount. I'll cast my fly at least 10 feet ahead of their path, but often I'll lead them by as much as 30+ feet in real calm conditions or if I need the fly to sink more. When casting that far in front of the snook, the ripples from the fly line are far less likely to startle the fish, but you also must be very focused on where your fly has settled so you can start stripping at the right time. The fly line merely going back and forth in the air can also spook the weariest fish—another reason to cast well ahead of em'.
One trick I use when leading fish is to cast not just ahead of them, but also a few feet PAST where I think they'll travel through.
As I'm waiting those precious seconds for the fish to get close to my fly, the line and lightweight fly can shift or drift back towards the shore to some degree due to breeze, swell, current, or line tightness. Casting out a bit further compensates for any fly drift and any possible outward deviation in the path of the fish as I wait. As the fish get close, I can then make the call whether to leave my fly where it is or I may pull it in to line it up with the fish better before stripping. If I had made a shorter cast to begin with and the fly/line drifted in too much, I'd have to cast all over again to realign the fly with the fishes' line of travel. This is not preferred because when sight-fishing, I want to be casting as little as possible. Starting with more line out simply makes it easier to adjust without casting again.
Whether I'm casting to one snook or a school, I start stripping the fly when that single fish or the lead fish in a school is just a couple feet from where I think the fly is. If I get no interest, I'll usually run down the beach X number of feet to set up again and make another presentation. I like the fly to be stripped at an angle that swims it away from the snook but also gives the fish a decent initial look at the profile of the fly. Figure about a 45-ish degree angle being ideal, but I've also caught an uncountable number of fish on 90-ish degree presentations, too. Just don't strip your fly AT the fish, although unbelievably I've actually caught a few doing this when there was no other option.
When casting at a school of cruising snook, I also have another trick I use. As I mentioned, I'll start by making my presentations to the lead fish. If there's no interest, I then want to show my fly to the fish further back in the school. To do this, I'll cast the fly well ahead of the school and let it settle to the bottom. I then let the school actually swim over the fly and start stripping when the fly is under the middle or back of the school. I use just little twitches here so that it looks like my fly is popping out of the sand or just subtly inching along underneath those snook. Even though the fly is right in the midst of those fish, I find that the snook don't spook too much from these subtle twitches and those fish further back in the school are often the ones that key in on the fly. I simply catch a lot of fish using this technique!
"Reading" the beach fish is important. When it comes to cruising fish, I rarely cast at fish just once. Even if I get absolutely zero interest on that first presentation, I'll re-position and try again at least one or two more times. If I still get no interest whatsoever or the fish seem to be kind of aimlessly milling around, I may just give up at that point and move on. However, if the fish are swimming a nice distinct path and show some activity such as a short strike or even just a very short follow, I'm much more inclined to give those fish several more presentations. Sometimes you have to work at them for several casts before one commits, but other times it happens immediately. Experience in watching fish swim and react to your fly is really key here, and after awhile you can pretty accurately predict which fish will show interest and which ones won't.
For those lazy stationary fish I mentioned earlier, I prefer schools rather than just singles. I'll normally start by sprinkling a few casts around the edges of the school, but if nothing happens, I then don't care so much about spooking them. My next step is to then pop a cast right among them and let the fly settle, then give it little short, subtle twitches along the bottom similar to what I talked about a couple paragraphs back. If there is any wave action, timing the cast so the fly hits the water just as a wave is passing over the fish can help mask the fly landing somewhat.
I don't over-complicate my stripping technique. I strictly throw baitfish flies on the beach and mostly use two stripping methods to get them swimming: an irregular, slow to moderate strip ranging from several inches up to around a foot or so, and another one (which I've eluded to already) where I use very tiny strips (either rapidly or with longer pauses) that darts the fly just a couple inches at a time. The latter technique can work well anytime, but is particularly useful in the two scenarios I already spoke of: casting to laid-up fish, and trying to catch fish further back in a cruising school.
As an added bonus, I've also caught beach fish by putting the rod under my arm and using a two-handed strip that's often used by striper and tarpon anglers. While I don't utilize it often, if the fish aren't responding to the above methods, this can be a third way to mix things up and get a strike. Some snook just want that constant non-stop motion that a typical one-handed strip can't provide.
No rocket science here. I typically like a rod between a 5 and a 7-weight depending on conditions, fly size, and fish size, but I have used 8 and 9 weights on the east coast when in a big fish zone or casting in a stiff breeze. I use a floating line 99.9% of the time (one that's "tropical" is needed during the hottest months of the beach fishing season), but an intermediate line can be useful for blind casting in bigger wave action. On a floating line, I use a 9-11 foot total leader length tapering down to 12 or 15 pound fluorocarbon with about an 8–12 inch piece of 30-pound fluorocarbon bite tippet on the end. I do feel that scaling down to a 20-pound bite tippet gets more bites, but after trying this here on the gulf coast and losing a few big fish because of it, I've since gone back to 30.
Beach snook feed heavily on baitfish (croakers, pilchards, etc), so that's what my flies imitate. After trying a lot of different flies, I started tying my own pattern many years ago that I call the "Little Monkey." It's nothing special or particularly unique; just a streamer constructed using mono thread, white and olive fiber like EP Fibers or Fish Hair, and small stick-on eyes.
The pattern is tied using a short strip of lead wire doubled-over on the underside of the hook shank to help it slowly sink, and Loon's UV Epoxy coats the head. It's a simple, easy-to-tie pattern I made to imitate things like small pilchards and thread herring that frequent the beach shallows, but when fished on the bottom with little strips I suppose it looks somewhat croaker-ish as well. Other similar flies should work as well; I generally like mine tied relatively sparsely with little to no flash and in very natural tones.
Here on the gulf side where the water is shallower, calmer, and snook and bait are generally smaller, I sight-fish with a small version of that fly typically on about a size 1 Mustad Shrimp hook (C47SD). Don't be fooled, though, big snook DO eat that little fly well! On the flip side, on the east coast I've thrown that same size with success, but often I'll step up to a bigger fly on about a size 1 or 1/0 since there's a lot of bigger baitfish and bigger snook over there. I also like a larger fly anytime I simply want to attract more attention from the fish, such as when there's heavy wave action and I'm just blind-casting.
I've learned a lot over my many years of chasing beach snook, and I hope that sharing the way I approach it helps to demystify beach snook fly fishing for you. Get out there and try it!
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