With toes in the sand and rod in hand, it doesn’t get much better than walking the beach, eyeing the shallows to catch snook in the surf.
About two-thirds down the Atlantic coast of Florida, the islands of North Hutchinson and Hutchinson straddle the city of Ft. Pierce. As one heads south on A1A on these narrow strips of land, this “Florida Scenic Highway” hugs the Indian River Lagoon to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The beaches of these islands are popular with both spin and fly anglers who target the linesides from mid-summer into early fall.
From late July into August the baitfish move shallow and snook move in as well.
“They are feeding on glass minnows and the real ticket are the ‘red minnows’ which are what we call the juvenile bay anchovies. They attract the tarpon to the beach as well,” says Captain Mike Conner, Florida native and fishing guide.
This is a favorite time for anglers who hit the sand with a fly rod or spinning gear to sight cast to snook cruising within easy reach of the beach. This style of fishing is optimal when the fish are visible and eager to eat, but success is just as sweet when one knows how to read the signs and hook into a hungry snook without actually eyeing it first.
Where to Go
On Hutchinson Island, numerous turn-offs provide anglers an assortment of public accesses in which to park close to the beach. Lightly populated areas or those where a short walk will provide a section free of sunbathers are fairly easy to find and the best option for anglers. Snook cruise the shoreline looking for food, and the least likely they are to be interrupted by other anglers or swimmers the more likely they will pass your vantage point.
Check the Terrain
Any change in the terrain of the ocean bottom may hold baitfish, and snook are likely to follow. Look for drop-offs in the sand. Troughs that run parallel to the beach just a few feet from shore often serve as a cruising lane for snook. Walk the beach as the tide changes. Troughs out of sight or reach during high tide may be more visible with snook easier to spot as the water recedes.
Change Your Perspective
Resist the temptation to look only toward deep water. Snook will literally swim the shoreline just a foot or two from the water’s edge. Often, they will seem to appear out of nowhere. By the same token, don’t feel that you have to stand out in the water to see them. The beach is usually the best vantage point. Since these beaches have more of an incline than many in Florida I noticed that if I stepped back several feet from the water I could see a broader area and often spotted fish at a greater distance.
Look for Diving Birds
Birds such as pelicans and terns actively feeding is a sure indicator that there are baitfish. This is a situation where blind casting into the bait is a good idea, since there is a very good chance that a snook is in their midst. During low light conditions such as early morning, evening and even after dark – when it is nearly impossible to see the fish – birds feeding may be your only indicator.
When to Find Snook
Snook are less wary and more inclined to feed during low-light conditions. Just after sun-up is a prime time, but here on the east coast the sun is low on the horizon and in your face. The best bet is to look for bait, whether in schools visibly churning up the surface or where their location is disclosed by the presence of diving birds. Hardcore anglers find success after dark, by locating the bait with the use of a headlamp. For anglers that like to see the fish and sight cast to them, mid-day when the sun is high in the sky, allows the best visibility. Most anglers will say that the couple of hours before and after the high tide is the best window, but I noticed that often visibility was better when the tide was low and I could spot the fish easier. When it came down to it, the varying contours and wave actions found along the beach dictated when during the tide cycle the snook were there or simply could be seen.
Though out of our control, it is helpful to know when the fish are in their feeding mode. According to Captain Conner, it’s generally more favorable when they are found in schools or pairs, rather than a single. “Competition comes into play. They are more likely to take a lure or a fly,” he says. “If the fish are swimming parallel to the beach and not looking around – and not pausing or stopping – they are usually not in a feeding mode. Once you see snook that are stopping and looking into the receding waves and backwash, and looking toward the beach, that is a good sign that they are looking for something to eat.”
If you want to know what lures (or flies) are working, check with the local tackle shop. Jonathan Repass of Ft. Pierce’s White’s Tackle suggests small crankbaits to imitate pilchard. He also recommends swimbaits in natural colors such as whites and greens. Capt. Conner recommends the same, but also suggests small white or tan (with a streak of red) 1/8-ounce Nylure jigs. He also recommends swimbaits such as DOA’s C.A.L. in 1/4-ounce for bigger snook, but these can be too big in many situations. The smaller swimbaits in 1 1/2-inch are more versatile, but make sure the hook is sturdy enough for a snook.
Kadri Benton of White’s Tackle suggests a white Polar Fibre baitfish resembling a glass minnow. “I think flies attract more than lures,” says Conner. “They better imitate what the fish are eating.” He uses Clouser Minnows. Tan over white is a favorite. On occasion he notices smaller snook concentrating on the bottom, similar to bonefish. “I was getting frustrated with these fish in that they were not taking the Clousers, so I started offering small bonefish flies, such as Gotchas. They seemed to work and were aggressively eaten.” Conner recommends using a couple of feet of 25-pound shock tippet. If the water is very clear he goes down to 20-pound. If you are seeing fish and not getting bites this could be the difference, since the temptation for many snook anglers is to use much heavier shock tippets.
An 8- or 9-weight outfit is ideal for fly-casters. Don’t be under-gunned if the wind decides to blow, as it invariably does in the salt, or in case a tarpon appears within casting range. Consider using an intermediate sinking line when the wave action is any more than completely calm. A sinking line can make the difference in getting your fly in front of the fish quickly with the first cast. This is especially noticeable when the waves are breaking every few seconds. You may have only a second or two of seeing a fish before you lose sight of it in the turbulence. Wave action can play havoc on a floating line and keeping a fly where you want it. Most snook will be close to shore. Be ready with fly in hand and just enough line stripped off the reel to make a quick short cast. If not using a stripping basket, keep excess line on the “down-stream” side of your body to avoid fly line wrapped around your body parts as you pick up to cast.
Hire a Guide
Hiring a guide is a good idea, even if you are familiar with the location or the species, but have not fished the area recently. Slight adjustments to tackle, lures, technique or timing can make a huge difference in success or failure to catch fish. No matter your level of expertise, there is always something to learn from a local angler that knows and fishes the resource often. Snook are optimal targets in the surf from now into fall. Capt. Mike Conner guides anglers on the beach and surrounding areas. Contact Mike at (772) 521-1882 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.