Surf fishing is very popular in many oceanfront locations, especially on the Atlantic coast, but it’s never been a big deal for most locals. We don’t have a lot of the popular surf species — striped bass (rockfish) are missing entirely, redfish (channel bass) prefer the backcountry most of the time, and our bluefish are rarely larger than a couple pounds.
The fish we do have on our beaches tend to be smaller. Whiting, pompano, sheepshead (in winter), juvenile black drum, and maybe flounder are all local surf fish. None of them are as common as they used to be on our beaches. As beach renourishment projects become more common, their food sources become more scarce.
If you like bigger game, there are sharks, but that’s really a specialist thing since it requires tackle you won’t use for anything else and also kayaks to get your baits out. Beach shark fishing really appeals to two groups: Young men, and middle-aged men who are trying to prove they’re not old. It will never be more than a niche.
However, from June to September, we have a really good reason take fishing rods to the beach. The snook spawn is on, and that means linesiders abandoning their usual heavy structure to spend some time around the passes. This is opportunity knocking, and you should answer.
The first fish to arrive at the beach are always the younger bucks. Snook start out their lives as males, and can breed successfully as small as 12 inches. Like most young males, buck snook (let’s define that as fish less than 24 inches) frequently have more confidence than smarts. These guys are easy to catch — at least, easier than the bigger, cagier females.
At around 24 inches, snook start transitioning to female. By the time they are 34 inches, most snook are reproductively functional females (although some will be producing eggs at smaller sizes). Snook this size have a lot more experience and are harder to fool. These are the ones that are now arriving at the beach, ready to get going on the next generation of snooklets.
This is an unusual type of fishing for one reason: Shore-based anglers definitely have the advantage here. We’re used to the boat crowd having a leg up. But when they’re feeding, these fish spend most of their time cruising the first trough just a few feet from dry sand. The best way to get your bait in front of them is to make long casts parallel to the shore. From a boat, you’re in the surf getting tossed around, and that huge hull is spooking fish away. Standing in the water, you look like a big heron — a little scary, but not as scary as a 20-foot shark.
If you insist on staying in the boat, fish the passes themselves, and focus on docks and other structure. Snook will hang out there too, although they often aren’t actively feeding like the ones on the beach. Also, it takes away one of the joys of beach snooking, which is the use of light tackle. Around pilings, you need heavy-duty gear to get the fish out. On the beach, you still need a 30-pound leader so it won’t get chafed through, but lighter tackle is fun. Let ‘em run — it’s not like there are mangrove roots to get tangled in.
Now, the passes are where the actual spawning activity occurs, so there will be more fish in those areas. You’ll still find snook a few miles north or south of a pass, but generally there will be fewer of them. If I have the choice, I prefer to be within a mile of a pass.
Our rainy season was going off with a bang and then sputtered out. That’s led to the water being clearer than we normally expect for mid-July. You may be tempted to start sight-casting for snook, but just remember the basic rule of sight-fishing: If you can see them, they can see you. That means you’re a lot more likely to spook them. Try it and see if it works for you.
I have found the fishing to be better at night, when sight-casting is a moot point anyway. Early morning fishing is good too, with the best bite happening before the sun comes up over the trees. However, these fish are around all day. It’s possible to hook into one at any time.
If you just want to catch fish, then artificial baits are fine. The main prey for surf snook is small baitfish, so any lure that imitates those is a good choice. Pompano jigs, small bucktails, spoons, and lipless crankbaits (Rat-L-Traps) will all catch fish. White and silver are top colors. If the lure has treble hooks, flatten the barbs to make releases easier. If there are a lot of weeds in the water, trebles can be a hassle, so I always have single-hook baits ready to go. At night, larger swimbaits are worthwhile to target bigger fish.
If you want the best shot at catching one of the big mamas, natural bait will increase your chances. Any small live baitfish is good, but the best are those that you’ll frequently find in the surf zone — mullet and whiting. Shrimp will also work well, and don’t overlook sand fleas if there are any present.
It’s important to remember that these fish aren’t at the beach for vacation; they’re there to spawn. Spawning is stressful and takes a lot of energy. Don’t keep them out of the water too long, and never lay them on the sand (it’s very damaging to their eyes and gills). Take a minute or two to resuscitate them. Every fish should swim away healthy.
Summertime snookin’ is one of the joys that year-rounders get to experience and snowbirds can only dream about. Have a good time with it, but it would be a real shame to stress the fish so much they don’t spawn. We all want plenty of snook in the future, so take good care of the snook you catch.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.