Few things are more exciting than hooking a snook on light tackle. They have everything any other fish has-only more.
They jump like tarpon and ladyfish, slug it out deep like striped bass and groupers, and use underwater structure and vegetation to hang your line up like a largemouth bass. They can make wahoo-like long high-speed runs that will peel hundreds yards of line from your reel. They can be caught around reefs and wrecks, in the middle of mangroves, in the surf, from docks and piers. On the plate, they are one of the top 5 best tasting saltwater fishes there is. And to top it all off, they can grow larger than 40 pounds, with 20-pounders anything but not uncommon.
Sergeant of the Deep: A Close Look at Snook
Before we get into snook fishing, it may be helpful to know exactly what a snook is. Snooks are saltwater fish belonging to the family Centropomidae. Snooks are the only fishes in this family, and there are 12 recognized species. Five live in U.S. waters. They mainly differ in overall size and the size of their scales.
The main snook of interest to anglers is the largest member of the family, the Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis). The Common Snook is also known as the Robalo, or Sergeant Fish. In appearance, it is a deep-bodied but still somewhat-streamlined fish with a tapered head, yellow-tinted fins, and a very distinctive black stripe running longitudinally, roughly along the lateral line. All snook have this black line.
They can grow to over 4′ and weigh over 50 lbs, but the average size is around 1-1/2 feet, and 5-10 lbs. The world record for Common Snook was 53 lbs, 10 oz., caught in 1978 by Gilbert Ponzi off Costa Rica. A larger snook (60 lbs even) was recently caught in March of 2014 – but it was a Pacific Snook.
Snook inhabit the tropical and warmer sub-tropical waters of both oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. They cannot survive in water colder than 60°F. They are found along both coasts of South America, Central America, both coasts of Mexico, through the Carribean, and along both coasts of Florida in the US, as far north as the Homasassa River on the Gulf Coast, and Cape Kennedy on the Atlantic coast. The waters around the Keys and Miami are great for snook fishing. Snook can tolerate a wide range of salinity, and younger fish seem to prefer the less saline waters near estuaries. Adult fish can be found around mangrove swamps, reefs and wrecks inshore, in the surf, and even the tidal pools and lagoons. Snook are seldom found in waters deeper than 60 feet.
Top of their class: Best Snook Lures and Baits
Snook are somewhat opportunistic predators, meaning they are not very picky about what they eat. While at times they will show a marked preference for a particular prey, generally, they eat whatever they can find, such as shrimp, crustaceans, baitfish, and- on occasion- even each other. They do tend to be a bit size-conscious, with larger fish preferring larger prey, so you should match your bait or lures to the size of the fish you want to catch. Some of your best lure options are:
Snook happily attack top-water lures of all types, and larger sizes of common freshwater bass lures such as the Chugger, Mirro-Lure, Zara Spook and Top Dog are some of the best surface snook lures. The only problem with these lures is that the treble hooks make unhooking a snook difficult unless the barbs are mashed down, and most snook will have to be released.
probably one of the best all-round snook lures you can have. The best spoons for snook are unquestionably the Johnson Silver Minnow in Gold or Silver, with Daredevils being a close second. Silver Minnows are especially good around mangroves because they are weed-resistant. Other good spoons are full-sized Cleos and Mepps spoons.
On grassy flats, nothing beats a weedless jig. One of the best is a plain old bucktail jig in ½ oz.-1 oz sizes. White, gray or yellow are all good colors. Soft-bodied jigs can cause a snook feeding frenzy, and one of the top producers are larger sizes of the Sassy Shad and Bigeye Minnows, colored to match the local baitfish. Other great choices include soft shrimp (or a large crawfish body with the claws cut off), large bloodworms, and crabs. Snook even hit tube bodies in the larger sizes.
whole live mullet is probably the most used live bait for snook, and that is because it is almost fool-proof, once you locate the fish. Other good choices are porgies, large shrimp, pinfish, menhaden, cigar minnows, needlefish, and some really large snook have even been caught on fish-heads and cut bait.
Just about any streamer, crab or crustacean fly pattern will work for snook fishing with a fly rod, but my favorite patterns are Puglisi-style and Polar Minnow-style patterns. Angel Hair minnows can be deadly, and most common saltwater patterns are more than adequate, such as the Seaducer, Gotcha, Crazy Charlie, Clouser Minnows and Deceivers. For topwater action, nothing beats a silver-colored Crease Minnow. Large gray Deer-Hair poppers will also trigger murderous strikes.
Reeling them in: Snook Tackle Do’s and Dont’s
Snook can be caught on just about any fishing tackle there is, from ultralight freshwater rods and reels with line as light as 2 lbs (not recommended), to large heavy surf rods and bait-fishing rigs. What tackle you need will depend largely on where you want to fish, and what kind of fishing you want to do. Here is a brief rundown on the various types of tackle you can use for snook fishing:
This is probably the most popular type of fishing gear for snook. There are those that enjoy fishing for snook with ultralight gear, but even small snook are powerful fish, and your gear should match the fish. If you plan on just fishing lagoons and tidal pools for snook in the 5-10 pound range, then medium to heavy freshwater rods and reels will work fine. Just make sure they have ceramic guides (salt water will destroy cheap metal rod guides).
You’ll need a 7-8 foot fast action rod, and a spinning or spincasting reel that holds a good bit of 10-20 test line. The Zebco 808 is a good choice for a spincasting reel because it has very good gears and a great drag. Mitchell makes some great medium and heavy spinning reels that hold a lot of line and have good drags. Of course, Daiwa is famous for rugged reels, and some of their spinning reels are almost the industry standard. Another option (and the one I use most) is a freshwater bait-casting reel, such as those used by bass anglers for casting plastic worms into heavy cover. My favorites are the outstanding reels made by Ambassadeur. They will definitely handle any snook up to 30 pounds or more. Okuma makes some great bait-casting reels as well. The Zebco ProCast series are particularly well-suited for snook. This gear will also work great on flats and around mangroves.
Don’t forget: anytime you fish in saltwater, you need to rinse all of your gear off with fresh water when you are through. Saltwater is very corrosive and can destroy the bearings in your reels.
A good 10-12 foot, medium action surf rod is perfect for tossing jigs and spoons to snook in the surf. The Daiwa Sealine Series of surf rods is hard to beat for the money. My personal favorites are the great surf rods made by St. Croix, but they are a little pricey. G Loomis also makes a great series of surf rods. You’ll want a light to medium saltwater spinning or spincasting reel that holds at least 100 yards of 15-30 lb. line. Shimano’s Sargosa and Stella are great surf reels. Okuma’s Trio series and the Zebco Quantum Series of surf reels are also good choices. The Penn Torque, Conflict, and Battle surf reels are the industry standard. If you think you may want to do any baitfishing, then a good baitcasting reel might be the way to go. Penn makes outstanding surf baitcasting reels, such as the Fathom and Squall Series. Quantum makes very rugged baitcasting surf reels. You’ll see a lot of Daiwa Saltist reels on the beach. For ease of use, the Zebco Great White reel is hard to beat.
Most really big snook are caught from boats, fishing wrecks and other underwater structure. This usually involves dropping a bait or jig straight down. You’ll want a relatively short, stout rod to power a snook up from the bottom before they can hang you up in structure. A 6-7 foot heavy rod is perfect for this. Bait fishing reels rule here, and few can beat a good Penn Senator for this type of fishing. For casting from a boat, a good 7′ medium-to-heavy action rod with a medium spinning reel is hard to beat.
Fishing for snook is easy. It doesn’t require a lot of fancy terminal tackle or rigs. In fact, for most snook fishing, no weight is used at all, even with live bait. You’ll want to use 10-15 lb. braided line. You can get by with monofilament, but braided line is much more abrasion-resistant, and snook are going to drag your line over everything they can. Snook have very good eyesight, so you’ll need a leader that is both strong and invisible in the water. This means fluorocarbon line. An 18” leader of 20-30 lb fluorocarbon is plenty to absorb the initial shock of a hit from a snook, which is very violent and explosive. The only other thing you will need, if baitfishing, is a few 3/0, and 4/0 circle hooks. That’s it.
Nothing, but nothing equals the thrill of a snook on a fly rod. Fly fishing for snook is a good way to see how steady your nerves are. Any good 8wt and heavier fly rod with a fighting butt will work fine. Your reel will need to have a good disc drag, and be able to hold at least 100 yards of backing. You’ll want a shooting taper fly line with a 7-9′ 0X leader and a 2′ 30 lb. Flourocarbon tippet. That’s all you need to start catching snook on a flyrod.
Master of the seasons: Snook Fishing Tips and Tricks
Snook behave differently at different times of the year. The more you understand about their habits, the more you will catch. Here is a breakdown of their seasonal behavior:
Winter: like most warm water fish, when the water temperature drops below a certain degree, the fish become torpid, and a hard freeze can actually cause a fish kill. Snook in cooler water do not move or eat much and seem semi-comatose. They could be easily harvested by hand or net, which is why throughout most of their range, the season is closed for snook from December until around March. There are lots of other fish that are active in winter, and it doesn’t hurt to let the snook rest for a bit and recover for next year.
Spring: the snook have been living off of their fat stores for most of the winter. When the water begins to warm up a bit, their first priority is to stoke up on food, and they do this with particular enthusiasm. They will move along cuts through the flats, along channels,seawalls, anywhere they can gorge on menhaden, mullet, pilchards, and anything else they can get into their mouths. They will feed day and night, and will congregate under lights, bridges, pilings and piers. This can make for some fast and furious fishing.
Summer: snook spawn in summer and will stage near estuaries and less saline water to lay their eggs. Snook are usually protected during June, July and August over their range, to give them a chance to spawn. Fishing for them during this time is usually restricted, or the season is closed completely. This is a good thing. Again, there are lots of other fish to catch, and both the snook and anglers benefit from this arrangement.
Fall: Autumn triggers another period of activity and feeding. The fish are tired and hungry from the rigors of procreation. It’s time to chow-down again. They need to stoke up for the coming winter. At this time, mullet, pilchard, sardines, or pretty much anything that will fit in their mouths will be subject to vicious attack. This is some of the best snook fishing of the year. When the waters start to cool again, the snook will return to their winter hangouts and…well, hang out until next spring.
Snook fishing is not complicated, nor are snook fishing techniques and tactics. It’s a lot like freshwater bass fishing-once you find the fish, it’s just a matter of getting a suitable bait to them.
Sky’s the limit: Fly, Beach, Night fishing for Snook
Some people will tell you that fly fishing for snook is unproductive. That’s because they don’t understand fly fishing at all.
It’s not how many you catch that matters to a fly angler, but how you catch them. Sure, you are limited in the range you can cast, and maybe limited some on the depths that you can fish, but these can be overcome with just a little brain-power. Most snook do not stay in deep water, and many times are in as little as 2′ of water. It has been proven time and time again that a fly rod is a deadly method for catching any fish on the flats. This usually involves sight-fishing, rather than mindless blind casting. You observe movements in the water, sound, diving and wheeling birds, schools of baitfish, etc… Whenever you hear a loud ‘pop’, that usually means a snook just slurped a baitfish at the surface, your cue to start stalking.
Once you locate the fish, you quietly move into the casting range, being careful not to ‘line’ the fish (casting over it where the leader hits the fish, and spooks it). The attack range for a snook can be as large as 20′, so you don’t have to get the fly all that close: just to where the snook can see it. The hardest part of snook fishing with a fly rod is not jerking the fly when you see a snook rushing it, before the fish gets the fly in it’s mouth. This takes nerves of steel, and ice-water in your veins.
You’re going to need to fight the snook from the reel, and don’t be surprised when the fish pulls out dozens of yards of backing. When the snook starts to tire, you can begin easing it in, but be ready for several more runs before it’s over. Even when the fish is at your feet, the fight isn’t necessarily over. Be ready for the snook to take off one more time as you reach into the water for it. This is where most snook get lost-on the last desperate run when they see you.
Beach Fishing: snook love to chase baitfish over sandy flats off of beaches, sometimes right in the surf. The advantage to beach fishing is that usually the fish will be in the open, so it’s harder for them to hang you up. Surf rods work best here, but you can also use standard spinning and baitcasting combos if that is all you have. It’s not just the extra casting range that a surf rod will give you, but the extra rod length will also give you more leverage against the fish without breaking the leader, and more shock resistance.
You can find snook by observing baitfish schools. They will appear as moving dark splotches on the water (you need polarized sunglasses for this). Also, look for wheeling and diving water birds, and a lot of splashes on the surface. These indicate one of three things-snook, bluefish, or dorado (Mahi Mahi). Cast right in the middle and hang on. Jigs and spoons work great for beach fishing, and it is really hard to beat a live mullet hooked through the lips, and cast out with no other weight. The same techniques works just as well in lagoons and tidal pools, only the distances are shorter.
Night Fishing: snook are very active at night, and will congregate under the lights. Most snook fishing at night will be from piers, docks, and other structures, using spinning or baitcasting gear. Snook will hold just at the edge of a light source, and rush into the light to grab baitfish as they too are attracted by the lights. You may hear the loud ‘plops’ of snook sucking baitfish from the surface long before you see them. Flies can also be used at night, either with a spinning rod and a casting bubble, or just lobbing a fly out into the light. Live baitfish are excellent night fishing baits. Just toss them out with no weight, and let them swim until they get eaten.
No place like home: Snook Fishing in Florida
Florida is famous for its snook fishery. People come from all over the world to snook fish in Florida. The estimated snook population around south Florida is over 325,000 fish, and last year over 1.3 million were caught. This may not make sense to you at first glance: how can you catch more snook than are in the population? But the answer is simple: 90% of all snook caught in Florida are released, so a lot of these fish get caught 4 or more times in a year. It keeps the fishery healthy and provides more chances for anglers to enjoy these briny battlers.
Snook are found all through the keys, and along both coasts as far north as the Homasassa River on the Gulf coast, and Cape Kennedy on the Atlantic coast. There are well over 100 professional guides and charters that offer snook fishing in Florida waters, and most are very reasonable for what you get.
Florida’s Biscayne Bay, off of Miami is one of the top snook fishing areas in the world. Of the 5 species of snook that inhabit Florida waters, the Common Snook, as its name suggests, is also the most common. All of the inlets, flats and beaches around Miami support good populations of snook. There are dozens of charters out of Miami that offer world-class snook fishing for very reasonable fees.
Seasons and Regulations
Florida is very protective of all of its fisheries, and they tend to err on the side of caution. A winter fish kill decimated populations of snook on the Gulf coast back in 2010, and the state closed all fishing for snook in the Gulf to allow them to recover. They just reopened the fishery in May of 2013, and the populations have recovered nicely. Good job, Florida!
To fish for snook in Florida waters, you must have both a Florida Saltwater Fishing License, and a Florida Snook Permit. Snook fishing in Florida is managed by two separate regions- the Gulf Region, and the Atlantic region. The regulations differ slightly on each coast. On the Gulf coast, all snook must be a minimum of 28” long and no more than 33” long, for you to keep them. You can keep one per day to eat, if you wish. On the Atlantic coast, the snook must be at least 28” long, and not more than 32” long, and you can keep one per day to eat. If you are going to practice catch and release, you can catch all you want of any size, on either coast. Snook fishing is closed in the Gulf from December the 1st, through the end of February, and May 1st through Aug 31st. In the Atlantic, the season is closed from December 15th through January 31st, and June 1st through Aug 31st. Any snook caught accidentally while fishing for other species during the closed Snook Season must be released.
The snook is to saltwater fishing what the Largemouth bass is to freshwater fishing. Large, powerful and pugnacious, it is one of the most popular marine sport fish in the world. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of one of these coastal bruisers, you should definitely give it a try.
We’ve got hundreds of charters all over Florida for you to experience the thrill of snook fishing firsthand. Browse through our charter database here.
Be sure to let us know what your favorite thing about snook fishing is in the comment section below!
Joel C. Brothers has been a musician, entertainer and prolific writer for over 4 decades. He is also an avid fisherman, and has fished all over the world. He has authored several fishing books and is a regular contributor to over a dozen fishing publications and websites. His knowledge of fishing is unsurpassed. He lives in the beautiful Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia, in the Cohutta Wilderness, amid miles and miles of pristine trout streams, and outstanding lakes.