When it comes to heart-pumping saltwater sight-fishing, the East coast beaches of South Florida provide all the action you desire. Every summer the pilchards, glass minnows and sardines school up along the shores of Broward and Palm Beach County, setting the table for hordes of snook, tarpon, and jack crevalles to come and enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet that lasts for a few months.
Part of the magic of this kind of fishing is how accessible it is. Any one can go out, catch a fish and make a great memory – regardless of wealth, experience, and time in the area. The other alluring aspect of fly fishing the beach is its simplicity. There is something special about a pocket full of flies and big, hungry fish at your feet.
A fast action 8 or 9 weight outfit is ideal for fly fishing the beach. Both are plenty of rod for the small baitfish flies you’ll throw and can handle any decent sized snook or jack you hook into. When there’s an Easterly breeze, the 9 weight will give you an advantage punching into the wind. An intermediate sinking line is necessary to get the fly through the waves without having a bunch of slack in your system. The intermediate line will also get under any seaweed on the surface when stripped with the rod tip pointed down at the water. A 9’ leader is pretty standard and a 25-30 lb. fluorocarbon bite tippet is important as snook have extremely sharp gill plates and can wear through leaders pretty easily. It’s a good idea to make your bite tippet long enough that you can cut the frayed part off and re-tie your fly after each fish.
Other recommended gear includes a small waist or sling pack, polarized sunglasses, pliers with cutters and a stripping basket. The stripping basket is a lifesaver when the surf is choppy and when the beach is full of sargassum seaweed.
Your fly selection should represent the various baitfish that inhabit the trough during the summer – pilchards, sardines, glass minnows, and croakers. Snook eat croakers like candy bars. Mid to late June usually brings the glass minnows and smaller pilchards. Smaller flies can be key this time of year. As we move into and through July, the bigger pilchards and sardines will start moving in in large schools.
Baitfish patterns with a green or olive variation over white such as the Eat Me Fly, EP Pilchard, and Mini Cruiser usually work pretty well. Tan or brown over white makes a good croaker imitation. When the sun is high and there’s a ton of baitfish around, the fish you see can be hard to feed. At these times a well-presented small white fly with a lot of movement, such as the Polar Fiber Minnow or Midnight Mullet, is just different enough to trigger eats.
This fishing really starts getting going as the bait starts showing up in mid to late June. It is common to see more tarpon than snook at this time. Pods of tarpon will be peeling off the large schools migrating further offshore to come in and trap bait close to the beach. When it comes to tarpon on the beach, an eat and a jump is about the best you can ask for and is a thrill of a lifetime. Also look for small snook to be scouting the area and schools of small to mid-size jacks cleaning up the leftovers on the falling tide.
Bigger baits move into bigger schools through July, which in turn brings bigger predators. Look for singles to small groups of larger snook and jacks to be cruising through at this time. As we get into late July and early August the big female snook should be looking to fill up on pilchards before heading out to the passes to spawn. Smaller males will often surround these big cows.
Tidal stage is more important than time of day. Fishing around the high tide – 2 hours before and 2 hours after the peak of the tide – is usually best. This is when the fish can patrol the trough right at your feet looking for the bait that’s already moved closer to shore for safety. Both the incoming and falling sides of the tide can be good for snook. You’ll find more jacks and possibly more tarpon tearing through on the falling tide.
Early morning, mid-day, and evening tides all have their own advantages. Baitfish move into schools at dawn and separate from schools at dusk. This creates chaos resulting in early-morning and late-evening feeding frenzy type situations. Although sight fishing is difficult at these times, blind casting around scattered baitfish flickering on the water as well as birds diving can be quite productive. There may be less obvious activity throughout the day, but the fish will be there and with good sun you’ll be able to see them and actually make a cast to a target.
Find a piece of beach in Broward or Palm Beach County that you’re allowed to fish on and fish it. In Palm Beach County you’re not allowed to fish between the lifeguard stations while they’re on duty. You can access the private beaches through the public beaches. You’re allowed to fish here as long as you’re below the high water mark (stay on the sand). Early and late summer fishing closer to an inlet can be an advantage, but throughout the summer the action can be anywhere. Areas with a nice deep trough as well as the deep area between two shallow bars are usually very promising.
Sight Fishing vs. Blind Casting
When you’re limited to blind-casting, you’re looking for signs of life and throwing your fly in the general area as much as possible until you get slammed. When you’re sight-fishing you’re covering ground with your fly in your hand and your line stripped into your basket. When you see the fish you want lead it by a couple of feet and strip parallel to the shore keeping the fly in the fish’s line of vision. Typically you have to run ahead of the fish to get that parallel to the beach strip. When feeding fish seems difficult you may want to shave your bite tippet down to 20 or 25 lb. fluorocarbon and tie on that small white fly.
Fly fishing the beach does not discriminate against skill-level, most fish you’ll be throwing at will be within a 30 foot cast and hungry fish tend to forgive misplaced casts. So go out there, have fun, and remember to be courteous to other anglers.