Robalo the Beachcomber

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Beach combing is an activity that consists of an individual “combing” (or searching) the beach and the flat beach intertidal zone, looking for things of value, interest or utility. For Robalo, beachcombing is an annual event. Each year as the waters warm along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of South Florida in the late Spring, Robalo ventures out to the beaches looking for things of value. Robalo is part of a large clan of beachcombers that frequent summer beaches in both the tropical Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas. The name Robalo, of Spanish origin (rὁbalo), was derived from Lobos or wolf. Indeed, the Robalo are wolves of the sea, of sorts. In the U.S., especially in South Florida, we know them as snook.

Snook are a worthy saltwater gamefish and their lifestyle gives the saltwater fly angler some challenging opportunities throughout the calendar year. Taxonomically there are some 12 species of snook in the genus Centropomus split evenly between the Pacific and Atlantic. Of those 12, only four species reach sizes exceeding 10 lbs. Along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central America, Robalo as they are known, are an important food fish. In South Florida, Centropomus undecimalis, or the Common Snook is king. Female common snook can routinely reach weights exceeding 30 lbs. Snook are aggressive carnivores feeding on crustaceans and baitfish making them ideal fly rod targets. In early July of 2018, I would take advantage of this aggression as well as Robalo’s propensity for summer beach combing along the beaches of the South Florida Gulf coast.

Snook are an estuarine centric species that are extremely sensitive to water temperature. At the northern reaches of their Atlantic range, winter temps force snook deep into the mangrove lined rivers and creeks seeking shelter from uninhabitable cold water. As the temps of South Florida estuaries drop into the 50s in the coldest winter months, snook have no choice but to seek out the warmer creeks and rivers as they are very tolerant of brackish water. However, as waters warm in the Spring, snook migrate along the Mangrove shorelines to the passes and beaches to spawn and feed. Spawning May through September, large snook are abundant along South Florida beaches throughout the summer. Solo or in small schools, snook are marauders of the shallow intertidal zone seeking out schools of pilchards, glass minnows, small mullet and whiting or the isolated crab or shrimp.

During a ten-day fishing trip to the Tampa region in July of this year, I had the opportunity to fish with one of the most experienced beach snook guides on the Gulf Coast—Steve Gibson of Southern Drawl Kayak Fishing. Steve and I had a bit in common as we are both US Air Force alumni having served at the same time in the early 1970s. We spent a long warm, humid morning slowly pacing up and down a beautiful white sand beach on Long Boat Key just west of Sarasota. Steve had fished these beaches for 30 years and knew where to find snook. Although the fishing wasn’t stellar, for what ever reason, Steve taught me the basics of beach snook fishing—see the fish, put a fly not to close or too far from the nose of the fish, not behind it and hope it wants to eat. Watch the fly and the fish to see if they connect. Once I got the image of singles and small groups of snook holding along the bottom just off the beach, it was amazing the numbers of fish of all sizes patrolling the beaches. Many of the smaller snook were swimming in inches of water just off the beach and larger snook—up to 20 lbs were patrolling within 15-10 feet of the water’s edge in a few feet of water. We saw 100s of snook along a mile of so of shoreline during the morning.

On this morning the fish weren’t very aggressive, but I did manage to connect with a couple and land a small one. On one cast to a very large female, she turned on the fly just off the beach but stopped just short of a take. It would have been a good battle on the 6-weight. It became immediately evident that accurate casting was paramount, and distance was irrelevant as fish were rarely more that 15 feet off the beach. I found the biggest challenge to be keeping tabs on moving fish while trying to drop a gentle cast just ahead of the fish. They spooked easily, and any errant cast would send them scurrying to deeper water. This is a fishery that takes a bit of practice, focus and patience.

When it comes to flies for beach snook, nothing could be simpler. White or mostly white patterns with a bit of flash are all that’s needed. This isn’t blind casting and you have to see both the fly and the fish to be successful. Steve’s go to fly is the Gibby’s DT Variation, a long time standard for beach snook. In my usual way, I looked at a few pictures and crafted a few variants of my own for future trips.

Chasing Robalo the Beachcomber along South Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches in the summer is probably one of the most accessible angling pursuits available. There are well over 100 miles of publicly accessible beaches along the Gulf Coast from Tampa Bay south to Naples, Florida. Warm, humid July mornings find but a few hardy beach goers in the summer and anglers who rise early find themselves sharing the beach with a plethora of birds and placid clear waters of the gulf. With a few simple flies, a good 6 or 7 weight and good beach shoes anyone can chase Robalo the Beachcomber on the public beaches of South Florida during summer.

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