We’ve all heard the cliche “timing is everything.” Whether it’s asking your boss for a raise, buying stock, or shooting an iconic sports photo, timing is one of the key determinants of human success. It’s no less true for fishing. Just about every fisherman knows that early and late in the day are almost always the best times for fishing. On summer steelhead streams like the Deschutes and North Umpqua, guides don’t even fish during the hot hours of the day. Tides too, are, by definition, determined by lunar cycles that are predictable in time. Insect hatches that can make a lake or stream come alive often spring forth in the evening, but sometimes, as with damselflies, occur only in the middle of the day, when the sun comes up or when the water reaches a certain temperature. I’ve long recognized the importance of timing in my freshwater fishing (although I’ve missed a lot of opportunities in the early morning!). But in my brief Florida fishing career, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of timing more than ever before.
I’ll never forget a lesson I learned during my third season of guiding in Alaska. As in many riverside lodges, our lodge had a fillet table where dozens of salmon were cleaned and filleted every day. The table sat on a gravel bar with a little riffle running underneath it. A pack of carnivorous rainbows learned to hold off a dropoff just downstream of this table, looking for guts and, especially, skeins of eggs that the clients weren’t allowed to take home. Guides threw those skeins and all kinds of other scraps to the trout, which resembled sharks in their frothing feeding frenzies (fishing to chummed trout is not lawful in Alaska and was not allowed). So what does this have to do with timing? One night I went out on the riverbank to watch the sun go down. My eyes scanned past the fillet table, and I noticed that the gut bucket fish, usually holding just off the dropoff below the table, had swum up and gathered directly under the table. The water was mere inches deep and some of the fish’s backs were sticking out of the water. Several yards of extremely shallow water separated them from the safety of the dropoff. I had never seen these fish swim so shallow before. Why were they suddenly so fearless? Because it was getting dark, and, knowing that they were now less visible, the fish were dramatically emboldened. Now, you could say that you can’t draw conclusions from these semi-domesticated trout, but I think you can. At the very least, it shows a major change in behavior, based purely on time of day. Given a little privacy and shelter from the sun, those fish moved as close as troutily possible to the source of food.
My point is, what a body of water looks like during the day tells you only so much about its fishing potential. Think of a bat cave. If you walked up to the mouth of the cave during broad daylight, you would think there was no life inside. But if you walk up to the same cave right at dusk, you would see hundreds of bats streaming out of the cave. To some extent, it’s the same with fish. And for me, there’s no other Florida fish that illustrates the importance of timing like the snook. Snook use a great diversity of habitats. Except for open water, they can be found potentially anywhere in the inshore environment: flats, jetties, rock piles, mangroves, canals, docks, bridge pilings. The common theme is structure, and I’ve never seen a snook more than a few yards from the bottom, although I understand that they will hold in deeper water when in proximity to structure like bridge pilings. So, what are the main timing factors for snook?
The first, kind of boring one, is tide. This one is sort of obvious. Some spots fish better on a low tide, some fish better on a high tide. I am not super sure about how far a snook will move on a given tide cycle, but it seems a safe bet that one should fish the upper extremities of lagoons, canals and mangrove channels on high tides, when the water has reached its highest level in a given cycle. Only on a high tide will all those minnows and crabs that hide amongst the mangroves be vulnerable. One of my favorite spots is a low tide spot, primarily because I’m only able to wade out to the structure and the dropoff on a low tide. Are the snook there on a high tide as well? The times I’ve waded deep out there, I have seen some, so perhaps in these open water spots, tide is not so important. But obviously, if you can’t get to your spot, then the tide matters. Walk into any fishing shop, and they will tell you this: “you want to fish on a moving tide. Slack water is not as good.” That makes some sense; a moving tide concentrates baitfish, making it easier for predators to find and pick them off. But tide is not the only important factor in timing snook fishing.
Bright sunlight, as it does for trout, makes snook more wary. It also makes you more visible as you walk up and start fishing, and makes your line more visible as it hits the water. In my part of Florida, there are a lot of fishermen. In my opinion, almost every, perhaps literally every adult snook has encountered fishermen in one form or another. Many have been caught. I used to take walks along a marina, and I often saw snook holding near the bottom. If I just walked by, the fish would stay put, face to the seawall, apparently unconcerned. But if I stopped and stared at the fish, after a few seconds the fish would usually turn tail and run. These fish know people and they know what it means when someone stops and stares at them. For that reason, I’ve found these tricky fish much easier to catch at low light conditions, or at night. My night fishing has to this point focused on a tidal pond. During the day, my girlfriend and I had walked along it, ten feet above it. Every hundred feet or so we spooked something from under the soupy green weed mats near the shore. From the water these animals pushed and the speed with which they pushed it, those were clearly fish and not turtles. And from their position near the shore, under weeds, they were almost certainly not mullet. Those fish spooked well before I could realistically ever hope to make a cast, even if I could get a good presentation from up high, which is unlikely. Casting to stationary fish, hiding under cast-defying weeds, was a tall order that I soon passed on. I decided to try to target those fish on my terms. Surely whatever was spooking would be less anxious, and would probably be roving around, and thus vulnerable to a sit-and-wait strategy, at night. That night I got my headlamp, my 6-weight, and a simple shrimp and went and sat down just above water level. In less than a minute I heard a trouty boil somewhere to my right. I snapped my head in the direction of the noise and caught sight of the waveforms. It was a decent fish. I made a cast a few feet upstream of the source of the boil and after three strips caught a nice little snook that put a good bend in my 6-weight. I released the fish and heard another boil. I threw at it, and came tight to a much bigger fish. As always, I was worried that this fish, which I assumed was a snook, would wear out my 30 pound fluorocarbon. I got the fish close to me, rolled it on its side and discovered that it was actually a redfish. A redfish had been up on the surface rising almost like a trout. Awesome! I released the fish and called it a night. Another important aspect of timing is to spread out your pressure. Don’t fish too long in one spot, and don’t hit the same spot too many days in a row. In my crowded area, this is even more important than ever. I came to that same pond a few nights later and the tide had shifted. What had been a high, falling tide had now turned into a low tide. I couldn’t make two casts without snagging annoying slimy weeds on the bottom. I quickly came to the conclusion that this pond is really not worth fishing, except at a high-ish tide, at night. That renders it unfishable for the vast majority of the month. How many people drive up to that pond, spook everything, pull up a chair, cast out a line, catch nothing, and then say “that pond’s not worth fishing,” and then never fish it again? My guess is a lot. As I write, it will be seven days before that pond is worth fishing. You can bet that date is marked on my calendar.
The third element of timing that I pay attention to is weather. Most of us plan our fishing around nice weather, minimal waves, low wind, etc. But with snook I’ve often done the opposite: I target these fish during windy weather. I do this for the same reason that I often fish at night: I believe that the overhead cover that waves provide makes the snook less spooky to your line, and more careless and likely to bite in general. What’s more, if you time your cast right, you can land your fly when a wave is breaking, which can make a huge difference in getting a jump on a smart fish. A snook on a bluebird day, sitting motionless on the bottom, is, in my experience, a tough snook to catch. But if you can throw at that fish on a windy day, when it’s out roving, it’s much more catchable. I think that wind makes snook more willing to go into shallow water, or swim over sandy bottoms, where they are highly visible to us. I have a local spot where snook are almost always present. It’s a big piece of structure. But rather than go pound that spot over and over again, and show every fish my flies a bunch of times, I’ll approach it, on a windy day, from a long ways away, looking for snook that are venturing off of it. I know I won’t see many, but I know that if I do see one, it will be pretty catchable. In shallow water, a strong wind has the power to move a lot of water and material a significant distance. This material, such as weeds, and presumably food, often builds up against a feature such as a jetty. I’ve consistently hooked snook both on these types of structure and near the “lip” of these features, where the built up material starts spilling over, as in a small trickle outlet of a big pool. In such scenarios, when snook are to be found around jetties and other structure, wind makes the snook throw all depth concerns out the window. On a windy day I have seen snook hunting in extremely shallow water. More than once I have spooked them out of 10 inch deep and shallower water as I am wading back to shore.
By paying attention to all of these timing factors, you can increase your odds in any number of fisheries. My most recent experience is with snook, but these rules hold true for bass, trout, and all kinds of fish. If you can avoid it, don’t just show up at any old time and start casting. In easy, low-pressure fisheries, that’s probably fine. But in tough, highly pressured public fisheries, and for fish that are born smart like snook, think about timing. Look at the structure in the lake and make a plan. Alter your plan based on the weather. What are good daytime spots, at what times of year? What kind of structure is around that might be worth staking out at night? At this point I have enough spots that I don’t go hit the same one day after day. I spread out my pressure to minimize both my impact and the fish’s sensitivity to my flies. It’s better for me, the fish and other fishermen. Timing may not be everything, but it’s definitely enough to make the difference between catching fish every once in a while, and catching them most times you go out.