Flats Fishing Fundamentals

Tips for tapping into saltwater flats action

13th August 2001.
By Bob McNally

Stalking clear-water flats is a combination of fishing and hunting.

Stalking clear-water flats is a combination of fishing and hunting.

Instead of seeking the security of brushy banks, jetty rocks, inlets and
passes, flats fish ply shallow, flat water. They prefer to cruise
shallows where they can see and catch their food, and in turn can be seen and caught by fishermen in the same areas.

A flat is simply any large expanse of water with a generally flat or
slow-tapering bottom, 10-feet deep or less. Most such places have sand,
loose gravel or coral, mud, shell or marl bottoms, and usually the water is clear. To the untrained eye, such flat, shallow areas appear lifeless. But crabs, shrimp, sea worms and a multitude of other small marine species flourish on such flats, which in turn attract small fish that draw the larger varieties.

Some of the most fertile flats are rich in vegetation, such as turtle grass, which harbors great numbers of marine organisms.

Much of the allure of flats fishing is that often an angler sees a fish, or its telltale signs, prior to casting to it. There is as much hunting for fish as angling. This unique seeking, finding and catching process that occurs countless times throughout marine environs has endeared flats fishing to uncounted numbers of anglers worldwide. It is also drawing to it an ever increasing army of devotees.

Clear-water, “sight” flats fishing for tropical species such as bonefish,tarpon, barracuda and permit is practiced in many areas including South Florida,the Bahamas, Venezuela, Christmas Island, and elsewhere. But there are other types of flats fishing, too.

Tailing fish

Bonefish are one of the most prized and popular targets of flats fishermen.

Bonefish are one of the most prized and popular targets of flats fishermen.

On the Gulf Coast, especially in Texas, flats anglers target seatrout and red drum. While a lot of fish are caught blind-casting, redfish in very shallow water often can be spotted “tailing,” much like bonefish are seen.

Tailing fish are feeding, because their tails or backs break the water’s
surface when they grub their noses on a flat floor. If tailing fish are
stalked silently, and a proper cast is made, usually the fish hits.

Flats sight-fishing for tailing redfish also is available along the
coastal spartina grass regions of Northeast Florida, Georgia and the
Carolinas. At times, during very high tides (common during autumn
nor’easters), sheepshead also can be found tailing and pushing wakes on
flats as they feed on small crabs. Baits dropped near such fish, or sometimes even flies, dupe sheepshead as well as redfish.

Making muds

Permit are wary, elusive and highly sought flats targets.

Permit are wary, elusive and highly sought flats targets.

Many flats fish are caught from “muds.” Seatrout, redfish, striped bass, bonefish and permit frequently churn a flat bottom as they root around and chase food. Anytime a mud or off-color water is noted on a flat, savvy anglers are sure to make a quiet stalk to the site.

Invariably the best flats have easy access to deep water, which is where the biggest gamefish species originate. Such areas normally have good tidal action, which allows for a healthy rise and fall of water over a flat.

Some flats are crisscrossed with deep cuts or finger channels that may be 20 feet deep or more. Other flats simply drop-off to deep, open water. In either case, deep water is where big fish live, typically migrating onto flats to feed as the tide floods. When the tide ebbs, fish usually retreat back to deep channels or drop-offs.

These general rules of flats fish migration are employed by
good anglers. Through experience they know where gamefish make contact
with a flat during flood tides, and often anchor or stake out at such a
place near a deep-water drop-off or channel to ambush fish as they cruise by.

Rays and sharks commonly roil a flat’s bottom as they move across it, and many gamefish follow in their wakes to feed on forage boiled up off a flat floor. Bonefish are frequently caught this way.

Some of the most unusual and exciting flats action is found when cobia swarm onto flats to feed behind rays.

Chumming tactics

Chumming is a popular and deadly method of attracting and catching flats
fish, especially when working a spot where fish travel to-and-from deep water with tide flow. Chumming works best from an anchored or staked out
boat positioned up-tide of where fish are expected to be found.

Cut pieces of shrimp, conch or baitfish are most commonly used as chum. Usually it’s simply tossed out near the boat, and the tide sweeps the chum scent down-current, which draws fish within casting range of the angler.

On a deep flat, or on grassy or mostly dark-bottom flats, chumming is best done over a well-chosen white-sand bottom. This is done so fish drawn to the chum are easily spotted as they cross the white spot.

Seeing Fish

Seeing flats fish is a prerequisite to successful fishing. Calm, slick
water and bright sunshine are best for spotting fish. In no other type of angling are polarized sunglasses and a brimmed cap to shade the eyes more important.

However, even with good wind and weather conditions and proper cap and
sunglasses, spotting flats fish takes considerable on-the-water experience. Seeing big fish like tarpon, or dark-colored ones like redfish, is comparatively easy. But small fish, or silvery ones, are difficult to see.

Often, an angler only spots the wispy outline of the fish’s shadow, rather than the fish itself. Other times a subtle surface dimple or “nervous” water reveals a fish below.

An angler must know which end of the fish is its head to drop a lure or bait in the proper place to be readily seen and taken. A fisherman also
must note the speed and direction fish are traveling to cast ffectively.

Anglers must also know if there is more than one fish, and where the fish are positioned. This is important because flats fish are always skittish.

In the shallows fish are vulnerable and they know it, so they’re spookier than a sailor on payday in a bad neighborhood. Many opportunities at flats fish are blown because an angler dropped the lure on another, unseen fish, while casting to the target. The unseen fish spooks, which in turn alerts the target fish, and the whole school blows off the flat.

Specialized boats

Polarized sunglasses and a cap make seeing fish below the surface possible. This need for seeing flats fish well is the reason so many of the best flats anglers work from boats with special raised-platform bows and sterns. The added height allows anglers to see their finned targets best, and then present lures most effectively.

Playing far-running fish from platforms also is an aid, since it allows anglers to keep additional line off the water while holding their rods high overhead. This reduces line drag and helps eliminate the possibility of fine line being nicked by coral, shell or mangrove roots.

Specialized tackle

In no other fishing is there more need for refined, superbly-crafted tackle as in flats angling. This is mandated because the quarry typically is big, tough, bullet-quick and spooky. Yet lines must be comparatively light to draw strikes on vodka-clear flats.

Further, reels must hold several hundred yards of line, and they must be precision built with drags as smooth and accurate as a Swiss watch.

Leaders, knots and backing line must be meticulously chosen and well-tended. Lures must be exact replicas of common flats foods, and they must have super-strong hooks with razor-like points and barbs to hook and hold fast large fish with maws as hard as cement.

Delicate lure presentations are always preferred, so perfectly
matched and balanced tackle is necessary for accurate casting in strong wind with fine line in clear water. Leaders, lines, rods and reels must be of the best quality to stand up to the rigors of flats fishing. The slightest compromise in tackle selection results in fewer fish.

There are endless angling possibilities on the flats, in an infinite variety of situations and locations, for a wide array of species. Few types of fishing offer that kind of open-end excitement, with so much of it so readily available to a multitude of anglers, which is precisely the reason flats fishing is booming in popularity.


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