Fishing the Flats

Now that we have done our homework and logged enough “Time on the Water” learning why the tide and the wind effects how water moves, where and when, we can begin making intelligent decisions which way to go once the boat slides off the E-Z Loader.
To effectively sight fish the flats they need to have < 18” of water covering them. Often fish are found sneaking about in less than a foot of water. To sight fish a window of opportunity needs to be recognized. That window typically appears during the last two hours of the outgoing and the first couple hours of the incoming tide. Once the flat has really flooded you can’t see the fish anymore plus they’ll scatter about, often moving back beneath the mangrove cover and out of play completely. Also remember every time the tide goes out all fish are forced out from under the sanctuary of the mangroves and back onto the open flat.
Scattered about most flats are sand bars created by big tidal surges. Around these bars you’ll often find current and drops where predator and prey frequent. They can be a good spot to stake up the skiff, hop out, and silently watch for approaching fish. Something is very likely going to show-up sooner or later. The faster the tide moves the quicker the current, increasing the odds someone is going to come around looking for a meal. Oyster bars are very fertile, everywhere, and always a center of activity attracting the entire food chain.
Locate a tiny tidal creek along the edge and you can count on fish hanging there waiting for bait to be flushed out on any falling tide.

The Hunt

Sight fishing the flats is not a whole lot different than still hunting whitetail deer. It is one thing to spot one, and quite another to get a bullet into it. So we play a game of stealth and cunning. Break a branch and every deer nearby senses something isn’t quite right and switches into high alert. Bang the hull of a fiberglass flats boat with a fly reel or clunk a pair of pliers and the same thing happens. Every fish in that neighborhood now sense something’s up. Remember this is a predator/prey world and everyone in the ocean is a little lower on the totem pole than something else. All you need to do is witness, just once, a one hundred pound bottle nose dolphin track down and trash a nice redfish and you begin to understand why everything on a flat is usually a touch jumpy.
So we pole along as silently as possible with the sun behind us or over our shoulder for the best possible visibility. If a cloud passes over the sun and visibility fades we hold our ground and wait for conditions to improve. I can’t count the times I’ve kept moving and spooked a big fish not 5 feet from the boat because I just couldn’t see it in lousy light. We’re just inching along, at the same time scanning the flat for movement anywhere. A push of water along the shoreline implies something bigger that baitfish or a tail of a redfish slips above the waterline as it pins a crab to the bottom, is all you may notice. When I still hunt deer I rarely see the entire animal, instead spotting the flicker of an ear or tail or the distinctive gleam of sunlight on antler. Sometimes you’ll notice just the shadow of a snook bellied into the bottom waiting in ambush next to the shade of a mangrove limb. You question rather it really could be a fish or maybe just another dark spot along the bottom. You strain your eyes a little harder and you start to see his tail fin barely budge as he waits oh so patiently for an opportunity to eat.
So there you are, a foot off the water on the table top flat deck of the skiff, 60 plus feet of line neatly arranged by your feet, with leader in hand, ready to launch one.
This is exactly what we came looking for. He’s in range and doesn’t even know we’re around. Deliver the fly neatly in front of him, give it one strip and he’ll attack as if fired from a cannon then gobble it like a meat scrap thrown to a starving dog. Land the fly a bit too close or even worse line him and he’ll blow out for deeper water like you jabbed him in the ass with a hot poker taking everything else nearby with him.
Make it a good one and you’re in for the time of your life. He’ll either head for the tangle of the mangrove roots and you’ll have to put the brakes on to stop him before it’s too late, or he’ll head for the safety of deeper water in the nearest channel. Pull it off and you’re back slappin’, high fivein’ , picture takin’, two dollar cigar smokin’, till you finally catch your breath and start inching along in search of his buddy.
Good times on the flats aren’t measured in numbers but in memories and believe me when I tell you; you’ll remember each and everyone. You can’t stop grinning and there’s goin’ to be a big ol’ smile on your face when you finally lay your wary head on your pillow.