Flats are shallow water areas found in bays, around shorelines and above reefs. They support an enormous amount of marine life, and can be fished either with special boats, while wading, or from accessible shores. Part of the strong appeal of flats fishing is that schools or individual fish are spotted and stalked requiring the angler to use stealth, strategy and skill to be successful.
Flats are long, level, shallow areas (usually less than 2 feet deep) adjacent to deeper water. Flats are found in bays, estuaries, and marshes, as well as atop reefs and atolls and along shorelines. Scores of small species of shrimp, crabs and juvenile fish inhabit flats. These attract larger predatory fish like redfish, trout, permit, snook and many others.
The bottom composition of a flat varies it may be grass, sand, rock, mud, gravel, or a combination of sand and aquatic vegetation. Flats with grass or other vegetation offer cover and food for many fish species, and are among the best types of flats habitat for fishing. Shallow flats with hard bottoms are often suitable for wading, and many are deep enough for flats boats and other shallow-draft fishing boats.
During low tide the flats can be totally dry, and during high tide they can have as much as 4 feet of water. As the tide rises, gamefish move onto the flats to feed. When it drops, gamefish lie in wait to intercept crabs and baitfish as they flee to deeper water. There are, however, many flats that remain permanently submerged in water regardless of tides, though tides still affect feeding activity.
The most abundant gamefish in the flats are redfish, tarpon, seatrout, bonefish, permit and snook. Other common species are striped bass, bluefish, barracuda, shark, cobia and mutton snapper.
Tarpon inhabit the flats during a peak period of late April or early May through June. Depending on the tide, they do most of their feeding early in the morning. When a tarpon comes to the surface for extra oxygen, chances are many more will be feeding nearby.
Snook often hide in the turtle grass surrounding potholes, which are circular depressions with sandy bottoms. Snook are also common among mangroves.
Redfish flash their tail around (called tailing) when rooting for crabs, which gives away their position in the generally crystal-clear water. Redfish can also be seen cruising, as can snook. Bonefish are also frequently seen tailing, and they are perhaps the most famous flats species.
Tactics and Techniques
It is useful to know the consistent pattern of the tides. As the tide rises, baitfish move onto the flats via troughs, sluiceways and channels. About two hours before high tide, predators in search of food follow the same route to the flat. This would be a prime spot to fish.
At high tide, you should work is very shallow water close to shore. This is where predators will be looking for hiding baitfish.
As the tide recedes, the process reverses itself. The large fish leave the flats using channels similar to those they came in on, and once again, this is a great place to fish. Cast your lure or fly into the opening of the creek, and let it drift toward the predators waiting in ambush for their prey to get washed off the flat.
An important skill in flats fishing is imitating the natural fleeing reaction of prey. Pay close attention to the speed, movements and behavior of baitfish, shrimps and crabs when they are disturbed. Each type of prey has a different style of escape, and the more accurately you mimic the real thing, the better your chances of landing a big striped bass or redfish.
Don't blindly cast to some random spot, hoping that fish will be there. If you don't see them they're probably not there, but your blind casting may spook a fish that's out of sight that you might have had a chance at.
It is important to have a 40 to 50 foot lead on the fish so that your fly sinks to the eye level of the fish. If heavy winds are making it difficult to cast, find a spot where fish will travel by so you can cast with the wind.
Make as little noise as possible. Stand still, and when walking, move slowly and softly. Stay away from other anglers and boats that are making noise. Too much noise will scare the fish away, or at least spook them so they won't eat as readily.
In late summer, fishing techniques and tactics must change. The fish that were caught and released during the heavy fishing of late spring and early summer are familiar with the old tactics. Lead the fish longer distances, slow down your retrieve, and know different waters and structures so you can be in the right spots at the right times. You should also use longer fluorocarbon leaders and smaller flies.
Light tackle is the rule on the flats. Flats are fished with fly gear or light spinning gear. Fly rods should be 8- or 9-weight, and spinning outfits should be loaded with no stronger than 12-pound test.
For fly tackle, disc drag reels with interchangeable spools are recommended. The spare spools should be loaded with floating line, clear intermediate line and sinking line, which will cover all conditions.
By mid- to late-summer the fish are more wary because of the heavy fishing during late spring and early summer, so less visible leaders should be used. While 9 foot, 15-pound test tapered leaders are recommended for May through June, 12 foot, 8 to 10 pound test hand-tied fluorocarbon leaders are best for July through August.
Natural bait as well as flies and lures can be used. Mullet, pigfish, pinfish and shrimp make good live bait. For artificials, any size lure with attractor colors is recommended for May through June, while natural colors work best for the wily fish of July through August.
A wide variety of lures are effective for flats fishing. Which one you use is dependant on what youre trying to catch and where and when youre fishing. For casting, either shallow or surface lures work. For trolling, shallow lures are best.
The most effective lures will match the bait in the game fishs natural environment. Whatever bait you see in the shallow edges of the water is what you should imitate. Youll see mummichogs, silversides, sand lances, small shrimp and crabs. Pay attention to the baits size and shape from all angles, as well as its color and action.
The proper sole should be used for where you will be walking or wading. Hard rubber soles are best for gravel and soft bottoms. Soft felt is good for boulders and slick rocks, though it occasionally wears out. Soft rubber is even better for such surfaces, but metal gripping cleats are best.
Flats fishing exposes the angler to the suns harmful rays, which reflect off the water back at the angler. To guard against skin damage, use a waterproof sunscreen and reapply it often. To protect your eyes, wear polarized sunglasses. These also aid in sighting for fish; amber lenses are best for this purpose. A dark-brimmed hat will also help protect your eyes and aid in vision.
To protect against dehydration and heat exhaustion, wear light, loose-fitting clothes. Light colors are best because they reflect the suns heat and are less visible to fish.