Saltwater Flats Fishing Overview

Knowing how to fish the flats is a basic requirement for any inshore angler, as these areas are preferred feeding grounds most of the year. Fishing the flats isn’t as easy as drifting blindly over a shallow area dragging live bait, or flipping off multiple casts over the course of a drift, though this can produce fish, you’ll be much more productive if that drift is planned from knowledge. It is very easy to present bait improperly and spook any fish that may have otherwise been ready to strike a well presented bait. You’ll discover this isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds either. There are methods to this type of fishing, as with any other fishing. What you need to learn is to understand the environment in which these fish live, what is constant and what is not, and how the food chain moves through. We also have to understand the fish we are stalking and their predatory actions as well. Learn this information and you’ll see your catch tally improve drastically.

When To Fish Flats:
In general, fishing the flats can be productive at all times, but limited in the dead of winter or dead of summer—with exceptions such as when fish hold in deep water nearby and occasionally raid the flats for a brief period at the right time of the day. From early spring through the first quarter of summer, and from the last quarter of summer through late fall are the best times to fish directly on the flats. During all other times you should mostly concentrate on nearby areas with occasional visits to the flats as mentioned above.
If I had to break down the best times to fish the flats (in order from best to worst) it would be as follows:

1) SPRING: Though spring and fall are both great times to fish the flats, I’d have to give the edge to spring, but only if the passing winter had a substantial impact on cooling down the water. A cold winter will push fish into deeper water and up into the river systems for extended periods. As the water warms and the influx of bait begins to move north with the warming pattern, fish make a mad dash to the flats to fatten up after a long cold winter diet of small bait and dished rations. They are hungry and they show it! On the other hand, if the passing winter was mild, it would be a toss-up and completely depend on how early the coming winter is up north and how fast the bait train arrives down south. (This subject explained further and with more extensive details in my upcoming book)
• Early Spring (Further and more extensive details available in my book)
• Late Spring (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

2) FALL: Though I rated fall as the second best time to fish, it can also be number one. Confused? Fall would be my first choice if I were fishing for monster trout. In late fall the big female trout move out of the deeper waters and into the shallow grass flats to get into the warmer water during the day when the sun warms the shallow flats. Overall, I think there is a wider variety of fish in the spring, but again, this depends on the passing winter or approaching winter. (This subject explained further and with more extensive details in my upcoming book)
• Early Fall (Further and more extensive details available in my book)
• Late Fall (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

3) SUMMER: The water is hot, your gear is often too hot to touch, you sweat like a facet and the fish are hiding better than Capone—so why is this better than winter? Most fish can easily handle the 90+ degree summer water but finding them on the flats is not too easy. They need fast current, cover, food and deep holes to survive. Not all flats have these attributes, but there are many that do and this is where the fish will be. Generally you won’t be in the far reaches of the back country during this time of the year, but find some open flats near a major pass and you’ll find lots of summer fish. Bait of all types inhabit the flats year round, or at least get pulled over them during a tidal flush, and as such, fish are attracted to these areas. They may not necessarily be up on the flats so you’ll want deep channels and open water nearby. Predawn and early morning is your best bet, but if the conditions are right, don’t be afraid to give it a try in the heat of the day. (This subject explained further and with more extensive details in my upcoming book)
• Early Summer (Further and more extensive details available in my book)
• Late Summer (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

4) Winter: So it’s cold, windy and often unpredictable, but a well informed angler can be very successful this time of the year. As with number one and two, it is a bit hard to place order between summer and winter, as they both have pros and cons but it ultimately boils down to your intended target, the impact of the weather, and your willingness to endure the discomfort. Winter fishing the flats simply means that you can get a few more hours of sleep in the morning, as there is no need to be up and on the water at the break of light. The real action doesn’t take place till high noon when the sun has had time to heat up the bottom for warmth. As with summer, you’ll want deep water nearby that holds a more stable temperature throughout the night. (This subject explained further and with more extensive details in my upcoming book)
• Early Winter (Further and more extensive details available in my book)
• Late Winter (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

FLATS IN DETAIL

Flats may seem similar, but each have distinct features that make them a lot more attractive to different species. A savvy angler will recognize these features and understand how to predict what type of flats will hold a certain species in any given condition.

1) Water depth: Whether it be summer or winter, depth is of great importance. The productive flats are the ones that are at least 3-6 feet deep, have deep channels nearby, vegetation, structure and drop-offs. That's not to say that flats deeper than 6 feet without the above mentioned elements won't produce fish, as I’ve caught fish where I never expected to catch them. Overall, the deeper flats aren't as consistent as the shallower ones. Different Species require different depths. (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

2) Structure: Good flats are the ones that have extra features like grass, oyster beds, mud bars, scattered debris or some other type of cover. On flats, these objects are irresistible. Many anglers often overlook small cover as simple as an old crab trap. There might not be much there, but it does provide security and a bit of structure to get their eye behind so they feel hidden. Other things such a small hump that could only be a few inches high can provide enough cover to break the current and hold bait or resting fish. You’re looking for change in bottom structure. Anything that deviates from the normal will always attract fish, whether bait or predator, it’ll eventually hold both at some point! (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

3) Baitfish: If you see no bait then pack it up and move! Predatory fish follow bait—it’s that simple. If a flat has baitfish, it'll have predators as well. Most baitfish won’t hold over a flat that doesn’t meet the first two conditions above, and if you are on this flat then you didn’t read the first two conditions above. Now here’s where it may get a bit tricky. Let’s say that you know of bare naked, non producing sand flat area and have spent the day at your other spots with no luck. The wind has kicked up over the last few hours and you’re heading back. You pass these deserted flats without a second look. Think you missed a potential fish? There’s a good chance that you did. Did you know that the wind can turn a poor area into a productive area? Wind often directs the path of traveling bait to a degree, and even more so if they are top water bait such as mullet and some whitebait. The wind can blow the bait right over this barren land and make it produce. The rippled water also provides cover. Now this wouldn’t be my first place of choice, but if all else fails and it’s on your way home—go for it. (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

4) Tides: Obviously we all know what effect the tide plays in catching fish, so use this to your advantage. It’s short and simple. If the water is dropping, fish pull back off the shallow flats into the channels, and if it’s stable or rising, the fish will move up on the flats and feed. (Further and more extensive details available in my book)
Finding Fish:

Learning how to judge a flat, and actually using that knowledge to put fish in the boat are two different matters. It's one thing to understand that fish use structure for comfort and feeding, but it’s another thing to locate this structure in the vastness of the open water. The idea is to test fish what you think are the best areas and hit them quickly; moving on to the next if nothing is present. We all know that when you’re on the water it is very easy to waste a tidal movement searching for fish.
What I like to do is move the boat with the tide, as this is the natural direction that the bait will be moving, although not in a straight line. Since I’m trying to cover a lot of ground I’ll set my trolling motor to med and start my troll at the beginning of a potential area, working it in a sloppy “Z” pattern starting closest to land. I’ll move out toward deeper water as the first line in the “Z,” and then let the tide start pulling a bit harder than the motor for the long stretch of the “Z,” effectively giving me good coverage. As I reach a point that feel is less productive I’ll start my last line on the “Z” until I hit deep water again. If I didn’t find anything I’ll move back up current, but not as far as my first starting point, and work the “Z” again. By using this pattern you’ll cover the most area in the quickest amount of time. (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

Baits:
Since your moving constantly, you’ll want baits you can fish quickly to cover more ground. Use only artificial baits for this, as a live bait will die from all the casting and retrieving. In addition, I like to free line a few live baits to fill the gaps. This may get a bit tricky until you get the hang of it, but watching your live baits and casting artificial to the open areas give you maximum coverage and a variety of baits in the water. If you’re fishing with a buddy, make sure that you are using different baits such as a top water and a deep diving lure, as sometimes the fish will hit on top of the water but not underneath, or vice versa. You've just got to try different options to see what they want. This method will have you covering a lot of ground in little time, and presenting a deadly mix of top, bottom and live bait. (Further and more extensive details available in my book)

This excerpt is but a fraction of the content for this article. In addition to more detailed instructions for each aspect, I’ve also included additional subjects pertaining to flats fishing, other types of flats fishing, detailed diagrams of the drift pattern, and much more.

Keep your tip up^

Allen Applegarth

Author "Florida Inshore Angler" "Florida Fishing"

Comments 

 
+3 #1 sergio rodriguez
Great article. Very thorough, I'll be looking for your book !

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FIA REPLY:

Thanks Sergio. I'm working hard on it, with great attention to providing in-depth information on each subject. Hope you enjoy it.
 
 
+1 #2 Linda Busacca
I am new to fishing the flats. I found your article informative and detailed. Now I must rethink how I will fish. In the past I have fished from a charter boat in New Jersey, this appears to be much more difficult. Thank you for your insight on Florida fishing.

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FIA REPLY:

Thanks for the comments Linda. Best of luck in fishing your new area. :)
 
 
+1 #3 Matt
I've done a lot of research on flats fishing, specifically through all the seasons. This was the only artical that covered everything. I'm sure that with these things in mind I will be more successful. Thank you.

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FIA REPLY:

Thanks for visiting Matt, and glad i could help. I wish I could include the entire detailed section, but as you may know, these are parts that are in my upcoming book, and as such I have to limit the details on the site. If you like this information, my book is compiled with a ton more information on each subject. Happy fishing.