Flats Breakdown

Read the signs, find the fish

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Published Spring 2014

Signs Of Life

Photo of a sand hole in the Florida flats
Small sand holes can hold big potential on the flats.
Photo of a dust off in the Florida flats
Dust-offs occur when a startled fish suddenly scoots from its grassy nap spot.
Photo of a cormorant in the Florida flats
Aquatic birds like cormorants will tell you where the baitfish are holding.

During a recent Florida Keys flats mission, Tudor made an astute observation. We were looking for permit and big barracuda, but a sudden flurry of small jack crevalle crashing bait, followed by a cero mackerel bite and a couple of stingray and shark sightings raised Tudor’s optimism.

“When you start seeing activity of any kind on the flats, that means you’re getting into an active area,” he said. “It may not be the fish you’re looking for, but activity of any kind will attract other fish.”

Other key signs include:

Dust-offs: Aka "smoke,” the sudden puff of sand means you just spooked a fish hiding in the grass. The fish that ran is unlikely to bite, but there’s usually more than one, so slow down and maybe stake out to work the promising area.

Muds: Same visual principle as a dust-off, but the fish (sometimes multiples) create a lingering trail of soft sediment by rooting around in the bottom.

Baitfish: Passing schools or groups of bait clustering in sand holes present food sources that predators seek; while flipping, jumping, scattering displays indicate active feeding.

Birds – Ospreys and eagles are usually looking to pick off single meals, but look at it this way: These avian predators hunt fish for a living and they're pretty good at their job. They might just be looking, but take the presence of an osprey or eagle as an indication of a promising area.

Birds that more commonly seek baitfish – pelicans, terns, sea gulls, and even the subsurface hunters like cormorants – also point to areas of potential, as sport fish like trout, redfish, snook, mackerel and bluefish often chase the same forage below the surface.

Mullet: This vegetarian species has no interest in the crabs, shrimp and baitfish they displace by rumbling en masse across a shallow flat, but snook, trout and redfish are keen to pick off the freebies, while also enjoying the protection and concealment of traveling with the herd. Look for rambling wakes and the telltale splash of leaping mullet and this commotion will almost always lead you to catchable flats fish.

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