Flats Breakdown

Read the signs, find the fish

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Published Spring 2014

When It's Right

Photo of a fisherman at sunrise on the Florida flats
The first-light bite is BIG... the rising sun makes prey more visible for predators.

The first-light bite is BIG. Flats are often at their calmest and the rising sun serves as a flood light to illuminate the shallows and make prey more visible for predators.

Southwest Florida guide John Ochs said this is an ideal time to throw topwaters for snook, redfish and especially speckled trout. The bigger trout, he said, will push into shallow water to hunt finger mullet, sardines and the like.

At the other end of the day, after-hours missions can be incredibly productive when you can fish a clear night on or near a full moon. On Florida’s East Coast, Brian Nelli spends plenty of daylight hours fishing the Indian River grass flats from a kayak, but he’s also fond of night fishing because of the optimal stealth potential.

“At night, the fish are less aware of your presence, so you can get closer to them,” he said. “In a kayak, you can often drift through an area with almost no sound.)

Nelli wears a headlamp for rigging on the water, but he’ll go dark while he’s fishing to minimize his presence. Lights from bridges, marinas and waterfront homes provide reference points and he said the best way to locate active areas is to listen for those splashing mullet. Cast toward to noise and you’ll usually be right on target.

Photo of an angler wading while fishing the Florida flats
When stealth is at a premium, hopping out and wading a flat may be the right move.

Weather-wise, overcast days reduce the fish’s visibility, as opposed to a bright sky, which creates more pronounced shadows and contrasts the angler’s outline. Moderate breezes also help by breaking up the water’s surface and reducing your visual intrusion.

Across the board, tides present the single most important element of this game. The twofold impact affects access and availability. Water level determines when you can sneak up onto that skinny flat and when you need to leave. Tides also influence fish feeding habits, with heightened activity when the water's moving – in or out. 

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