Flats Breakdown

Read the signs, find the fish

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Published Spring 2014

Photo of angler fishing the Florida flats
When drifting the flats, pay close attention to the large sandy spots.

You know they're out there – your speckled trout, your redfish, maybe a snook or two – but it's not exactly a lights-out start to your day. The water looks good and the weather's not too funky, but where, oh where are those fish?

Truth be told, we all love to just drift a big grass flat and catch fish on every cast, but it's not always that easy. Factors such as temperature (high or low), sunlight intensity and fishing pressure will greatly impact when/where you might find the fish.

Case in point: On a recent trip to Stuart, Fla., I joined Capt. Geoff Page and Dave Bertolozzi from Eagle Claw for a morning of flats fishing on the Indian River Lagoon. This waterway is renowned for its lush grass beds and bountiful trout and snook populations.

The immediate problem was probably a bunch of stuffed fish, complements of the exceptionally bright “super moon” that made a rare appearance last June. Sight predators need light to feed so diurnal feeding is most common. But when lunar luminosity dominates the sky, they’ll take advantage of the nocturnal opportunities.

“These fish probably fed all night under that bright moon,” Page said. “They’re full and that’s why it’s starting out slowly.”

We’d spend about an hour drifting this particular flat because its makeup bespoke great potential. Proximity to the Fort Pierce Inlet kept this area washed with invigorating current, while plenty of baitfish and a diverse mix of fertile grass beds, emergent bars, deep cuts and sand holes provided the habitat and forage to attract predators.

After a good bit of looking, we finally started picking up fish with increasing regularity. A couple of keeper trout, several bluefish and a mix of pigfish and juvenile mutton snapper stoked our optimism until we finally dialed in the zone of consistency.

A few key bites, including a Page-Bertolozzi double header, eventually helped us dial in the key habitat. The fish were favoring the light green lanes streaked across the flats. Here, deeper water with sandy bottom takes on a richer hue than surrounding grass-lined shallows, so the visual contrast is clear when scanning the entire playing field.

Photo of Capt Geoff Page and Dave Bertolozzi fishing the Florida flats
When the flats bite is on, double headers are common.

These deep furrows provide travel routes for fish traversing broad areas, but they also offer strategic feeding opportunities.

“What happens is the little baitfish get pinned up against those grass edges and the (predators) just run through there and eat,” Page said.

Page’s strategy for dialing in the active areas exemplified a key flats fishing principle: You have to put in your time and cover a lot of water, but you want to do so in efficient, strategic order.

“You just have to work several different lines,” he said. “You just pick a line and work it, pick a line and work it.”

For detecting these important topographical variances, Page adamantly stresses the need for polarized sunglasses, which cut surface glare and helps you spot those color variances. This is particularly important during the midday glare when the water’s surface looks like piece of aluminum foil to the naked eye.

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Ready For Anything

Diversity and dynamics keep the flats game interesting, but optimism alone is not enough – you need to remain alert for any and all opportunities and prepare in advance for their possible occurrence.

I learned this truth in dramatic fashion during a trip to Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. Launching out of River Palm Cottages, we ran south to a flat just below the Stuart Causeway and hopped out to wade the edges of large sand holes scattered amid the grass. Tossing a DOA Shrimp into the holes and letting the bait slowly fall was my strategy and the light action spinning rod was ideal for a sporty tussle with the big trout I sought.

On my second sand hole, my bait suddenly stopped in the water column. I set the hook and it was like somebody had strapped a rocket to that shrimp. Rod bends, reel screams and line cuts through the water like a knife through butter. After an arduous 5-minute battle, I was de-hooking a plump 38-inch snook – quite the surprise for my trout-focused mission.

Fortunately, the Quantum Exo Series rod and reel combo I was testing stood up to this powerful fish’s relentless runs, but I was thanking myself for spooling up with 30-pound braided line. Good example of expecting the unexpected.

In scenarios where your likely species mix requires different offerings, keep natural and artificial bait rods handy. On the Florida Keys flats, Capt. Tom Rowland typically wants a live crab handy for permit, while surface-skipping plugs get the call for barracuda, jack crevalle and cero mackerel.

Poised and ready, he holds a rod baited with a live crab tucked in his gear belt with enough line deployed to keep the crab in the water while he casts plugs from the bow.

With multiple anglers, split the scanning duties forward and aft and mix up the bait presentations until you dial in what’s working. Just remember that the bite may change dramatically as you drift across a flat, so avoid complacency. Also, avoid dangling unattended baits overboard, lest you lose a rod to drifting sea grass or a bold flats fish.