Flats Breakdown

Story and Photos By David A. Brown

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?

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

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 flatsWhen 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.

Lay Of The Land

Sarasota guide Capt. Rick Grassett will use his push pole for propulsion when necessary, but he prefers silently drifting across the flats on a light to moderate breeze. His Sarasota Bay home waters are known for abundant sand and oyster bars — both of which serve as fish magnets. A bar's deeper side offers ambush points, so expect snook, redfish and even the occasional cobia to leverage these positions during periods of strong tidal flow.

Also note that water breaking around a bar – or passing through a cut between bars — creates eddies and zones of turbulent water that will tumble crustaceans and smaller baitfish. Expect those predators to position on the outside of those current lines where they can rush forth from the calmer water to pick off passing meals.

More subtle, but just as important are the various sandy depressions, generally called potholes. Larger sandy spots with deeper water are sometimes called "lakes," while the random splotches of grass and sand, known as "broken bottom." In any case, these transitional areas provide gathering spots with handy ambush edges.

Florida Keys guide Rich Tudor advises his anglers to aim for these lighter colored areas, as they represent the higher percentage spot in a flat. Catchable fish may well traverse grassy stretches, but those sandy edges are most likely to attract fish in the food mood.

For fishing efficiency, safe navigation and environmental prudence, make sure you know your surrounding depths and proceed accordingly. Generally, darker bottom is your grassy areas; white to golden brown is a sand hole, dark brown to gray means a sand or oyster bar and light green is your deeper cuts and "lakes."

Patches of slick, shiny water amid the waves indicates shallow spots — generally sand bars — so proceed with caution. Also, keep watch for what looks like a bristly spot — the tips of shallow sea grass exposed by a leaving tide. And if you see herons, egrets or other wading birds standing ankle deep, steer clear of this skinny spot.

Unfortunately, not all boaters pay due attendance to the shallow grass flats, as evidenced by the ugly prop scars randomly cut through this fragile habitat. Tragic and completely avoidable by idling until sufficiently into running depths, these narrow, sandy trenches carved by reckless boaters actually have one upside – the lengthy habitat feature that often gathers trout, redfish and others.

Signs Of Life

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.

When It's Right

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.

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

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.

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.

Top Offerings

Live baits such as sardines, pinfish and shrimp can be highly productive when you locate an active area, but when you need to cover water and locate fish, artificials are the way to go. Most agree that the weedless gold spoon tops the list of "search" baits, as its aerodynamic design casts well in the wind, while the enticing wobble and constant flash create a solid baitfish ruse.

For other subsurface presentations, try slow-sinking or suspending twitchbaits like the MirrOlure MirrOdine or Bomber's Badonk-A-Donk SS that will tempt fish over deeper grass flats, while fluke style plastics rigged on wide gap worm hooks can be deadly in the shallow spots.

Lead-head jigs are standard equipment for most flats-fishing efforts because they allow you to quickly change the tail size, shape and color to offer the fish different looks. Jigs, of course, inherently sink, but hang one below a popping cork or a clacking cork rig and you'll combine the fish-attracting commotion of a surface action — tug the cork for blooping, splashing displays — and the vulnerable appearance of a bait hoping below. Synthetic shrimp like the DOA baits we threw on the Indian River Lagoon flat also work great under a cork.

Photo of an angler with a redfish caught while fishing the Florida flats

Topwater plugs are always a good bet for flats fishing because they'll typically appeal to the most aggressive fish. Walking style baits like a MirrOlure She Dog or MirrOmullet, Rapala Skitterwalk or Heddon Saltwater Spook, or poppers like the Storm Chug Bug are usually best in low-light conditions, but don't hesitate to go topside anytime you find a large mullet school. The commotion makes tag-along predators more tolerant of sudden surface splashes.

With any of these baits, take note of when and where your flurries of activity occur. Even if you don't connect, boils, followers and short strikes can tell you much about where the fish are positioning and what piques their interest. Soak it all in and before long replicable patterns will emerge. End of story hook

— Published: Spring 2014

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.


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!