Most people think of saltwater fishing as "deep sea" fishing. Big boats fishing far from shore in search of marlin, tuna, sailfish, grouper, snapper, and a variety of other species. Here in Florida's Panhandle, there is a whole other side to saltwater fishing. The many inshore salt waters throughout the state afford anglers the opportunity to catch big fish in shallow waters.
Flats fishing is a common term for fishing these shallow saltwater areas. The fishing is usually done from a small skiff, canoe, kayak or by wading. This allows the anglers to get close to the fish giving them a chance to see the fish before they cast to them.
What defines "Flats" ?
Flats may seem similar, but each have distinct features that make them a lot more attractive to different species. An angler should recognize these features and understand how to predict what type of flats will hold a certain species in any given condition.
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. Generally, the deeper flats aren't as consistent as the shallower ones.
Structure: Good flats are the ones that have 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.
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. 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. 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 whitebait. The wind can blow the bait right over this barren area and make it produce. The rippled water also provides cover.
Tides: Obviously we all know what effect the tide plays in catching fish, so use this to your advantage. 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.
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. Don't waste a tidal movement searching for fish.
Setting up a drift with the tide, as this is the natural direction that the bait will be moving, remembering that this is not usually in a straight line. Since you are trying to cover a lot of ground start your drift at the beginning of a potential area, working it in a sloppy "Z" pattern starting closest to land. Move out toward deeper water as the first line in the "Z," and then let the tide start pulling you. As you reach a point that is less productive start another drift. By using this pattern you'll cover the most area in the quickest amount of time.
Description: dark gray or green above, with sky blue tinges shading to silvery and white below; numerous distinct round black spots on back, extending to the dorsal fins and tail; black margin on posterior of tail; no barbels; no scales on the soft dorsal fin; one or two prominent canine teeth usually present at tip of upper jaw. Where found: INSHORE and/or NEARSHORE over grass, sand and sandy bottoms; move into slow-moving or still, deep waters in cold weather. Remarks: matures during first or second year and spawns INSHORE from March through November; often in association with seagrass beds; lives mainly in estuaries and moves only short distances; adults feed mainly on shrimp and small fish; prefers water temperatures between 58 and 81 degrees F and may be killed if trapped in shallow water during cold weather; longevity 8 to 10 years.
Description: chin without barbels; copper bronze body, lighter shade in clear waters; one to many spots at base of tail (rarely no spots); mouth horizontal and opening downward; scales large. Where found: juveniles are an INSHORE fish, migrating out of the estuaries at about 30 inches (4 years) and joining the spawning population OFFSHORE. Remarks: red drum are an INSHORE species until they attain roughly 30 inches (4 years), then they migrate to join the NEARSHORE population; spawning occurs from August to November in NEARSHORE waters; sudden cold snaps may kill red drum in shallow, INSHORE waters; feeds on crustaceans, fish and mollusks; longevity to 20 years or more.
Description: color of back green, shading to silver on sides, golden yellow irregular spots above and below lateral line; front of dorsal fin black; lateral line curves gently to base of tail. Where found: INSHORE, NEARSHORE and OFFSHORE, especially over grass beds and reefs; absent from north Florida waters in winter. Remarks: schooling fish that migrates northward in spring, returning to southerly waters when water temperature drops below 70 degrees F; spawns OFFSHORE, spring through summer; feeds on small fish and squid.
Description: body color brown, its shade depending on color of bottom, with numerous spots and blotches; 3 prominent eye-like spots forming a triangle; one spot on lateral line, one above, one below; numerous white spots scattered over body and fins (white-spotted); strong canine-like teeth; caudal fin in shape of wedge, its tip in the middle. Where found: INSHORE on sandy or mud bottoms, often ranging into tidal creeks; occasionally caught on NEARSHORE rocky reefs. Remarks: hatches into usual fish form, but right eye migrates over to left side early in life; a bottom dweller; thought to spawn OFFSHORE; feeds on crustaceans and small fishes.
Description: last ray of dorsal fin extended into long filament; one dorsal fin; back dark blue to green or greenish black, shading into bright silver on the sides; may be brownish gold in estuaries; huge scales; mouth large and points upward. Where found: primarily INSHORE fish, although adult fish spawn OFFSHORE where the ribbon-like larval stage of the fish can be found. Remarks: slow grower; matures at 7 to 13 years of age; spawning occurs between May and September; female may lay more than 12 million eggs; can tolerate wide range of salinity; juveniles commonly found in fresh water; can breathe air at surface; feeds mainly on fish and large crustaceans.
Appearance: The rounded second dorsal and anal fins are similar in size and along with a rounded tail fin, give the fish its name. The bases of those fins have scales.
Where found: Frequently associated with structure both inshore and near shore.
Remarks: Often found near structure and when hooked will seek to escape by heading hard for shelter.
Most anglers use spinning or fly tackle sized to match the species they are targeting, although casting rods and reels have their place. For species such as the redfish, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel and flounder, medium action spinning rods with 10 pound braided line is sufficient, and rods rated 8-17 or 10-20 lb. test are used. Redfish can reach sizes of over 50 inches and 35 pounds and are frequently caught in less than three feet of water. For Triple Tail, you want to step up to 20 lb. test braid or mono along with the appropriate rod. If you are chasing big tarpon, some sturdier gear is necessary. Tarpon can easily top 100 pounds and provide exciting aerial displays as they jump out of the water in an attempt to shake the hook. Most fishermen will use an 8 to 9 foot rod with a large spinning reel loaded with 30 lb. test mono or 40-50 lb. test braid. Many are taking a page out of the tournament fishers and going to even heavier conventional tackle in order to shorten the fight thus increasing the survival of the fish. Other species targeted while flats fishing can include pompano, black sea bass, black drum, jacks, and ladyfish.
Fluorocarbon for leader material is recommended. It has the advantages of having high abrasion resistance, stiffer, UV inhibitors and it is very slick, passing through guides easily. For most of the smaller species 15 lb. test is sufficient. For larger species, bump it up to 25 and for tarpon many are using up to 80 lb. test. For toothy critters, a short steel leader, in black, is commonly used.
Shrimp, Menhaden, Pinfish, Finger Mullet, Bull Minnow, Fiddler Crab.
Sabiki Rig, Cast Net, Traps.
Hard Bodied Lures
Soft Bodied Lures
Shell Island (just east of the jetties)
Redfish Point and Smack Bayou