Flats fishing is known as a type of saltwater fishing where you fish a very large area of shallow water. We’re talking about water that is 1 to 4 feet deep. Most people fish the flats from a skiff boat because these boats allow anglers to get into very shallow water (known as skinny water). Once you get onto the flats and the big motor is turned off, you have to decide how you want to proceed. While many anglers prefer to use a push pole to move the boat around the flats, there are plenty of anglers that use their trolling motor and some fishermen even get out and wade the flats. Either way you choose to proceed, fishing the flats can be a very fun and productive way to target a variety of saltwater fish such as redfish, bonefish, sea trout, tarpon, permit, snook, sharks and more.
Popular Types of Fish Caught on the Flats
Flats Fishing Basics
There are a variety of saltwater fish that will use the flats to ambush bait fish. The tide will dictate where and when you are going to find the fish on the flats. Bait fish will use the troughs and channels (deeper water that acts like underwater highways for fish) to navigate the flats. As the water level drops with a falling tide, bigger fish will wait in the troughs and channels as they wait for an easy meal to also leave the shallow flats. The water will usually fall enough to force the bait fish to leave the flats as well. As the bait fish moves into the deeper water, they get ambushed by game fish such as redfish, sea trout, black drum and others. On an incoming tide, fish will move onto the flats to feed as the water levels rise.
Most anglers use a push pole to navigate the flats, but some anglers will use their trolling motor while others will actually get out of their boat and wade the flats. A good pair of sunglasses will help you spot the fish on the flats before they see you and get spooked.
Sight Fishing the Flats
Most anglers will pull up to a nice flat in clear water and then will look for fish before they ever make a cast. This is called sight fishing and it works well in saltwater. There are numerous fish that will come onto the flats to feed, but some of the more common fish that are caught while sight fishing are redfish, bonefish, sea trout, striped bass, bluefish and black drum. Most anglers will fish with a partner and one person will use the pole to navigate the boat and search for fish on the flat, while the other angler will actually make the cast to catch the fish. Sight fishing can be very exciting. Live baits and artificial lures work well on spinning gear, although, fly fishing is preferred by many anglers when sight fishing the flats.
Tailing Fish on the Flats
When fishing in very shallow water, it is common to see some fish actually tailing on the flats. This means that you can actually see their tails up above the water. This happens because their face is down as they are feeding on the bottom and the water is shallow enough to expose their tail. Some of the fish that are found tailing most often are redfish and bonefish, but permit, sheepshead and sea trout will also do it. When you see tailing fish on the flats, they are feeding usually feeding on small crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans.
Even though these fish are feeding, it can be difficult to get them to bite your lure at times. Some fish will spook easily while others may be so oblivious to their surroundings that they won’t even notice your lure. Anglers typically approach quietly with a push pole and try to cast their bait about 10 feet past their target. This helps to avoid spooking them with the splash of your presentation. If you can get your bait in front of their face without spooking them, you have a very good chance to get bit.
Fly Fishing the Flats
While you can easily catch fish on the flats with spinning gear using live bait or artificials, the flats tend to draw a great interest from fly-fishermen. Redfish and bonefish get most of the attention from fly-fishermen, but you can also catch permit and sea trout on the fly as well.
Live Bait Fishing the Flats
With a variety of game fish moving onto the flats to feed, anglers can use a variety of live baits to put some fish in the boat. Live shrimp are tough to beat. You can can catch redfish, bonefish, permit, sheepshead, sea trout and black drum. Pinfish and pilchards will also work well as bait for a variety of fish. Other fish that are common to catch when using live bait on the flats are barracuda, ladyfish and even sharks.