8 tips for stalking any species found in skinny water
[by Alan Caolo]
Fishing the flats is tough—arguably the toughest assignment in all of fly fishing. Despite its challenges, it is immensely popular. The worldwide expansion of lodge operations and colorful but uniquely skilled guides who cater to this sector of the sport are a result of that universal appeal. Bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, redfish, barracudas, and striped bass lure anglers to the shallows and make addicts out of many. The species you can target are various, but the approach to stalking any game fish in skinny water is fundamentally the same, and I believe that understanding just eight concepts—and utilizing them consistently—will elevate your flats fishing game, regardless of your target species, destination, or experience level.
Fishing with a knowledgeable guide alleviates many of the burdens of fishing the flats, but if you’re thinking about a do-it-yourself trip or are on a family vacation near the flats, here is the information you need to know to strike out on your own.
1 – Know Thy Quarry
Though casting ability, flies, and quality tackle are commonly regarded as prime considerations for the flats arena, knowing your quarry is undoubtedly the most important element. The primary factors you will need to understand are its feeding behaviors; preferred water depths, temperatures, and habitats; proven fly patterns; favored prey items; and their life cycles (spawning and migratory behaviors, for example).
When planning a trip, focus on what species will be available. Most flats game fish are not present on the flats year round—they have seasonal peaks, and depending on your destination and timing, multiple species may be in season.
You can find the information you need in books, magazine articles, and online searches, and this knowledge is indispensable when stalking game on your own. Even if you are fishing with an experienced guide, understanding the nature of your quarry enables you to work with your partner as a team to locate them, decipher their behavior, formulate a strategy, select flies, and determine effective presentations.
2 – Tides and Temperature
2our plans around the tides, which regulate temperature and water level on the flats, two factors that directly influence the behavior and travel of game fish and prey. Furthermore, tide schedules are entirely predictable—even months in advance— which helps when planning a trip.
As you make your plans, consider water temperature first and then figure your target’s preferred water level—these levels vary by species.
Concerning temperatures, the deeper ocean adjacent to the flats is not so sensitive to daily heating and cooling as shallow near-shore waters, and the temperature of the deeper water remains relatively constant throughout the day. As a result, incoming tides moderate water temperature on the flats. During periods when the flats are too cool for game fish activity, an incoming tide brings warmer ocean water that may raise the temperature to within your quarry’s comfort zone. During winter in the Bahamas, for example, an incoming tide can raise water temperatures from 65 degrees F well into the magic 70-plus degrees F range preferred by bonefish. Conversely, when the flats are too warm for game fish activity, an incoming tide brings an influx of cooler water and often hungry game fish with it. Picture a steamy dog-day northeastern flat open to an incoming tide that generally brings water below 70 degrees F. Hungry stripers are often on the front line of such tides.
You will also need to know what depth your target species prefers on the flats. Some species, such as redfish, eagerly crawl about a flat barely covered by an incoming tide—often with their backs out of the water. Others, such as permit and striped bass, patiently wait for higher water levels to make their move. Also, bear in mind that the tide change from peak high to outgoing can magically ignite an otherwise dead flat with any species.
Sometimes water temperatures remain optimum all day, throughout each tide. This simplifies things considerably and leaves you open to repositioning yourself as you continue to hunt at ideal water levels. This may mean fishing right from the shoreline at high tide or along the outer fringes of the flat or a channel edge at dead low.
3 – Stealth Mode
Anglers new to flats fishing are often unaware of the importance of stealth. From the time you near the fl at to the time you wind it up, stealth is in order. When you consider how skittish flats game fish are—they must at once maintain their hunter’s advantage and avoid predation—it becomes clear how stealthy you must be when hunting them.
Stealth begins with your clothes and continues with everything you do. Wear muted-color attire (gray, sage, tan, etc.). When fish are near, assume a low profile and remain mindful of long shadows, especially early and late in the day. Avoid wearing accessories that jangle or are reflective. If you’re on a skiff, opening and closing hatches and maneuvers about the deck should be catlike. As you wade, use a soft, slow gait that avoids sloshing on the surface. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breeze that ruffles the water’s surface and creates background noise that affords you a margin of forgiveness from sloppy wading or poling. A breezy surface riffle also provides cover from the wary eyes of fish. Your ability to remain quiet and otherwise undetected is imperative.
No fish caught here, but notice this angler’s soft approach and attire. his blue matches the sky and his gray pants blend well with the flats. Additionally, keep an eye on his opening false casts. He makes sure to throw his loops away from the fish and when he achieves the correct distance, he redirects his final cast to the target zone.
4 – Gotta Wear Shades (Plural)
With the exceptions of drinking water and sunblock, polarized sunglasses are the last thing you want to be without on the flats. They can easily slip overboard or otherwise become misplaced or damaged during the day’s action, and without backup polarized glasses on hand, your day is over. Period. I highly recommend carrying at least one pair of backups, if not two, and at least one pair of a different tint.
Amber is the best all-around tint for stalking brightly lit flats, but lenses shouldn’t be overly dark, as they’ll dim your view too much. A medium tint is best for day-in, day-out flats fishing. In addition to cutting glare, medium amber admits plenty of light but filters out colors not in the brown-to-yellow portion of the light spectrum. The entry of yellow light greatly enhances contrast and improves your ability to perceive ghostlike fish that blend in very well with their surroundings.
In addition to a primary pair, a secondary pair of glasses with pure yellow lenses are indispensable for coping with changing conditions, such as sudden cloud cover, happening upon a dark-bottom flat (such as one covered in turtle grass), diminished water clarity, and low-light conditions early and late in the day. In addition to yellow, I would consider pale amber tints as a third pair to have on hand.