Common Flats Fishing Mistakes
There is a difference between general bay fishing and the more specialized discipline of flats fishing. Simply put, flats fishing involves angling pursuits in shallow water, usually three feet or less. Although this brand of fishing has become increasingly popular in recent years, many anglers are unprepared for the unique challenges presented by fish in shallow, clear water.
This is not to say shallow water fishing should be 'off-limits' to everyday anglers. Indeed, anyone willing to put in a little time to learn the nuances of the skinny water world can effectively fish knee-deep water. Rather this article is meant to draw attention to some of the common mistakes made by fishermen unaccustomed to fishing shallow, clear flats. This type of environment requires anglers to do things a little differently than they would in darker or deeper water. By avoiding a handful of common miscues, anglers will greatly increase their odds when stalking fish in the shallows.
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
Stealthy silence is the ultimate goal when flats fishing. However, there are so many ways to make noise while fishing that many anglers simply overlook some of the greatest sound producers. Often times, when drifting deeper water, silence isn't at near the premium it is in shallow water, so it's easy to understand why transitional fishermen often make a few mistakes. But, like sound itself, mistakes are amplified on shallow flats.
Most obvious sounds are identified and removed even by novice flats fishermen. Shutting down the big engine before reaching your target area, for instance, is a common sense move that everyone understands. It is always best to shut down several hundred yards away and pole, drift or wade onto a flat. However, even though major noise producers are usually eliminated, it is the small, seemingly insignificant sounds that often send fish scurrying.
The primary culprit of fish-scaring sound is noise transmitted through the hull of the boat. This comes in many forms: slamming a boat hatch, dropping a heavy items like an anchor or tackle box, heavy footsteps pounding across the deck, etc. Avoiding these issues is easy enough, it's usually just a matter of being aware of them. Whenever fishing shallow water, be as gentle as possible when shutting hatches or cooler lids. Ditto for moving bulky items like the aforementioned anchor and tackle box. Also, try to reduce the sound your body creates by fishing barefoot or with soft-soled shoes and stepping as lightly as possible when moving around the deck.
Casual conversation is the other major breach in shallow water silence. If you must talk while fishing in the skinny stuff, do so in hushed tones, don't yell across the boat or burst out in a belly shaking laugh. Again, this may seem insignificant. But, seeing wakes bee-lining from your boat is a sure way to stifle a giggle.
It has become quite vogue for fishermen to outfit their craft with the tallest platforms they can find. While it is true elevation provides a greater vantage point for the fisherman, it can be a double-edged sword. The higher you are off the boat deck, the longer the shadow you cast and the further away your quarry can see you. And, once you've been spotted, it's increases the difficulty in getting a fish to take exponentially.
Again, some extra height is advantageous, but use caution when determining the amount of elevation necessary. It really doesn't do much good to spot fish very far beyond casting distance. So, situate yourself to where you can spot upcoming targets in time to prepare yourself and make a proper presentation. But, don't climb to such heights that fish are spooking before you ever get in casting range.
SHOOTING FOR THE MOON
Perhaps because so many are positioned on such a high perch, many fishermen habitually look far into the horizon to spot potential targets. Sure, you want to spend some time scanning the distance, but don't overlook the water right in front of you. Far too often while preoccupied at looking for fish beyond casting distance, a plump red will slide within an easy flip of the boat. It's always best to scan from the boat out, constantly varying the distance at which you're looking.
Additionally, if a fish is spotted at the outside range, take a peek around before firing off a cast. Another common mistake is casting to a faraway target without seeing a fish lurking nearer to the boat. Usually, the closer fish will spook as a cast sails over its head, often spooking the targeted fish as well as it flees. So, before launching a long range missile, double-check for closer targets.
PICK A FISH, ANY FISH
Everyone dreams of finding pods, schools or 'herds' of fish on the flats. However, the realization of this dream is often a curse for fishermen unprepared to properly deal with a mass of fish in shallow water. Although an approaching school may appear as a 'can't miss' proposition, it can quickly turn to chaos with a misplaced cast.
The most common mistake in this situation is not picking out a specific target to cast to. When spotting single fish, anglers need only to figure out which way the fish is facing. However, when faced with a group of fish, it is necessary to determine the movement of the individual fish as well as the group as a whole.
Far too often anglers skip this step and simply make a 'Hail Mary' cast into the middle of the pack. If the fish are feeding aggressively, this general group approach may work. But, much more often it will cause the entire school to seek safety elsewhere.
To avoid sending the school into a frenzied panic, spend a little time studying their movement before making a cast. Look for the relative size of individual fish. Most often fish are traveling with like-size schoolmates. However, every now and then one fish will stand out. Unfortunately, these trophy fish are often flanked by smaller fish, so it is necessary to study their movements intently and be able to cast into any opening that presents itself near the target fish. Realize that doing so is a boom or bust proposition - the bigger fish may jump on the offering or the entire school may scurry away.
If the fish are uniformed in size, it is a matter of picking out the easiest target. Watch for fish on the edges of the school. Pay particular attention to any fish that seem to 'stray' away from the pack. Always make your first cast to fish on the fringe. If the initial effort is fruitless, make successive casts closer to the center of the group - always casting ahead of their projected path. At times, the competitive nature of fish in a group will overtake their cautious nature and cause them to pounce.
Like anything, experience is irreplaceable for successful shallow water fishing. However, by avoiding the mistakes described above, your learning curve won't be quite as steep. At the very least, it will prevent you from having a 'my bad' moment on the flats.