Sight Casting in September in Texas Bays and Back Lakes
After Labor Day the amount of boat traffic on bays up and down the Texas coast shrinks to a fraction of its summer peak. Simultaneously, winds are becalmed and temperatures (eventually) begin to drop. Less pressure, along with calmer, clearer water, equals perfect sight casting conditions on the flats of the Lower and Middle Texas coasts. This, essentially, is what Lone Star State inshore anglers have to look forward to over the next few weeks.
The majority of Texas coastal fishermen don’t grow up sight-casting. However, more than half of the Lone Star State’s bays – essentially from Port O’Connor south – are suited for this type of fishing. For those unfamiliar with sight-casting, there are a few nuances that take some getting accustomed to. Essentially, sight-casting is a combination of hunting and fishing, as anglers stalk their quarry then attempt to catch it.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for anglers not accustomed to fishing the shallow, clear flats of the middle and lower coasts is learning to ‘quiet things down a bit.’ When drifting over 4-feet of murky water, you can afford to laugh out loud, drop a pair of pliers or slam a boat hatch. But, when you’re poling across 12- to 18-inches of gin-clear water, even a muffled cough could cost you a fish.
The biggest mistake beginners make is to assume they only have to watch out for excessive sound once a fish is spotted. In truth, if you’re not quiet throughout, you won’t see many fish – or at least not as many as you would had you put a muzzle on your mouth and been more cautious with your movements.
As a rule, do your laughing and joking before you shut down and pick up a push pole or begin a skinny water wade. Sure, an occasional outburst won’t ruin a trip, but incessant chatter will. Radios are an absolute no-no, as the sound vibrates through the hull and across the flats. And, when opening or shutting tackle boxes or hatches, do so with care, as any sudden loud noise will surely send fish scurrying.
Being able to see fish on the flats is a learned skill – just like learning to pick out whitetails in heavy cover. Far too often, anglers are expected an entire fish to magically appear before their eyes. And, sometimes they do. But, far more often, anglers will see only a portion of the fish first. For that reason, fishermen should train themselves to spot distinctive characteristics of fish – such as tails – rather than looking for the entire profile.
Also, anglers should become accustomed to looking ‘beneath the surface.’ Simple as this sounds, fishermen often forget how much depth there is to even a foot of water. If you’re simply scanning the surface, many fish can lie undetected.
One of the best tricks for looking below the water’s surface is to use the waves – or wavelets, as may be the case on a relatively calm day – as ‘windows’ into the bay’s depths. By looking at the face of each way, anglers can look deeper into the water, as there is less glare. This is one of the reasons slick-calm days are difficult for sight-casting – less surface disturbance means fewer ‘windows’ and more glare.
Whether it’s calm or windy, it is hard to overstate the importance of good polarized glasses. For flats fishing, amber or vermillion colored lenses work best. But, regardless of lens color, polarization is a must – that’s what helps cut down on surface glare, which is vital for seeing beneath the surface. Non-believers need only stand at the water’s edge and place a pair over their eyes for a few seconds to become convinced.
Anglers can also increase their odds for success by limited the amount of sunlight that reaches their eyes. Caps or hats are a good start. A dark underbrim is preferable, as it will reflect less light. Side shields for glasses are also helpful.
When sight-casting, the biggest no-no is to approach fish – or a fishy-looking area – under power. Always shut down the big motor at least 150 yards prior to entering a skinny water flat you intend to fish. From that point, it’s power a la a natural.
Poling is the ideal option for sight-casting, as it allows the angler to be precisely placed for an ideal cast. An accomplished poler can also control the speed of the boat – regardless of wind speed – and even hold the caster in place if necessary.
The downside to poling, of course, is it’s a two man operation. Anglers going solo have two options – drifting or wading.
Drifting is generally the preferable method when covering a large flat with scattered fish. Assuming there is enough wind to propel the boat at a reasonable clip, an angler can cover good distances in decent time. If the wind begins to get too hard – or if an angler enters an area where fish are more concentrated – a drift sock can be used to slow the boat.
When drifting, the angler is able access a full compliment of rods and tackle as necessary for changing conditions. Additionally, a casting platform or boat deck provides an elevated vantage point, which can be helpful when attempting to spot fish.
Wading, on the other hand, is a somewhat Spartan pursuit that often puts anglers eye level with fish. Stealth and infinite speed control are the obvious advantages to wading. However, waders are limited as to how much tackle they are able to carry on their person. Plus, physical conditioning does come into play at times. However, fishermen wanting to get the ‘full experience’ of sight-casting can do no better than wading up on a pile of fish.
LURES & BAITS
There is a simple rule of thumb to remember when choosing a sight-casting lure – it must land softly. This rule give anglers a starting point. From there, it is simply ‘dialing in’ to the prevailing conditions and fish behaviors.
If fish are feeding on top, the first choice would be a fly rod tethered to a deer hair popper or light-weigh foam or balsa wood popper. But, conventional tackle anglers can also find surface offerings that won’t spook every fish on the flat upon impact.
Typically, soft-plastics should be cast either weightless or on very light (1/16-ounce) jig heads. The exemption to that rule is when fish are cruising at a good clip and feeding with their nose on the bottom. In this instance, you need the bait to sink quickly in order to enter their line of sight before they pass it. Then, it is okay to go with an 1/8 ounce jig head and a sparser plastic body – just make sure to cast far enough in front of a cruising fish to let the bait fall to the bottom.
RODS & REELS
This is the part most traditional Texas inshore anglers hate. While these light payloads can be delivered with casting tackle, serious sight-casters are better off learning to employ spinning gear. As someone who was raised with a baitcaster on the Upper Coast and relocated to the spinning gear-dominated Lower Coast, I can attest to the fact this can be quite an adjustment – especially where accuracy is concerned. But, I can also say I learned the hard way that there is no better way to present lightweight lures over long distances than a spinning combo.
For shallow water sight-casting, rods in the 7- to 7 1/2-foot range with a light to moderate-light action get the nod. Although all reel manufacturers use their own numbering system, a reel beginning with a ‘2’ or a ‘3’ is typically the best bet, i.e. 2500, 3000, 25, 35, etc.
When it comes to line, go light. If you’re hesitant to downsize, stick with 10 pound test. However, 8 pound is plenty if you’re fishing a relatively clean (free from oysters and other obstructions) flat.
WHEN, WHERE & HOW TO CAST
Of course, this all leads to the question of when, where and how to cast to fish once they’re sighted. When sight-casting, the fish always dictate the presentation.
As a rule, when casting to a group of fish, cast to fish on the perimeter of the school. And, cast to the fish closest to you. Never allow the line to go over any fish. A ‘lined’ fish is likely to spook the entire school.
So, once you’ve picked a fish from a school, it is the same as casting to an individual fish. The most crucial thing to determine is the direction the fish is moving. Obviously, you never want to cast behind a fish. But, of equal importance, you do not want to retrieve you lure in a manner in which it goes directly toward a fish.
Once you’ve determined the direction a fish is headed, it is important to assess at where it’s line of sight falls in the water column (i.e.: surface, bottom, etc.) and how fast it is traveling. In general, you want your bait to fall a few (as in 3) feet in front of a moving fish. When picking your drop sight, keep in mind the fish is moving during your cast, hence the reason you need to asses its speed of forward momentum.
If fish are ‘milling’ in one are and not making significant forward progress, start with a cast a few feet in front. If that does not draw a strike, make casts at six-inch increments closer to the fish. At some point, you will either draw a strike or spook the fish – hopefully the former.
Above all else, sight-casting involves being observant – not just to spot the fish, but to allow it to tell you how to make your presentation. This article has outlined the very basics. There are thousands of variables that can only be learned through experience. However, few are the fishermen who have landed a trophy trout or redfish by sight-casting that aren’t forever hooked on this unique niche of shallow-water angling.