Flats Fishing – Beyond the Basics

(This article previously appeared in American Angler magazine in 2012)

1 – Know your quarry and observe its behavior closely

Flats fishing is arguably the toughest saltwater fly fishing there is. Despite its challenges, it has become immensely popular – the worldwide preponderance of lodge operations and uniquely skilled guides that cater to this sector of the sport are evidence of that. Bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, redfish, barracuda and striped bass all lure anglers addictively to the shallows. The approach to stalking any game fish in skinny water is fundamentally the same, however, and I believe that understanding just eight concepts – and utilizing them consistently – will elevate your game, regardless your target species, destination, or experience level.

Though casting ability, flies and premium tackle are commonly regarded as prime considerations for the flats arena, knowing your quarry is undoubtedly most important. Fishing with a knowledgeable guide alleviates the burden of finding game, but for you on the bow there’s still no substitute for understanding their feeding behavior, preferred water depth and temperature, ideal habitat, prey preferences, and their life cycle (spawning and migratory behaviors, for example).

            This knowledge is indispensible when stalking game on your own. When fishing with an experienced friend or 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 . . . knowing your quarry is fundamental to your success.

2 – Have a plan – strategizing around the tides is most important

The importance of formulating a sound fishing strategy for the game you’ll be pursuing is second only to knowing that species’ preferences and behavior – a successful approach depends on that knowledge. Several elements may be considered: tides, diurnal effects (sunrise / sunset), weather, season, flat composition, and more. Tides, however, are most important. They regulate water level and temperature on the flats, two factors that directly influence game fish and prey behavior. Furthermore, tides are entirely predictable – even months in advance – which really helps when planning a trip.

Your quarry’s preferred temperatures and water level range are the basis for strategizing around the tides. 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. And a tide change at peak high to start the outgoing can magically ignite an otherwise dead flat with any species.

Tides also affect the water temperature on the flats. During periods when the flats are too cool for game fish activity, an incoming tide that floods them with warmer ocean water may raise the temperature to within your quarry’s comfort zone (The Bahamas in winter, for example, where an incoming tide can raise 65F water temperatures well into the magic 70+F range preferred by bonefish). Conversely, when the flats are too warm for game fish activity, an incoming tide will sooth them with an influx of cooler water and often hungry game fish with it (bringing striped bass that prefer water below 70F onto an otherwise steamy flat in the dog days of summer, for example).

            Knowing your quarry’s preferences and the tide schedule enables you to formulate an approach that focuses on prime windows of opportunity. Consider water temperature firstand then figure preferred water level into your strategy. Sometimes water temperatures remain optimum all day, throughout each tide; this simplifies things considerably. All one needs to do now is reposition in and out with the tide to continue hunting 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 -Manage your stealth – visually and audibly

In most fly fishing (trout, in particular) there’s an ageless argument whether it is fly or presentation that matters most. When you’re flats fishing, however, four elements become critical: strategy, stealth, fly and presentation. Anglers new to flats fishing are often unaware of the importance of maintaining their stealth. From the time you near the flat to the time you wind it up to try another spot, vigilance toward stealth is in order. When you consider how stealthy and careful flats game fish are, to both maintain their hunter’s advantage and avoid predation, it becomes clear how stealthy you must become when hunting them.

            Muted attire (gray, sage, tan, etc.), assuming a low profile when game is near, remaining mindful of long shadows cast early and late in the day, avoiding shiny reflective objects worn on your person, and  always quiet. Opening and closing hatches aboard a skiff and maneuvering about the deck should be cat-like; wading should be with a soft, slow gait that avoids sloshing on the surface, as well. A stiff breeze and ruffled water’s surface will afford you the luxury of “cover” and a margin of forgiveness from sloppy wading or poling, but I strive to never alert the fish whenever I’m on or near the flats.

4 – Carry multiple pairs of glasses with different tints

After rod tips, glasses are broken more often than anything else during a day’s fishing. They can easily slip overboard or be literally yanked off your head and into the water by a fly line zipping through the air on a “hot” clear, too. Without backup polarized glasses on-hand your day is over – period. I highly recommend carrying at least one pair of backups, if not two while on expensive guided outings.

            Amber is the best all-around tint for stalking brightly lit flats environments that usually reflect the brown – yellow portion of the color spectrum. But lenses shouldn’t be overly dark – a medium tint is best for day-in, day-out flats fishing. In addition to cutting glare, medium amber admits plenty of light and filters out colors not in the brown-yellow portion of the spectrum – the yellow component greatly enhances contrast in your field of view. These characteristics markedly improve your ability to perceive ghostlike fish that blend in very well with their surroundings. In addition to a primary pair of amber lenses, a secondary pair of pure yellow-lensed glasses are indispensible for coping with difficult and changeable spotting conditions, including sudden cloud cover, relocation to a dark-bottomed flat (such as turtle grass when bonefishing), diminished water clarity, and low-light conditions early and late in the day. In addition to yellow, I would consider pale amber tints for back-ups – newcomers to flats fishing typically use overly dark lenses.

5 – Select appropriately weighted flies for the manner in which the fish are feeding

This is perhaps themost critical element of fly selection. If your fly is not at the depth at which game fish expect to find their prey, your presentation will likely not succeed. Some game fish, such as stripers and tarpon, may move up a bit in the water column to feed, but usually not by much. Fish feeding right on the bottom, as bonefish, redfish and drum often do, rarely rise up to take a fly. Your fly must be presented such that it is at the depth the fish are feeding (near the surface, at mid-depth, or on the bottom) when the fish first encounters it (permit are an exception where flies descending in front of them can be quite enticing). Knowing your quarry and observing them closely are paramount to proper fly selection. Appropriately weighted patterns – either with lead, beadchain, or none at all – that promptly reach the fish’s feeding zone in five seconds or less with a reasonable presentation lead will result in far more successful shots by day’s end.

6 – Fly placement – proximity to the fish matters

Delivery speed and accuracy are vital flats fishing skills, but how close you position your fly to the fish is a key presentation element that depends entirely on the fish’s feeding behavior. Certainly, there are instances when flies dropped well away from the fish will be seen when retrieved and get a positive response, but on the flats fish are often quite focused and only see prey (and flies) that are close to their heads. Certain species, such as permit, demand that flies be dropped very close to them in order to be seen. Others, such as redfish, bonefish and stripers, will spook frantically from flies that land too close . . . the trick with these fish is to lead them appropriately, but position the fly such that it’s settled on the bottom well within their focus area when they swim into range of seeing it. Again, the key is knowing your quarry and presenting the fly appropriately.

This angler remains intensely focused on his target while casting and throughout the presentation to ensure the right fly placement and an enticing retrieve that won’t spook the fish

            Flats fish feed primarily by sight and smell. Fish swimming in the mid- and upper-water column, advancing into the current, travelling in schools, or otherwise moving quickly receive a great deal of scent information from the water they’re progressing into. These fish become visually focused further off and readily spot flies presented as much as 20 feet ahead. In contrast, slow-moving fish, fish feeding very close to the bottom, and those feeding with the current are not receiving a rapid stream of scent information and hence look intently for prey at very close range, hunting almost exclusively by sight. These fish require that you position your fly very close to them in order for it to be seen. Tailing fish are the prime example. Try to place your fly so that it’s within a basketball hoop-sized area immediately in their face when they encounter it. But be prepared for exceptions – tarpon, for example, generally fit the description of fish focused at long range – and they certainly are, but they usually won’t leave their school to chase a bit of prey very far. It must be right in their face for them to bother with it.

7 – Bringing the fly to life – your retrieve can mimic an enticing escape or appear as an unnatural prey encroachment

Just as important as your fly’s proximity to the target fish is the track it takes when you bring it to life with your retrieve. A tenet throughout the natural world is that prey (whether baitfish on a saltwater flat or deer in the jungles of India) always move away from predators and never narrow the gap – never. Experienced anglers are careful not to draw their offerings back toward the fish, but the concept of widening or narrowing the gap is subtle. A fly crossing a fish’s path, for example, is not advancing toward the target, but it is closing the distance and will spook fish every time. This is also true of overshot flies that settle beyond an advancing target and subsequently retrieved rapidly to recover a position in front of the fish; by encroaching from behind rather than distancing from the predator this, too, will alarm the fish. Anglers must be mindful that it’s always the predator that closes the gap between the two, never the prey. Evolution has programmed predators to expect this. Shallow water game fish are the top of the flats food chain and must sense that they, not their prey, are in charge.

8 – Select tackle to suit your quarry and the wind

Whether fishing from a skiff or on foot, constant attention to line management is a habit for all successful flats fishers – top anglers avoid stepping on their shooting line (fishing barefoot provides a great advantage) and they always clear potential tangles before and after the cast so that they never become a problem

Anglers are inclined to base tackle selection solely on the size and power of their target species: eight-weight gear for bonefish, nine-weight for stripers, twelve-weight for tarpon, etc. When flats fishing, however, overcoming the wind, maintaining delicacy during calm conditions, and speed and accuracy of presentation from a fly-in-hand start-up are casting and presentation considerations that require you consider wind conditions just as much as the strength of your intended quarry.

            I don’t recommend straying too far from the caliber best suited for the species, but I’ll often dip as much as two line weights below standard to preserve a soft presentation (especially for ultra-calm or shallow conditions) and as much as two line weights above to compensate for a difficult wind. Bonefish may be realistically pursued with 6- to 10-weight gear, stripers 7- to 10-weights, big tarpon 10- to 13-weights . . . the ideal rod/line setup depends entirely on the wind conditions at hand.

            I highly recommend over-lining (more appropriately, under-rodding) by one line weight. Over-lined rods are far easier to load when starting your cast from a fly-in-hand position, enabling quicker presentation with fewer false casts. This advantage is amplified with short shots of 40 feet or less where accuracy will improve, as well. Contrary to common notion, most flats presentations – for any species – are at ranges of 50 feet, or less.