For as much as we talk about flats fishing here, a newbie might assume that every boat on Charlotte Harbor can drive through 6 inches of water and float in a mud puddle. But those of us who have been around for more than a couple months know that just isn’t so.

Many boats aren’t really capable of getting into the skinny water, and many that are have owners who aren’t comfortable pushing the envelope of how shallow they can go. Factor in our oncoming winter tides, which are naturally low and often driven lower by north winds, and that leaves a lot of folks unable to get to some of our most productive shallows.

But that doesn’t mean those people can’t fish. This week, we’re looking at some inshore options that don’t require a tunnel hull.

1: Fish the outside of the bar

I don’t know who came up with notion that you have to have less than 24 inches of water under your hull to fish Charlotte Harbor, but they were wrong. There are a lot of fish that hang out in the 4- to 6-foot range outside the bars on both sides of the Harbor. I like areas that have steeper dropoffs, but sometimes random spots hold fish also.

BOAT SETUP: Drift or anchor.

RIGS AND LURES: Free-lined shrimp, shrimp on a jighead, quarter-ounce spoons, 3-inch shad tails on quarter-ounce jigheads.

LIKELY CATCHES: Trout, ladyfish, jacks, pompano.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Flounder, black drum, cobia, bluefish, small sharks.

2: Troll the edge of the bar

While you’re there at the bar, you might want to try a totally different method that is rarely utilized but can be surprisingly fun and productive. Use your GPS and fishfinder to stay in 5 to 8 feet; you don’t want to drag the bottom. Remember, the bars run approximately parallel to the shoreline. So should you.

BOAT SETUP: Slow-troll (1 to 3 knots).

RIGS AND LURES: Lipped plugs that run 3 to 6 feet deep (check the packaging if you’re not sure), pre-rigged Storm 4-inch swimbaits, Rat-L-Traps (I like the floating model), quarter-ounce spoons.

LIKELY CATCHES: Ladyfish, jacks, trout.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Cobia, bluefish.

BONUS TIP: From late spring through early fall, this is a good way to catch tarpon (troll something that looks like a ladyfish).

3: Head up the canals

We’ve preached this sermon before, but it’s still a good one to roll out. When the water gets chilly, fish look for warm spots. Canals have dark bottoms, are often lined with warmth-holding seawalls, usually have deeper spots, and get less cold wind on their surfaces — all of which means a cold fish can find water temperatures a couple degrees warmer here. Focus on areas with good cover, such as bridge pilings, docks and under boats stored in the water, and troll as you go from spot to spot.

BOAT SETUP: Anchor or slow-troll.

RIGS AND LURES: To anchor and cast, try a drop-shot rig a with live shrimp or small soft plastic bait. To troll, a small lipped plug or Rat-L-Trap is good.

LIKELY CATCHES: Snook, jacks, black drum, mangrove snapper, sheepshead.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Trout, juvenile tarpon.

4: Target docks

You can do this in the canals, of course, but there are docks all over the place. If the wind in blowing, avoid docks that are getting pounded by waves; they’re hard to fish. Stay back at least 20 feet and toss your baits either to the pilings or under the walkway. If you hook the dock, try to retrieve the rig. Don’t leave junk on someone else’s property, Don’t tie up to it either.

BOAT SETUP: Anchor or controlled drift.

RIGS AND LURES: Shrimp or silversides on a drop shot rig or quarter-ounce jighead; small pinfish.

LIKELY CATCHES: Sheepshead, black drum, snook, mangrove snapper.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Flounder, redfish, trout.

5: Hang out under a bridge

Just like docks, bridge pilings provide structure that many fish find highly appealing. Since bridges are bigger, they may bring in more or larger fish.

BOAT SETUP: Anchor.

RIGS AND LURES: Shrimp or silversides on a drop shot rig or quarter-ounce jighead; half a blue crab on a slip-sinker rig; small pinfish.

LIKELY CATCHES: Sheepshead, black drum, snook, mangrove snapper.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Flounder, pompano, cobia, Goliath grouper, tripletail.

6: Bottom fish inshore reefs

Artificial reefs, whether inshore or offshore, are usually home to lots of fish. While many of the Gulf reef fish aren’t found in the Harbor, some others are — and you have the advantage of a much shorter run out and back.

BOAT SETUP: Anchor or drift.

RIGS AND LURES: Live shrimp, cut shrimp or silversides on a 1-ounce chicken rig (one or two circle hooks); small live pinfish. (Avoid squid; it’s not a natural food in the Harbor.)

LIKELY CATCHES: Sheepshead, mangrove snapper, juvenile grouper.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Goliath grouper, larger gag grouper, cobia, black drum.

7: Troll inshore reefs

Reefs don’t just bring in bottom fish. They also attract open-water species, which are much easier to catch trolling than dropping baits. If you’ve got bottom fish coming up and just want some variety, you can also cast these lures instead of trolling them.

BOAT SETUP: Slow-troll.

RIGS AND LURES: Small lipped plugs, Rat-L-Traps, half-ounce bucktail jigs, quarter- or half-ounce spoons.

LIKELY CATCHES: Jacks, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Cobia, bluefish.

8: Work the passes

Fish moving back and forth from the Gulf to inshore waters must go through the passes, and strong current flow here means lots of available food. You might be tempted to anchor, but anchoring in the middle is unsafe. If you want, you can anchor in shallower water (6 feet or less) in areas where current flow is weaker.

BOAT SETUP: Drift, slow-troll or anchor where safe.

RIGS AND LURES: Any of the trolling lures previously mentioned, silly jigs, 1-ounce chicken or slip-sinker rigs with shrimp.

LIKELY CATCHES: Mangrove snapper, pompano, Spanish mackerel, jacks.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: King mackerel, cobia, sheepshead, small grouper.

9: Park and wade

There are those times when the best bite is in areas that you simply can’t get to without going shallow. In such a case, you might consider going on foot. For the price of a good ladder (for getting back into the boat) and wading boots (full waders are for mountain stream fly fishermen), you can go as shallow as you want. This is a particular favorite of mine — I love the stealth and the closeness with the water that only wading can offer.

BOAT SETUP: Double anchored, just in case.

RIGS AND LURES: Small suspending lures (MirrOlure 17MR, etc.), eighth-ounce jigheads with soft plastic tails, flats spoons, live shrimp free-lined or on a jighead.

LIKELY CATCHES: Trout, snook, redfish.

OCCASIONAL BYCATCH: Jacks, sheepshead, pompano, flounder.

One option to skip

Anchoring in a channel to fish. We see this all too frequently, especially when inexperienced boaters encounter negative tides. I know, it’s scary to take the boat outside the safety of the channel. But when you’re in it, you’re a navigational hazard. If it can possibly be avoided, never be stationary in a marked channel.

Now, if you want to park it just outside the channel — well, OK. I still don’t recommend it, but at least you’re not in the way. If you choose to do this, remember that you should not expect people to slow down for you. The general rule is to give your fellow fishermen a wide berth, but you nullify that when you choose to fish right next to the highway. If I were you, I’d pick another option from the list above.

There’s no need to get married to any single item on this list. Try them all and see what you like. As for the rigs mentioned, if you don’t know how to set one up, ask the staff at your favorite local tackle shop or give me a call and I’ll be happy to help you out.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

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