So you want to learn the flats. That’s a good thing! I’m assuming you’d like to learn from your boat, but you may want to be ready to transition to exploring on foot. There are a ton of things that you need to make mental notes on if you’re going to really increase your fishing productivity, so a small pad and pen or a smartphone with a waterproof case may be handy to bring along.
The best time to learn the flats is in the winter, when the tides are at their lowest. Get out there when it’s the lowest tide you can find, preferably with a few days of high winds out of the northeast. You know those days when it looks like you can walk from Ponce de Leon Park to Alligator Creek? Those are perfect exploring days! Take the boat as shallow as you dare, then put on your wading boots and start walking.
All of the things I’m going to discuss can be done from a boat when the water is higher. But putting foot to ground on those impossibly shallow days will give you a much better perspective. You’re going to see things you may miss when they are under water. Troughs and deeper pools, which the fish use at low tide, can be easily missed from a boat, but when the tides are at their lowest, they’re much easier to spot because they may be the only areas holding water. Also, most of the mangroves are going to be out of the water, which gives you the best opportunity to see things you normally might not.
The first thing I’m going to look for is a food source. The mangrove roots will provide hiding places for small fish or shrimp anyway, but I’m looking for supplemental food sources. Are you seeing any little crabs in the area? Are there any oyster beds lying under or in front of the mangroves? A higher density of snails or conchs, or even just their shells? Areas with one or more of these features tend to be a little more productive.
Look closely at the mangroves. Is there a solid or undercut bank? If it’s undercut, that may be a good snook or sheepshead spot. How far does it look like the water can get back into the mangroves? If you look under the mangroves and you can see a root tunnel that goes 50 feet back, guess where those fish are going to be at high tide? Yep — waaaay back in there. That might be a good spot to hit halfway through the tide, or you could hang a chumbag in a branch and come back in an hour or so to see if you’ve pulled them out to the edge where you can catch them.
The next thing I’m going to look at is the geography. Look around you. Do you see a trough in front of the mangroves? Fish will drop into those troughs when the water is too low under the mangroves. This can change a fishing spot dramatically on an outgoing tide. If there’s no trough to provide deeper water, fish might have to leave the area altogether as the tide falls. Now you have that information to your advantage, and can use it to decide how long to fish there.
Do you see any deeper pools that are still holding water? The bigger they are, the better. You may have drifted over them on a high tide and never noticed them. Again, these are fish refuges when the tide is dropping, and they can get stuck in there during lower tides. In some places, you may notice a series of these deep holes in close proximity. These may form a kind of “fish trail” that the fish will use to make their way from one area to another. These deeper holes can also serve as a place to jump up on plane on lower tides.
Look for derelict crab traps, stumps, logs or any other hazards. Make mental notes or chart waypoints of these items. They can hold bait and attract larger fish, and of course you don’t want to hit them and rip off your lower unit.
There is one thing that is easier to see while the water is high and that is the “potholes” you may hear us reference from time to time. When you get on the flats, you will see alternating areas of light and dark bottom. The light is sand and the dark is grass. The potholes are the light areas that are a few shades darker than the rest of the light areas. You may not see these potholes when the water is gone because they’re just a few inches deeper than the surrounding bottom. But when the water gets skinny, those few inches can be the difference between holding fish and not holding fish. On moderately low tides, it’s a good idea to pitch a shrimp into those holes or run an artificial across them, hoping for something lying in ambush. What may look like a sandy depression hardly worth noting when the water is gone may be your honeyhole when the water is there.
Learning the flats takes both time and effort, but it’s worth it because going out and doing this gives you an almost unfair advantage. It’s amazing how much of a “fish’s perspective” you’ll get from simply knowing your way around a flat. This is like the insider trading of the fishing world!