By Robert Lugiewicz
It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a stupid questions. That’s not true — I can think of at least two. The first is the question that you don’t ask, and the second is asking the clerk at a 24-hour store what time they close. There’s no shame in not knowing something, because we all start out ignorant. But not asking questions just keeps you ignorant, so shame on you.
When you’re just getting started in a new arena, there are often a lot of new things to learn. That’s definitely true of fishing. Even if you’re an accomplished angler, when you move to Florida you’ll find that there are a lot of new terms. If you don’t know what folks are talking about, it can be more than a little confusing. Let’s take a look at some of the terminology used by local flats fishermen.
First is the term “flat.” In our area we have both mudflats and grassflats. In some spots, like Alligator Bay (Port Charlotte Beach), former grassflats have become mudflats after the seagrass died off. In general, any area where the bottom is more or less level and at a depth of less than about 6 feet can be referred to as a flat.
I said more or less level, because underwater there’s really no such thing as a level bottom. All flats have variable depths. When the flat gets significantly shallower, we call that a sandbar, or just a bar. These bars can be caused by numerous things. Usually bars are formed by currents that pile up sand, but old oyster reefs that get covered by sand as currents shift or mangrove islands that get eroded down after the trees die can also become bars.
In Charlotte Harbor, we have impressive sets of alternating shallow bars and deeper troughs (the dips between the sandbars) running roughly parallel to the shore along both the east and the west walls. Seen from above, the bars and troughs have a washboard appearance (check it out on Google Earth). The bar systems are more prevalent in the lower Harbor, south of the Peace and Myakka river mouths.
For anglers, bars and troughs are a major part of what we call structure on the flats. Structure can be anything from a bridge with 50 pilings to a clump of oyster shells, and it can be manmade or natural. Because there isn’t much hard structure on the flats, bottom contours serve the same purpose — creating places for small creatures to hide and for predators to hunt.
Generally you’ll find bigger fish in the deeper water, especially if there’s also thick grass there. In areas of alternating bars and troughs, the bars (which are more subject to wave action) will often be bare of grass or have less. Working a lure or bait through the deeper water parallel to a bar is an effective way to fish it.
You’ll also find areas of empty sand scattered in grassy areas. We call them potholes, and they can be a foot across or the size of a swimming pool. Usually these spots are deeper than the surrounding flat — sometimes as much as a foot deeper. What causes them? I don’t know — maybe they’re Goliath grouper nests, or the aftermath of really hungry manatees (OK, it’s definitely neither of those). Some say they were the remains of WWII practice bombing runs.
No matter how they occur, you should look for them. Gamefish will often sit along the perimeter of a pothole, so as you approach one work the edges first. If you don’t find a strike, try fishing the middle — sometimes fish will sit out in the center.
Exploring a flat can be daunting. The water is shallow, especially at the bar, and the threat of running aground is ever-present. Ideally, a boat for flats fishing will be equipped with an electric trolling motor. A lot of people make one big mistake out here: When they put the trolling motor down, they tilt their engine up.
Don’t! If you get stuck, your hull will be stuck on the bottom. Instead, keep the engine down as far as it will go. The first thing that will touch bottom if you get too shallow will be the skeg of the engine. To get going again, all you need to do is tilt the engine — no pushing required. Of course, then you have a decision to make: Press on, or go back the way you came? Your call, but at least your feet are dry.
Another reason for the trolling motor is that seagrass habitat is precious. Healthy grass is a requirement for a lot of the gamefish we like to catch. No grass, no fish. And water quality issues have already reduced our seagrasses significantly, so going about chopping them up with a metal prop is a really bad plan (and also illegal).
Watch the tides as you explore. Ideally you’ll head onto the flats on a rising tide and leave shortly after it starts to ebb. Many anglers have found themselves stranded in ever-shallower water because they lost track of time on the flats. You might be stuck for a few hours or a few weeks, depending on what the tides will be doing. Planning is key here.
When tides are really low (mostly in winter), going out to look at exposed bottom can be truly enlightening. You can see where the deeper spots are on the bars. You can see the natural channels fish use as highways to get on and off the flat. You can see all sorts of things that will improve your local knowledge. (Take binoculars, by the way.)
Figuring all this stuff out might seem like a hassle. But it’s worth the trouble, because the flats are incredibly productive. Along the outside edge of the bar, tarpon, cobia and Spanish mackerel hang out in 4 to 8 feet of water. They use the bar to corral baitfish. On the flat itself, troughs and potholes provide ambush sites. Along the shoreline, overhanging mangrove trees and their roots weave a tangle that both shelters small critters and offers prime hunting spots for predators. The mouths of tidal creeks flush a smorgasbord of prey out to hungry mouths on every falling tide.
A lot of the action we see on Charlotte Harbor is on the flats. Learning them is important to becoming a successful Southwest Florida inshore angler. Sometimes it may seem like we’re speaking different languages, but don’t be afraid to ask — that’s how you learn.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.