Flats fishing is extremely popular in the Southeast. Huge numbers of anglers flock to Florida every year to take advantage of this type of angling, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the best regions to fish is the area from the state’s Big Bend southward, all the way to the keys. There’s also excellent flats fishing in bays along the Florida Panhandle, including Apalachicola Bay, St. George Bay, and St. Joseph Bay.
What is Florida Flats Fishing?
Before you can understand flats angling, you first need to understand the flats themselves. Flats are long, shallow “shelves” along the coastline. In Florida, the flats usually have very clear water, and the bottom is mostly covered with grass beds, although there are also some oyster beds and sandy bottoms. Oftentimes, the flats are located near deep water, channels, or cuts, or between large sandbars and around small islands. The dense grass beds serve as a home to baitfish, crabs, and shrimp. Because of the large supply of food, larger fish prowl the flats in search of an easy meal.
Keep in mind you’ll need a skiff – a boat with a flat bottom and a shallow draft. The flats can be very deceiving. The water is so clear that it’s all but impossible to correctly judge the depth, so if you’re not familiar with the flats, you might think you’re in just a foot or two of water, when in fact you might be in six or eight feet of water. Then again, you might think you’re in deeper water when you’re in the shallows.
Wade fishing is also popular on the flats. For this, you’ll need some type of water shoes or old tennis shoes to avoid cuts from the sharp edges of broken shells. Fishing the flats can be done in several ways. You might fish right on the bottom, under a float, by casting, or by freelining. Fly fishing is also productive. A variety of natural baits will work on the flats. These include live and dead shrimp, live minnows and small fish, squid, cut bait, and whole blue crabs or blue crabs that have been broken in half or in pieces.
One of the easiest baits to use on the flats for larger predators is the pinfish. They’re abundant on the flats, so the larger fish are accustomed to eating them. Because of the water’s clarity, you can often see schools of pinfish on the flats, so you can net all you need on the way to your fishing spot. Pinfish can also be caught on small hooks baited with pieces of shrimp. If you have kids along on your fishing trip, catching pinfish will keep them occupied as well as providing a constant source of fresh bait. The best success I’ve had while fishing on the Florida flats is by freelining a pinfish or a finger mullet. For this strategy, I use no weight on the line. I just hook a pinfish or mullet through the lips and cast it out, allowing it to swim around freely. Artificial baits will also work well for most of the flats fish species. These include jigs, spoons, and lures that resemble fish, shrimp, and crabs.
Where To Go Flats Fishing
Some of the best places to fish the flats are Tampa Bay, Apalachee Bay, Florida Bay, and the Florida Keys. Another great spot is the area around Port Richey, where several stilt houses stand. The pilings of these old fishing camps provide structure for fish, and the barnacles growing on the wood also provide food for species like sheepshead and black drum.
What Will I Catch While Flats Fishing?
On most of the Florida flats, you’ll have a great opportunity to catch redfish, seatrout, tarpon, snook, bonefish, flounder, ladyfish, and cobia. Bonefish are generally found near the southernmost part of the peninsula and along the Keys, while snook are found from about Tampa and southward. The rest of the species can pretty much be caught anywhere on the flats, but you’ll catch more flounder around the northern sections of the flats. In several areas, you can also land black drum, snapper, and even small grouper.
Flats Fishing Charters and Guides
Many fishing charters and guides are available for fishing the flats, and you’ll most likely have the most success by using their services instead of going it on your own. Navigating the flats can sometimes be a little tricky because of the shallow water. Flats fishing guides, however, will provide a great day of fishing!