Control your boat and drift your way to more trout.
In all but two or three chilly months of the year, drifting over shallow grassflats is king of Florida inshore fishing systems.
Speckled trout are nearly always the intended targets of the small-boat drifting fleet, but grassbeds harbor a great many other species as well. In addition to (hopefully) a few keeper trout, the drifter’s bag might also include a mackerel or two, or a bluefish, or a shark, or possibly even an occasional pompano or cobia. Nor is that the entire menu, by any means. Various other rod-benders crash the act at times, while pinfish and pigfish head a long list of more scrawny types that are ever-present to serve, according to individual viewpoint, as fill-in action, bait or simply pests.
Besides all that, drifting is popular because it’s easy. In its simplest form, the system requires no more skill or effort than is required to tie a hook to the end of your line or leader and then allow a live shrimp, cutbait or even a soft-plastic lure to drag behind your free-drifting boat. But because the system is so easy, all too many fishermen never stop to realize that—as in any kind of angling—there definitely are things the angler can do to increase his action on good days or drum up a few nice fish on days when the usual drift-and-hope approach just isn’t paying off.
You may not realize, for instance, that both the attitude and direction of a drifting boat can usually be adjusted to your advantage. Few boats will drift absolutely broadside to the breeze. How your boat “tracks” depends on several factors, chief among them being hull configuration and motor drag.
When the motor is down and the boat is stopped broadside to the wind, it appears to be drifting directly downwind, but will actually be moving obliquely—with the wind, of course, but on a track favoring the direction in which the bow is pointing. This is demonstrated by the position of your drifted fishing lines, which angle toward the stern. How many lines you can comfortably fish depends largely on the length of the boat, but nearly everyone with drifting experience realizes that cutting the motor hard to the upwind side reduces the angle of attitude, usually by enough to keep the lines comfortably separated.
If the lines are still too close together, tilting the motor entirely out of the water will usually bring the boat to a fully broadside drift. Many larger or non-outboard-powered vessels, however, (and boats of nearly every description are seen on Florida’s trout flats) do not have this capability.
The direction of your tack can affect fishing success in a couple of important ways. First, be aware that most of the popular trout flats along the Gulf Coast, and some on the Atlantic side as well, sprawl over vast expanses of shallow water. Typically, the trout action won’t be steady but will come in flurries. Thus, awareness of your travel path will make it easier to return to a productive stretch once you decide that you aren’t likely to hit another anytime soon. Your impulse might be to crank up and head directly into the wind, but unless you take your angle of drift into account, you won’t come very close to that targeted area. Even if you had tossed over a marker back where the bite was hot—as all good flats-drifters should—you might have trouble finding it again unless you head in its general direction.
You can easily illustrate this point mentally. Picture a square—top side north—and mark a mental “X” in the upper left corner. That’s where you tossed your marker. But now your boat (bow aimed right, or east) has drifted to the lower right corner of that square in your head, and you haven’t caught a trout in quite a while. So it’s time to go back. But if you follow the impulse to head straight into the wind—that is, to the north—you will end up somewhere around the upper right corner of your mental square—possibly too far from the marker to spot it, especially if it’s a small one, or if there is a hefty chop on the water. Obviously, your return course has to be to the northwest.
A compass can be helpful in maintaining your orientation on those wide-open spaces, and GPS makes the whole thing a snap. With GPS you don’t really need a marker; hit the “Man Overboard” (instant position fix) button, and you can return again and again. If action at the first spot peters out and you go on to find another, you hit the MOB button again, and the new position assumes priority. Again, all kinds and sizes of fishing boats ply the trout flats in Florida, and so many of them are indeed equipped with GPS. And even the johnboat crowd can easily acquire an economical, handheld model.
Another good reason to take note of your boat’s tacking direction is so you can set a particular drifting direction. Aiming the bow right means you will drift right. Turn around to aim left and you will drift that way—roughly, of course, but you can at least head in the direction that seems most likely to produce, perhaps because of patchier and more fishy-looking flats, or perhaps because an opposite tack would carry you off the flats and into deep water. Of course, whenever you turn the boat around, it means you will also have to swap sides for your fishing.
Given a decent breeze, drift fishing on the grassflats is pretty sure to pay off in some sort of action, but for anglers who apply a little method to their drifting, it will surely pay higher dividends. FS