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Fishing Florida Inlets and Nearby Flats

Looking for mixed-bag fun in the shallows? Don't look too far.

In summer, wadable shallows within a half-mile or so of southern Florida inlets are the place to wrangle with big snook on light tackle. John Follweiller prepares to release a fish on Sailfish Flats, a little north of St. Lucie inlet in Stuart.

My neighbor and I anchored his skiff on a sandbar in the Indian River Lagoon, on Florida's Atlantic coast. Just around the corner was St. Lucie Inlet, a sizable ocean passage. The tide was flowing through a half-dozen north-south channels in the area, just beginning to trickle onto a matrix of sand and seagrass. John Follweiler and I stepped out to wade, knee deep. The incoming water felt cool and alive. Around us the surface vibrated atop schools of mullet.

I threw a bone-colored topwater plug across current, walking it side-to-side back to the bar with steady snaps of the rodtip. I'd cast, retrieve, then take a few steps downcurrent, working away from John. On about the fifth cast, a bronze, black-striped missile shot out of the channel, my plug firmly in its jaw. The snook charged with the tide, stripping 50 yards of line before the hooks pulled.

“They're here, John,” I shouted.

“I know,” he croaked in reply. His spinning rod was doubled over. John had been casting a tiny crankbait, no more than 4 inches long. Given the size of the trebles on the plug, it was a marvel to me that he landed his fish, but land it he did: a solid 15-pounder.

You can run the backwaters all day long, sniffing up secret hidey-holes. You can buy charts. Make bribes across the tackle shop counter. You'll do whatever it takes to figure out where the flats action is.

Or, you can simply look around the nearest inlet. There's a lot to be said for fishing Florida inlets and nearby flats.

Some of the finest shallow water you can ever hope to fish lies within a few long casts of inlets and passes. And I don't mean the traditional inlet-style fishing, where you soak a bait on bottom and hope for something to happen. What I'm referring to is a light-tackle casting game, one you can pursue at your own pace, away from the traffic jam.

Just what are inlet flats, and why are these areas productive?

For starters, the influence of ocean tides is greatest in proximity to an inlet. That's easy to understand; the inlet is the first point at which tidal flow acts upon inside waters. Moreover, the size and depth of an inlet may create a localized nozzle effect, wherein the constricted current seems to be much greater than in broader, open waters in a bay.

Shoals near the incipient tidal flow benefit from a flush of clean, clear, oxygen-rich water. That makes for optimal seagrass growth, an abundance of forage and active predatory fish. The relationship is particularly noticeable in summer, when confined backwaters may stagnate as water temps rise.

A goodly part of the abundance on inlet flats comes in the form of larval and juvenile fish which have washed in from the ocean. Adults of many species use inlets as transit corridors for moving to spawning areas, or, as the case with snook, homebase for procreation. Inlet flats are where the life cycles of a complex web of marine species intersect.

The particular stretch of shallows John and I fished produced like clockwork for a number of weeks, corresponding to the presence of breeder snook in the closeby inlet. Their actual spawning occurs mostly during the night; before and after these events, the fish evidently get pretty hungry. Instinct keeps them from roaming far from the inlet, but the proximity of a food source on a rich grassflat is too strong to resist.

Interestingly, many anglers choose to avoid inlet flats, either because the areas are covered up with boat traffic, or because they just seem too vulnerable to angling.

One solution is to fish these areas during off-hours. Follweiler and I launched on a weeknight, at 5 p.m., and fished till dark. The same area has also been productive for me in cold weather and sub-gale-force winds, especially when the pompano are in.

Pompano move in and out through inlets.

Pretty much throughout their range, pompano are a top prospect on inlet flats. These platter-shaped gamesters are probably most widely recognized as fish of the surf zone. But they will enter riverine areas, especially in cooler months, and when they do, they frequently hole up on the first major stretch of tidal flat near the inlet.

Drifting and casting 1/4- to 1/2-ounce, chrome-head jigs is a good pattern when the pomps are around. “The fish are constantly on the move,” Follweiler commented. It was a stormy spring day and my neighbor and I were sharing experiences on fishing inlet flats.

I offered that I've enjoyed the best luck on pomps—and many other species—when casting slightly downwind of perpendicular to the axis of the drift. The object is to fish “new” water, without dragging a lure unnaturally straight into the current. Pomps tend to veer off in a cone upcurrent of the boat, fleeing the water you've passed over. They're nervous fish, and often reveal their presence by skipping out of the water like slick, silver frisbees.

The best retrieve? Somewhere between dead slow and a steady wind punctuated with sharp snaps of the rodtip, hopping the jig quickly through the water column. In other words, you have to experiment some to find what's working best, keeping in mind that pomps are foremost bottom feeders.

Follweiler, who has a captain's license and a willingness to chase just about anything with fins, agreed.

“Use the lightest jig you can and still hit bottom,” he said. “Bright colors—yellows, even pinks. And be sure to trim the fibers so the hook is right there. Pompano are notorious short-strikers.”

The foregoing advice applies to many other species, not just pompano. If you were limited to one rod on an inlet flat, you could hardly do better than a light spinning outfit with a small jig—either bucktail, nylon or tipped with a plastic tail. For a second rod, take a plug-casting outfit and a high-floating, splashy topwater plug. My personal preference lately tends toward 12-pound monofilament for the plug gear, and 10- or 15-pound braided line for the spinning: stretch for fish that strike on a tight line, no-stretch for fish that tend to hit when there's slack.

I always like getting my neighbor's perspective—not only because he's a dedicated angler, but because he's versatile. He's also good for conversation in the 4 a.m. darkness, when we're hollering at each other across the street as we load up for fishing.

When John bought his house in Martin County two years ago, at first he'd return to fish “home” waters up the road in Fort Pierce—often the flats along the Intracoastal Waterway, just south of the big inlet there. The two of us began poking around Martin County waters, comparing observations. I also began sneaking up to his old digs around Fort Pierce.

I brought a South Florida perspective that prepared me for crowded waters. For a number of years, I fished urban North Biscayne Bay. Right in the shadow of downtown Miami were some terrific grassflats seldom hit by fishermen. Cruisers and joyriders, yes. But the seatrout never seemed to mind. We'd drift and cast rootbeer shrimp tails on 1/4-ounce jigheads, catching plenty of trout for the frying pan, plus the occasional mangrove snapper and Spanish mackerel. Three to five feet of water seemed best. The best fishing in North Biscayne Bay was (and still is, from recent reports) often on flats close to the two jettied Miami inlets, Government Cut and Haulover. That was particularly the case in spring, when schools of silver mullet stage in the nearby shallows for their offshore migration. Winter shrimp runs also brought a spike in the action. Now and then a tarpon would intercept a lure, underscoring the value of tying on at least a 30-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader, even when fishing whippy spinning tackle. In recent months I've been whittling away at a spool of 40-pound pink fluorocarbon, with no apparent decline in strikes from leader-shy species like snook and trout.

Trout gravitate to oxygen-rich current.

On the subject of seatrout, inlet flats can hold the biggest of the bunch. My neighbor's favorite Fort Pierce flats produce some real whoppers in spring and early summer. Ten years ago in May, as a matter of fact, the 17-pound, 7-ounce all-tackle world record struck a topwater plug on a shoreline not far from that inlet.

Seatrout prefer to spawn in moderate to high salinity waters, and close to tidal currents that sweep the eggs into the seagrass nursery. Runoff from Florida's rainy season seems to push the fish toward inlets. Seatrout are generally thought of as boat shy, but the big breeders are pretty stubborn. They may refuse to bite amid a thunder of outboards, but they'll stay in the area. As mentioned earlier, off-hours—predawn gray, especially—can often produce excellent action. The kind of trout I'm talking about aren't the ones you hunt with a teensy shrimp under a bobber; these are large predators that you might mistake for ocean barracuda, and which may be inclined to strike an ocean-size plug.

They're also joined by some surprises.

“We catch mutton snapper, mangroves, even some grouper in Fort Pierce,” Follweiler noted.

I thought back to the months following last year's hurricane season. Frances and Jeanne toppled trees and wiped out barrier islands all along the Intracoastal Waterway in southeast Florida. I was disappointed to see that a tree marking a pretty good trout flat, real close to the South Causeway in Fort Pierce, had been relocated a few hundred feet away.

On a breezy afternoon, Assistant Editor Terry Gibson and I investigated the forlorn tree, now resting in about 6 feet of water. The outgoing current was strong, but the trolling motor kept us in position, next to and slightly downcurrent of the tree. We cast curly, plastic tails on 3/8-ounce jigheads a little ways upcurrent of the structure, let them hit bottom, then hopped the lures back toward our position. Right quick a gag grouper big enough to swallow a housecat followed my jig to the boat. The fish stole my lure and my pride, returning to its woody lair and breaking my line before I could process what had happened. Terry and I managed to land a couple of nice sheepshead and mangrove snapper from the spot, but we never saw the old grouper again.

Inlet Flat Flatties

Inlets and passes are always prime spots to intercept flounder. Both the gulf and southern varieties undertake fall and winter migrations, moving through inlets to offshore structure, where they spawn. Some also take up station in and around inlets during bait runs. A traditional tactic in many areas is to anchor and fish a live finger mullet or mud minnow on a sliding sinker bottom rig.

But flounders take artificial lures, too, and one of the best places to bump into them with a soft-plastic jig or even topwater lure is a stretch of shallow water, perhaps a creek or jettied backwater, adjacent to an ocean inlet or Gulf pass. Flounder often hold in surprisingly skinny water—after all, they fit in pretty well there. Here they'll rest, waiting for mullet and other baitfish to shimmy out of the depths in an ill-fated attempt to escape deepwater predators.

Pretty much any inlet in coastal Florida may have a flounder population, but some where the shallow-water equation is known to occur include: St. Marys Inlet in Fernandina Beach; Nassau Sound near Jacksonville; Sebastian Inlet near Melbourne; St. Lucie Inlet, near Stuart; St. Andews and Pensacola passes on the Panhandle; and many of the little Gulf passes in Southwest Florida, including Boca Grande.

I've found that a very slow retrieve, ticking bottom with a jig, is a good way to prospect for flounder on inlet flats. Cast and retrieve with or slightly across the current, never straight into it. Flounder are engineered to lock onto prey coming toward their field of vision; they rise up suddenly and snatch at their meal as it comes into range. What's especially interesting about shallow-water flounder—as opposed to those holding on bottom in the actual inlet—is their propensity to make surface boils, even occasional jumps (the height of which seem indirectly proportionate to the depth of water). If you're mystified as to why you don't see a wake, shadow, or any sign of fish after a vicious surface strike, there's a good chance a flounder is hunkered down in the area. FS

First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, July, 2005.

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