July 26, 2012
Low tide scouting gets you up close and personal.
Bottomed-out tide is ideal for locating small channels and otherwise secretive forage sources.
When the sea pulls away from a flat, anglers often go with it, turning to deepwater patterns until the incoming cycle. However, this is prime time for observation of the topography revealed by low water. The opportunity heightens when the negative low tides that occur around winter's new and full moons combine with stiff north winds, typical after a front, to drain flats to their lowest levels of the year. Here are some tips to low tide fishing and scouting.
If you really want to learn a flat's true character, this is the time to look. Grass blades are limp, damp mats; random depressions glisten with thin puddles; and sea gulls search for stranded shrimp, while sandpipers forage along the water's edge. This is truly a behind-the-scenes look that offers a wealth of perspective.
Now, if this were an easy approach, everyone would do it. You'll probably have to wade to get into the prime areas. That means anchoring or staking out the boat in sufficient depth and sloshing through knee-deep brine, sometimes mud, to reach solid footing. You'll probably want waders in winter; though it may not be all that cold, winter winds and wet skin don't go well together. Hardy types may forgo this layer when keeping to the skinny water, but ankle-high wading shoes are a must because oysters and shells remain sharp whether they're cold or warm. Get the type with the hard, thick sole—dive boots won't help much on the shells.
So much to see, so little time. First lesson is contour. Where are the primary drain points? Often there's one large slough, and a number of smaller ones. The small ones may be prime early in the runoff, and then the last bite of the fall tide will be at the largest drain.
Also ask yourself about other travel lanes within the flats, and those leading to cuts or channels. Fish follow the path of least resistance in their daily coming and going, but they'll also drop into the deep spots for safety when dolphins, ospreys or fishermen threaten.
Moreover, a deep pocket or pool on the edge of a flat gives fish a staging area, a place where they can start munching on peripheral food sources as they eagerly anticipate the tide's upward movement. Like the entrance tunnel from which rock stars burst on stage, such troughs are places of great expectation. Baits cast here usually meet with instant acceptance.
Physical dimensions are also important, as you'll need to know how close you can run when passing the flat, where you can jump on plane, avoiding seagrass damage, and how far you may need to pole to reach the sweet spots. Does this spot comprise one continuous flat, or do cuts and furrows divide it into distinct segments? Such details can help you determine where and how to set up a drift, or where to stake out.
Also look at the type of habitat, and how it may influence your choice of bait and tactics. Thick grass means snagging potential, so you may need to fish weedless soft-plastics or cork rigs. In sparse vegetation with sandy patches, bouncing bucktails or a Doc's Goofy Jig will kick up the little pugs of dirt that fool pompano. Suspending twitchbaits and shallow-running crankbaits also fare better with less or lower grass.
Submerged obstructions are also important to note, for fishing and navigational purposes. Scope out the trouble spots and you're less likely to snag or bump when you return on high water.
Food is a must in any environment. Day after day, the flat's eco-engine cranks out crustaceans, invertebrates and baitfish to feed larger species. Pay attention to the indigenous forage and you'll have a better understanding of what baits and presentations will best match what the fish seek.
Baitfish like scaled sardines, of course, will drop off with the tide, but look closely—maybe even invest some time on your hands and knees—and you'll see what chow remains. Maybe it's tiny snails (redfish candy), diminutive crabs that flatten themselves against the sides of muddy shells, or various minnows that can survive in the extreme shallows.
Also notice worm holes—those little mounds of dirt that look like someone poked a pencil in the middle. They indicate where burrowing invertebrates live. Tube worms (a.k.a. parchment worms) camouflage the emergent tips of their protective casings with bits of shell. Reds, black drum and sheepshead favor these guys.
To judge a flat's overall vitality, look for whelks, scallops and clams reaching from their shells to feed in fertile bottom. It takes these shellfish all day to “walk” 50 feet, so you can rest assured that they won't waste their time on lackluster bottom.
Seeing is believing, but that's only beneficial when you remember what you saw. Use notepads, sketches or digital photography to compile your own personal reference guide. Marking charts with specific findings also works.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, February, 2008.
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