I don’t care where in Florida you get your fix. Some aspects related to shallow water fishing are universal, and effectively reading the water is one such skillset that cannot be overlooked or undervalued. It is a prowess that expert inshore anglers have mastered, and it’s a strength those at the top of their game continue to refine with every minute spent on the water. But what are these eagle eyed fishermen looking for, where are they looking and why?
Tidal stage is critical. Everyone knows that water movement is key and stagnant water is often worthless. Whether incoming, outgoing or slack, you need to know what the tide is doing and when. This is the very first thing any backcountry angler needs to establish because it is probably the most influential factor in any inshore venue, and it’s a consideration that can be determined long before you leave the dock. Truth is, tidal stage is the only predictable component in the entire reading-the-water equation and one that doesn’t require you to actually be on the water to know what’s happening. Keep in mind that wind speed and direction, moon phase and spring/neap tides can all influence published water levels in a big way, so nothing substitutes seeing things with your own eyes.
Still, if you are not certain of current tidal stage because today is your first day on that glistening new skiff, paying close attention to both the vertical and horizontal movement of water while out in the field will help you identify current tidal conditions.
An incoming tide with nutrient-rich water flooding the flats generally means forage species and the various shallow water predators that rely on them for survival will be working farther up onto the shallows, often times heading deep into a mangrove forest, way up under a long dock, or right onto the crest of expansive flats. All transition for the same reason…to feed on shrimp and crabs in areas that may have been recently inaccessible.
An ebbing tide with water draining off the flats generally means the same fish will be working their way out of the shallows and eventually congregate in adjacent pockets, nearby channel edges and in the vicinity of distinct potholes. Falling water also means it’s time for you to start formulating an exit plan before you’re left high and dry—a rather unpleasant experience we’ve all fallen victim to.
From coast to coast, the rise and fall of water is everything and it’s the heartbeat that keeps inshore venues alive and healthy.
Professional inshore fishing guides paid to keep clients connected scan the surface from the moment they launch. Regardless of where the ultimate destination might be, observant fishermen always look for the presence of baitfish while simultaneously inspecting water clarity. They also survey their surroundings both near and far for pelicans and wading birds actively working the area. Some anglers are so in tune with a particular body of water they can predict which particular baitfish species is present by the type of bird working the area. This point was recently driven home in the Indian River Lagoon.
Fishing with a local guide, we bounced from one spoil island to the next with little to show for our efforts. He was persistent that we move on until we find a particularly tiny white bird, which we eventually did. While I don’t recall the species, the diminutive flying fishermen pick tiny silversides off the surface, which is the very same forage the resident trout population thrives on. For the remainder of the tide we could do no wrong, thanks in part to our feathered friends and an observant guide.
Peering through the surface glare and identifying bottom composition reveals crucial data that greatly benefits anglers hunting sensational skinny water action. Distinct ledges along well formed grass beds…channel edges…creek mouths spilling into larger tributaries…all are staging points that cannot be ignored. And regardless of how many times you’ve heard it, quality polarized sunglasses and a long brimmed hat are vital tools equally as important as the rod and reel in your hand.
Google Maps and chartplotters are also vital tools for successful inshore fishermen and provide an overview of the entire region. Well in advance of any trip you can identify points of interest that can be further investigated in real world scenarios. Modern chartplotters provide users with a plethora of options and information including satellite photo overlay, raster, vector and fishing chart options with 2D, 3D and even 4D views with pan/tilt features. However, even with modern technology, becoming a successful inshore angler requires much more than high-tech equipment. The fundamentals still reign supreme and knowing how to adapt to constantly changing environments is an asset no device can replace.
Perhaps the most exciting indication on any inshore venue is the presence of the game fish you’re in search of. This may include visual confirmation of bonefish or permit cruising a flat, snook laid up in the shadow of a mangrove shoreline, or a school of oblivious redfish with their noses buried in a lush grass bed.
Signs of life aren’t always obvious and you may only see a distant pop, odd wake or sliver of a fin slicing through an otherwise serene surface. The point is that you have to carefully study your surroundings for signs of life both big and small.
It’s true that observing your surroundings at all times and having a clear understanding of what’s taking place above and below the surface around you, and adjusting your tactics and techniques accordingly, are key factors that undeniably separate sweet success from frustrating failure.