Inconceivable just a few years ago, backcountry anglers accustomed to plying their craft in shallow water only a foot or two deep, are taking a long hard look in areas only ankle high.
I could feel the grass brushing the bottom of Pinocchio as we slowly glided down the shoreline. I couldn’t help but notice the countless worm holes on the bottom of the bay. My mind absorbed with the realization that there were a myriad of microcosms in the water that I enjoy fishing so much.
The popularity of shallow water angling has exploded in the last ten years. Anglers have discovered that fishing in knee high water is extremely challenging as well as quite rewarding. It wasn’t long ago when there were only a handful of manufacturers producing shallow water skiffs. Now the options are so vast, you can barely keep up with them. Technology hasn’t stopped at boats either. There is a plethora of gear, tackle, and peripherals on the market to help anglers enjoy greater success in the shallows.
So what is skinny water? Some say it is three feet or less. Most conventional flats skiffs are able to float in only twelve inches of water and manufacturers place great importance on what they claim their product will float in. We could burn the midnight oil on the subject though it’s my opinion that truly skinny water is not three feet, twelve inches or even eight inches. The real deal is only six inches or less. You may ask yourself, “What is the big deal over a couple of inches?” Well for one thing, a couple of inches can put you in a productive bay or cove hours before the competition, and fish are easier to see in truly thin water, especially if the water is stained.
There are several types of vessels designed to run over grassy flats only inches deep with skiffs, canoes, Gheenoes, and kayaks all deserving recognition. Just remember that stability is a factor so a flat wide bottom is an important consideration. Canoes and kayaks in the 14- to 18ft. range are affordable and meet the bill perfectly. They also paddle and track a bit more efficiently than shorter models. I personally have a top of the line kayak for my household. I feel that it allows more freedom of movement when fly fishing. There are plenty of accessories available for canoes and kayaks too. Rod holders, coolers, live wells, electronics and waterproof systems for all your gear are just a few of the available add-ons.
In the last ten years many manufacturers have gone back to the drawing boards and redesigned skiffs. Reintroducing models capable of floating fully loaded in only inches of water. Professional guides refer to these extremely shallow drafted boats as “pole-boats”. They’re extremely light and more practical to pole around than most conventional flats boats. It’s no wonder that nowadays many enterprising guides have at least two vessels that they work out of on a regular basis.
Along with my kayak and ActionCraft 1890 Flatsmaster, which is a state-of-the-art skiff drafting only eight to ten inches, I own a one-of-a-kind pole-boat that smoothly glides in only half that depth. Close to 10 years ago Captain Stacy Mullendore and I found this old Slo-Poke. It was made from a mold derived from the original 15’ Willy Roberts. Renowned boat builder Fred Archibald manufactured only ten of these models out of contemporary materials. This boat floats fully loaded with three people in only four inches of water. Granted, the hull design is older technology, but the many fish this classic has afforded us haven’t noticed the difference.
Top boat builders such as Maverick, Hell’s Bay, Dolphin, Scandy White, and Ranger, just to mention a few, have come up with their own versions of skiffs that allow entry into the shallowest bays and onto the shallowest flats. There are models out there that range from a few thousand dollars to well over forty grand! Some are constructed of Kevlar and some feature tunnel hulls. There have been many squabbles at the boat ramp over which is best though all seem to have pros & cons. Considerations that you will have to make will be determined by what conditions you fish in and what your budget can afford. Just remember that the fish hovering with their fins flipping in the breeze won’t really care how you got there.
My clients often ask me just how shallow fish will go. I have seen hundred pound tarpon lay in not much more than a foot of water. I have seen snook and redfish patrolling a flat with their backs completely exposed. Bonefish commonly push across a flat in mere inches. In one particular tournament my team tied for largest snook on fly after my brother hooked a twelve pound beauty that was trapped in a slew only a few inches deep. We were in my small boat, Pinocchio. We noticed the fish swimming back and forth from a hundred yards out. The sun kept glistening off of the snook’s back like a signal mirror. Initially we thought the fish was sick. I knew better. The snook couldn’t go anywhere, she was trapped. The stretch to where she was held up was so shallow that Drew had to get out of the boat and actually push it while I poled. Mind you, this boat will float in only four inches. After huffing and puffing, Drew climbed back on deck and I grunted the boat another fifty feet. Drew let out a beautiful cast. The fly landed right in front of the snook’s nose. None of us really expected the fish to eat the thing, but as soon as it landed the distraught fish did a back flip and inhaled it. The rest is history.
Knowledge of the shallowest areas you’ll be fishing and knowing what occurs throughout the entire tidal phases is paramount to your success. For the purposes of this article, I’m referring to water that is not more than a foot deep. Winter tides are a great example to learn from. Many people ask me why the tides are so much lower in the winter and there is much debate, but the answer is pure science. Without getting too technical, the Earth orbits about three million miles closer to the Sun during the winter season. This phenomenon is called perihelion. Combining the moon in its full or new phase with the increased gravitational force leaves you with stronger tides. We have many negative tides during the winter and early spring. That means that the water level will be lower than average mean low tide and this is a prime opportunity to study the far reaches that you intend on fishing. Couple that with a stalled front with winds that blow with an outgoing negative tide, and it’s possible to investigate real estate that you won’t see exposed for another full year.
I am not very fond of negative tides because my favorite skinny water bays and coves are completely revealed. That means that fish must vacate the area and it takes them what seems like forever to return to these same haunts. On the flats in the Keys, it is not as big of a deal. The fish just drop off into adjacent ditches and return when the water level is more suitable. Use winter tides to learn the contour of the land. You will often discover why fish prefer to stage in specific areas in certain bays, coves, and along particular shorelines. All this homework will pay off in big dividends for the rest of the year.
Most boats that are capable of floating in the skinniest of water are also capable of running over it. In water only inches deep though, it’s a good idea to shut your boat down well before you approach the flat that you want to fish. Sound travels five times faster in water so quietly pole your way into the area. This way you’ll spook less fish and spare the flat from any unnecessary prop scaring. Poling onto the flat lets all the commotion from your boat settle down and lets your eyes and senses acclimate to the surroundings.
If you’re new to the game locating masters of deception on the flats is not always an easy task. You have to learn to look for signs, not just for fish. Aside from an angler’s ability to cast, being able to spot fish is one of the biggest hurdles clients have to overcome on my boat. If you fish a lot, invest in top quality polarized sunglasses. I feel that good glasses are your most important investment. People get on my skiff with thousand dollar fly rods and reels and then they slip a pair of cheap fitovers on their face. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s simple. Quality polarized sunglasses will help you catch more fish.
Before you start scouring a flat, review the language that you and your guide will be using. For example, you will hear many captains talk about how the bow of the boat is always at twelve o’clock, an easy reference for pointing out tails. Learn how to read the water and how to look for signs. I watch for the obvious by scanning from twenty feet near the boat and drawing my eyes slowly toward the horizon while constantly scanning from right to left.
In really skinny water there’s no doubt that you will see the bottom. Practice sighting fish by picking out objects like clumps of grass, small oyster beds, and even less desirable species of fish. If you can stare down obscure objects, you should be able to stare down your opponent. Too many people get on the boat and flock-shoot with their eyes. They are scanning the surface but they don’t look through the water. Look for idiosyncrasies of movement. Bonefish, redfish, and even snook will flap their tails out of the water. This sign is a dead give away, though it’s the more subtle indications that will help you connect more. A small ripple on a surface that is otherwise glassed over is often overlooked by the inexperienced eye. I have seen what looked like a tiny rain drop turn out to be the very tip of a big redfish’s tail.
When you are working shorelines, small coves or bays, throwing your fly towards the bank is basically a rule of thumb. But if you’re in really skinny water you will exclusively be sight fishing and fish can be way off the bank. Scrutinize everything and don’t be afraid to confer with your guide or partner.
Because fish have heightened senses in shallow water selecting smaller, lighter flies is not a bad idea. Fly selection also depends on your targeted species. For snook and redfish, I like to use baitfish patterns when the water is warm. With cooler water, I’ll throw small brown flies that resemble crustaceans. If the water is very thin and there’s an abundance of grass, I will use top water flies like a Dahlberg or Gurgler. Learn how to lead fish properly with your offering and remember if you can see them, they can see you.
Learning how to speed cast will also help your presentation immensely. A speed cast is performed by having the fly in your off rod hand. Part of the taper of your fly line is already out of the rod as you begin the speed with a roll cast. It really isn’t as confusing as it sounds and there are many sources out there that will help you learn how to execute this cast perfectly. The speed cast is a great benefit as too many false casts will surely give away your presence.
An anglers can easily get addicted to skinny water fishing. It’s another facet to the jewel of inshore angling which requires a certain degree of skill and patience. I have seen many men and women commit to expensive boats and equipment built for the sole purpose of extreme shallow water angling. Most of these same anglers fall deeply in love with the sport and dedicate many years solely to the ultra shallow pursuit.
Find out if skinny water angling is for you by fishing with an experienced friend or professional guide. Fortunately for me my wife likes to fish and she understands the need for more than one boat. I am just wondering how I can convince her we need another. You know now that I think about it, airboats go really thin too. I can weld a poling platform and a couple rod holders on the prop cage.
I’ll see you on the water.
“In the last ten years many manufacturers have gone back to the drawing boards and redesigned skiffs. Reintroducing exciting models capable of floating fully loaded in only inches of water.”
A few examples of technologically advanced skinny water skiffs drafting only inches.
Dolphin 16' Renegade Pro
Ranger 168 PHANTOM
Famous Craft 1600SL
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