Shallow Minded

Tips For Navigating Skinny Water

FSF Staff January 28, 2011

Picture yourself perched atop a casting platform overlooking a lush grass flat as the sun peeks over the horizon. There isn’t a ripple on the water except for redfish tails gently breaking the surface as you quietly close the gap. You cast in the direction of the feeding fish and all of a sudden you feel that telltale thump. The stillness of the day quickly changes to exhilaration as the surface explodes and the fish heads toward the horizon. There’s no other feeling like it on earth and once you’ve experienced it you’ll be hooked forever.

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Even though a channel may be clearly marked, never let your guard down. Photo: Steve Dougherty

While this magical scenario is what shallow water dreams are made of make no mistake; expansive shallows can be as humbling as the open ocean. Regardless of where you ply your craft navigating skinny water requires a great deal of knowledge and experience. Not only is it important to keep your passengers and vessel safe, the fertile habitat that harbors the game fish we seek is extremely fragile and deserves the utmost respect.

While shallow drafting skiffs, jack plates and detailed nautical charts will increase your odds and enable you to target previously inaccessible waters, the truth of the matter is that these advanced tools give novice anglers a false sense of security.

If you’ve recently spent time on the water probing any shallow inshore arena, you’ve no doubt realized the increasing popularity of flats fishing. Whether it’s the serene setting, fuel-efficient vessels or breathtaking backdrops, fishing the flats is more popular than ever. Unfortunately, learning how to navigate water only inches deep isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. Along with difficult territory, severe storms can dramatically alter the bottom topography, establishing new cuts and channels as old passages are filled in.

While experience and on the water observations are important, you’ll need to have a firm grasp of your vessel’s capabilities. However, don’t think for one second that because you purchased a high-performance technical poling skiff you’re not capable of damaging the ecosystem. While shallow drafting skiffs, jack plates and detailed nautical charts will increase your odds and enable you to target previously inaccessible waters, the truth of the matter is that these advanced tools give novice anglers a false sense of security.

If you are unfamiliar with an area you should proceed with extreme caution. You may even want to hire an experienced guide to show you the ropes, although signs of shallow water are consistent no matter where you wet a line. Wading birds and emerging plants like mangrove sprouts will give you a good idea of areas to avoid. Be sure to outfit yourself with a quality pair of polarized sunglasses to help decipher what lies below the surface. Brown water generally indicates the presence of seagrass, while white coloration marks shallow sandbars. Green water is generally a safe depth, but if you’re uncertain proceed with caution. If you’re heading out on your own it will be in your best interest to scout the area at low tide. This will give you the opportunity to spot any cuts, depressions, deep holes, sandbars, oyster beds or other features that may be covered during higher tidal stages.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that roaring up to a flat is one of the worst mistakes you can make. While somewhat obvious, you’d be amazed how many times I’ve seen it happen. Not only will you spook every fish in the vicinity, but you’re also running the risk of damaging essential habitat. Even if you’re simply crossing a flat en route to another location, given the option take the long way around and utilize marked channels. Speaking of channels, they are generally shallowest at their entrances and exits. Keep in mind that not all backcountry channels are marked and those that are marked likely aren’t marked well. If a channel is marked with two stakes, stay between them. If there is only one stake there may be an arrow indicating which side you should be on. If not, stay as close to the marker as possible. When you’ve reached a promising flat you want to cut your motor at least 100-yards out and begin poling or maneuvering with your trolling motor. In addition to practicing sound conservation techniques you should also have some flats etiquette and remain at least ¼-mile from other boats that may already be on your spot.

When it’s time to leave you should always pole or idle to deeper water before getting up on plane. If you’re forced to get up in shallow water there’s a little trick you can do. Move your passengers toward the bow and lower your starboard trim tab. Utilizing a jack plate or your motor’s tilt, position your prop so it remains just below the water’s surface. Simultaneously hit the throttle and turn the wheel hard to the right. Your skiff will make a circle and by increasing power you should spin out and jump up on plane. An easy way to check and see if you’re impacting the environment at anytime is to study your prop wash. If you see a white bubble trail you are in the clear. If you notice brown mud and debris you are disrupting vital habitat.

While care should be taken whenever you hit the flats, there are certain times of the year when you must be extra cautious. In addition to prime opportunities with tailing game fish, the winter months also offer notoriously low tides—particularly those occurring on or near full and new moons. If you’re uncertain or unfamiliar with an area’s underwater features go slow. There’s nothing wrong with idling to and from promising flats. While it will certainly take time to master, with a bit of practice you’ll be able to run the flats like an expert.

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