Updated on July 29, 2022
Flats are found in coastal inshore waters around the world and give anglers diverse fishing opportunities. These rich environments have shallow water which makes them sensitive to tides but can make finding fish a little bit easier. Here is everything you need to know about what flats are and how to fish them.
Flats are areas in shallow coastal water with a flat bottom that tend to have clear water and scattered vegetation. Flats can drain entirely during low tide, leaving them exposed to the elements. The shallow water on the flats is easily heated by the sun and can’t hold as much oxygen as cooler deep water. This means the organisms that live there must be able to tolerate the extreme environment, while most of the predatory fish species only visit the flats to feed before retreating to deeper water.
The different variations of flats are defined by the type of bottom they have. The seabed of the flats usually consists of sand, mud, gravel, or rock bottom. The most prominent type of flats in the fishing community are sand flats, with the Florida Keys being one of the most popular places. Mudflats are abundant throughout the Gulf and are excellent fishing spots for redfish and speckled sea trout in the fall and spring.
The geography of each area of flats is different and constantly changing, which means the fish change with it. Even as they change, the four features that appear on all flats are vegetation, bars, channels, and shoreline.
Vegetation usually comes in the form of grass, helping to sustain many of the smaller organisms that live on the flats. Bars or “sandbars” are high spots created by deposits of sediment from wind or waves. These bars create small currents as water flows around them and are a favorite of predatory fish that ambush their prey. Channels are long cuts in the bottom of the flats creating deeper areas that allow water to move. The channels allow fish to swim freely, while also offering more cover and food resources. The shoreline is where water meets land, moving as the tides change.
Each type of flat has a unique ecosystem that supports a variety of fish species—many of which are popular game fish. These gamefish generally do not live on the flats, but instead, come here to feed. The large fish are especially skittish and wary when hunting on the flats because they are more vulnerable in the clear, shallow water. Over time, anglers pursuing these fish have developed fishing styles that are better suited for chasing wary fish on the flats.
Wade fishing is a style of fishing where anglers stand in the water, stalk fish, and must be self-sufficient. While wading may seem like an inefficient way to hit the water, it’s a great way to target fish that you otherwise couldn’t reach. Anglers stalk through the shallow water to make targeted casts that hopefully result in a bite. Wade fishing also forces anglers to be self-sufficient and carry all the gear they need to avoid a long trip back to shore or the boat.
Skiffs are long flat boats designed to float in very shallow water, allowing them to navigate in areas other boats can’t reach. The skittish nature of fish on the flats makes stealth crucial to success, which is why polling continues to be used. Poling is when a guide or angler uses a long pole to propel and steer the boat instead of the engine. This technique minimizes the noise and disturbance of the boat and allows anglers to get closer to the fish without being detected.
Flats fishing tackle varies but spinning and fly fishing gear is the most popular. The rod and reel required to catch fish on the flats will depend on the target species which range from only a few pounds for bonefish to 100 pounds for tarpon. Medium strength tackle is a good compromise for most anglers because allows anglers to catch small and large species. The most common food sources on the flats are shrimp, crabs, and baitfish, making any bait that imitates one of these worth a shot. Live bait can also be effective, but make sure to hide the hook well because flats fish like permit have exceptional eyesight.
If you’re looking to go flats fishing, you can book a trip with one of our Damn Good Guides here.