These guys make it look so easy. The veteran flats guide meets his clients at the dock, heads for the backcountry and seems to just cruise along until he sees a spot that suits his fancy. He cuts the engine and climbs onto the poling platform as the anglers take up position on the bow. Scanning the area intently, the guide pushes the skiff through the shallows for 10 minutes or so.
"Nothing doing here," he tells the anglers as he comes down and secures the push pole. "Let's check out a different place."
After a short run, the skiff drops off plane, and the guide starts poling across another flat. Within minutes, he warns the angler at the bow to prepare to cast to the day's first bonefish. A guide's canny ability to read flats and interpret their many subtle signs often amazes anglers, but pros don't rely on a storehouse of closely guarded secrets to find fish.
Just as your familiarity with the alphabet and knowledge of the English language determine how well you read and understand this article, guides adept at deciphering skinny-water codes possess an understanding of factors such as wind, tide and fish behavior. A healthy dose of on-the-water experience helps them read the signs that lead to fish.
Mind the Tide
Ever wonder why your guide may pick a particular time to leave the dock? A crack-of-dawn start doesn't always prove productive for flats fishing. When it comes to reading flats, savvy anglers start flipping a few pages long before they step into the skiff: They consult a tide table.
As tides cycle through highs and lows, bonefish, permit, tarpon and many other species take advantage of varying depths to access and feed at different parts of a flat. "Pay attention to the tide," says Capt. Ted Wilson, who fishes out of Bud N' Mary's Sportfishing Marina in Islamorada, Florida. "Is it rising or falling? Tide stages not only affect fish behavior, they may also determine whether you can reach certain areas without risk of getting stranded on dead low tide."
As a general rule, fish move onto a flat as it floods, stay as long as depths remain agreeable and then retreat with the receding water. They work their way toward the crown of a flat - its shallowest spot - as the tide rolls in.
"Instinct tells fish they can get in trouble in very shallow water," Wilson says. "They feel more secure moving to a flat's farthest reaches on a rising tide because they know their backs will be covered."
Tidal highs and lows further influence fish behavior by causing fluctuations in water temperature along with depth. Since fish gravitate toward a flat's fringes as water levels drop, Wilson usually patrols the deeper perimeter, not the crown, on a falling tide. The tactic proves especially effective in winter because the sun warms shallow water on the flat. "The warmer water spills off the edge and mixes with deeper water adjacent to the flat," he says. "Fish respond to that warming effect on a cool day."
The opposite often holds true in summer. "Fish have comfort zones and don't like extremes," Wilson explains. "The water can get too hot on a summer day's falling tide. Fish may prefer the cooler water of a rising tide to shallow water that's been cooking up there on a flat."
Experienced flats guides don't always peruse the morning paper to keep informed of current events: They know how to read the water to evaluate current force and direction. Shifting tides shuttle water back and forth to keep things stirred up and in the fisherman's favor. "Current is key to doing well on the flats," says Capt. Mark Hlis, also of Bud N' Mary's Marina. "To catch fish, you gotta have current."
Capt. Ted Benbow says water movement triggers the food chain. "First microorganisms come out, then crustaceans and baitfish, followed by larger fish in search of a meal."
When searching for signs, Benbow keeps an eye out for runoffs - ditches carved by water flowing onto and off a flat. "The moving water makes runoffs look a little lighter in color, a little muddier than the surrounding area," he says. "Fish use these fingers as travel routes, so it's not a bad idea to set up near one."
Hlis suggests that anglers arriving at an unfamiliar flat cut the engine and monitor the boat's drift for a few minutes to gauge current strength and direction. Or stake out and see which way the boat swings. Guides prefer to work with the current for two important reasons. First, it's much less strenuous than trying to pole a skiff against the flow. Second, fish tend to face into the current, making it easier to position the boat to intercept approaching fish rather than trying to chase them down from behind. "Bonefish and permit typically feed into the current," he says. "Tarpon may not always swim up-current, especially when they're just migrating across a flat."
Wilson explains that bonefish typically feed into the current, sending jets of water into the sediment to flush out crustaceans. "That's what makes those telltale puffs of mud," he says. "The fish face the current to stay in clear water as they move along."
Don't forget tide levels when reading currents because depth exerts an important influence on the way water travels across a flat. "At higher tide stages, water flows right over high spots on a flat. As the tide drops, current flows around them," says Islamorada's Capt. Mike Patterson.
Identifying features that shape the flow of water on a seemingly structureless flat allows Patterson to locate likely ambush points to target bonefish and permit.
Pay attention to the paths approaching fish take as they work their way up-current. On some flats, the fish show no particular pattern; on others, they swim as if following highways. "The way current hits certain flats may flush food and carry it along well-defined paths," Hlis says. "You can see fish continually following the same lines."