Fish Shallow Water Like A Pro

Expert tips to become a better inshore angler

November 18, 2017
Bull redfish caught in Louisiana's shallows
Don’t leave fishing success up to chance, do your homework to ensure the desired results. Alex Suescun

Eliminating unproductive water, predicting your quarry’s movements, and a stealthy approach and presentation are essential to skinny-water fishing. These golden rules will put you on the fast track to success.

Fat speckled trout caught off Breton Island, Louisiana
Knowing your target’s tendencies helps pinpoint its whereabouts. Alex Suescun

Know Your Target Species

Learn the fish’s preferred water temperature range, as well as its high and low tolerance limits. Study the seasonal movements of the species, along with its preferred habitats (including favored structures and depths) to predict where to concentrate your efforts.

Flats guide points out the most productive area of the flats.
Tides play a primary role in the search for fish in shallow water. Alex Suescun

Understand The Tides

Learn to read the tides, which vary by location, geography, lunar cycle and season. Some places experience one high and one low tide each day. Other places have semidiurnal tides: two highs and two lows, each 6 hours apart. Frequently, one high is higher than the other, and one low is lower than the other. Height of the tides fluctuates with the lunar cycle and time of year. A productive high-tide area in summer may be barren during a high tide in the winter, when the water could be a foot shallower. Time on the water and a tide table or app are indispensable tools in predicting productive fishing. Study the tides where you’ll be fishing to be in the right place at the right time.

SWS Senior Editor Ales Suescun holds up a large Southwest Florida snook.
Take into account wind and weather to determine where to find fish and how to get bites. Alex Suescun

Learn The Effects Of Wind And Weather

Wind, may cool or warm the shallows, and push more water in or out of an area, diminishing or exaggerating the tidal movement. The sun and clouds affect visibility and water temperature. When temperatures dip, shallow flats and bays with a darker bottom warm up quicker, and that temperature differential (even as little as 2 degrees) may be key to attracting bait and predators. Snook avoid water cooler than 70 degrees, yet some of the largest I’ve ever caught were in less than three feet of water, in 40-degree weather. They were warming up on a mud flat.

While cloud cover reduces visibility, it creates a greenhouse effect that helps prevent severe temperature drops. Cloudy conditions as well let fish feel less conspicuous, so they often focus on foraging and are more approachable. Redfish are more likely to tail when it’s cloudy, and seatrout, snook and other inshore game drop their guard and feed more aggressively in the dimmer light.

Guide quietly poles an angler aboard his skiff across a shallow flat.
Be aware of your boat’s draft, range and other limitations when you make your game plan. Alex Suescun

Know Your Boat’s Limitations

Do you know how much water it takes to float your boat with you, your crew and gear on board? Do you know your boat’s range? And, can it handle a chop in open water? If your boat drafts more than 12 inches, there’s no point chasing tailing bonefish or redfish as they move up a flat with the incoming tide. You also would be wise to avoid venturing far from the nearest channel when you’re in two feet of water and the tide is falling fast.


Fuel consumption is one of the features of today’s smart gauges. Check your fuel burn at a reasonable cruising speed, then multiply it by the gallons of fuel in your boat’s tank to estimate your range. If your boat’s bottom is pretty flat, navigating deep, open water in other than smooth conditions will be uncomfortable or even unsafe, so don’t include risky inlet crossings and expanses of open water in your game plan. Chart protected paths to and from intended fishing spots.

Flats guide looks for fish from atop the poling platform.
A slow and quiet approach is essential for stalking fish in skinny water. Alex Suescun

Embrace Stealth

Sound travels over four times faster through water than air, so its imperative to be as quiet as possible to sneak up on fish. Move about the boat gingerly. Avoid dropping things on the deck, or slamming hatches, coolers and tackle boxes, keep your voice down and turn off the stereo. In skinny water, hull slap and the sound of a trolling motor also spook fish. So propel the boat with a push pole, or drift. If you must use a trolling motor, run it at low speed, shut it down before you get within casting range, and coast the rest of the way. Use a Power-­Pole or stakeout pin to hold the boat in place while waiting for fish to come to you.

Flats angler casts a topwater lure to incoming fish.
Shallow-water fishing demands accurate casts and natural presentations. Alex Suescun

Practice Casting

The more you practice casting at a target from different angles and distances, the more likely you are to make an accurate shot when it counts. Practice when it’s windy and when it’s not, using the various lures you’d use on the water. Fine-tune your casts, short and long, to create the least amount of splash. Feathering the spool of the reel just before the lure hits the surface helps accomplish said goal.

Lifelike artificials are superb alternatives to live bait.
Today’s lifelike artificials are excellent alternatives to live bait. Alex Suescun

Don’t Rely On Live Bait

Relying on live bait limits your fishing. A faulty pump or electrical connection could kill the aeration in your livewell and with it your bait supply. Tainted water at a marina may contaminate your well causing the same result. Often liveys are hard to come by. You can blow half your day looking for bait, purchase live shrimp or frozen bait, or simply use artificials, the most versatile alternative, and learn to use them properly.

Anglers aboard a bay boat look for fish near Cape Lookout, North Carolina.
Check the tides and weather forecast before every outing to pick the right spots and timing. Zach Stovall

Plan Your Itinerary

Research before every outing improves your chances. Check the tides, then the weather forecast for hourly rain and thunderstorm chances and changes in wind speed and direction. Use that information to plan where to go and when, taking into account travel time from one spot to the next. And since the weatherman is not always right, and fish don’t always show up when you expect them to, give yourself some options in case you need to go to Plan B or C.

Close up of angler tying on a lure
Don’t lose fish to faulty knots, learn to tie the basics quickly and properly. Megan Williams

Learn Essential Knots

It’s unnecessary to learn a bunch of intricate connections, so long as you know a handful of strong, reliable knots to affix a leader to the main line, and the leader to a hook or lure. Practice until you tie each properly, quickly, and reliably.


A clinch or a uni knot is sufficient to tie on a hook or lure. If it requires additional freedom of movement, use a non-slip loop knot. I connect braid to a mono or fluorocarbon leader with a J knot, a variation on the double-uni that replaces one of the uni knots with a clinch knot. With heavier lines and leaders for tarpon or sharks, try the slim beauty knot, which remains small enough in diameter to go through the rod guides easily during the cast.


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