How to Find Flats Gamefish

Flats-reading advice from skinny-water guides in Islamorada, Florida Keys.

Reading the water

Reading the water

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."

Current Events
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."

Wise to the Wind

Gone with the Wind may or may not top Benbow's reading list, but it aptly describes his fishing philosophy: gone fishing with the wind. Rippled, moving water rings the aquatic dinner bell while masking fishermen from their quarry. "Don't hesitate to go out on breezy days because wind stirs things up and gets fish feeding," he says. "I do better in the wind than on bright, calm 'chamber of commerce' days. Bonefish in mirror-smooth water get hard to approach. They can see better and may spook when they hear baits splash down nearby."

A wind-ruffled surface can complicate the task of identifying fishy signs such as bulging water and barely protruding tail tips, but the added stealth factor makes an angler's efforts worthwhile. Speaking of effort, have you ever had to pole a boat against the wind?

Wilson tries to pre-select which flats he fishes according to wind direction on a given day. "Nobody can fight the wind for long distances," he says. "Start in an area that lets you pole downwind or at least crosswind. And if you can keep the sun at your back, so much the better."

Working downwind not only helps the person on the poling platform, but it can also enhance angler performance, as Patterson points out: "It's much harder to make long or accurate casts into the wind."

In a flats guide's ideal world, current and wind cooperate by moving in the same direction. When the two fail to align, Wilson observes which carries more clout and plans his route accordingly. "I look for fish to travel into the wind or current, whichever is stronger," he says. "Some flats don't have much current, especially on the crown. In this case, fish usually move into the wind."

Bottom Line
Nobody needs a depth finder to navigate the flats, but dialed-in guides constantly read the bottom with a sharp eye to gather important information. Identifying features such as small humps or channels that affect current flow indicates where to fish, while determining the bottom type can narrow the choice of which baits or artificials to use.

"I prefer hard-bottom areas because I know fish get in there to forage, not loaf. A crusty, coral-and-rock bottom full of pits holds crabs, so bonefish like to root around in that stuff," Benbow says. For this reason, he advises fly-fishermen to use crab patterns when casting on hard-bottom flats.

Patterson, on the other hand, would rather search for bonefish over a soft, grassy bottom because resident shrimp tend to draw bones to such areas. The terrain offers an advantage when it comes to tracking down fish. "A soft bottom makes it easier to read bonefish because of their muds."

Dusty Trails
A dust cover protects a good book while it sits on the shelf between readings; a covering of dust on a flat represents an important yet frequently overlooked sign that anglers should read carefully at every opportunity.

"When I'm poling through an area of clear water and notice the bottom becoming dusty, I say, 'Aha!'" Wilson says. "A dusty bottom sends up a red flag that tells me to lean on the pole so the wind won't push me through an area too quickly." Plants and rocks wearing a thin coat of freshly settled sediment betray actively feeding fish that recently stirred up a mud. "I stop and take a careful look in all directions to try to follow the tail of that comet to a more active mud."

Since bonefish usually make a puff of mud, move ahead a few feet and mud again, Patterson can tell which way one is heading even if he can't see the fish itself. Some conditions, however, force him to speed-read muds written in disappearing ink. "In strong current, every mud you see is fresh because the clouds fade away quickly. You know where he is: where the mud is darkest."

Hungry fish on a feeding mission form muds and can produce a banner day. Benbow says anglers who find a group of mudding bones in 12 to 18 inches of water usually enjoy more success than those who try to sneak up on skittish tailers. Mudding fish usually act less finicky and take baits aggressively as they compete with each other for food.

Shallow-water fishermen should always do their best to locate muds with the understanding that they'll suffer occasional disappointments. "Muds are a good sign, although we sometimes get fooled because mullet create muds the same way bonefish do."

Stay in School
Avid readers never stop learning, and the same applies to anglers who read flats. Hlis warns there are no hard and fast rules that govern fish behavior and no substitute for time on the water to become familiar with the locals' habits. "You can learn to read flats while fishing with a guide or a friend, or by getting out often by yourself. And you won't learn everything on one trip. I feel fortunate to have had mentors like captains Bill Curtis and Marshall Cutchin," he says. Hlis also recommends reading Flyfisher's Guide to the Florida Keys by Capt. Ben Taylor (Wilderness Adventures Press, 2001).

Benbow stresses the importance of becoming a student of the flat. We all learned to read books in school; what better classroom to learn flats signs than flats themselves? "Get out not to fish, but to observe each flat as a living entity," he says. "I like to walk a new flat before fishing it, looking for food sources like crabs or shrimp. I then try to duplicate those colors with my flies, bait or lures."

Life as an eternal student gives Benbow the chance to teach his 15-year-old son, Donnie, how fish react to different tides, temperatures and wind conditions. "We often sit out there and just observe, or he and his friends wade to get a close look at the life on a flat," he says.

Taking notes has become part of Benbow's routine. He records details from every trip, good or bad, and puts the knowledge to use the next time he fishes. Studying on and off the water helps him understand the signs he reads on the flats.