Flats Fishing: A Complete Beginner's Guide
Jun 12, 2020 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Flats fishing is one of the world’s most popular styles of angling. From distant atolls to far-flung beaches, anglers travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on earth in search of skinny water. It’s not just a pro’s game, though. Even beginners can have a blast in these shallow seas – as long as you know what you’re doing.

A man poling across shallow water on a flats fishing boat, with mangroves and another boat in the distance

What makes the perfect flats fishing spot? How should you fish it? And what should you bring with you? Heck, what exactly are flats, anyway? Discover all this and more in this complete beginner’s guide to shallow-water fishing. 

What are Flats?

Gin-clear water sitting inches thick on top of soft, white sands. A warm tropical breeze blowing across your face as exotic game fish dart through the open expanse around you. This is what many people think of when they imagine flats fishing, and they’re right – sort of.

An aerial view of shallow flats and a thin island in the Bahamas

Flats are any area of shallow water with a relatively even bottom. You can find flats in freshwater, although “flats fishing” normally refers to saltwater. The iconic white sands do exist (just look at the Bahamas or the Keys). However, mud, gravel, or hard-bottom flats are just as productive.

Why do people travel so far just to fish the shallows? Surely, there are much more impressive monsters offshore? There sure are, but the thing that makes the flats special is the way fish behave here. They’re much more spooky and skittish. They’re exposed, and they know it. This makes targeting them much tougher – and way more fun!

Understanding the Flats

Parts of a Flat

The main building blocks of a great shallow-water fishery are grass beds, bars, channels, and vegetation, as well as the open flats themselves. These will be different depending on where you’re fishing, and not every spot has them. However, if you find them all, you know you’re in the right place.

An annotated picture of shallow water in the Maldives, showing the main areas of the fishery: grass, bars, channels, and vegetation

Grass beds are areas of long seagrass that either poke out of the water or are completely submerged beneath it. They provide shelter and food for bait fish. To predators, they’re a dream ambush ground, especially around deeper “potholes” where no grass grows.

At the edge of the grass, you may also find bars – colonies of oysters or other crustaceans that provide hard structure for fish to hide around. Even without the shellfish, a humble mud hump can disrupt the current and gather bait.

Channels are exactly what they sound like: deeper sections of water where the current has carved a path. The current often traps nutrients, drawing forage fish and, in turn, game fish. Essentially, channels double up as an escape route and a feeding trough.

Clear, shallow water with mangroves in the distance

Lastly, the water may be broken up by patches of vegetation, such as mangroves or marshy banks. Again, these spots provide nutrients and shelter, drawing in the whole food chain. Any corner or “point” will also break the current and stop the wind.

Now, the sight casting purists among you may be thinking that none of this sounds like flats. They may ignore all of this structure and stick to the open plains on their hunt for trophies. Their mistake. Fish move between all of these areas depending on the conditions, so why shouldn’t you?

Ideal Conditions for Flats Fishing

There are a thousand things to think about if you’re serious about skinny water. Everything from the relative air temperature to barometric pressure can help or hinder your chances of success. For now, let’s focus on the core fundamentals: tide, wind, light, and water clarity

A couple holding a Bonefish on a sunny day, with water and vegetation behind them

Tide is the biggest factor when flats fishing. Whole areas may emerge when the water’s low, or become too deep when it’s high. The fish know this. They’ll head to deeper channels on an outgoing tide, emerging as the incoming current stirs up forage and nutrients. This varies species by species and spot by spot, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

Wind can be a good or a bad thing. A light breeze will cover your movements and mask your noise – try getting close to a Permit on a completely still day, we dare you! However, strong winds will make your boat drift, while sudden gusts can ruin precision casts and presentations.

Light is important because, well, it lets you see. On a bright day, you can spot fish much further down – great for targeting big fish like Tarpon in deeper water. Low-light conditions are better for stalking smaller species like Bonefish and Redfish as they tail along the surface.

And of course, if the water clarity is low, you won’t be able to spot much at all!

What does this mean for you? For example, on a cloudy, windy day, head to a shallow, sheltered spot to search for smaller species like Snook (say that 10 times faster!). Clear skies and a soft breeze? Take on big fish in deeper reaches or drift gently over the skinny. And of course, time it with the tides, depending on where you’re fishing.

How to Fish the Flats

Finding the Perfect Fishing Spot

Preparation starts before you even leave your home. Jump on Google Earth and explore the area you want to fish. Build up a few spots with the features we covered above: seagrass, bars, vegetation, and access to deeper water. You can find a great video on this here.

A tailing Redfish poking out of the water among seagrasses

If you have time, scout the area physically at low and high tide to see how the habitat changes. Otherwise, grab your rod and get out there! Look for birds, Sharks, and Rays, as they’re great indicators of bait fish. You can even break out a drone if you want to get high-tech.

Flats Fishing Techniques

The most challenging way to work the flats is sight fishing. This high-precision technique uses many of the methods that freshwater fly fishers developed for Salmon and Trout. That’s no coincidence. Saltwater fly fishing first got big on the flats, and sight fishing largely grew from that.

An angler fighting a Tarpon which is jumping out of the water. He is standing on a sighting platform on the front a boat

Sight fishing is as much hunting as angling. You choose a specific fish, planning your approach and placing your cast just right to attract its attention. You need to know the species and how it behaves. One clumsy cast and it’s gone. Play things safe, and it may ignore your bait completely. No technique has bigger highs and lows – that’s what makes it so special.

Sound a little intense? Don’t worry, it’s not your only option. Drift fishing is a great way to cover more ground and really get your teeth into a fishery. It’s also ideal for murky waters where sighting fish isn’t an option. Don’t let the name fool you, though. This is nothing like drifting over a reef!

You move slowly through the shallows, casting into ambush points like potholes and channel mouths. Careful presentation is still key, and blind casting comes with an increased risk of spooking fish. It’s essential that your approach is stealthy. In fact, planning the speed and path of your drift is an art form in its own right.

Flats Fishing Equipment

A woman fishing on a standup paddleboard in shallow tropical water

To fish the flats, you first need to reach them. You can fish on foot, but most anglers jump on a flats fishing boat instead, as you can carry more equipment and keep a low profile on your approach. Guided flats boats come with the added bonus of a local expert. Going solo? Kayaks and paddleboards can be just as effective, and are easy to rent in most fishing towns.

In terms of tackle, your main options are spinning gear and fly rods. The great all-rounder for spinning tackle is a 7’ rod with 15 lb braid. Bulk up for big Tarpon and Trevally, or drop down for smaller Reds and Bonefish. However, if you can only bring one setup, this is an ideal middle ground.

If you’re fly fishing, an 8wt will do just fine for Bonefish, but you’ll need an 11wt or even higher if you want to try for monster Tarpon or Giant Trevally. Whatever you go for, make sure you’re using a high-quality saltwater fly reel with a good drag.

A saltwater fly fishing rod with a selection of flies resting on a mangrove

We want to make one thing clear: using live bait isn’t cheating. It will draw in fish better than anything else, as long as you match the normal forage in the area.

Want to make things more interesting? Try throwing lures instead. Spoons, soft plastics, and topwater plugs are all effective, depending on the conditions on the day. Your best bet is to bring a variety of lures with you.

Lastly, it goes without saying that flies are an option. People have written entire books on which flies work where for what, but the golden rule is to match your colors and patterns to whatever the fish are eating.

Top Tips and Common Mistakes

Two anglers fishing in shallow grass flats. One is poling the boat from behind while the other casts from a platform at the front
  • Don’t get tunnel vision. Sight fishing is all about stalking and landing that one fish, but don’t forget all the others. All your work will be for nothing if you drop a plug on something that you hadn’t noticed and spook the whole school.
  • Be adaptable. Conditions change easily on the flats, so having a plan B is essential.  Bring a variety of lures or flies, and build up several spots you can explore in case the first one’s dead – or even worse, already taken!
  • Keep notes. If you’re planning on fishing an area again, make a note of everything. This will build into your fishing bible for the area. Even if this is your only time in town, it’s a great way to look back and see your progress as an angler.
  • Hire a guide. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, flats fishing charters are really worth it if you don’t know the area. It may seem like an unnecessary expense, but you can learn more in four hours with a guide than you would in four days on your own.

Enough Talk, Time to Fish!

A family posing with a Snook they caught on a flats fishing trip in the Florida Keys

The flats are a deceptively complicated place to fish. At first glance, it seems simple: rock up to the shallows, choose a fish or a likely spot, and away you go. That’s not the case. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that these are the most challenging fisheries out there – and that’s the point.

The complicated habitat and extreme skittishness of the creatures that live here is exactly what makes flats fishing fun. You earn every hookup and celebrate each catch like it’s a world record. Nothing beats it. Hopefully, we’ve explained a thing or two about these shallow waters. Now it’s time to put it all to work!

What are your top flats fishing tips? Did you agree with ours? Drop us your stories and questions in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

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