You can catch fish anywhere in Florida. From the pond in your backyard to the coast of the Atlantic, there are fish everywhere.
One of the most popular places to fish in Florida is the grass flats, which provide the ideal habitat for some of the state’s most sought-after species, including redfish (red drum), trout, snook, black drum (pictured above), flounder, mangrove snapper, and tarpon.
Also known as inshore fishing or skinny water fishing, flats fishing accounts for some of the most abundant, fruitful, and exciting fishing in Florida. But fishing the flats can be overwhelming, and even daunting, for a novice angler.
That’s why it’s important to keep these tips in mind as you learn how to master Florida’s saltwater flats.
When and Where to Fish the Flats
Any Floridian will tell you, the state is often touted the “fishing capital of the United States,” but there’s a time and place to truly take advantage of Florida’s mecca of fishing opportunities.
Flats fishing in Florida is typically best in the winter when fish come inshore to enjoy the warmer water temperatures the grass flats provide. It’s a more pleasurable time for anglers, too, who would otherwise be fishing in 90+ degree Florida summer heat.
The flats are a vast expanse of seemingly similar-looking water, so it’s important to consider your fishing spot and do a bit of research before you go out. Pick up a local fishing map (sold at most bait shops) and study it to learn the area before going out.
Fish Love Changes
When you first get out on the flats, take a minute to evaluate and understand your environment. Look for changes in the environment, such as depth, water color, and vegetation. Fish like to hang out and feed in sand holes, places where the depth drops off, and spots where muddy water runs into clean water and vice versa.
Additionally, fish like areas where there are changes in the shoreline, especially near the mangroves. They gravitate toward any cuts in the shoreline where the current is strong and wait for the changing tides to bring along schools of baitfish.
Currents and Structures
Channels and inlets are usually full of fish and can be easy places to fish when the current is slow. They provide a section of moving water where fish can migrate from one place to another. However, fishing in the channels and inlets can be difficult and dangerous as the tides are changing.
In that case, head over to the closest dock or bridge that looks like it provides good shade cover and shelter for fish. You can usually find fish that are feeding near the structures, waiting for baitfish swimming with the current to come along.
Use your senses and intuition to find great spots to land fish. If you’re not having any luck in any of the previously mentioned areas, it never hurts to sight fish. Look for evidence of fish activity, such as tailing, large boils, and schooling baitfish. Or just follow the diving and wading birds.
There’s no shortage of places to fish in the Florida flats, but it’s easy to see that some spots will yield infinitely more success than others. If you’re struggling with finding a good spot to fish, it never hurts to hire a guide and fast track learning of the area.
Boats for Flats Fishing
Since you’re reading this article, chances are you already have a boat or a fishing vessel. However, if you’re deciding on what to buy to fish the flats, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t need anything fancy.
The most popular types of boats for flats fishing are skinny water skiffs and bay boats, both of which are designed to float in some of the shallowest water. At the end of the day, your ideal boat is the one that performs the way you need it to.
Are you fishing alone or with small children? A small skiff might work for a solo angler, but a family might enjoy a bay boat with ample seating and room for a bimini top.
No matter the boat, it’s important to mount either a trolling motor or bring along a pole for poling, allowing you to navigate the shallowest water. Not only are many areas “troll and poll” zones, but some places that may seem deep are actually deceivingly shallow oyster beds that can damage your hull and engine.
Conditions for Flats Fishing
Flats fishing is like hunting on the water. You have to take your conditions into consideration and use all of your senses to track fish. Always consider the temperature, wind, and time of day for your best chance to catch inshore fish.
Temperature plays a huge role in flats fishing. Since the water is so shallow, it’s particularly susceptible to changes in air temperature. Heavy rain or a few chilly nights can drop the water’s temperature enough to ward off warm-water species, like redfish. On the other hand, a heatwave may send trout toward deeper, cooler water.
Wind speed is an important factor in fishing conditions. Everyone loves a calm, flat day for casting and spotting fish, but it’s easier to spook the fish with noise and movements over still water. A light breeze is not a bad thing – it helps mask your boat’s waves and noise.
However, wind direction is equally important, affecting your ability to cast further accurately, and impacting the direction of tidal flow. It’s also important to pay attention to wind speed and direction so you don’t accidentally cast your jig into the mangroves.
Temperature and Time of Day
The temperature and time of day play an important role in the outcome of your fishing trip. It’s no secret that the bite in the flats is best early in the morning and right at dusk, and this holds even truer on typical hot, sunny Florida days. Still, it’s not unheard of to catch several redfish (while breaking a sweat) in the middle of an August afternoon.
Sight fishing is great on bright, sunny days with lots of overhead light from mid-morning to early evening. It’s easier to see larger fish cruising deeper underwater, following schools of baitfish. You can enjoy better visibility in deeper water and an easier time spotting drop-offs and changes in the environment.
On the other hand, in Florida, you have to be prepared for the regular afternoon rain clouds. When the clouds roll in, fish often head for warmer, shallower water, and you should, too. You can see redfish tailing and large boils where fish are feeding. A great pair of brown-tinted polarized sunglasses is a must when fishing the flats, no matter the weather or time of day.
Gear Up for Flats Fishing
The vast amount of tackle available at you local outdoors store is enough to make any beginner angler’s head spin. Fortunately, you don’t need a fancy or expensive rig to find success in the flats. All you need is a reliable spinning rod and reel combo and a tackle box filled with a variety of your favorite (or most researched) lures.
Rods and Reels
The most popular rod for inshore fishing is a 6 to 7-foot medium action rod with a 2500 to 3000 series spinning reel. Pair your rod with 10 to 15-pound braided line and a few feet of 20 to 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader line.
Baits and Lures
Many saltwater flats fishermen swear by live bait, and with good reason. As a beginner, you might initially have the best luck with live bait, such as shrimp, crabs, or pinfish. As you become more familiar with flats fishing, you’ll want to invest in your own collection of artificial lures.
There is a truly endless supply of options when it comes to saltwater lures. When starting out, stick with gold or silver spoons or soft plastics, both of which can be equally effective. Spoons are a simple, time-tested way to catch fish in Florida. They mimic injured baitfish and are great at attracting redfish and trout.
Soft plastic lures come in so many different styles, sizes, and colors that they warrant their own post. One of the most popular combinations used by saltwater anglers is a lead head jig paired with a grub, especially stinky Gulp baits.
All you need is 1/4 ounce jig head paired with a grub, minnow, or shrimp soft plastic to catch fish in the flats. It’s important to have a nice variety of lures in your tackle box so that you can easily try something different if a certain style or color isn’t working.
Licensing and Regulations
If you’re unsure about any of Florida’s licensing rules and recreational fishing regulations, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) website for a complete breakdown on saltwater fishing in Florida. Most importantly, make sure you’re familiar with the following:
- Licensing and permit requirements
- Types of saltwater species
- Regulations by species
- Handling and releasing fish
Keep in mind, Florida fisheries and grass flats have been hard-hit by recent red tides and increasing agricultural runoff. Help keep Florida’s fish populations healthy by always practicing catch and release whenever possible.
It’s inevitable that you’ll get hooked on Florida flats fishing once you master the basics. Flats fishing is addicting, rewarding, and accessible for even the most novice anglers. Remember that experience is the best way to learn. Keep a fishing journal and log every catch in every spot. Fish are creatures of habit, and in no time, you’ll find yourself maintaining your very own list of secret spots and honey holes.
Do you have any questions or thoughts? Leave a comment below!