When most Lower Keys anglers think of what to target in the fall, they often forget about the great opportunities that the Back Country has to offer. Fishing the flats in the fall has many advantages.
First the traffic in the back country is greatly reduced. Once the lobster divers have had their fill, after the opening weeks of season, there is very little traffic around our Northern Keys to push the fish off of the flats. It is rare to approach a flat only to find that another angler has beaten you to it.
Except for the possibilities of tropical weather patterns, the wind tends to be less than ten knots for most of the fall. The down side is that the water tends to warm to the upper tolerance levels of the bone fish. With that in mind you need to get an early start to find them on the skinnier flats. Bone fish can however, be found on the deeper flats and near channel edges as the water is rising. The good news is that the permit, are very tolerant of higher water temperatures.
Most of the species of fish that are targeted in the busy spring are still available in the fall, with the exception of the larger migrating tarpon. If tarpon are on your list you can often find smaller specimens around mangrove undercuts through out the year. To make up for the lack of large tarpon, there are plenty of large sharks on the flats this time of year.
With all of this variety available in the back country, it pays to approach the flats loaded for bear as it were. Bring with you a variety of baits and tackle and what ever you come across, you will have a chance at catching.
The three basic live baits for the back country are shrimp, crabs, and pinfish. There is a lot of overlap as to what fish will eat which baits, but here is a guideline. Bonefish are most often targeted with live shrimp. They will however take a small crab given the right conditions. On occasion they have been known to eat pinfish and other small white bait. Permit, are a little more selective, the primary bait for them is the small crab. They will occasionally be taken on shrimp. If the permit are small, shrimp may even be preferable to crabs. The smaller tarpon, usually found in the fall, will fall to any of these baits provided it is well presented. For the variety of sharks found in the fall, the guidelines are, crustaceans are preferred by the bonnet head and fish are preferred by the lemons and black tips. And finally for barracuda fish are the preferred bait however juvenile cudas are not above attacking a shrimp meant for other prey.
The tackle used by most flats anglers is a light spinning reel, paired with a matching seven foot rod. Eight to twelve pound test is usually preferred for bonefish and bonnet sharks. Twelve to twenty pound line is more suitable for permit, tarpon, cudas, and other sharks. Many anglers are starting to use spectra fiber based lines such as Power-Pro. The primary benefit is better casting because of the smaller diameter for a given pound test line. Other benefits include resistance to knots due to twisted line, and increased sensitivity due to almost non existent line stretch. Leaders usually consist of twenty to thirty pound fluorocarbon, and are attached with either an Albright for monofilament or a Uni to Uni connection for the spectra fiber lines. For the toothy critters, single strand wire of around forty pound test will cover most situations. An Albright will work well with monofilament; however a swivel is helpful in connecting spectra fiber line to a steel leader. With lighter baits, it is helpful to place a light split shot on the leader slid next to the bait to help in casting. Bait holder hooks in number one to one o/t will take most fish on the flats.
It can be difficult to keep several different rods at the ready and of course harder to which to keep in your hand for the quick presentation. You can either go by what you have seen last cross your path on the flat, or by what you would most like to target. The spare rods can either be laid on the deck or placed in rod holders. Be warned; more one shark has helped himself to a pinfish, and the rod it is connected to when left dangling at the side of a boat when an angler was straining to look for elusive fish in another direction. You should remember to keep your bait dangling in the water for more than just keeping it alive. Most flats fish feed to a great extent by their sense of smell. Dangling bait, even a single lowly shrimp can act as chum and help bring fish to you.
Flats’ fishing is a visual sport. The art of seeing well camouflaged fish in there natural habitat requires an edge. The first and most important edge is to wear a pair of high quality polarized sun glasses. They will cut the glair and let you penetrate the surface of the water. The color of the lenses is key to how well you will see. On bright days gray lenses will give you the truest color. On overcast days or in low light situations an amber lens will allow for the highest light penetration, but will filter the blues from the spectrum. The other advantage can be found in elevation. The higher your elevation the further you will be able to see into the water. A poling platform is a must, not just for a place to poll from but also for the visual advantage. For an angler on the bow a casting platform can bridge the gap between what the poler can see and what the caster can see.
Once you see your fish and have chosen the proper bait you need to make your cast. You need to place your bait carefully. If you cast too close to the fish you can spook it. If too far away the fish will never see it. Four to five feet in front of a moving fish is a good compromise. If the fish is not moving bring it into three to four. If you are going to error make it in the form of, too far in front of, and past your fish. A bait cast inside of the path of travel must be retrieved and recast taking precious time. With sharks especially you should make your bait cross the shark’s path to give the shark the scent.
The mentioned fish are just the most common fish found on the flats. There are many others that you can expect to find. Jack Cravelle, Blue runners, Mutton and mangrove snapper are a few of the other game fish that you can expect to find. Occasionally there are unexpected catches on the flats like the Sword fish that was captured in the Upper Keys on the flats, and the King Mackerel caught on the flats in the Lower Keys. By being ready for anything you can maximize your fall flats trip.
Captain John Sahagian