On the Flats

Peter Morse offers some tips for newcomers to flats fishing

Think of the flats as being like a book that at first glance is written in an unfamiliar language. With persistence and practice we can learn to read the flats and the fish that inhabit them, but it takes time, focus, and an open, inquiring, and even suspicious mind. The flats are a place where knowledge, gained through observation and experience, can be accumulated and recycled. DEPTH The first thing to really understand about flats is spelt out very clearly by the great Florida guide Steve Huff in Jonathan Olch’s two-volume tome, A Passion for Permit — ‘There’s nothing flat about a flat.’ These seemingly uniform expanses of shallow, open water in fact hide a complexity of subtle changes in depth, which you can best appreciate by walking and wading rather than drifting as a passenger in a boat. By wading a flat you can feel the bottom, and you learn to read the colour changes that indicate changes in depth. You’ll soon be able to identify those all important and often subtle edges between the shallow and slightly deeper water. The contours can be very subtle, but it’s important to be able to recognise the deeper gutters, channels and hollows where the fish feel more secure, where the tide funnels and concentrates them, and where they may gather to feed. This is chapter one in the book of flats. Combined with reading the tidal current flow, these depth variables allow us to predict fish movement. Travelling fish will move onto a flat with the tide to feed. As a general rule, on a flooding tide they’ll come out of deeper water via gutters. On a falling tide they’re usually moving back to deeper water, often via those same contours – but not always. Look for these entry and exit points. Recognise places where fish will hold up, even if briefly. Some years ago, on the edge of a Cape York rivermouth sandbar (where dolphins feed on the permit), we found a deeper, almost circular indent about 10 metres across, shaped like an omega symbol. As the permit made their way along the edge of the sandbar on the incoming tide, they diverted into the indent and stopped and milled around for a time. This made them very vulnerable to us, and we pulled eight from there over a couple of days. SUBSTRATE Linking the nature of the substrate to fish activity is another key to finding feeding fish. When poling the flats I learned to read the substrate by the sound and feel through the graphite pole. By joining the dots I was able to predict what the substrate might be, and how this related to the fish we were looking for. Fine, hard packed sand has a very different look, feel and sound to coarse loose sand, and that’s different again to marl (coarse crushed coral) or mud. Rock is usually darker, and invariably stands out from its sandy surrounds. In a sea of sand, rock is king because rock holds food — it’s a stable environment. When exploring some flats in Shark Bay one year we spotted a large clear patch in the middle of an extensive area of sea grass. It turned out to be mostly flat plates of limestone where the grass couldn’t grow. Riddled with holes and undercuts and ledges, it was the perfect habitat for all sorts of species, especially tuskfish. These are what we saw first, usually departing, then a sinking fly was pounced on by something unseen. Our eyes weren’t tuned to seeing the snapper until we started hooking them, and then we started seeing them everywhere. This rocky area, about the size of a tennis court amidst all the sea grass, held an abundance of life. SIGNS OF LIFE Signs of life mean an active, fertile flat, where food is plentiful. Rays and sharks are an excellent indicator, particularly feeding rays and their characteristic silt plumes. These are always worth casting to because many fish will hide and feed in the trail of silt. Any evidence of where rays and other fish have been feeding is positive. Baitfish, yabby holes, shellfish, patches of weed, skipping gars, flashes of smaller feeding fish such as mullet and whiting, hovering and dipping birds — these are all positive signs of life. Shovel-nosed rays, especially the big ones will often hold fish, particularly when moving onto a flat on the incoming tide. Big tiger sharks on the flats can have a horde of trevally following them, and in remote areas big GTs and even cobia can be all around and under them, sometimes even in just a few feet of water. In New Caledonia, on a gutter that cut from deeper water right into a flat, I once watched a squadron of rays move in along the rims of the gutter, closely followed by a variety of emperors and trevally, small sharks, and of course bonefish. It was a remarkable sight, and simply getting a fly past everything else to the bonefish was a challenge. SEEING THEM Seeing and identifying fish on the flats is a skill that only comes with experience, but some basic rules might help. My mantra is: colour, shape, shadow, and movement. Anything that resembles a fish in terms of these parameters should grab your attention, until it can be dismissed. Any one of them might catch your eye first and the others help to confirm one way or the other. Once you learn to recognise the pale blue/green of a bonefish’s back it’s hard to miss. The pale blue, slow movement of a feeding blue bastard is rarely obvious against a dark, stirred up bottom, but it’s what you’re looking for. The almost iridescent blue of a tuskfish is distinctive, but so often you’ll be asking how you missed it when one spooks from under you. Big blue-tailed mullet can be a constant distraction, likewise sharks, schools of smaller mullet and milkfish — especially the big ones. Learn to identify unwanted fish by the way they swim, their colour, shape and behaviour, so you can dismiss them. For slow moving fish, colour and shape might be the giveaways. Other fish blend in by reflecting the colours around them, but they will still throw a shadow. If you’re looking into the light they will appear as dark (shadow) shapes, whereas seen from the sunny side they may show up as a pale shimmering silvery blue. Sometimes you will only see parts of a fish — like the flash of a ‘mooning’ permit, or the black or yellow of its fins. It might be the black or yellow tail of a barra that you see, as it drifts or holds up on a snag, head down, waiting — sometimes it’s only the slow waving movement of that tail that actually gives them away. Where possible, if conditions are tough, look for a clear window of uniform substrate that will offer a contrasting background. On a typical cloudy, windy day in New Caledonia a few years ago, I set myself up near a strip of weed bed that had white sand on either side and bisected the route that the incoming bonefish would take. As the pale invisible fish came off the sand they crossed over this dark bed of weed where they glowed like ghosts and I could intercept them with the fly as they moved onto the sand again. TAILS AND WAKES Tailing fish are a real bonus, especially on overcast days, or in the early or late light. I don’t mean fish that exhibit a bit of tail or dorsal fin as they cruise, but fish that stand on their heads to feed off the bottom, and in the process wave their tails in the air. Our local tailers include bream, golden trevally, blue bastards, permit, tuskies, triggers and bonefish, and they all have quite different tails and different ways of tailing. In slightly deeper water the tail might not actually break the surface but their vigorous activity still gives them away. You might not have noticed the fish, but the sudden appearance of a big plume of sand and silt from their feeding should certainly catch your attention. I’d not attached much significance to wakes, usually dismissing them as mullet, until Alan Philliskirk and I were fishing in Exmouth with Brett Wolf. Early one morning in the glassy low light, and just at the start of a making tide, we caught several permit off the edge of a flat, in 3 to 4 feet of water, by casting to wakes. But even before seeing the wakes, Brett’s attention had been drawn to the area by single skipping gars. “I don’t know if the permit eat gars or not, but they certainly seem to spook them,” said Brett, “They’re always a great sign.” WORKING THE ANGLES Read the sun, the wind, the background and the current. Sun equals vision and it’s best at your back. It goes without saying that polarized sunglasses are essential, although lens colour is a personal choice. My own all-round preference is for tans in various shades — others prefer more yellow in their lenses and others prefer rose. A dark background can be invaluable. It could be storm clouds, mangroves, or a forest of eucalypts or coconut trees. The background helps to remove reflections, and even on a cloudy day you’ll get good vision into the water. The wind direction is important for casting. Initially try to set yourself up so the wind is blowing in on your non-casting shoulder. The next step is to learn a variety of casts that help to take wind direction out of the equation. Long casts are rarely used on the flats, especially if you’re wading — focus on accuracy and delicacy. The direction and strength of the current is going to affect your presentation, especially if you need the fly to be on the bottom. Learn to throw a reach presentation, or a curve cast to counteract the current’s drag on the fly. What you don’t want is the fly just randomly moving at the whim of the current and out of your control. Whether you’re on foot or in a boat, find the location that provides the best sun, wind and current angle in relation to the expected direction the fish will take, and stop and wait for them to come to you. The odds of finding fish, or getting close to them, fall away dramatically in response to unnatural movement (and sound) in the water. PRESENTATION Regardless of whether you’re wading or on a boat, get out of the habit of endlessly casting at nothing. Chances are you’ll get a tangle, or hook a small unwanted flathead, queenfish or trevally just as the fish you’ve sought for the last few hours appears — it happens all the time. Hold on to your fly and learn the saltwater quick cast, which involves focused line management, so when a fish appears your fly and fly line isn’t out in no-man’s-land, or tangled around something. Where to put the fly is an eternal conundrum. Water depth, current flow, fly design and weight, fly line type and especially the fish species and the mood they’re in are all part of this equation. You often have only a second or so to calculate and to act, but one thing’s for certain, you must visualise the place where you want the fly to land. Try to keep the fish in your peripheral vision, but focus on your target area. If you look at the fish you’ll probably put the fly on its head and spook it, or the fly will end up behind it. As the saying goes, they don’t eat with their arse. You will only get one shot at most fish, so make it count. NEVER think of a cast as a practice shot — it only serves as a warning shot for the fish. If you don’t get a bite let the fish cruise past the fly before you lift it out of there to get a second shot. Understand that prey items don’t attack predators. Because you have the time, some slower moving fish will allow you to cast across their path and to then manoeuvre the fly in front of them. Faster moving fish will rarely give you that opportunity because the fly will be attacking them as you quickly try to get it in front. Not even a queenfish can handle being attacked by a Clouser. FURTHER READING Whatever the location and the species, the flats are a challenging place to approach for the first time and for the hundredth time. Doubts develop quickly and confidence is slow to build. Every bit of likely bottom without fish has you doubting, and every swimming rock, drifting piece of weed and cruising wave shadow — every ‘optical delusion’ — lifts the heart rate. Flats can deliver lessons every moment you are on them. There is no substitute for experience, and that means time on the water. Keen observation and an ability to find patterns will soon have you reading the flats like a book.

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