Wading the Flats—the Experience

Two people wading in the salt flats

Every angler should at some time in their lives spend a day wading a flat in search of bonefish, redfish or other flats species. Even stripers can be caught in the Northeast wading on sand flats. There is great incentive for those who love the sudden stretch of a fly line, but it’s finding ourselves in a world so beautiful as to defy description and so teeming with life that the wondrous becomes commonplace.

Though fishing the flats from the bow of a flats boat is a good day in anyone’s life, to wade a flat is a day long remembered when days on boats run together. To wade is to become part and parcel of the fish’s universe. You are as much the predator as the lemon shark that glides effortlessly across the sandy ridges, then explodes in a cloud of sand when startled.

The water moves on and off the flats with the tide and the fish move with it in search of the billions of tiny crustaceans that inhabit the flats. Walking in water that laps at your knees, you search for movement and shadows. The mirror silver of the bonefish perfectly reflects the colors that surround it. The practiced eye eventually begins to discern the fish as it moves slowly in its quest and scanning the bottom; it’s easy to be looking at a fish and not seeing it. The real excitement is the never-ending surprise as the sun, the sand, the eye, and the mind suddenly conspire to give you a glimpse of the ghost.

The beauty of this is the most difficult of fish to see—must be seen to be caught. When all is right, the fish is spotted at distance. The cast is laid in front, presenting the fly in position to be pulled away as if escaping. When it settles to the bottom, a strip of the line puffs the fly across the sand. If you’re lucky the fish suddenly darts to the fly and tipping downward inhales it. A long and gentle strip ensures the hook set and the fish rips across the flat in pursuit of freedom.

You can walk for hours in search of fish, but never bored. Fish can give away their position in subtle ways from the tail of a feeding fish tipped up out of the water, to a push of water. Fish in shallow water can create a wake like a boat but from under the water. The apex of that wake is usually just above the midpoint of the fish’s back, so his head is in front of the apex. This is an important clue as to where to place the fly in front of him. There is also nothing more thrilling than casting to a tailing fish as they are actively feeding and less likely to spook. Learning to determine which way the fish is facing by the position of the tail zeroes in on where to place the fly for greatest success. Drop it behind him and he may never see it.

The predators roam these flats as well, the sharks gliding and searching, the barracuda lying absolutely motionless in silent ambush until that moment, when sparked by instinct, they explode violently across the top of the water. The barracuda is a spectacular foe that will rip line from a reel with leaping, thrashing vehemence in his struggle to escape. He is not used to being the prey and it shows.

Shuffling your feet in certain fisheries is a good practice where stingrays are prevalent as the vibration spooks them before you make the mistake of stepping on one. There are even protective gaiters on the market for places where rays are prevalent.

The Right Fly-Fishing Gear for Wading the Flats

One of the best things about wading the flats is the simplicity of it. You don’t need much fly-fishing gear, but the conditions call for just the right equipment. You can certainly carry more, but for the most part, the following list is all you’ll need:

  • A great pair of flats boots with a hard rubber sole for support and an upper that will let in the water, but keep the sand out. Wearing light socks underneath them can prevent blisters or irritation from the water and the constant movement of the boot against your skin.
  • Sun protection is critical as most flats fishing is done in tropical climates and the reflection off the water can be as bad as the sun from above. Quick-drying clothing that’s UPF rated protects you from the sun and keeps you cool through evaporative cooling. Long sleeves and a high collar on your casting shirts are a big plus for sun protection.
  • Lightweight, quick-drying shorts or pants. It’s perfectly fine to wade in lightweight pants for sun protection. Make sure they are a light synthetic blend as natural fibers like cotton will take forever to dry and weigh a ton.
  • High SPF rated waterproof sunscreen and a hat with a wide brim are necessary, and the wide brim will shade your eyes and improve your ability to see. Your nose, cheeks, and ears are highly susceptible to sun exposure. Sun gloves will protect your hands and are designed so as not to interfere with your hands while fishing.
  • Fishing buffs offer excellent protection for your face and neck and have the added benefit of keeping you cool through evaporative cooling when soaked with water. Your neck is where the largest volume of blood runs closest to the surface and keeping your neck cool will keep you cool.
  • Fishing sunglasses might be the most important piece of equipment you have so buy the best. Polarized sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and without them the glare makes it impossible to see the fish. Lens color is important depending on conditions and you’ll always want a spare pair if not two.
  • You don’t need to carry much gear so a small fly-fishing pack such as a sling pack, or hip pack will handle all you need. The less intrusive the better.
  • Flats fly patterns are generally small, representing small baitfish or crustaceans. The difference in sink rates of flies is important. Wading the flats in a foot of water and wading in three feet of water is going to impact the amount of time it takes for that fly to get to the bottom, and timing is crucial. Make sure you have lighter flies (bead chain eyes) for shallow water as they won’t make a big splash and spook the fish, and will get to the bottom quickly in shallow water. Heavier tungsten bead patterns are great for deeper water as they get down quicker and fish are less spooky in deeper water.
  • A couple of small fly boxes with flies, spare leaders, and tippet spools of various strengths allow you to tie on a lighter tippet if conditions require it. You may find the fish are very spooky and tying on an 8-lb. tippet to a 12-lb. leader can make all the difference. Forceps, nippers, sunglass cloth to clean your glasses, a water bottle, and a pair of pliers with sheath on your belt are the only fly-fishing accessories you’ll need.
  • A great fly-fishing rod, generally an 8-wt. with a saltwater fly reel with an excellent drag. Flats fish have nowhere to go but out and sizzling runs are the norm for bonefish, redfish, and other flats fish.
  • There are fly lines built specifically for flats species and can improve your odds of making better presentations and getting the fly where it belongs. Understanding water depth, sink rate of the fly and how that functions with your line is critical. Don’t scrimp on the line. It can make all the difference, as often one shot is all you’ll get on a fish and the right line vastly improves the odds on getting the fly in the right place.
  • There are other things you should take—spare clothes, rain jackets, spare rod and reel—but these can be left in the boat or the car depending on how you get to the flat.

There are places you can wade and place you can’t, depending on the bottom. Step off a boat on some flats and you will find yourself hip-deep in mud. Talk to your fly-fishing guide in advance and let them know you want to wade as it lets him or her know where to plan to take you assuming wading flats are available close by.

Stalking fish on a flat is the pinnacle of sight fishing and while it’s not easy, it is one of the best fishing adventures you will ever experience as it puts you in the water with the fish and you become part of the wild. You will soon discover wading the flats offers much more than just catching fish.

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