Backwater and flats fishing combine the best of both worlds: shallow, sheltered waters and aggressive, hard-fighting fish. For anglers transitioning from freshwater fishing to saltwater fishing, the inland creeks, back bays and flats will feel like familiar territory. For those new to fishing, backwater and flats provide a sheltered playing field on which to learn the game.
Backwaters and flats also offer a wide variety of structures that harbor many types of fish, from panfish to predators, all within a closed environment.
Better yet, the principles that apply to backwater and flats fishing can also be applied to inshore and offshore fishing. Not only are backwaters and flats a diverse breeding ground for fish, but a sheltered proving ground for fishermen.
Flats fishing can be an exciting way to hunt saltwater fish. Whether fishing out of a shallow draft flats boat, or wading the skinny water on foot, anglers who prowl the clear, shallow flats will often find big fish.
When flats fishing, find the current, structure and bait, and you’ll likely find fish. Flats fishermen look for reefs, edges, channels, sloughs, vegetation and bars that hold crabs, shrimp or baitfish.
Sight casting on the flats is usually best on a bright, sunny day. Position the boat so that the sun is at your back, and try to work into the wind or current. A dark-brimmed hat and high-quality polarized sunglasses will reduce glare on the water.
Light saltwater tackle and light rigs and lures are the order of the day. The idea in flats fishing is to dance a bait across the bottom or zip it across the surface in front of the target fish.
Be warned, fish on the flats are very sensitive to sound and movement. Make too much noise or commotion, and you could spook the fish.
When backwater fishing, a good rule of thumb is to find the deeper water and find the fish. The first place to start looking for deeper water is in any inlet that links the back water to the open water.
The swift current and structure that make saltwater inlets fish havens, however, can also present hazards to navigation. If the inlet features a channel with a steady flow of boat traffic, the waterway becomes even more difficult to fish.
Most saltwater inlets are marked by shallow bars or rocks and deeper channels and sloughs. Predators will hide from the current behind the shallow structure, while prey will often congregate in the deeper water to hide.
Two tactics will be effective in fishing saltwater inlets: anchoring and drifting. A boat can drift through the deeper water or over and along the shoals while bouncing jigs or bottomrigs. Or an angler can choose to anchor up and cast saltwater lures or baits up current and let the offering sweep by the fish.
Add a jetty or bridge to the saltwater inlet, and the fishing gets even better. To fish these features, it is best to anchor or use the motor to hold the boat on the up-tide or down-tide side of the pilings or rocks and cast baits to the structure.
Fishing marsh edges provides another easy place to find fish. At low tide, predators will patrol the borders of marsh grass. When the tide rises, these fish will infiltrate the flooded grass.
When the water is low, situate the boat within casting distance of the marsh edge and work a jig along the bottom. Often, target fish are cruising the base of the marsh grass looking for a meal passing overhead. This is a good opportunity to retrieve aswimming plug at mid-depth or deploy a bait on a popping cork. It can also be a good time to work a top water popper along the marsh edge.
Another opportune time to use a top-water popper is when the marsh is flooded and the fish are rooting around in the grass. Cast the popper into the flooded grass and work it back over the edge of the marsh. It’s always a good idea to station the boat right on the edge of the grass and work a lure parallel or perpendicular to the bank.
Always look for water rushing in or out of a creek or pond to find fish that are waiting to ambush bait. Marshy points and bends in creeks can also hold fish. Anywhere there is a variation in the structure, there will often be fish.
Fishing in oyster bars and grass beds form backwater reefs that will harbor the entire food chain. The exact reason that fish love these structures is the reason that anglers find them difficult to fish. The same structure in which the fish hide will snag and snare rigs and lures.
One of the most popular methods of suspending a bait over rough bottom is using a popping cork. Top water poppers will also keep the bait out of the rough, and a diving plug or jig can also be effective as long as the lure doesn’t run too deep.
When fishing grass, look for bald spots in the foliage. Fish will often hide in the grass waiting for a bait to fall into the open. Dropping a jig or popping cork into the open area can fool these hidden fish.
Predators will also patrol the outside edges of bars and grass beds looking for a meal that wanders too far away from the safety of the reef. This can be a good place to bounce a jig or station a bait.
When fishing one of these submerged structures, it’s best to approach with caution. Start fishing the edges and carefully work the boat over the reef. Use a trolling motor or push pole, or drift over the structure to keep from spooking the fish. Always keep a close eye on the water depth to avoid getting stranded on the bar or entangled in the grass.
Going back to the rule of thumb for backwater and flats fishing, one of the best places to find skinny-water fish is in deep water. Channels, creeks and rivers will always feature the deepest water and often the best fishing.
Not only will alpha predators patrol these cuts, but bottom dwellers will congregate in the deepest holes, making channel fishing a great place to hook into a variety of fish.
Bigger fish in the channels will be looking for prey that ventures out of the deep, so a plug or jig worked along the edge of the drop or through the deepest parts of the channel will often fool them.
Panfish will school up in the deepest sections of the channel. Bouncing a bait along the bottom with a top-bottom rig or Carolina rig will be more than bottom feeders can resist.
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