Flat Out Fantastic

Channels in the flats serve as striper highways. Photo Cathy and Barry Beck

For a truly eye-opening fishing experience, plan a spring trip to Cape Cod’s Brewster Flats. By Tom Richardson; Photography by Cathy Beck, Barry Beck & Dave Skok

 

Want to see something cool? Feast your eyes on the miles of corrugated sand that is the Brewster Flats at low tide. Aside from an occasional gull pecking at some piece of detritus, there’s not much to see. However, as the tide advances, flooding the flats through a labyrinth of guzzles and channels, the keen-eyed observer will notice ghostly shapes meandering through the shifting web of light and shadow.

These are your quarry—stripers and bluefish, themselves hunting prey in some one to three feet of water. To catch them in such an environment requires stealth, careful observation and perseverance, as these are not the same fish that inhale foot-long menhaden with abandon or eagerly crush parachute jigs in the comfortable depths of a rip.

But that’s what makes this fishery so remarkable, so alluring. For many anglers, flats fishing is the only fishing, and the reason they make the pilgrimage to this seven-mile stretch of Cape Cod each spring.

 

Shallow-draft skiffs make excellent flats-fishing platforms and allow anglers to cover a lot of ground in their search for fish. Photo Cathy & Barry Beck

Shallow-Water Paradise

The fishery begins in mid-May, triggered by the migratory run of stripers entering Cape Cod Bay via the Cape Cod Canal, according to Captain Dave Steeves, a guide with Goose Hummock Shops. Steeves says that the main push of fish depends on water temperature, but adds that the flats usually hold good numbers of stripers by late May, with mid-June being prime time for both bass and bluefish. Come summer, the fish thin out as the water warms and boat traffic increases, although dawn can still produce dependable action, even if it’s not necessarily a sight-fishing game.

Steeves prefers to fish the low incoming tide, when it’s easier to intercept the bass. As the water slowly covers the sand, the fish move out of their deep, low-tide haunts and spread out over the flats, looking for prey, which includes silversides, sand eels, squid and crabs. Good intercept points include the edges of bars and channels, which the fish use as highways to access the flats and as escape routes when danger looms. Once the water gets high enough, the fish roam the flats in large schools, which are easier to spot, but also travel alone and in pairs. These individual fish can be exceptionally hard to detect, even on sunny days, so polarized sunglasses are a must.

Flats bass come in all sizes. Photo Cathy & Barry Beck

Flats Clues

The higher stages of the tide can present a challenge, because once the majority of the flats are covered by water, the fish could be virtually anywhere. To help find them, look for bird activity, particularly any circling, dipping or diving terns and gulls. Also look for the swirls and boils of feeding fish, or the wakes and ripples of fish cruising or lazing just below the surface. In very skinny water, you may even see the broad tail fins of stripers as they root on the bottom for crabs and sand eels. Approach any potential fish-holding areas slowly and carefully to avoid spooking your quarry.

Once you spot the fish themselves, the next goal is to put yourself in the right position for a cast. Ideally, the sun and wind should be at your back and the fish swimming either toward or parallel to you. Drop the lure or fly 10 to 20 feet ahead of the fish and let it sink to the bottom before beginning the retrieve.

Note that flats fish can be understandably fussy, given the clear water and their heightened sense of vulnerability. If you have trouble drawing a strike, slow your presentation, try a different lure or fly, or keep changing your retrieve until you find the formula that works. Reducing the size of your leader and using fluorocarbon can also turn the trick.

Of course, it could also be that the looming presence of the boat or kayak is putting the fish on alert. If you suspect that’s the case, drop anchor and try fishing on foot. You may be surprised by the fish’s change in attitude.

Bluefish also patrol the flats on occasion. Photo Dave Skok

Flats Tackle

Effective spin tackle for fishing the flats includes a 7- to 7 ½-foot graphite rod with a flexible tip for throwing light lures, paired with a light spinning reel filled with at least 200 yards of 30-pound-test braid or 12-pound-test mono. The leader can be three feet of 12- to 16-pound fluorocarbon connected to the main line via a Bristol knot, Slim Beauty knot or uni-to-uni knot to create a wind-on leader system.

For tossing flies, a nine-foot, nine-weight or eight-weight outfit with sink-tip or intermediate-sink line will do the job nicely. Finish with a nine-foot tapered leader ending in two feet of 12- to 16-pound-test shock tippet, although you may need to reduce the tippet size if the fish are selective.

Flats flies should mimic the available forage. Sand eel and crab patterns are always a good idea. Photo by Barry & Cathy Beck

Plastics, Plugs & Flies

Top lures for flats fishing include five- to eight-inch, soft-plastic baits like the Slug-Go, Cape Cod Sand Eel, Hogy, RonZ, Fin-S-Fish and Got Stryper. “Walk-the-dog” plugs such as the Zara Spook and Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow are also effective, as are poppers such as the Rapala Skitter Pop. Good colors include pearl, bubblegum and olive-over-white. And on many days, fresh sand eels fished on the bottom can’t be beat!

In the fly department, the Clouser Minnow, Half-and-Half, Mushmouth, Gurgler and any number of sparsely tied epoxy sand-eel patterns will take fish on the flats. And since crabs are high on the menu of flats stripers, bring some patterns such as the Red Hackle Crab and Merkin. These should be heavy enough to reach bottom quickly in three to five feet of water.

Use caution when fishing on foot in the fog, as it’s easy to lose your bearings. Photo by Dave Skok

Safety First

While flats fishing seems pretty tame, a potential source of danger for wade fishermen is being trapped by the rising water. It’s important to monitor the tide and plan your escape route back to shore, especially in the early season, when the water is very cold and fog is common. Pack an inflatable PFD, a cell phone, handheld compass or PLB, as well as some type of sound-signaling device in case you find yourself in trouble.

Kayakers and paddleboarders have a ready means of escape—as long as they stay near their ride. Also, both vessel types serve as convenient gear-transport systems, and allow you to access different parts of the flats without having to wade through deep channels.

For many anglers, a shallow-draft boat is the preferred flats-fishing platform. A skiff not only gives you a higher perspective on the surrounding water, allowing you to spot the fish more easily and from a greater distance, it lets you investigate distant parts of the flat in an efficient manner. However, fishing from a boat requires close attention to the tide, as the water drains surprisingly quickly from the flats. Failing to make your ebb-tide retreat could mean a long, dull wait until the next tide.