Fishing a Sand Flat
January 21, 2021
Most anglers are amazed to discover that striped bass and bluefish can be found in water so shallow it barely covers their backs. And I’m not just talking about small fish. Sometimes bass up to 30 pounds and gator bluefish can be seen cruising in less than two feet of water.
“Flat” is a loosely defined term in the Northeast. In one sense, it can mean acres of shin-deep water with a light-sand bottom—the type of place you’d wade for bonefish. In another, it can encompass wide, mud-bottomed coves where stripers grub for worms and crabs, their tails occasionally breaking the surface. A flat can also be a narrow band of shallow water running parallel to a beach.
This last type of flat may only be fishable on the highest stages of the tide, but it can attract some very large fish indeed. Further, flats along exposed ocean beaches tend to hold fish through the summer and fall due to the cooler water temperatures and wave action.
The downside to fishing exposed ocean flats from a boat is the danger of being washed onto shore by the waves. In other words, you need to pick your days and be careful in these areas. So-called “backside,” or bay beaches, offer more protection from the prevailing wind and swells, so you’ll stand a better chance of sighting and casting to fish in these areas more often.
Float or Wade
The great thing about flats fishing in general is that you don’t need a big boat to fish them. In fact, you don’t need a boat at all. Kayakers, wade fishermen and boat anglers in expensive flats skiffs all stand an equal chance of finding fish as long as they know where to look and what to look for. Shallow-draft skiffs obviously offer comfort and greater range for getting to and from remote flats or those with limited shore access, but it’s often best to get out of the boat and stalk fish on foot once you’ve reached your destination and have located a productive spot, as the fish are often wary.
Poling a skiff is one of life’s great pleasures, to be sure, but it requires good balance and training (although not always a poling platform). A bow-mounted trolling motor also makes fishing the flats easier, and allows you to fish single-handed. I highly recommend one if you enjoy shallow-water fishing of any type.
But you don’t always need to cover ground to locate fish on a flat. In fact, it’s often best to drop anchor and let the fish come to you, especially if you’ve discovered one of their so-called underwater “game trails.”
Where to Start
Always look for working birds, surface slicks or bait balls when you arrive, and check out these spots first. Even a lone tern dipping low over the water or a group of gulls resting on the surface or along the shore can be a clue that fish are or have been feeding in the area.
The edges of the flat are always good places to watch and wait for fish. Stripers and bluefish both like to travel along the drop-off and make forays onto the exposed shallows. If you locate a trough or depression between a sandbar and a shoreline flat, or a shallow channel (“guzzle”) that carves through the flat, you’ve found a great place to ambush fish as they move on and off the flat. Often only 6″ of depth variation between the flat and the trough can be enough to attract fish. Scouting a flat at dead-low tide is a great way to find these troughs, guzzles and edges.
Always note the direction of the current when fishing a flat. Moving water makes for better fishing, no matter where you fish, and the flats are no exception. Stripers and blues almost always swim into the current, so choose your stake-out spot or plan your drift accordingly.
If you decide to anchor, do so far enough upwind to put yourself in the best casting position given the wind direction and your range. As you wait, scan the flat and the channel edges for the shadows of fish. Keep in mind that stripers and even bluefish become lighter over sandy bottom and darker over mud bottom, making them harder to see than many people suppose. A pair of polarizing sunglasses will greatly assist in your ability to spot fish.
If you find a place the fish are using like a highway to and from the flats, or through the flats, make note of it on your GPS or plotter, as you can bet it will attract fish at the same tidal stage each day—as long as enough bait is present.
Tide can be play a role, as well. As in bonefishing, I’ve found that a rising tide generally produces the best fishing, as the fish are moving onto the flat to feed. In other words, they are more inclined to eat your fly or lure than when they are vacating the flat and retreating to deeper water.
One last note when fishing a beach flat: If you notice seals or an abundance of other anglers, go elsewhere. Otherwise, you’ll likely be wasting your time.