It was one of those perfect casts. You know the type; the one that lands right where it should; the kind you just know will bring on a strike. Only this cast was made late at night, 2:00 a.m. to be exact, and I knew it was perfect from sound and feel, not from sight.
As the coal black surface popper hit the surface, I squinted into the darkness, trying to pinpoint its exact location. I zeroed in on it and the charging wake almost simultaneously. I popped it once as the sharp vee cut a path through the long, silver sheen of the moon’s reflection across the smooth surface. By the second pop I was into the fish. The entire scene took place in a surrealistic silhouette.
There’s something about fishing at night that makes every fish you hook seem larger than life. The false image is intensified in the shallows as the fish expends its energy cutting up the flats and rolling on the surface instead of diving deep to sulk or bury itself in some unseen underwater obstruction.
This fish was no exception. It slammed the lure at full charge and set my rod into a tight arch. The drag screamed, I cheered and the surface erupted with a dozen pounds of striper impersonating a 20-pounder. As I worked to quickly remove the hook, it shimmered in the bright moonlight. Then, after a twist of the hook from my needle-nose pliers, it vanished into the dark waters.
GET AWAY FROM THE CROWDS
When the sun goes down, the larger predator species come out to play in their favored haunts. But some fish, like some fishermen, prefer to get away from the crowds. Often, these fish will expand their range by following rising tides up onto shallow flats. With the sun eliminated, and boating traffic at a minimum, the fish feel secure enough to venture into as little as a foot or two of water to scrounge around for crabs and small baitfish – and they do it more often than you might think.
Now, catching bass, blues and weaks late at night on the flats isn’t any great news. The twist here is taking them with surface poppers - lures that most saltwater anglers reserve for daytime use. This is BIG fun, but it takes some effort and scouting to get things right. The keys are to find the right kind of flats, learn the most productive tides, and to fish “on the moon”.
FINDING THE RIGHT FLATS
Not all flats areas will hold fish for popping. Thus, the first thing you need to do to get in on this fun is isolate what should be the most productive water in your area.
Begin by looking for fairly large flats that parallel deep channels or structure. Flats that begin within a quarter-mile of a bridge are a great example of productive water, being close to the deep water of a bridge channel and structure at the same time. Large shoals located just inside an inlet are another potential hotspot. Deeper back into the bays, look for flats that run along a main channel or are drained by deep cuts. Any flats that lie within 100 yards of a well-known daytime hot spot should also be explored.
Now that you’ve identified a few potential flats, narrow down the field a bit more. Check to make sure that these flats are alive, not barren. A “live” flat will hold crabs, horseshoe crabs, shellfish beds and small baitfish. Flats sporting patches of eelgrass tend to be especially productive. Those that are bordered by bulkheads can also be very good. Flats where clammers tread or donkey rake are always potential fish havens.
Flats bordering marshy islands are also excellent choices. I especially like to work these as most feature small drainages that allow bait to be sucked from shallow troughs and right onto the flats border their perimeters.
Look specifically for flats where the water tops out at less than three feet deep at high tide. In other words, search for very shallow flats. Also, a fair amount of current should push through the area. No current, no predator fish, it’s a simple as that. As a rule, the best flats are sandy, or sport a fine sand/mud mix. Dark muddy waters generally don’t produce well for popping at night.
The best way to find productive flats is to map them out on a chart, then take a day-trip at low tide. Note any cuts, humps, drains, pockets, eelgrass beds or points – mark them on your map or plug in the GPS co-ordinates as these are potential hot spots. Note also, just how far you can safely get up on the flats with your boat. In many areas, you’ll simply have to skirt the perimeter and cast to shallow water from the channel edge or cut. Some flats, however, will allow you to drift across on the flood.