Sunshine, Sand Flats, And A Slow Tide - The Fisherman

Sunshine, Sand Flats, And A Slow Tide

flats
The flats are not just know for small fish. You can find some sizable striper here as well, proven by the author.

While not traditional to Northeast fishing, flats offer ample summer opportunity.

The skiff moved slowly along a large sand flat while we watched for any nervous water or signs of feeding fish.  I was positioned on the casting platform – on point in the bow – while my fishing partner, stood, perched above the rear deck.  He set us in forward motion and guided our direction with a push pole. We moved slowly and quietly across the flat, until we encountered a point where an “elbow” formed with the adjacent shoreline. The poling stopped. A sluggish outgoing tide continued to carry us along at turtle’s pace as we cast our flies to weed patches, sand potholes and any other shallow bottom variations that tend to hold fish. As my fly moved between the alternating light and dark bottom, an unmistakable striped form moved from its camouflaged lair to inspect the small, fraudulent crustacean tied to my leader.  The fish swam to the fly and I stopped the retrieve. The fish stopped too.  We watched the drama continue to unfold as the fish slowly approached the crab fly and then circled it with fins erect and an aggressive body posture. This was a hot fish, totally intent on feeding.  Giving the crab a slight twitch was more than this fish could take, and we both knew what would happen next; the fish’s gills flared and the fly was vacuumed in.  The ensuing strip set was vigorous, and the resulting sensation of weight gratifying. The hooked quarry had nowhere to go but straight away toward the edge of the thin water, where it sensed a deep sanctuary. The getaway wasn’t quite a bonefish run but it was impressive enough, and within a few minutes we had our first flats fish of the day: a stout 30-inch, 14 pound Long Island striped bass.

Non-Northeast Traditional

While some might consider this scenario as an exception to more traditional methods of striped bass fishing, this scene often repeats along many areas of Northeast coast, where access to sand flats offers numerous opportunities.  Those with a passion for fly fishing and light tackle angling in skinny water, have learned to apply many successful southeastern and Gulf coast techniques to this style of Northeast fishing.  Indeed, productive fishing flats are not only unique to tropical locales.  Similar conditions and structures prevail throughout the entire Northeast. A number of enterprising Northeast captains, guides and anglers have explored and developed that potential for quite some time, opening an entirely new world of fly fishing and light tackle angling that has been commonplace to our southeastern brethren.

Origins

CLEAR WATER CONFIDENCE
One of the key elements for Long Island style flats fishing is clear water. You want to see the fish to which you are casting. Sunny days are a critical factor since they enhance the angler’s ability to spot the often difficult-to-discern forms of cruising or stationary fish. Days that have mild winds, which do not create too much sight distortion from wave activity, are also preferred. The combination of bright, sunny days, clear water and the ephemeral images of fish make polarized sunglasses an essential piece of fishing equipment.

The arrival of flats fishing to the Northeast occurred not surprisingly during the early 1990s, concurrent with the resurgence of striper stocks throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the country. Through the foresight and innovation of those Long Island fly fishing guides – many of whom also guide throughout the southeast and Gulf coast in the winter months – poling skinny water fishing for striped bass took hold. Long Island is a prime Northeast example of this transformation. All of Long Island is fair game for this form of angling, from the western reaches of the South Shore, to the extreme east ends of the Island, and many North Shore areas of the Long Island Sound.

The process of poling a boat allows for a stealthy approach to feeding and cruising striped bass.  The pole is also used to stakeout – secure the boat in place – once bass are located. Contemporary Power Poles have somewhat replaced the traditional methods of staking out. Regardless of the means and manner employed, this technique is especially helpful when cruising stripers are encountered. If a boat’s forward progress cannot be slowed when bass are first seen, the boat’s momentum will often overtake the fish, sending bass fleeing off the flat. Other guides opt for the use of an electric troll motor, yet this is often viewed as a somewhat less stealthy approach. Propeller rotation can create underwater disturbance that will cause bass to veer way. Regardless of the techniques used, the Northeast skinny water scene is no different than one might encounter on a flat in the Florida Keys or along a stretch of coastal Louisiana. From New Jersey to Maine, opportunities abound for skinny water saltwater fly fishing.

shallow
This shallow Great South Bay flat provides summer opportunity with stripers.

Opportunities Abroad

The Long Island flats fishing experience is not only an East End and South Shore scenario.  There are North Shore locations that offer the same challenges and fishing opportunities. Many of the harbors and backwaters off the Long Island Sound hold various forms of suitable flats structure with one of the largest being within the boundaries of the central Sound. Many other smaller locations are scattered about the entire North Shore.  It is a “seek and you shall find” situation.

In addition to the extreme east ends of the Island with areas like Fisher’s, Gardiner’s and Plum Islands, the South Shore also has significant potential for this form of fly fishing and light tackle angling.  One can find suitable areas from Jamaica Bay to the west, to the bays and backwaters of the central South Shore, especially in the area of the Great South Bay and the backwaters off Moriches Inlet. The Peconic Bay is another area where skinny water flats opportunities abound. The fact of the matter is that much of the Island still has areas that are waiting to be explored. Some of the most productive Long Island flats are less than the length of a good field goal.

More Than Just Shallow

Many Northeast anglers, and even a number of captains new to the Long Island flats game, equate skinny or thin water with water that is simply shallow. True Northeast flats follow much the same pattern as those of the Southeast and Gulf Coast regions.  Skinny water is not merely the low edge of a channel or the portion of water that comprises the wash off a beach. Neither is it the taking of stripers from weed-lines and shorelines unless those locations are adjacent to a well-defined “flat.”

Catching a fish in shallow water does not automatically suggest that you caught a “thin” water fish. Skinny water is technically defined as that which is part of a feeding flat, an expanse of very lean water used by game fish as a feeding plateau, a formation where fish can hunt or root out food and then escape to a deeper safe haven. This type of water can be just ankle-deep or range to a few feet in depth, and is usually also associated with traditional sight fishing. The most productive flats, more often than not, afford ready access to deeper water; fish move up onto the flat to feed and exit to the security of the surrounding depths.  Deepwater access is also a used for defensive purposes.  Since most fish sense vulnerability when feeding on a flat, a residual imprint from when they were fry, the security of an escape route is an essential feature of all productive northern flats.

Flats can be quite large or they can be much smaller and on a scale of but 50 to 100 yards in length.  Some Long Island flats that I have fished are relatively small and do not hold legions of fish, yet all can be quite productive during certain periods of the tide or season.  While classic flats fishing is most always identified with tropical or southerly locations and with destinations like the Keys, Yucatan, Belize, the Bahamas, the Seychelles and so on, some of Long Island’s flats rank right up there in terms of fish-generating potential.  Several years back I explored a small sand flat over the course of many outings before unlocking its secret.  Once the relationship between season, tide and crab swarms was discovered that tiny flat began to yield what has amounted over the years to literally hundreds of school-sized striped bass.

fish
When the conditions call for it, you can fish a flat with just waders, outside of a boat.

A Typical Long Island Flats Scenario

Fishing Long Island flats is not something one does from a deep-V center-console boat. Recognizing yet again that stealth is a critical element of successful flats fishing, very shallow draft boats are the rule.  Long Island anglers have adapted traditional flats boats to this task as well as hybrid hulls like bay boats.  Access to flats can also be effectively achieved with a kayak. A ‘yak is a personal choice of mine that I use primarily as a conveyance to get to where I like to wade.  Since the flats that I fish are very small that is about the only way that you can approach them without spooking any fish that might be in a feeding mood.

The best of the skinny water guides will always approach a flat quietly, often cutting the main engine well before reaching the flat.   Then he or she will move the boat onto the flat with either a pole or electric trolling motors. A typical tactic is to first work the peripheral edges of the flat.  Stripers will habitually cruise that seam area between the shallow water of the flat and the deeper perimeter water.  Once on the flat, the boat can either be quietly moved to an area where fish are known to concentrate, or maneuvered in some well-defined searching pattern.

FLATS FISHING WITH WWO
Earlier this year, managing editor Matt Broderick was able to hop on White Water Outfitters employee Jeff Lomonaco’s flats boat in Shinnecock Bay for a day of sight fishing bluefish in the shallows of the bay, using both spinning and fly tackle. Scan the QR code for an inside look at the trip.

White Water Outfitters – Flats Fishing

Tide movements make a big difference. Bass will locate on different portions of a flat during the various tide phases.  When fishing a flat for the first few times it is beneficial to work the area as thoroughly as possible in some orderly pattern since you never know where you might bump some bass.  When fish-holding areas are located, such as pot-hole, grass or mussel beds, or changes in the bottom contours and structure, the boat is either moved slowly and quietly through those areas or staked-out to enable the angler to carefully prospect the location. You also want to keep hull slap to a minimum since those reverberations will send fish fleeing in a heartbeat.

The ability to spot bass on a flat in time to make an effective presentation of a fly or lure is the most critical element of this game and takes some getting used to.  All too often the untrained eye will miss fish that are either moving along the flat or just cruising feet from the boat.  Learn how to spot not only the entire fish form but also pieces and parts of the whole, much like whitetail deer hunters do in thick cover.  Bass over sandy bottoms present distinctive shapes but fish in grassy or weedy areas can appear as if camouflaged.   Feeding fish will usually travel about the flat searching out a meal or remain positioned in a feeding lane waiting for food to come to them. Striped bass will often feed this way and orient to a favored holding area.  I have watched stripers root sand eels at dusk in the same manner that redfish or bonefish will root out small crustaceans, crabs, and baitfish.  If the water is skinny enough you can even see their backs and exposed tails. When that happens, try to maintain composure, and make the casts count!

Patience Pays Dividends

I recall a small flat I would fish that is located within a bay which is part of the Long Island Sound.  The characteristics of that flat were ideal, with deep water in proximity. The flat is a couple of hundred yards long, with a sand and gravel/pebbled bottom. Some boulders and other forms of submerged structure that attract bait rim the outer edges of the flat.  I wade there, and fish from both a kayak and a small boat. Initially, the results of my efforts were disappointing.  A few fish here and there came to hand, but nothing that I would consider as a great find.  I was having trouble figuring out the flat but my instincts told me that this place had more potential than I was experiencing.  Therefore, I made it a habit of visiting this flat often.  Eventually, there was “perfect storm” convergence of key variables that help solve the puzzle and relinquish the secrets of this flat.  Phase of tide, specific bait availability, tine of day and weather/wind all worked in concert to open a window of opportunity.  And when that happened, an enlightening moment occurred, resulting in some very consistent fishing from that point forward. One of the keys was the mass movement of Asian and green crabs during a very specific period of the tide.  That revelation changed my techniques and tactics for fishing this area, and resulted in many successful outings.  Understanding the dynamics of a flat take patience and time on the water.  But the outcome is well worth the effort expended. Don’t get discouraged if your initial forays onto the flats are produce less than desired results. Keep at it until you discover what makes the flat come alive.

flat-fishing
The shallows of Shinnecock Bay are a summer haven for stripers and perfect for flats fishing.

Tools Of The Game

For most Northeast flats and skinny water applications, rods rated between 8 and 10 weight are more than adequate to get the job done.  You can’t go wrong with 9×9 fast tip rod paired with a balanced large arbor reel.  Floating or slow-sinking intermediate lines work well.  If you are fishing from a boat, it pays to keep two outfits rigged, each with one of those recommended line types. For most fishing situation a 6-foot length of fluorocarbon leader should be adequate.  If the fish are extra spooky on the flat, extend that length to 8 or 9 feet.

A wide array of flies can fit the bill for fishing skinny water.  Patterns should replicate the prevailing baitfish and other bait forms that frequent the flat.  In the Northeast that means Atlantic spearing, peanut bunker; sand eels, finger mullet, anchovies, and a variety of crustaceans.  I have enjoyed a lot of skinny water success with hybrid-style creature flies that imitate a range of crabs and crustaceans.

When fishing from the deck of a boat, it is advantageous to use a stripping bucket or installed synthetic and flexible “fingers” that aid in the prevention of line tangling. Fingered mats are also used for this purpose. When wade fishing, a stripping basket can prove invaluable. Other gear for flats- style fishing that are essential include polarized sun glasses and sun protection in the form of lightweight gloves, UV resistant shirts and pants, buffs and brimmed hats. Sunscreen should also be applied as appropriate for the conditions.

Long Island affords anglers many fishing opportunities to visually pursue striped bass and other fish species that frequent skinny-water sand flats. Whether casting from the bow of skiff or wading skinny water, this is an exciting and gratifying game of “feeding” a fly or artificial bait to fish hunting for their next meal.

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