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Beginner’s Guide to Flats Fishing

Flats present visually exciting and engaging fishing encounters unlike most other coastal inshore fishing opportunities. This unique ecosystem houses one of the most complete lists of gamefish: tarpon, bonefish, redfish, snook, permit, and more. These shallow bodies of water flood and drain according to the tide — leaving just enough water for fish, their favorite food, and your skiff. Float atop no more than a few feet of water through flooded grass plains to catch sight of the Silver King rolling or redfish flashing their signature black eye. Flats fishing gets you close enough to see the fish, opening up exciting sightfishing opportunities. Join us for this comprehensive look at flats fishing that’ll take you from your first encounter to your first catch.

School of tarpon on seagrass flats. Courtesy of A Fishing Guide, LLC.

School of tarpon on seagrass flats. Courtesy of A Fishing Guide, LLC.

This article covers:

  • What is Flats Fishing?
  • How to Access Flats
  • Flats Fishing Species
  • Iconic Flats Fishing Spots
  • Flats Fishing Gear
  • Booking a Flats Fishing Trip
  • Flats Fishing Frequently Asked Questions

What is Flats Fishing?

Flats are a designation for a coastal inshore region where the seabed is flat. There are a variety of flats — mud flats, sand flats — with each different variety having in common a flat bottom, an often coastal and inshore proximity, and an abundance of fish. Flats are close enough to the coast, often somewhat inland or connecting a river to the ocean, that they are constantly at the whim of the tides. Low tide occasionally leaves fully dry a once fishable flat, while high tide can produce flooding and a feeding frenzy. The rising and lowering water level drives baitfish deeper into flats in an attempt to avoid predation, where predatory gamefish then give chase. Flats fishing takes advantage of this interaction, placing you in the perfect position to capitalize on the feeding habits of gamefish.

How to Access Flats

Flats fishing happens in a skiff — a boat designed for low water levels — where your guide will maneuver you into the perfect position by poling. Poling the skiff, essentially pushing off the bottom of the seabed with a long pole to move the boat, allows for the boat to be positioned anywhere in the flats and also creates less disturbance in the water. Other types of flats fishing, often done with sand flats, can be done by wading through the shallow water. The unique methods that allow access to flats fishing get the angler closer to the fish, allowing them to present bait very naturally and accurately. 

Flats Skiff.jpeg
Skiff on the beautiful flats of Charleston, SC. Courtesy of Lowcountry Premier Fly Fishing.

Flats Fishing Species

Diatoms — autotrophic algae that use silica as a skeleton — establish the base of flats’ biodiversity. These microorganisms photosynthesize, oxygenating the water while also establishing a base of life that larger, though microscopic, organisms can prey on. These microorganisms serve as food for various shellfish and crustaceans, which baitfish themselves then eat. The abundance of baitfish attracts hordes of hungry, hard-hitting gamefish that anglers prize in catching. Here is a highlight of what your next flats fishing trip has in store for you: 

Redfish

Redfish are best targeted in late summer to early fall when they gather in large schools for spawning. Their aggressive nature and willingness to take a variety of baits make them a joy to catch year-round. Redfish provide thrilling sight-fishing opportunities and are known for their powerful runs and bulldog-like fights. They can often be seen tailing in flats, showing off their iconic black spot. 

South Carolina’s Lowcountry — CharlestonHilton Head — has some of the best flats for redfish. In addition, North Carolina’s Ocean Isle has a thriving redfish fishery and is matched by excellent local guides who can make the most of your flats fishing experience.

Flats redfish.jpeg
Bull red drum caught on fly in Charleston, SC. Courtesy of Lowcountry Premier Fly Fishing.

Tarpon

Tarpon offer unparalleled excitement for anglers targeting them in the spring and summer months during their annual migration. Their explosive strikes and acrobatic leaps make them a thrilling challenge to land. Tarpon provide adrenaline-fueled battles and unforgettable memories for anglers lucky enough to encounter them. 

Florida has some of the best tarpon fishing in the flats of IslamoradaKey Largo, and Key West. Here you’ll find these prehistoric predators, right alongside the perfect guides to make the most of your Florida flats fishing trip. 

Flats tarpon.jpeg
Massive Silver King caught out of Islamorada, FL. Courtesy of A Fishing Guide, LLC

Snook

Snook are best pursued in the warmer months of spring and summer. Their ambush tactics and strong runs make them a favorite among anglers fishing the flats. Targeting snook provides thrilling sight-fishing opportunities and the chance to test one's skill against these cunning predators.

The most productive flats to fish for snook are Florida’s Cape CoralFort Myers, and their neighboring waterways. Sanibel Island is known as some of the best snook fishing available. Discover what these flats have to offer for yourself with an experienced, local guide.

Flats snook.jpeg
Snook being released in seagrass. Courtesy of The Angling Company.

Permit

Permit are best pursued in the spring and summer months when they gather on the flats to feed. Their wary nature and challenging behavior make them a sought-after trophy for experienced anglers. Targeting permit provides thrilling sight-fishing opportunities and the chance to test one's patience and skill against these elusive and powerful fish.

Florida’s flats consistently promise permit. Biscayne Bay is renowned for this species, as are the Florida Keys — TavernierIslamoradaKey West, and Key Largo. Your guide will ensure you see the best of what these flats have to offer. 

flats permit.jpeg
Beautiful permit caught on fly. Courtesy of The Angling Company.

Iconic Flats Fishing Spots

There are flats to be fished around the world. A flat seabed is hardly a rarity, resulting in many coastlines that boast excellent flats to fish from. Here we’ve compiled what our guides hold to be the most productive flats available. 

Everglades, Florida

The untamed wilderness of Florida’s Everglades National Park is home to world-class flats fishing. The diversity of its species and extensiveness of its waterways provides access to countless trophy gamefish. Against a backdrop of lush greenery, you’ll target some of the most exciting species in a habitat where they feel a little more wild than anywhere else. You can to the catch the gamefish greats like tarponsnookpermit and redfish here. Light tackle and fly fishing don’t get more exciting than the Everglades, with local guides highlighting the natural beauty of this fishery. 

Florida Keys, Florida

The Florida Keys are a treasure trove for the flats fishing enthusiast. These are some of the most beautiful places you can fish from and are home to some of the biggest fish you can catch. Target tarponredfishsnooksea troutpermit, or just about any gamefish you could imagine. The crystal clear waters make for visually exciting fishing where you’ll be sightcasting to schools of fish. To make the most of your Florida Keys guided experience, have your cast in a good position before hitting the water. Check out our pages on TavernierIslamoradaKey West, and Key Largo to get an idea of what you can expect. 

The Lowcountry, South Carolina

The Lowcountry of South Carolina offers exceptional flats fishing opportunities akin to Florida's Everglades and Keys. CharlestonHilton Head, and Beaufort serve as gateways to this pristine landscape. In these shallow waters, anglers can target prized species like redfish and speckled sea trout through thrilling sightcasting experiences. Local guides expertly navigate these waters, ensuring unforgettable fishing adventures amidst lush greenery or historic coastal backdrops. Check out this guide for fishing on a flood tide to get a taste of the unique and exciting fishing experiences South Carolina’s Lowcountry flats have in store.

Flats Fishing Gear

Equipping yourself with the right gear is essential for a successful flats fishing expedition. Start with a quality flats fishing rod, ideally in the 7 to 9-foot range, paired with a reliable reel capable of handling both the drag needed for big fish and the finesse required for accurate casts. Opt for a braided fishing line for its sensitivity and strength, coupled with a fluorocarbon leader to prevent spooking wary fish. Pack a selection of artificial lures, such as soft plastics and topwater plugs, along with a variety of live baits to match the preferences of your target species. Don't forget essential accessories like polarized sunglasses to spot fish beneath the surface and a comfortable hat and sunscreen for long days on the water. With the right gear in hand, you'll be ready to tackle the challenges and excitement of flats fishing with confidence and style. 

Booking a Flats Fishing Trip

When planning your next flats fishing trip, start your journey with AnyCreek. We’ll connect you with the best fishing guides so that you have on-the-ground guidance throughout your planning process. You can chat with your guide anytime before your trip by using AnyCreek’s Chat Feature, located under your ‘Account Info’ tab on our website. Whatever flats you do end up fishing, be sure to check the local forecast before you start packing to ensure you’re prepared. Your guide will have all necessary licenses, gear, and tackle, but don’t forget to pack essentials — snacks, sunscreen, hats, polarized sunglasses, sun shirts, a raincoat, and a camera.

First time fishing salt water? No problem! Check out this article to get you prepared to make the most of your experience.

Flats Fishing Frequently Asked Questions

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