June 06, 2021
By Michael Tougias
True tidal flats are those mostly sandy areas that are void of water at low tide but then fill with the incoming tide. At high tide there may be only 4 feet of water a half mile out from shore.
The more gradual the bottom drops off, the longer the flats extend toward a depth where ocean water is found even at low tide. Tidal flats can be found up and down the eastern seaboard, and I tend to focus on the ones in my home state of Massachusetts.
Cape Cod Bay has scores of tidal flats, from small ones without a name to the large expanses such as the Brewster Flats and Chapin Flats. I’ve had good luck fishing flats on the Merrimack River and some no-name flats in Buzzards Bay.
Flats are especially attractive to striped bass in the spring because they often have the warmest water—at low tide the sand can bake in the sun, and even at high tide the shallow water retains its warmth.
When my fishing buddy Adam and I made our first forays onto the flats, we were cautious about keeping the boat’s propeller out of the sand and making sure we didn’t get stuck on an outgoing tide. We soon developed roles to mitigate the problem: Adam would stay at the helm, keeping us under 5 knots, and I’d stand on a cooler in the bow, giving me some elevation to spot any rocks or sand bars ahead.
Standing on the cooler was also useful in spotting schools of stripers, and polarized sunglasses were essential. I began to notice that my assumption that the bottom was relatively uniform was all wrong. There were channels, weed beds and even the occasional rock—some as big as a car. Scouting, along with utilizing Adam’s depth finder, was essential for not running aground or damaging the propeller or hull.
There were some sections of flats that Adam knew like the back of his hand from years of kayaking, and he could maneuver his boat through myriad channels right up to the grass beds along the shore. Still, I’d stand on the cooler just in case. The first time we took the 18-foot Scout into just 2 feet of water, I initially questioned our decision. But from my perch on the cooler, my doubts quickly faded. Giant stripers were there—sometimes entire schools, other times loners.
The cooler scouting did more for my understanding of the habits of striped bass than any other form of education. The knowledge gained from having my eyes approximately 7 or 8 feet above the water was incomparable. I could only imagine the detail that an osprey saw when looking down.
FOLLOW THE FOOD
Shrimp, crabs and sand eels are at home on the flats, and that brings in the predatory fish. On some of our earlier forays, I mistook huge schools of stripers for weed beds, but after hours on the cooler, my eyes became sensitive to movement. Fish would hear or see the boat coming and cruise out of the way, often making their escape at our 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. The best way to describe seeing bass on the sand from a moving boat is like looking out your car window at the patches of fresh tar on cracks in the road. Those dark spots remind me of the bass.
We never tried poling the boat with the motor off because we often had to spend more than an hour looking for fish. But once we found them, we’d cut the motor and drift.
We figured if we saw even just a couple of bass, there might be more in the area, so we’d let the wind and current carry the boat and hopefully intersect with more stripers. That happened often.
Wind could be our enemy or friend depending on how much it was blowing. I found that 5 to 10 knots moved us along quite nicely, and sometimes we’d cast for half an hour and never start the engine.
Too much wind would bring us to the fish too quickly, and the amount of time we had to cast before they spooked would be short. However, dead calm was what I dreaded most because we’d barely move and I’m an impatient fisherman. Sometimes, however, I’d be surprised on a windless day and see fish coming toward the boat, not veering off until just ten feet away.
But perfectly calm seas seem to make the fish especially wary about taking a fly or lure. Some wind is better, and wind along with low light is best. The fish are more aggressive then.
I began to notice that the fish within a school of stripers were usually uniform in size. "Rats," the smallest ones of about a foot long, tended to swim with other rats. Schoolies, those fish I classify as being in the 17- to 27-inch range, stayed with fish their own size. Same with the “nice” fish in the 28- to 39-inch range and even the hogs of 40 inches and greater. All seemed to stay with like-sized fish.
I could understand this behavior with bluefish, where the big ones will cannibalize the little ones, but I wasn’t aware that stripers did the same. Yet, I’m sure a big striper—being opportunistic—wouldn’t turn down a very small relative, and I’ll bet that innate fear of bigger fish keeps the smaller ones together. Indeed, a friend one told me of finding small striped bass fry in the stomach of a big one.
While this rule of thumb of fish keeping within their own class size is what I observed most of the time, every now and then we’d find a keeper bass hanging on the fringe of a school of smaller-size fish. And that exception is why I always take a few casts, even when the fish I can see are mere toddlers.
Adding to the challenge of flats fishing is that fish in shallow water spook easily, which is understandable. They can’t dive and hide, and their dark backs stand out against a sandy bottom. Instinctively, small striped bass know there’s a risk of being plucked from the sea by a bird of prey such as an osprey, and their wariness tends to increase as spring turns to summer.
Perhaps this is because of the rise in fishing pressure, or maybe it’s the influx of predators such as seals and sharks. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both factors. Regardless, poor casts can scare fish as well.
It’s best to drop your lure at least 6 feet in front of the fish and then retrieve it away from it. If you put the cast right on its head, most fish will scatter (although every now and then I’ve seen a big hog inhale the offering immediately, perhaps thinking a bird dropped if from the sky.) Generally speaking, you don’t want to do anything to put the fish on edge. Avoid casting over the pod of stripers because your lure will be coming at them on the retrieve, and baitfish don’t normally swim directly at a school of predators.
SLUG IT OUT
My favorite lure on the flats is a white or silver Sluggo, about 8 to 10 inches long, fished on the surface. By constantly jerking the rod tip, I cause the Sluggo to send out ripples and sometimes a small splash of water. Stripers find it irresistible, and they will almost always follow a Sluggo on a medium retrieve.
That doesn’t mean they will bite it, though, so vary the speed of your retrieve until you find the sweet spot. Sometimes I’ll cast 20 or 30 times before a single fish—either hungry or just pissed-off by the teasing nature of the lure—will attack it. If you see a near-miss or get a strike but the hook doesn’t find purchase—immediately stop your retrieve for a second or two before beginning again. Quite often, that is when the striper inhales the bait, most likely thinking it was injured and now it’s getting away.
This is easier said than done because most fisherman get a shot of adrenaline after a near-miss and instinctively increase the speed of the retrieve. This is the opposite of what you should do. Make your bait look like it was stunned for a second, then continue the retrieve and get ready for a savage strike.
Should you find the stripers reluctant to hit on the surface, stay with the white or silver Sluggo (or a similar type of lure), but add weight so it rides a couple feet below the surface. If that doesn’t work, switch to a smaller lure—perhaps just 4 inches in length.
I sometimes fish for stripers with a fly rod, and there are many advantages to its "soft" presentation. Plus, even the smallest striper feels bigger on a fly rod. Fly fisherman also have the advantage of working smaller offerings, which can be the key to success some days.
So many times, while standing on the cooler, I’ve watched stripers focus on one kind of bait of a certain size, while ignoring every cast Adam and I made with anything that wasn’t a perfect match. Seeing stripers locked into a certain bait—sometimes an incredibly small one—while turning up their noses at every lure in your tackle box is frustrating. It is also a thing of beauty that can be enjoyed on the countless flats along the Atlantic coast in early summer.
- This article on striper fishing was featured in the East edition of May's Game & Fish Magazine. Learn how to subscribe.