Tips for Finding Shallow Saltwater Fish, Fast
With seemingly endless miles of coastal saltwater to fish, in this case it pays to break the speed limit when looking for pockets of active fish willing to bite
While I love fishing inshore and nearshore for various saltwater species, there is one major obstacle: too much water!
I’m subject to fish any stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast that features tidal creeks, bays, flats, marshes, barrier islands and passes. Covering so much water is intimidating, especially since I don’t have a local information network to put me “on the pulse” with a phone call. For me, I still have to find fish the old fashion way: cover as much water as possible.
It’s a daunting task with so much water, so little time.
To merge my water-covering process into the fast lane, I have taken a page out of the playbooks of the best professional bass anglers in the world. These guys are in the business of finding fish fast. In some cases, they must pare down a 100,000-acre waterway in three days to find productive areas.
Sure, a lot more public information and history is available for finding bass locations on freshwater reservoirs, but I can assure you the on-the-water search process of these pros is still very labor intensive. Covering water quickly is a critical part of their success. For that reason, top bass pros have fine-tuned their water-covering tactics to maximum efficiency.
I have been lucky to share a boat with top bass pros like Kevin VanDam (KVD) and Bryan Thrift during a tournament practice day and it was an eye-opening experience in terms of increasing speed and efficiency in my own fishing. During practice, these guys are mostly concerned with covering water and getting bites – not necessarily catching fish.
It’s full speed ahead with reaction baits like buzzbaits, jerkbaits, lipless rattlers and crankbaits. They intentionally stay with lures they can cast far and wind fast. Their objective is to get fish to “show themselves,” perhaps by just boiling up under a buzzbait or flashing up behind a jerkbait. In some cases, they intentionally remove their hooks so they don’t hook fish.
Their mission in practice is to find productive areas with fish activity while eliminating miles of dead water. Once they get a bite or two in an area, they move on to cover more water. During the tournament hours they will return to places where they had bites, slow down and work an area more thoroughly with slower lures.
Picking Up the Pace
After observing this high-speed practice process of bass pros, I began to realize my search process at the coast was far too slow … I’m talking glacial slow. My goal might be to fish a 10-mile stretch of water in a day and I’d only cover two or three miles.
The problem was I kept trying to mix in slower lures like popping corks, weightless flukes or slow-sinking jigs into my search-bait arsenal. These are all highly-effective lures and techniques once you find the fish, but the truth is they are slow search baits when compared to saltwater reaction baits like spoons, jerkbaits, bucktails and topwaters.
These reactionary-type lures are something to throw while looking for bait, water-color changes, tide lines, troughs, sand holes, inflows, outflows, etc. If there are fish in the area they are going to react to these lures in some way, either by biting, following or flashing on the baits. Once fish show themselves, I mark the spot and then keep moving. It’s hard to resist the temptation to slow down and fish with slower lures but stopping to fish an area for an hour or so is what kills the water-coverage process.
The Speed Team
Search lures must cast far, be retrieved quickly and should elicit some kind of reaction from predator fish. Also, I stick to “hard” or “bare” lures without tails or swimmers during the search process to avoid constant bait maintenance and tinkering. These four baits make for an efficient water-covering team in saltwater.
Spoons: I usually have two types of spoons tied on during a search day. One is a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce weedless spoon like a Johnson’s Silver Minnow (gold) and the other is traditional 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Krocodile or Sprite spoon with a treble hook.
When searching around any kind of shallow grass, the weedless spoon is my go to choice. If it’s more open, deeper flats or around passes or bay mouths, the Crocodile gets the nod. Spoons cut the air well, cast far, cover water fast and attract attention from game fish.
A jerkbait is hard to beat when searching for active shallow-saltwater fish, especially trout. (Rob Newell photo)
Jerkbaits: This one is straight out of KVD’s playbook. He loves covering water fast with suspending jerkbaits when searching for smallmouths on grass flats. Searching for sea trout and reds in clear water grass flats is almost an identical scenario. Over the last couple of years I’ve become a fan of Rapala’s X-Rap Series (size 10) and Shadow Rap Series (size 11) of suspending jerkbaits. On a spinning rod, these minnow imitators cast far and can be twitched and ripped back at high speeds. Keep an eye out for flashes and followers under these baits as curious trout check them out.
Topwaters: Walk-the-dog type topwaters such as Super Spooks and Skitterwalks are excellent search baits, however, they do still require a lot of time to walk the lure correctly. A couple of years ago I discovered River2Sea’s Whopper Plopper and it has become my favorite fast moving topwater for a search lure.
The Whopper Plopper combines the speed of a buzzbait with the castability and baitfish profile of a Spook or Skitterwalk. This unique lure comes in two sizes 90mm and 130mm and I actually use the smaller one (90mm) for searching flats. Tying it on a spinning rod with about 12- to 15-pound-test braid to a 15-pound monofilament leader lets this thing fly. Sometimes fish clobber it but sometimes they just wake it or boil under it, and that’s really all I’m after when I’m in search mode. When I return to the area to actually fish, I will certainly slow down with other topwaters to entice more bites.
Bucktail jig: A bucktail or pompano jig is another bare-bones lure that spells efficiency for covering water. I prefer pompano jigs because the colors are loud to get attention and the skirts are cut shorter. Sometimes I’ll take a ½-ounce bucktail and give it a haircut, trimming the skirt all the way down till it just covers the hook. I do this so the jig will throw farther and sink faster. Again, it’s all about speed and efficiency. This basic jig is an awesome search bait for cuts, passes, peninsula tips and sand bars where anything from pompano to redfish to whiting to flounder might be passing through.
Putting It All Together
These days when I go to the coast, I like to designate at least one day to search, covering miles of water with the trolling motor on high while flinging these search lures as far as I can. If I get a reaction from a fish, I’ll resist the temptation to slow down and start switching up to other baits. Instead, I’ll just mark the area on GPS, come back to it the next day and mine it with more deliberate topwaters, slower-falling plastics, spinnerbaits, Chatterbaits and scented baits such as Gulp. Staying on the move and not getting hung up on the first place I get a bite has proven to be a huge benefit; my water-covering capacity has increased tremendously.
Some of the best places I’ve found at the coast have come from this sheer water-covering approach, thanks in large part bass pros who have pioneered the process of covering vast amounts of water with reaction baits.