July 12, 2021
The age of low-impact fishing has arrived on the flats, as kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and technical skiffs are seemingly everywhere. But if you want to go one better, your first step should be off the watercraft altogether. Getting down in the water with the fish takes away most of the advantages our finned foes have over us. Wade the right way and they’ll be unlikely to see or hear you, and getting ridiculously close to usually wary fish like lunker sea trout, tailing reds and prowling snook becomes far easier.
Wading has distinct advantages, and these become immediately apparent in areas with clear water and high fishing pressure. I’ve sometimes been amazed that I have to almost step on redfish to spook them when I’m wading—the same fish that are gone at the swing of a rod in a boat 30 yards away. For those lucky enough to fish where neurotic bonefish and permit swim, wading is considerably more effective than casting from a boat.
The biggest difference is in the profile you present. When you’re up to your waist in water, you’re almost completely unobtrusive and don’t cast much more shadow than a blue heron does. Below the surface, your legs and feet could be seen as a couple of dock pilings or a mangrove stump.
Once you learn to go slow enough and slide your feet, you’ll be able to move almost noiselessly. It’s almost like still-hunting for whitetails—a step or two and then a stop as you move your eyes to scan every possible fishy-looking shadow, bump and pothole, then another step and so on. The slower you go, the more fish seem to pop up. Conversely, if you get in a hurry you won’t see anything but disappearing tails—both when fishing and deer hunting.
WHERE TO WADE
All the usual tricks of flats angling apply, of course, and the first is to fish where the fish are. Look for areas where there’s good current flow across a flat, obvious bait movement and plenty of grass, preferably dotted with the occasional sand hole, slough or prop wash to provide low-tide refuges.
You’ll also want to seek out flats with reasonably firm bottoms. Some areas of the Florida Keys and Pine Island Sound on Florida’s west coast are composed of soft marl that makes wading nearly impossible. Firm sand, broken shell and scattered lime rock are preferable.
It’s best to wade with the sun at your back when possible, giving you the ability to more easily see fish with quality polarized glasses. A long-billed cap to shade the lenses will help a lot. Ideally, you’ll wade into or quarter against the tide flow so that your bait can come back to you rather than swim away. Actual baitfish usually go with the flow, and sportfish hunt into current or hold in one spot to ambush bait as it approaches.
You’ll succeed more quickly if you study the terrain in advance via satellite views and look for flats that form a point or hump jutting into deeper water, as well as for choke points where large bays neck into smaller ones.
Where there’s a barrier reef-type sandbar on the edge of the flats (these occur mostly in areas where there is tidal flow), look for cuts through the bar, as these are fish highways both as the tide begins to rise and in the last hour of the fall. Areas between mangrove islands often get scoured out by the tides, and these channels are always fishy. Oyster bars should never be overlooked, of course, and they’re even better if the bar happens to jut off the point of an island, causing a current bulge when the flow is on.
There are a few disadvantages to wading, of course. For one, your range is extremely limited because you can’t cross water much deeper than 4 feet without taking a swim (unless you’re exceedingly tall). This means you have to scout out your options in advance, preferably by boat, to put yourself in the ballpark on a “live” flat where deep channels won’t prevent you from getting to the prime spots.
Wading is slow, of course, so if you see fish blowing bait out of the water 200 yards down the shore, it’s going to take you a long time to get there—maybe too long to get in on the action. And, because the tide flows peak at different spots at different times, your red-hot spot at 7 a.m. may be stone cold by 8 o’clock as the tide goes dead. Then you have to wade back to the boat to move to the next flat with good flow.
And if you get a half-mile from the boat and suddenly realize you’re really tired, you’ve got a slog back that’ll seem a lot longer than it did on the way out.
But, in general, these minor inconveniences are quickly forgotten when a yard-long snook grabs your lure and heads for the mangroves.
Less is more when it comes to lures, and you can’t carry a big tacklebox anyway. Everything you need will go into shirt pockets, a wading vest or hip pack.
Most flats wading experts I know carry very light jig heads—typically 1/8-ounce heads with size 3/0 hooks—rigged with 4- to 6-inch pearl-color shad-type tails. Z-Man has a bunch of good ones made of super-tough TPE plastic.
Be sure to add a twitch bait or two to your arsenal. The LiveTarget Scaled Sardine and the MirrOlure MirrOdine are hard to beat, with the latter being better for deeper flats and the former for shallow ones.
Definitely include a plastic shrimp—or several if you’re in blowfish country where bite-offs are likely. The D.O.A. 4-inch model is my favorite, and the Z-Man EZ Shrimp is also very good. For redfish, a Berkley Gulp! Alive! Peeler Crab is a great alternative.
You’ll also want a topwater—one of the easiest to work and most effective is the Rapala Skitter V Walking Bait. The Wicked Walker from Marea Gear also does the job, as do many others.
A good way to transport lures when wade fishing is in separate pill bottles. Just be sure to rinse off your lures and bottles with fresh water at the end of the day.
A FEW CAUTIONS
There are some risks in wade fishing, and one that is widely present is the Southern stingray. You don’t have to worry about the adults that would fill a bushel basket; they’re not often found in wading depths. But their offspring, about the size of a pie plate, are everywhere on some flats. Just like flounder, they flutter a bit on a sandy bottom to get a light film of sand or mud on their backs, making them all but invisible.
They are small, but their sting is mighty. Go slow and do the "sting-ray shuffle," keeping your feet in constant contact with the bottom, and they will nearly always scoot out in front of you. I’ve been stuck only once in more than 25 years of wading the Florida flats. It was sufficiently horrible, however. If you do get stuck, the cure is immersing the wound in hot water within 30 minutes or so, which de-activates the pain-causing poison. You’ll then need a tetanus shot, without fail.
Sharks are no issue on most flats, but I have had a few bulls take an interest in me when wading murky flats just outside the rivers that feed out of the Everglades. Wherever the water is murky, there is lots of bait and lots of sharks, so you have to stay alert.
Of course, if you plan to keep fish and are wading where sharks are likely, you’ll want to put them on a very, very long stringer and attach it to your belt with a quick-release knot.
Spinning tackle with plenty of reach is the preferred rig for most coastal wading. A rod 7 to 7 1/2 feet long with a 2500- to 3000-size reel loaded with 10-pound-test braid is the preferred setup for most shallow-water wading aficionados.
The best leader is typically 20-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon, though in extremely clear water I typically switch to 15-pound-test. About 18 inches that hangs beyond the rod tip is sufficient, though many who have been at it a long time will use a leader that’s several feet in length so they don’t have to tie on a new leader at an point during the day. The original is simply cut back a couple inches with each change of lures. Plus, some attribute an increase in bites to the added length of the nearly invisible leader. The line-to-leader knot is usually a Double-Uni Knot, while a MirrOlure loop knot or similar attaches the lure, allowing it to pivot freely.
Wading boots are a must to keep your feet from getting cut by shells and lime rock bottom. Never attempt to wade barefooted or in flip-flops.
Economical wading boots like the Magellan Outdoors models available at Academy Sports for less than $30 are fine for sand and grass flats and general use. If you wade where there’s some shell, or do it regularly, a more substantial model like the Simms Zipit Bootie II ($99.99; simmsfishing.com) will provide longer service. If you fish a sharp lime rock or lava bottom, a hard-sole model like the Simms Flats Sneaker ($169.95) will give much better protection.
Other odds and ends include quick-drying apparel made of synthetics, not cotton; a belt-type rod holder to secure your rod while changing lures or unhooking fish; pliers or forceps and a line nipper on retainers so you don’t lose them; a holster for a water bottle; and your phone, car keys and fishing license in a zip-top or dry bag.