Part III in a Three Part Series
A Deep Look into Drifting Shallow Water
It was early afternoon, mid-spring. The rising tide's progress was evident as the previously exposed flat, of an hour earlier, began to disappear below the surface of the water. A light breeze was casting an ever-so-slight ripple on the bay. Small batfishes were flipping on the surface. The many sandy patches scattered across the vast saltwater grass flats were being revealed by the sun overhead. I remarked to the other two anglers on my boat "there is only one piece of the puzzle left to find... fish".
Vast areas of shallow water can prove to be very productive and sometimes very frustrating, for fisherman trying to locate concentrations of fish. Knowing where and how to start a search for productive shallow water is essential, along with the ability to move about quietly. At times, a trolling motor or push-pole are good options for moving about the shallows, like discussed in the previous two articles of this series, but not always. Drifting is definitely the quietest way to locate fish while exploring, looking for fish, or simply accessing shallow areas that may harbor fish.
On the particular day I am speaking of, we were fishing pristine St. Joe Bay, located in Florida's Panhandle Region. For those who are not familiar with St. Joe Bay, it is a hyper-saline environment. This means the bay's salinity is very high due to a lack of freshwater inflow, thus presenting extremely clear-water. Couple clear-water with miles of extremely shallow flats, and you'll find a shallow-water anglers wonderland. But, at the same time, these parameters can create a nightmare when it comes to locating fish for the area newcomer.
The afternoon was perfect to say the least, but not knowing exactly where to start, I eased my skiff up-wind of a flat, where on previous adventures to the bay I'd found success. I killed the switch on the motor, raised my jack-plate and cocked the motor hard to the right so the boat would drift beam first. Drifting quietly across the flat, we began casting in a fan pattern to every visible sand-indention within reach, in hopes of finding a willing customer or two. It didn't take long before we were into our first school of redfish, after that, we managed a few very nice trout. Once we located fish, we were able to stay in the area by quietly moving and strategically positioning the boat to drift the area numerous times.
Drifting in a boat seems to be a favorite way for many anglers to locate a concentration of fish, especially in deeper water. But, there is a difference in aimlessly drifting the flats trying to locate fish and drifting shallow water with a purpose in mind. When I speak of shallow water, I am speaking of water that is two-feet deep or less. Often, these shallow areas hold large numbers of fish just waiting to be caught. But, the trick to getting close enough for a well placed cast is accessing the area quietly. Stealth is the reason many kayak anglers are finding great success. They are able to get into shallow water with minimal disturbance. Traditional boat owners can do the same. Obviously, most traditional mono-hull boats won't float as shallow as a kayak, but many smaller boats do have the ability to float in a foot of water, and maybe less.
Respecting the Environment
First let me say, be very careful not to damage the bottom or sea-grasses when entering into any extremely shallow expanse of water. Prop-scars take a long time to heal and are having a devastating effect on Florida's shallow grass flats. Besides, entering an extremely shallow area with the big motor defeats the purpose of trying to be quite.
Know Your Boat
Finding the best time to fish shallow expanses of water is paramount and more times than not, a rising tide is the best bet. Fishing on a falling tide can be tricky and leave you stranded if you are not familiar with tides, bottom and water depths in the area. Use the tide and wind to your advantage. Allow the current to propel your vessel. Go with the flow and make sure the weight in the boat is evenly displaced. This will reduce the amount of hull-slap created and the possibility of the boat contacting the bottom in extremely shallow water. Know what the draft is on your boat.
Your motor is a rudder and should be used to adjust the angle and direction the boat drifts. I personally like to drift with as much of the boat's beam forward as possible. This gives each angler onboard plenty of casting room. A trolling motor or push pole can be used to adjust the path you drift on. But, remember you are trying to be as quite as possible. Experiment with different motor angles and learn how your boat reacts.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are irreplaceable when determining the direction you are drifting; especially when you are drifting an area repeatedly. The auto-track feature, when displayed, will provide you with a reference line of your current location and where you have previously drifted. Let me stop here and point out something very important. When you plan to drift an area multiple times, do not follow the track line back to the desired starting point. Instead, make a wide arch around the area you want to drift back through and stop the boat well ahead of your target location. This will minimize the chances of disturbing a productive area.
As well, a GPS unit will allow you to mark and save the location of bottom features, structure and areas that have previously held fish. If used in correlation with other information like wind direction, water temperature, depth and tidal flow... it can be a key to unlock an area's secret. Many marine GPS units available in today's market offer all the necessary information an angler would desire in a compact machine easily mounted on a small boat. Just think... why would you not want to know your current location, what the tide is doing, the water temperature, moon phase and depth - it's all applicable to finding and repeating success.
A small drift-sock or sea-anchor is important to have onboard. Several manufacturers like Minn Kota, offer different drift-socks tailored to best fit your needs. A drift-sock, when deployed, will slow the speed of your drift. Slowing the boat allows an area to be thoroughly dissected. The slower you drift through an area, the more likely you are to find fish. Additionally, the angle at which the boat drifts across the water can be adjusted depending upon where the sock is attached to the boat. Drift-socks can even help stabilize your boat in choppy water.
Using a stake-out pole like the Cajun Anchor, or a Power-Pole, which can be deployed quietly and with relative ease, will allow you to stop the boat during your drift if the need arises; whether it's to fight a fish or to thoroughly fish an area that is holding fish. A small anchor on a short rope may also suffice.
Getting it Done, Quietly!
Regardless of how quite we try to be we will always make a little noise, but there are a few rules which keep noise, or potential noise, to a minimal. Keep the cockpit of the boat clear of unnecessary clutter, which can be bumped into or accidentally kicked around. Try to keep movement in the boat to a minimum and speak quietly. Don't drop objects or slam lids on coolers and hatches. Focus on being quite and the task at hand. Be aware of your surroundings and the current conditions, and when you find success, take note - success repeats itself for a reason. When this happens and you recognize it, you are on the way to putting another piece in the puzzle of shallow-water fishing, and have probably begun to look deeper into the art of shallow water drifting.
Just Out of Reach
Big fish don't get big by not being aware of their surroundings. Long casts, or the ability to make a long cast is imperative. When fishing an extremely shallow area, I cast the bait as far as I can, then begin to retrieve the bait at different speeds to try and figure out what will entice a strike. My favorite baits are un-weighted plastic baits, small weed-less spoons, top-water plugs and shallow-running stick-baits. As well, small live-baits can be very effective in shallow water. Light or medium-light tackle is the best choice for this type of fishing. Eight-pound spinning outfits with seven to seven-and-a-half-foot rods are ideal for extremely light offerings. When using plugging rods, I like to use the same length as my spinning outfits and step-up to 12 to 17 lb line. Most of the time, I will use a double uni-knot to attach a three foot section of 16-20lb fluorocarbon leader to my mainline for added protection against abrasion.