"Just off the bow... 2 o'clock," I whispered. I could see tails rising from the shallow water covering the flat - my angler couldn't. The glare from the morning sun was directly in his eyes. I needed to reposition the skiff so my angler could see the school. Slowly and methodically, with the aid of my push-pole, I eased him into position. One well-placed cast later, an epic light-tackle battle occurred, and eventually, a beautiful copper redfish was brought boat-side for release.
Silence is golden
Shallow-water anglers are precarious and should probably be grouped into a separate segment of the fishing population - one by themselves. A segment that relies on polarized sunglasses and skiffs with very shallow drafts, that sport strange looking perches. These anglers pride themselves in owning reels with extremely smooth drags and rods capable of delivering offerings that weigh a mere fraction-of-an-ounce to fish well out of normal casting range.
Though the list of tools and characteristics mentioned may vary depending on the angler, anybody who pursues fish in extremely shallow water, and wants to be successful, has a common need; to be as quite as possible. Silence is golden when pursuing fish in skinny-water.
One of the most effective tools a shallow water angler can have at their disposal is a push-pole. Whether it be on an open flat, in a salt marsh or along the bank of a creek, the only potential noise with poling comes from the operator, or the pole contacting the bottom. Thus, alleviating the need for mechanical propulsion and reducing the chance of any non-natural noise, which may alert fish.
I don't know how long the push-pole has been around, but if I had to guess, it probably would date back beyond reed-boats on the Nile River. Of course, the push-pole has evolved since it's early years, but its function is still the same: propulsion and steering. Modern day push-poles can be found in a variety of lengths, including different end attachments, and are constructed from several different types of materials. It's up to the angler to decide what best fits their needs.
The process of choosing a push-pole, for someone new to the idea of poling a boat, may be just a little perplexing, so lets look at a few things that should be considered.
How long of a pole will one need? Generally speaking, if you are poling from a non-elevated position on the deck of a boat, a 12- to 16-foot pole will work fine. If you'll be poling from an elevated platform, an 18- to 22-foot pole would be a better choice. The longer the pole, the fewer times you will have to pick it up out of the water.
What type of bottom will you be poling across? If you will be poling in mud, you may need a little longer pole and you will definitely want a fork at one end of the pole. If you are poling over firm bottom structure, you may be able to get by with a slightly shorter pole. A pointed metal tip on one end of the pole is a big help when planting a pole on hard bottom such as coral, shell or oyster.
How much time will you actually spend using the pole? If you plan on spending the majority of your time poling, a lighter pole is the best choice. There are quite a few poles available from various manufacturers that are made of composites, which are both light and strong. If you are only planning on using a pole occasionally, or for staking out, pushing off, drift control, etc., a heavier fiberglass model will work just fine and should come with a considerably smaller price tag. Also, if you wear any type of jewelry on your hands, a pole with a smooth finish may be more desirable. The ridges or twists in some pole's finishes may cause unwanted noise, which can telegraph from the pole through the water column.
Once the length and construction of the pole you will be using has been decided upon, there are a few basics to remember when poling a boat. While poling, you are steering and propelling from the rear of the boat for the most part. If you want to go in a straight line, the pole should be planted directly center of the transom. If you want to steer right, plant the pole to the right rear of the boat, and to steer left, plant the pole to the left rear. Your results will be just the opposite of what you should expect from using a paddle, as the boat will turn in the direction of the side you pushed from, instead of away from it. Yet, it's really quite simple and only takes a little practice to become proficient.
The other portion to the art of poling is, proper body mechanics. You will want to reach as far up the pole as possible while holding the pole as close to your body as you can. The push-pole should be tucked in close to your body, intersecting at a point near your hip as you begin to push. As you walk your hands up the pole, bend at the knees slightly, using your weight to create momentum. This will allow you to take some of the strain of poling off of your arms and upper-body. Once you reach the end of the pole, repeat the process again.
I think if you give the push-pole a shot and begin to utilize it as a tool, you will see how it can provide access to fish that are not normally accessible at times. The advantages of using a push-pole are great and it is definitely a good addition to the shallow water anglers list of tools, but there are times when maybe a pole is not the most practical means of approaching fish in shallow water. Over the next two parts of this series we will cover a couple of other methods, which can be just as effective for the angler if used properly. So, get out, grab a pole and see if you can get just a little closer to a few of those skinny-water fish that have been alluding you, just out of casting range.
Part II: The Troll
An electric way to stay on top of the situation
Apalachee Bay is located at the northwestern extreme of Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf of Mexico and is an inshore angler's paradise, plus my home stomping grounds. This bay harbors some unique features in its shallow waters, which make it an extremely productive fishery. But, at the same time, some of these features can become a boat owner's nightmare.
I was paying attention to the fish at the other end of my line pulling drag, when I happened to glance to my left and noticed we had drifted into an area of submerged rocks. Rocks which hold bait and big fish - the same type that like to eat gel-coat off the bottom of flats-skiffs and devour lower-units for breakfast. My intention was to be there, but not on top of a rock. With one quick motion, I pulled the release rope on my trolling motor and dropped the unit from deck to water. No damage was done and we continued to pull quality fish from the submerged area of structure, but making sure to stay on the peripheral. I have replayed similar scenarios in more than one instance in my saltwater fishing career and each time was happy to have a trolling motor at my disposal.
Trolling motors are a great addition to saltwater fishing boats while serving multiple purposes - the main one being an ability to move the boat and change direction with little effort, without the use of a combustion motor. When pursuing angling opportunities in relatively shallow water this can be a big plus. Positioning a boat to cast to a school of hungry redfish that is on the move or being able to get ahead of a pod of tarpon quickly, with very little commotion, is worth the cost of admission - if you are serious about your pursuit of inshore game fish. Remember, silence is golden when fishing shallow water. As well, a trolling motor can allow anglers to safely gain access to and navigate areas which may not be optimal for a boat's big motor.
Modern day saltwater trolling motors are an amazing work of engineering; capable of withstanding the harsh saltwater environment they are intended for use in. They are quite, energy efficient and can be mounted in various locations on a boat to best meet the angler's specific needs. Customization is no problem. If you can dream it, chances are it can be configured. Fore, aft, foot-control, remote control, removable, 12-, 24-, 36-volts, - name your power, variable speeds and multiple foot pounds of thrust are available. The choices are numerous and chances are, if you desire the addition of a trolling motor, one can be found to meet your needs.
The list of benefits is long and diverse, but with that said, a trolling motor is not the answer to all shallow water angling situations and can be a drawback in some situations. There are batteries to contend with which add extra weight to a vessel and electrical connections that may corrode. They take up some space and do produce some disturbance in the water, regardless of how quite they are. Though, many of the downsides can be avoided or adjusted to best meet a fisherman's needs.
The number of different models and designs of electric saltwater trolling motors available in today's marketplace can leave a buyer perplexed, wondering where to start. In an effort to supply a few standardized rules concerning the purchase and use of trolling motors, I contacted Joe Brown, Senior Brand Manager with Minn Kota. Minn Kota, a manufacturer of saltwater trolling motors and trolling motor accessories, supplies consumers with all the necessary information to make a sound buying decision. This information is available at www.minnkotamotors.com. But, I will not leave you at the mercy of a web search for some of the basics which Joe and I discussed.
As a rule of thumb, the more power the better. More specifically, the more foot pounds a motor produces, the quieter it is and the fewer disturbances it makes when pushing or pulling the boat through the water. The additional weight and space required, due to the size of the motor and number of batteries, should be taken into consideration when deciding on the proper trolling motor. Given that you don't want standard excess weight to negatively affect your boats performance.
Quality deep cycle marine batteries should be used to power the motor. Good, solid, electrical connections are important and the proper gauge of wire from the battery to motor connection should be used. This will keep electrical resistance to a minimum, provide an optimal operating situation and extend battery life.
Shaft length is very important and should be taken into account when deciding what model of trolling motor you are going to use, especially on a bow mount unit. In general, the center of the unit should be submerged a minimum of nine inches. The included diagram will explain how to properly measure shaft length. You will want to add a little extra length when calculating motor shaft length needed, if you plan on using the motor in rough water, as this will help minimize motor cavitations.
With the proper consideration, purchasing and installing the right saltwater trolling motor on your fishing boat should not be a problem. The use of a saltwater trolling motor will allow you to have one more tool to use in your pursuit of saltwater game fish and when the need arises, to move quickly and quietly into position for the cast of a life time.
Part III: The Drift
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.