Wading the flats: No boat required

Flats are best fished while wading and are accessible to almost everyone
grass flats redfish
Photo: Tim Boothe

When I first started saltwater fly fishing, I waded the flats out of necessity. I had no choice, because I had no boat. Now I have a boat. But I still wade because I want to, not because I have to. Here’s why.

Convenience

There’s no easier way to fish. It doesn’t matter of if you live in Florida, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, New Jersey or Massachusetts. Wadeable water is nearby—particularly up and down the East Coast and Gulf Coast. And you can be on the water in a matter of minutes. Have an hour to spare on your lunch break? Or after work before heading home? You can fish. Gone are the days when you need an entire day off from work to fish.

You will fish more, and as a result, you will become a better angler.

Cost

Wading is dirt cheap. All you need is some sort of pack and a pair of flats boots. You can have both for less than $200, easy. Buy a kayak, canoe, paddleboard or a Jon boat, and any of these will set you back a grand or two. Do the math. Wading is ideal for the do-it-yourself angler. For newbies just starting out, there may be no better way to go.

The Learning Curve

I started out fly fishing mountain streams, the traditional A River Runs Through It, classic fly fishing in the mountains of Virginia. After some initial struggles, I figured out where the fish were and why.

When I got to the Florida salt, I was totally lost.

Why? Because there’s a hell of a lot more water in the salt than in the fresh, which means the fish are a lot harder to find on the flats if you’re a greenhorn. Wading teaches patience and stealth. There’s no wax-on, wax-off moment, where you get totally dialed in. If you wade, you will gradually learn how to see fish and approach them.

Ideally, you want a combination of grass, which holds the baitfish, and sand, which does not hold baitfish, but gives you a chance to see the fish as they move through the clumps of grass.

When you wade, it’s tougher to see fish than on the bow of a boat, but if you can spot fish wading, you will be razor sharp on a skiff.

No Need for the Gym

The sport of fly fishing is not known for producing decathletes. However, wading is good for you physically. You likely will find yourself on softer ground covered by mud and grass, a good source of food and cover for the fish, but lousy footing for the fisherman. Fortunately, the muscles in your feet, calves and core will help keep you upright.

And, yes, you will walk, maybe as much as 4, 5 miles during a half day of fishing.

When I started out and didn’t know any better, I walked maybe 10, 15 minutes max. I figured that was ample. It wasn’t. I needed to push out to the very edge of the flat to follow the fish in on the incoming tide.

Put simply, I was too close to the mangroves on my initial efforts, which would have worked well on a higher tide. Not so on a low.

Because I often sacrifice mental dexterity for sheer perseverance, it took me a few months to realize that I was too close to the shoreline. So, a word to the wise: Don’t hug the mangroves—at least on a low incoming tide—push out as far as you can toward the edge of the flat in knee-deep water until you find fish.

Where to Go

Google Earth is your friend. Find the shallow water. Find the flats. Then look for places you can walk in. Sometimes this will be obvious—a public park or boat ramp. Don’t fish these spots during the weekend. You’ll get smothered by non-anglers, who will think nothing of sloshing through your school of tailing reds with a family of five on their jet skis.

For weekends, I like more seclusion. One of my favorite Sunday afternoon spots is a few feet off a busy highway through a cut in the mangroves that leads to a nice mud flat covered with spartina grass, a haven for redfish on the flood tides. It’s a spot that’s easy to see, but hard to access, unless you have an eye for detail.

A Word on Safety

Always take a bottle of water. Dehydration is indeed a threat. I keep an extra bottle in my Jeep when I’m done. Watch your step as well. It seems simple, but always test the ground around you before charging out on the flat. Turtle grass usually means tough wading, as do oyster bars. Sometimes water close to shore can yield solid footing, sometimes not. Walk slowly at first. Shuffle to keep you balance. Better yet, if you’re not sure about the footing of a particular area, ask a local. Wading can be extremely rewarding, but it’s no fun when you’re stuck up to your waist in mud.

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