We have all seen the various advertisements and reviews of the latest and greatest in flats boats being built today, often drooling at the mere thought of ownership one day. Afterall, for the serious flats fisherman, a flats skiff is one of the more essential tools available to stalk his or her quarry. A tool, you ask? Yes-a tool, just like your flyrod and reel, your pliers, or your vise. How you use each tool usually determines the amount of success one experiences. It doesn't matter if you are redfishing in the Mosquito Lagoon or scouting out the salt ponds Beaufort, South Carolina, sightfishing from a flats boat requires certain elements of understanding and common sense from both the angler and the person poling the skiff.
Whether you are pursuing giant tarpon in crystal clear Caribbean waters or watching the trout rise in Montana, absolutely nothing is more exciting than sightfishing. You know what I'm talking about. How many of us are seasoned fly anglers that throw perfect loops when blind casting, only to have the knees go weak when you are faced with a tailing fish at 70 feet? That's excitement! Now throw a sixteen to eighteen-foot flats boat into the picture. This is where things can get frustrating, even for those of you who do not get the "shakes" when it's time to deliver a good cast.
A successful outing in the skinny waters of Mosquito Lagoon starts with boat positioning. Sun can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. How you use the sun will be a major factor in actually seeing the fish you are stalking. With the exception of before sunrise conditions when you can barely see, I always position the boat so that the sun is at my back. By doing this, the flat is "lit up" in front of me and the client on board can spot fish I call out from the platform. Think of it this way; can you see oncoming cars when you are driving down the road with the sun in your face? The glare from the sun hampers your vision, and you can bet that the cars coming at you (with the sun at their back) can make out every word of that song you are lip-syncing. Even on cloudy days you should be able to estimate the position of the sun and use peripheral light to your advantage. Keep in mind that extreme sun angles are more prevalent in the winter months as the sun leans southward over Mosquito Lagoon.
OK, so the sun can be an ally, but how can it hurt you even when it's at your back? One of the many byproducts of the sun is a shadow. While the sun at your back enables you to see fish clearly, you must remember that you are in a boat. Not only that, but there is a person standing nearly five feet above the surface of the water at the stern. Between the boat and the person poling, a substantial shadow is being cast onto the water in front, or to the side of you. Boats being poled move, and skinny water Mosquito Lagoon predators don't take kindly to shadows moving at them.
How many times have you seen a tern or seagull fly high over a school of mullet, causing a ruckus on the surface? It wasn't the bird that frightened the mullet-it was the shadow made by the bird. Be aware of the shadow you cast when nearing fish in shallow water.
Last summer I was fishing with a gentleman from Atlanta, Georgia in the Mosquito Lagoon during perfect weather conditions-no wind, no clouds, and pleasant temperatures After a lot of poling I spotted a group of redfish tailing along a shoreline and began a careful approach from deeper water. My client was naturally excited, as was I. As we neared the fish, the tails dropped and the fish virtually disappeared in front of us. We were absolutely quiet on the approach and became completely bewildered why the fish spooked. As I looked around for other signs of fish, I noticed a depression had been made in the sand/grass bottom from the direction we started poling towards the fish. A sure way to spook wary fish is to try and pole in water too shallow for your boat.
Fish have a sensory system that humans can only begin to imagine, and the sound of gel-coat rubbing along the sand is transmitted through the water approximately five times faster than through air. In hindsight, the best thing to do would have been to ask the client to wade to the tailing fish. If your boat is dragging bottom and you are not seeing fish, you are most likely pushing the limits of your skiff.
The flats skiff isn't the only tool you have that may be rubbing the bottom and alerting fish of your presence. What about the push pole? A lot of people think poling a boat is pretty simple. Well, it is. However, it is how you pole the boat that may determine success or failure on the flats. To approach wary fish by poling requires very deliberate movements with the pole. When the pole is placed in the water, don't just drop it into the water while using one hand as a guide. Obviously, this causes a splash and a certain warning signal to the fish. Furthermore, after you have pushed the boat, do not let the pole glide along in the water as the boat drifts forward. This also causes unnatural sounds to be transmitted through the water. Ideally, you should gently place the pole into the water until contact is made with the bottom and slowly push the boat along. Then, completely pick the pole up out of the water and begin again. Due to varying bottom structure on Mosquito Lagoon, some noises cannot be avoided. They can, however, be minimized by making the above-described deliberate movements while using the push pole.
I didn't mention trolling motors here, but it goes without saying that they emit enough noise to scare fish from a long way off and that's why I personally don't own one.
To complicate matters more, Mosquito Lagoon fly fisherman must recognize that excessive movement (usually from false casting) has the potential to alert shallow water fish even when your approach is perfect. Try to keep false casting to a minimum. Excessive false casting not only increases the chances of a fish detecting movement, but can also promote boat movement which will alert Mosquito Lagoon Redfish.
Try this. The next time you are out on the water, stand at the bow of your boat and shift your weight from one foot to the other. You will easily see that waves emit from either side of the boat. This is a definite no-no. Depending on your boat, you may also detect some noise. Practice not using your arm, and not body weight, as a means of casting energy.
The person poling must also take into consideration that he or she is holding a twenty-foot long pole, and that he is elevated well above the surface of the water. A novice poler may tend to make unnecessary movements when the angler is presenting his fly, lure or bait to Mosquito Lagoon Redfish. I would recommend gently picking the pole up out of the water and holding it just above the surface, at the same time keeping it perfectly still. Of course, holding the boat in a certain position due to wind may make this impossible. Additionally, the poler must also remain still to enhance stealth. By holding the pole just above the surface, the person poling is able to quickly and quietly make adjustments if needed.
By now you surely recognize the consequences of unnecessary noise on the flats of Mosquito Lagoon, and though we may not be able to completely eliminate all noise, we can take steps to minimize the negative effects on our fishing.
Capt. Scott MacCalla
Mosquito Lagoon - Indian River Fishing Guide
Article published May 2003, Onshore-Offshore Magazine