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Spotting the Spots
By Captain Keith Kalbfleisch
I ran into a fellow fisherman the other day form Orlando that had fished for redfish for five months and had not caught one—I caught two that morning and considered it quite slow. He stated he didn’t even see a decent fish, despite being in an area that typically holds fish. Part of the reason for success on the flats, and a major part of the excitement, is actually spotting the fish—something different from many kinds of fishing.
In most kinds of fishing we are looking for signs or conditions rather than the fish themselves. For example, offshore we may look for rips, color changes, bait, weedlines, or even free-jumping or skyrocketing fish. These give us an idea that fish are in the area, but not have us target an individual fish. But on the flats, we are actually trying to see the fish, or where a fish might hold, to make a cast.
There is little in the fishing world that compares to spotting a fish, making a perfect cast, working your lure just right, and then seeing the fish pounce and scream away as you set the hook. However, if you can’t spot the fish in time, then all you are bound to see is a swirl as the fish flees, or nothing as it quietly skulks away.
We basically have two ways of seeing fish on the flats—actual fish, and water movements caused by fish activities.
To actually see the fish, we must look into the water—the exception to this is a tailing fish since it is sticking part of its body above the surface. Looking into the water is best done with the sun up and at your back. You are looking for: long shapes, flashes, color differences, and body parts.
Long shapes are typically a dark shape in a light-colored patch. There are few natural long shapes on the flats, so throw your lure at all of them. A few sticks and pipes will fool you, but it will often be worth the effort.
Many fish have shiny sides, and redfish are particularly reflective with sides like a newly-stamped coin. When a redfish feeds he may roll slightly, allowing the sun to “flash” off of his sides in a big copper burst. This can be distinguished from mullet that flash small, quick, and silver.
While a redfish is excellent at camouflaging itself to the environment, it is not perfect. Watch for anything that is light against a dark bottom, or dark against a light bottom. Sometimes this is a matter of degrees, with the difference being quite small. Gray shadows are always worth throwing to.
Look for body parts? Absolutely. A redfish has distinctive orange-pink fins, blue tails and white lips. I have often spotted fish by these characteristics. When you start looking for these, it will surprise you how often you will see fish.
We can also often see fish when they are feeding by noticing their tendency to “tail”. A tailing fish is tipping its nose to the bottom in order to find food or eat something. When this happens the tail rises and pokes above the water. Be careful not to think it will be an apparent thing—often it is only the tip of the tail quietly rising and falling above the surface. But be alert, because this happens often.
Unfortunately, we can’t always see into the water due to weather conditions—but we can still see fish. When a fish is feeding or moving it creates a disturbance in the water that can be “read” by the alert angler to find fish. I refer to these movements as primarily wakes and swirls.
A wake is the disturbance in the water when the fish is swimming. The trick is to distinguish the wake from non-game species like mullet and catfish. Normally, the wake of a game fish is steadier, not wandering in circles. Also, the wake of a redfish or large trout often has a “hump” look to it as it pushes water up and over its head.
I like to throw at all wakes, even when I think it is a non-game fish. There could be a big trout following those mullet, or it might be a good fish swimming slowly. Last year I threw my lure at what I thought was a mullet—it ended up being a trout almost 30 inches long! Remember that a wake is coming from behind the fish as the water swirls to the surface, so you must compensate by leading to the front of the fish.
Swirls are disturbances made by feeding fish that are totally under the water. I watch for any movement that is out of the ordinary. Often the water will just swirl up when a redfish turns to feed on something. Anything that “raises” the surface of the water momentarily is worthy of a cast. As with tailing fish, this can be subtle, so watch carefully, casting even if you are not sure what you saw.
While much of seeing fish on the flats comes with practice, there are some things you can do to give yourself an edge. Primarily, wear good polarized glasses and a long-billed cap. These items will help cut the glare, assisting you in seeing in the water.