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Summer Flats

Here in the South Carolina Lowcountry—and in many other skinny water fishing locales—summer fishing usually means soaking some kind of live or cut bait rather than throwing artificials on the flats, especially after the sun gets high. The water is just too hot and muddy on the flats, there's too much bait around, and the boat traffic is too heavy to effectively catch redfish, trout, and flounder on softbaits, right?

Wrong. A recent mid-day trip with Capt. Chris Wilson of FinAddict Fly and Light Tackle Charters (www.charlestonflyfishingguide.com) proved otherwise and served as a reminder of several tips that will help up the odds on the flats in the summertime.

1. Match the Hatch. While this adage is probably about as old as fishing, it still rings true now just as it did years ago. Leaving the dock at the crack of 9:00 am and an hour before high tide in the last week of May certainly isn't ideal timing for a redfish trip, but Chris put together a key piece of the puzzle when he noticed schools of small glass minnows (a common name for several species of anchovies and silversides) along the edge of the flooded marsh.

I quickly scaled down to 3" Slim SwimZ swimbaits on 3/16 ounce Trout Eye Finesse Jigheads to match the slender profile of the glass minnows and were quickly rewarded when the first redfish of the trip thumped mine just twenty minutes into the trip.

The other angler quickly followed suit and started hooking up with seatrout, ladyfish, and bluefish almost immediately.

2. Go Bright or Go Home. When the water temperature spikes in May, various algae species begin to proliferate, clouding up the water significantly until temps dip back down in the fall. Add a tremendous increase in boat traffic, and sometimes searching for 'clean water' that flats fishing enthusiasts relish could be an all-day affair.

The inevitability of dirty-looking water in the summer sometimes makes it necessary to just deal with it when other signs —like the presence of bait, birds, or breaking fish—point towards 'fishy.' The glass minnows that Chris located were in muddy water that was churned up by wind chop and boat wakes, and we quickly noticed that the bright Space Guppy color clearly outfished the more natural The Deal color.

The Space Guppy color consists of a hot chartreuse belly with a clear back with black and gold flake; even though the loud chartreuse color was a stark contrast from the natural baitfish coloration, it was highly visible despite the murky water, and Chris commented that the flake on the back of the bait offered just the right amount of flash.

If the bright colors won't do the trick, darker colors that stand out in off-colored water can be very effective. A little bit of sparkle—especially gold or copper flake—seems to be a major turn on in muddy water too. Baits that are mostly very light in color, translucent, or clear aren't as visible in dirty water and are useless unless the water is unseasonably clean.

3. Follow the Fish. In the cooler months, redfish group up and don't stay far from their home bases, but when the water heats up, they split up into smaller pods and move around freely as the tide rises and recedes. In the summer, reds commonly hold tight to the marsh edge or slide up into sparse spartina grass or feeder creeks on higher tides. As the tide pulls out of the grass, redfish move into the larger creeks, bays, and waterways and run oyster and mud banks at low tide searching for food and avoiding turning into food for bottlenose dolphin.

As the incoming tide peaked and started to ebb, we casted tight to the marsh edge, into areas with thinner grass, and across marsh points. Once our bait was a few cranks off the grass, we reeled in quickly and casted again. As the water pulled out of the grass, we moved on to targeting fish pulling out of small creeks and drains as they headed towards oyster mounds that were becoming exposed on lower water. In the couple of hours before low tide, we searched along mud banks and oyster bars adjacent to shallow flats that were now dry for cruising, feeding, and laid up fish.

While the action was never hot and heavy, we stayed on a consistent bite by hopping from spot to spot and following the fish from the flooded grass to the low tide zones.

4. Slow Down and Quiet Down. I just added a new MinnKota Riptide Ulterra trolling motor to the bow of my flats skiff this year, and between the auto deploy mechanism, power trim, iPilot, spot lock, and jog features, it is one powerful tool, not to mention a cool toy. However, while not overly loud, the steering mechanism makes for what is by no means the stealthiest approach, and even a slowly spinning prop always creates more disturbance than a quietly poled boat.

As we worked shallow water oyster banks, mudflats, and creek drains, Chris gently eased the boat along, sometime just twenty feet or so at a time, before staking out and allowing us to fan cast and look for 'pushes' and 'nervous water' indicating the presence of redfish. While I have gotten into a groove of fishing fast on the trolling motor to cover more ground in the early morning hours when the fish are happier, Chris' slow and methodical approach was the key to cracking the code on the mid-day bite.

5. Cast, Cast and Cast. More often than not, flats fishing is a sight fishing game. In South Carolina that might mean pitching baits ahead of head wakes, tailers, or large schools rather than spotting individual fish in gin clear water, but throughout much of the year, I rarely make a cast until I see a sign of fish.

In the summer—particularly in the heat of the day when boat wakes and the afternoon sea breeze have churned up the water—casting often, casting in many directions, and casting whether you see fish or not is the only way to go. With two anglers making multiple casts with multiple baits—4" Scented PaddlerZ rigged on weedless swimbait hooks when finger mullet were present and the smaller Slim SwimZ/Trout Eye Finesse combo when the reds were chasing glass minnows or small shrimp—we increased the odds of dragging a bait in front of a redfish's nose tremendously.

Looking back at our individual catches, we eked out a better day than most making as many casts possible in as many different likely areas possible. We methodically worked for our fish and caught them one-at-a-time by throwing into schools of glass minnows along the grass edge, allowing our baits to wash over a grassy point with the outgoing tide, pitching to small creek mouths and drains, chucking and winding across muddy flats, sight casting waking fish popping small shrimp, and lobbing long casts to nervous water along oyster bars.

By selecting the right baits for the conditions, slowly and quietly following the fish as they moved from high water zones to low tide flats, and casting constantly to any possible sign of fish, we managed a respectable catch (and release) of five redfish, several fat seatrout, and a bonus flounder along with the obligatory early-summer bluefish and ladyfish before we wrapped things up around 2:30.

Daniel Nussbaum

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