How to Fish the Flats: Drifting

The entire West Central Gulf of Mexico is one big grass flat if you know where to find them. Drifting them is the most effective way to find out what's waiting for you.

"We're in trouble." It was about 6:00 p.m. and the sky to the north of my Saint Petersburg home was way too dark to be out on the water. The voice on the phone was a friend of mine I had fished with just the day before. Scouting the flats outside the mouth of the Manatee River resulted in sardines, a few really nice trout, and the sighting of at least three beautiful redfish. Slot reds, but big fatties.

The trouble that my friend Matthew was in was dirt. Bay dirt. More accurately, the stern was stuck in it. Drifting across a flat that in places is eight feet deep and in others eight inches, he had been watching fish and not the color of the water. Blue-blue go on through; brown, brown, run aground. And he'd done it good. By the time he called me, they couldn't turn the boat.

drifting flats teaser

So what to do? The only thing you can do. Wait for the tide to come in; if it drifted onto the ridge it's stuck on, it's gonna (eventually) float off. Before we talk about getting off a flat after you've gotten accidentally stuck on dry ground, let's talk about fishing flats in general. Specifically, let's talk about effectively drift-fishing grass flats.

Getting On and Off a Grass Flat

Just this morning, I was on the bow of David Rieumont's boat doing 40 mph in six inches -- five maybe -- of beautiful grass flats near the Anclote River. He knows the water, and he knows his boat. Long before David ran that flats machine in five inches of water, though, he had learned about grounding boats.

There are two ways to ground your boat. One is going 30 mph and running out of water. If you can at all avoid it, do so. A lot of us have done it, and our teeth still grind when we think of the damage we did to the grass when we hit bottom. The strips you see in the grass flats around Tampa Bay -- or any bay, really -- are where people hit the ground running. The cuts don't go away quickly -- if ever at all. Watch the color of the water you're in, and please use charts, digital or otherwise, to learn the water you're fishing in. And charts don't replace your eyes. Or your gut.

If you want to fish a flat, first you have to pick one. Once again, we rely on our favorite fishing-tool-of-the-century, Google Earth (more and more people are using Bling, but we're staying with Google Earth). This flat is the one off of Pinellas Point -- part of which is known to locals as "The Clam Bar".

Drift 01When picking a flat, put the land between you and the wind direction.

Wind and Positioning the Boat

Positioning your boat is always important -- whether you're drifting in 220 feet of water, 120 miles offshore, or you're fishing winter docks in residential canals. Where you put your boat determines your position relative to the cast, and your casts determine the movement (or lack thereof) of your bait or lure. It's all part of catching fish.

Days without wind aren't the best flats days for the most part -- so wind's going to come into play when planning a drift. How strong it is will determine where you can fish. If you're on the west side of the bay, and the wind's coming from the west, you can put the entire peninsula between you and the source of the blow. If you're fishing the mouth of the Manatee River -- on the east side of the bay, and therefore directly in the mouth of the wind coming off the open bay -- you can still put ground between you and the wind source.

Drift fishing. The flat on the lower right is open to the blast coming off the open bay. The corner at the top -- while still windy, offers protected edges with mangrove cover.

Getting back to the planning part, we're going to talk about that Clam Bar stretch of skinny water.

We're going to start at the top. It's going to take a few hours to fish a mile of this flat -- and that's if we don't catch the first fish; catch two quick breeder reds, and it's time to use your anchor. Starting on the north side, with the wind coming from the west, we begin to drift out to the edge, fish it, and troll (or pole) our way back. Poling is easier than you might think, and for the trained reds in our bay, far more effective than a trolling motor.

Drift 02Wind socks help in the drift if it's blowing harder than 10 knots.

You can see what's happening here; the wind pushes us from the deeper edges near the shoreline, and pushes us towards the deeper edge. Once we get there, we troll-motor back to the edge. People running 4-strokes say they're so quiet you don't spook the fish on the way back to continue the drift.

You should notice that the left (west) edge of the blue lines -- where we start our drift based on the direction of the wind -- shifts south on every pair of lines (brown for return and blue for fish-drift). If you're not doing anything at all, you can expand the distance between the starting points of those blue lines. You can, for example, work a five-mile stretch instead of a one-mile stretch. But if you're new to an area, or fishing a place for the first time, this approach to 'gridding" the drift has proven very effective, and is something that effective "scouters" do routinely.

Getting Stuck

As we said before, of the two ways to ground a boat in skinny water, a very effective way is to actually run out of water. The word "Draft" comes to mind. The number the manufacturer gives you has nothing to do with reality. Things like the weight of the engine you have on her, the people on the boat, towers, poling platforms, and other components common to our sport fishing boats push the tail -- the stern -- of that boat into the mud.

The first of these graphics shows the ideal, perfect condition, under which your boat floats merrily on its way to the redfish horizontally. Your boat just might sit this way in the water, and therefore match the 'draft' to reality. Mine doesn't. My boat hits the dirt when it hits the dirt. A 36" square polling platform sitting where it would if it was the floor of a tower doesn't help the balance, either.

Once that tail/stern hits the dirt, the boat begins to lay down. While it's stuck at the stern alone, you can spin it. Remember that. Once it's laying flat on the dirt, you can't. Remember that, too.


The distance from the water to the dirt is what you need to keep your eye on. With experience, you just know in your gut when you're about to get in trouble. You can stick your boat just as badly drifting slowly between holes on a flat as you can running at 20 knots opened up just before you grind that oyster bar to dust. If you look at the graphic, you can see how having somebody sit on the bow can help pick up the stern. When you trim the engine up, it extends the length of the boat, and pushes weight behind the stern; the center of gravity shifts when you trim the motor up.

Hitting Dirt and Getting Out

Getting back to that phone call, my friend Matthew had been correctly watching the wind, and picking the starting points for each drift of the grid. Given the eighteen inches of water his new boat actually needs, as opposed to the number the manufacturer says he needs, the boat would have floated perfectly off the edge of the bar, where he would motor back to the shoreline and start the next drift.

The problem happens when that stern hits the dirt. When you're running hard and you hit the dirt, the grinding noise it makes is something you never forget. It's easy to recognize the inevitable next-time it happens. So's the noise the stern makes when it slides gently onto a sand ridge on a grass flat. It's more of a hiss, but man, is it unforgettable.

The first thing you do is get out of the boat. If you gave even a moment's notice to the tides before you puttered into a foot of water, the tide's probably (at worse) on it's way out. There's still a little water around you, because you got there in the first place.

So you spin. And push, and pull and tug and grunt and tie the bow line around your neck and choke yourself and fall in the mud and curse and yell and cry.

And spin the boat. Then, for some unknown reason, it stops spinning. It's then you call a really committed friend with another, bigger boat with a long, long, long line, or Sea Tow, and pray to the Almighty God they can help you. The next solution is to wait. For the tide. Oh dear. But believe us, it will happen to the best of us. You don't learn from the days where everything goes right and you perfectly drift a new flat, catching red after red after red, either. You learn when you get stuck in the dirt.

One of the problems that happens, and leads to the boat going from spinning to not-spinning is simple to avoid. You think the best thing to do is push, pull, and carry-if-you-can the boat to the deep water. The problem is that the "deep" water is often visually WAY closer than the skinny crap you just got stuck floating out of, right???

Wrong. The way to push the boat - while you still can spin it -- is back where you came from. Try it, and you will be amazed that if you were able to float from there you can float back through there. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is deeper water behind you -- exactly where you would HATE to go -- then there is in front of you. When you're drifting like this, the skinniest water of all is often right at the edge of the channel (like it is here).

And remember, if birds are standing around, their legs are NOT three feet long.

Drift 03Get stuck close to deep water, push the boat back in the direction you came from.

The good ending to the hitting-the-dirt story was that Matthew got the boat off the flat early the next morning. He and our friend Germ had anchored it, and got a ride back to his car, which was up the river a few miles. The next morning the tide was high enough to float the boat -- backwards in the direction from which it had drifted -- off the dirt.

The moral of the story is always watch where you're going, not just where you are. We can't tell you how often we've gotten into trouble ourselves because of not paying attention. Flats are skinny. You can ground a boat easily. Best not run on them, of course, unless you really know both your boat and the ground you're running over -- and know them well. But drifting can ground you -- watch the direction you're coming from, develop a grid to plan the drift, and have luck!

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