Flats fishing was put on the map in the Florida Keys and Key West. The thrill of stalking a weary fish in shallow waters using specific fishing tackle and boats designed for the shallows has enticed anglers for over 100 years to the Florida Keys. Not the easiest form of fishing, not the most accessible form of fishing but definitely the most rewarding when it comes to the catch.
The flats of the Florida Keys are located on both sides of the Overseas Highway that winds down through the islands all the way to Key West and beyond out to the Marquesas Keys. A flats is much like a sand bar or bank. The flats are a shallow area around islands and channels (less than 3 feet) that may have grass, marl, corals and sponges producing and housing the earliest stages of life in the estuary of the Florida Keys. Sometimes at low tides the flats may even be exposed.
On these flats surprisingly we find many species of fish in all shapes and sizes. from the smallest glass minnows to large 100plus pound tarpon and sharks. They are all on the flats looking for one thing – Food. Along with the many species of fish on the flats there are also countless numbers of crustaceans such as crabs and shrimps with a bountiful number of mollusks and snails. Starting at this level right on up the flats are about the most complete circle of life that anyone can imagine.
There are thousands of square miles of flats here in the Florida Keys. On top of many shallow flats are the mangrove islands, not really an island in most cases just a group of trees that have found shallow water to root up in. The mangrove islands are not just vital to the success of the eco-culture that surrounds them, they are a very important part of our erosion and hurricane protection as our first line of defense for a large storm surge here in the Florida Keys.
The best way to go about fishing the flats here in the Florida Keys is to hire a flats fishing guide. Flats fishing guides use smaller very technical fishing boats that can float in super shallow water. Knowledge not only the geography of the waters that surround the Florida Keys but also the tides and currents that surround them. Masters of the tides, flats fishing guides are a very focused group. The technical flats fishing boats used are equipped with poling platforms where the fishing guide will stand as he silently pushes the boat along with a very long (sometimes 24ft) graphite push pole in search of his anglers sport fish. Once the fishing guide spots the fish, he then suggests to his angler where to cast to make the most of a well played situation.
Once the angler hooks up the fight ensues. Species of fish such as bonefish, permit and especially tarpon do not just come to the boat. There is a battle that can take as long as an hour in some extreme instances. Super light tackle or fly fishing gear is needed to present anything to these weary fish for consideration. With light tackle some experience may be needed to land your catch as your flats fishing guide maneuvers the boat helping you manage your fish.
It is NOT required for you to know how to fly fish to go flats fishing here in the Florida Keys. Although many purists prefer it as the most challenging form of fly fishing its not a requirement. That said, the accomplished fly fisherman will find the Florida Keys flats fishing to be not only picturesque but rewarding in shots. A good fly fisherman should be extremely familiar with the double haul technique and able to go from “fly in hand” to 60 ft with 12″ of accuracy in less than 2 false casts.
Choosing a flats fishing charter can be a daunting task, especially if you don’t know anyone that knows anyone. There are flats fishing guides all up and down the keys a great place for a good selection of them is at this link Florida Keys Flats Fishing Guides. Call your flats fishing guide, speak to him. Ask about fishing conditions and base it off local flats fishing reports to see if he is being truthful or just trying to gain your business. Make sure your fishing guide sends you some sort of confirmation that has the date you have requested and the amount of the deposit you have sent him written on it with his name and phone number, this saves allot of headache when it comes to double bookings or wrong dates in calendars. (protects both of you).
Traditionally “poling skiffs” are the way to sight fish the flats. Smaller boats that don’t weigh much offer super shallow draft and ease of pushing around to hunt the game fish on the flats. The fishing guide stands on a poling platform that much looks like a table or stand. From there he pushes the boat around with a long graphite pole.
Bay Boats are becoming a common place on the flats. Althought not well received in the traditional guiding community.
Experience is a mixed idea when it comes to flats fishing guides. There is so much information out there about flats fishing, a fishing guide could learn it off the net. I am personally a 20 year veteran flats fishing guide and will tell you that some of the 3 year fishing guides can give me a run for my money on some days, but in the long run I will out smart him by my length of time spent on the flats.
Here is a tip.
If you are fishing for specifically the big three (tarpon, permit and bonefish) during the slam season or fly fishing for any of them, hire the guide with the most time under his belt. He may be the most crogity, mean sum bitch you have ever met but I bet you will do well..
If you are a first timer and don’t care what you catch, don’t be afraid to hire a new guy if you like him. A new fishing guide will probably work his ass off for you to show you a great day on the water in hopes of building his client list opening the day up to many different species. You may also want to look into Backcountry Fishing.
All of us are independent fishing guides but sometimes we run for fishing charter companies or outfitters to take a trip. Either way we are in it to make a living. A full time independent guide is a guide first and a carpenter or handyman second or third. This is what he pays his bills with. He is here for the long haul, he does not have anyone making up the slack. He wants to fish every day. When things are slow, he picks up the hammer to pay the bills till his schedule comes complete with repeat clientele.
The only thing I would steer clear of on independents is if the guide is part time. With a few exceptions – Firefighters, Cops and EMTs don’t make super experienced flats fishing charter guides. They are just not on the water enough to stay in the loop. Without their buddies (full time guide) info that works every day, they just cannot offer the same or better service than a fishing guide that does this solely as his living.
Other Part timers are the flats fishing guides that come here from places like Montana. These are Full Time Guides mostly fly fishermen they come here just for the tarpon fishing run. Its a can’t miss opportunity and these guys are in the fish every day while they are here. I can’t say I am personally a huge fan of them on the water as they have a short timers ethic. But for the sake of this article being none bias, anglers are sure to have a good time with them. Most don’t have very good captaining skills to run a boat in open water. (they come from streams). They can be great fly fishing guides and a good choice for tarpon season, but in that case, who isn’t. Also keep in mind, these guys work here and wherever they are from. A great way for an angler to have the same guide in two arenas of fishing – thats kinda cool.
Corporate Outfitters – Charter Companies
There are a few organizations that are what we call Corporate fishing guides, charter companies, booking agents or outfitters that hook you up with a flats fishing guide. This is a good way to go for the most part. Anglers will see them all over the web advertising. Usually a very nice web site and well writen with a corporate feel. Call them and the good ones will interview you for what type of experience you are looking for. Good ones will ask about your experience level, past experiences and chose a guide for you that will fit this criteria and place you with the “right” fishing guide. Another cool part of the corporate “booking agent” is that if you want multiple days of different types of fishing, they usually have deep sea fishing, reef fishing, backcountry fishing and many others on speed dial.
Flats Fishing Rates are all the same. Booking agents rarely pump up the rates over what an independent guide will ask for his day or advertises in his site. If they do.. be warned.. somethings up.
Most of these “booking” companies will not book a guide that they know has “fallen off “. As the owner of one such service I can tell you we have a one strike policy for our fishing guides and a money back guarantee for the fishing guides we recommend, So we make sure your experience is a GREAT one to begin with plus we have a 20 year reputation to uphold. If we cannot recommend a flats fishing guide without hesitation, we won’t recommend anyone.
A few charter companies offer good flats fishing guides. proteges of older more experienced fishing guides that teach them the right way to guide. Being with the right personality is very important to a day of flats fishing and can make or break a day of fishing whether you catch or not. Working with a charter company should guarantee extreme customer service and some of the nicer boats.
Be careful of any of them that promise “10 years experience”or “best guides ever” or “no hired guides” chances are, they are not. Outfitters by and large mean well and will put you on the right track as they have a reputation to keep. Also check your outfitter on review groups such as Trip Advisor to make sure others have enjoyed good service.
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