10 Tips to Master Saltwater Sight Fishing

July 25, 2023 By: Alex Suescun

Excluding unproductive water, anticipating your target’s movements, and a silent approach and presentation are all vital to consistently catch fish in shallow water. Adhering to the following golden rules will put you on the fast track to success.

1. Understand the Target

Learn your intended target species’ range and its high and low temperature tolerance limits. Study its preferred habitats (including favored structures and depths) and forage, as well as the seasonal movements of both the fish and its prevalent prey, to figure out where to focus your efforts. Also study the likely telltale signs and precisely what to look during your search like tails or dorsals breaking the surface film, shadows moving across light bottom, silver flashes over a grass flat, V-shaped wakes pushing against the tide, etc.

2. Decipher the Tides

Learn to interpret the tides, which vary by location, lunar cycle, and time of year. Certain places may experience only one high and one low tide each day while others have semidiurnal tides, two highs and two lows, each occurring roughly six hours from the next. Although one high tide is ordinarily higher than the other, keep in mind that the height of the tides fluctuates with the lunar cycle and you can expect higher highs and lower lows during the full and new moon periods. You should also anticipate seasonal height fluctuations. A dependably productive high-tide spot during summer could be completely devoid of fish during high tide in the winter when the water level at its peak may be shallower by a foot or more. Time on the water and a tide table or app are indispensable for formulating a game plan that puts you in the right place at the right time.

3. Learn the Effects of Wind and Weather

Depending on its direction and the time of year, a strong breeze may cool or warm shallow water. It can also push more water in or out of the area, exaggerating the usual tidal flow. Besides their obvious effect on visibility, the sun and clouds also affect water temperature. When temperatures drop, flats and shallow bays with a darker bottom tend to warm up sooner, and a temperature differential of as little as two degrees could have a major impact in attracting baitfish and the predators you seek. For instance, snook avoid water cooler than 70 degrees, yet I’ve caught some of my largest in 40-degree weather in less than three feet of water. Why? It was sunny and the fish were warming up over mud bottom. Also take into account that cloud cover creates a greenhouse effect that often averts extreme temperature dips. In addition, fish in skinny water don’t feel as conspicuous and vulnerable on cloudy days so they are less skittish and more approachable. When it’s overcast, bonefish and redfish are more likely to tail and seatrout, snook, and other inshore game drop their guard and feed more aggressively in the dimmer light.

4. Get Sneaky

Stealth is of the utmost importance when stalking fish in the shallows. Sound travels through water more than four times faster than through the air. It’s crucial to keep as quiet as possible—move about the boat gingerly, avoid slamming hatches or dropping things on the deck, keep your voice down, and be sure to turn off the stereo. In skinny water, hull slap and the noise of a trolling motor (even if barely noticeable to you) will also spook fish so either drift or resort to a push pole to propel your boat. If you must use a trolling motor, run it at low speed, shut it down well before you get within casting range of your target or intended ambush spot, and coast the rest of the way. Avoid deploying a conventional anchor to hold your boat in place while waiting for fish to come to you. Instead, opt for a stakeout pin, Power-Pole, or similar shallow-water anchoring system.

5. Fine-tune your Casting

The more you practice casting at targets from varying angles and distances, the more likely you are to make an accurate shot when it counts. Practice when it’s windy and when it’s not using the different types of flies you’re likely to use on the water. Fine-tune your deliveries, both short and long, to consistently present the fly with minimal false casting and the desired quickness and stealth.

6. Expand your Arsenal

Both gear and techniques change and evolve with the times and so do the better anglers. Don’t be so set in your old ways that you dismiss an increasingly popular tactic and refuse to try new fly patterns or leader material or configuration. Keep an open mind and be receptive to new ideas even if they come from much younger fly anglers or tyers that may lack your overall fishing knowledge and experience. Those who focus on a particular target species or fishing tactic, no matter their age, are frequently the ones who successfully tweak an already popular strategy or come up with a new, specialized technique that results in more hookups.

7. Come Ready

Make a packing checklist so you won’t forget any of the essentials you need to bring along—pliers, nippers, extra leader material, different types of flies, etc. And don’t wait until you get to your first fishing spot to start rigging your rods or tying on flies. That’s one of the most common mistakes, and it drives fishing guides crazy because it translates into wasted time as well as lost opportunities. Instead, get all your gear ready and your leaders tied ahead of time. Keep your flies and leaders organized and accessible so any required changes on the water are always quick and easy.

8. Listen to your Guide

No matter how experienced an angler you are, most fishing guides are overwhelmingly more in tune with the local fishery than their clients and will usually share some of their knowledge and provide valuable advice to those willing to listen. Helpful tips are often conveyed as you face different situations throughout your day on the water, others simply find their way into the conversation. So it pays to develop a rapport with your guide early on and keep a casual chat going. Just remember to avoid taking over the conversation. And while it’s okay to ask a leading question now and then, don’t go overboard and turn friendly banter into an obvious Q & A session, a sure way to make the guide a bit suspicious about your intentions and subsequently more guarded.   

9. Keep Eyes and Ears Open

Don’t get so fixated on the search for fish and making the perfect cast that you forget to pay attention to your surroundings. Only by watching and listening will you pick up clues that help you make crucial adjustments that lead to more successful days on the water. For example, the direction and speed at which floating clumps of sargasso drift by the boat or the way blades of seagrass on the bottom of a flat are bending will reveal the strength of the current and whether the tide is rising or falling. Birds diving or circling and dipping toward the water pinpoint schooling baitfish or concentrations of shrimp. Some of those baitfish or shrimp jumping frantically out of the water also let you identify the prevalent prey in the area and confirm the presence of predators. Of course, surface busts and loud pops are clear evidence of ongoing feeding activity. But more subtle sounds, like that of a rolling tarpon gulping air at the surface, can alert you in time to take advantage of many chances.

10. Bring Proper Gear

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, we’ve all heard that old adage, and it certainly applies to fly fishing. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a lighter outfit than usually recommended for your intended quarry, just avoid showing up completely under-gunned. Catching an 8-pound bonefish on a 5-weight or an 80-pound tarpon on a 10-weight is doable for a skilled fly rodder under the right conditions, but even the most prodigious know to include more proper rod selections in their quivers. Things out of your control, like the weather, can throw you a curve and quickly derail your plans of landing a trophy on scaled-down gear. So always come prepared with the right equipment. That includes a wider selection of flies (more different patterns, sizes, colors, and weights) than commonly recommended in case you are faced with unexpected situations or opportunities. It also includes intermediate fly lines to make natural presentations at tailing or cruising fish and stay in contact with your fly when a chop on the water would wreak havoc on your attempts with a floating line.