The Hole Thing

July 12, 2023 By: Frank Sargeant

A wise man once said, “Love is a hole in the heart”, but for me, love is a hole in the grass flats off Homosassa, Florida.

Sand holes on the vast turtle grass meadows that stretch some 80 miles between Port Richey and Steinhatchee are big, white fish magnets, impossible to miss, and they require very little on the part of the angler except the ability to cast into them from a reasonable distance. Avoiding an excessive amount of whipsawing before the fly hits the water is also a plus.

Sand holes attract everything from redfish, snook and sea trout to flounder and sheepshead. In slightly deeper water, they are spring and early summer lazing spots for the giant tarpon for which this area of Florida’s west coast is famed.

Taken together, the thick Thalassia turtle grass here and the holes, which can be found anywhere from a foot deep to 10 feet down, are the Yin and Yang of coastal flats. The holes would only be barren sand or limerock without the surrounding grass, while the grass would be less productive without the potholes sprinkled here and there.

Holes in saltwater flats, surrounded by seagrass, are prime locations to find reds, trout and snook in the shallows, and tarpon in slightly deeper areas. Photo by St Croix Rod.

What made the holes is more or less a mystery—the favorite local legend is that World War II pilots on training runs from Eglin Field in the Panhandle dropped bombs here, and in fact some of them look as if they could have been made just that way, particularly the bowl-shaped impressions favored by the tarpon in 6- to 10-foot depths.

The bottom here declines very gradually, and in some areas you can be 5 miles offshore looking at water just barely over your head. In other areas, you can be a mile out and run into a rock the size of a couch situated 3 inches below the surface. It’s not a place to motor around blind, to say the least, and even the local guides (one of which I used to be) go by the saying, “Some of the rocks here apparently move, and some of them grow.”

There are many other holes here as well, including some in the stony marsh creeks that feed water in a hundred fingers out of the coastal lowlands into the spartina marsh. Some are 3 feet deep, some are 10 feet, and all are part of the estuary that has been forming here for an unimaginable number of centuries. Fly over this country on a calm, sunny day and you can see the continuation of these rivers up to 10 miles offshore, under the water: sea level rise is not quite such a new phenomenon as some would have us believe.

Why the holes are there doesn’t really matter to anglers. What does matter is that they are easy-to-find targets that load up with fish, again and again, and that they are easy to test with a Deceiver or a Merkin.

The likely reason fish gather on these spots (and really, who knows why they do any of the stuff they do?) is that the holes provide sort of a kill zone, where those minnows and crabs and shrimp that can hide so deftly in the turtle grass have no place to evade predators. The fish typically hang in the grass just on the edge of the hole, and when an edible (or your fly) comes wandering across, BAM!

The inshore holes are likely to be around island points, in cuts through the bars that often form on the outside of a flat where it meets deeper water, and in the flow-way between mangrove islands. Most of the land at the edge of the Gulf here is limerock, with mangroves somehow finding enough grip to grow on it. This is backed up by a spartina saltmarsh that’s 5 miles deep and over 100 miles long, one of Florida’s great natural treasures that only now is beginning to get the attention and the protection it deserves.

This one is just getting started—battles can last several hours, though quicker is better for both angler and fish. Photo by Captain Bryon Chamberlain.

In summer, reds and trout seek out holes where good current flow brings a steady supply of food to them. Within the last decade, lots of snook have joined them from the south—the Centropomus clan clearly believes in Global Warming.

The big tarpon come to visit from April through about July 4, porpoising and daisy chaining and generally behaving like teenagers thinking impure thoughts, though the biologists say they don’t actually spawn here, but about 100 miles to the west later in summer. Before they leave, they send a few dozen tarpon anglers into fits. It’s a very specialized fishery best handled by guides dedicated to the task.

Trying it on your own, though not mission impossible, is a true challenge, and you’re likely to send a whole lot of fish over the horizon, screwing up the works for the sometimes-rather-uppity aficionados while you’re learning.

When the tarpon settle into the holes to rest up between bouts of horsing about, however, it’s a different game, and you may have a pretty good chance at them.

In winter—what passes for winter in Florida—the holes again become attractions for gamefish. They’re slightly deeper than the surrounding flats—sometimes several feet deeper—and when the big winter tides go out, often driven even lower by sustained winds out of the north, the holes become aquariums where the fish can hang and soak up some sun.

I’d guess they also like the fact that bottle-nosed dolphin, which hunt flats fish all winter long, can’t get into the holes because of the barrier of surrounding water that’s inches deep. The dolphin, warm-blooded, can easily catch the cold-blooded fish slowed down by chilly water if they find them in accessible water.

Hooked up! Twelve-weight rods and reels with lots of backing are a must for chasing the jumbo tarpon of the central west coast of Florida. Photo by Captain Rick Grassett.

Whatever the season, there are a few basics to the game.

First, you can often find holes by studying Google Earth satellite views. Look not only for white sand circles but also for the greenish channels that may lead to them. (Even prop cuts, which also show on Google Earth, can be fish highways on the flats on the lowest low tides around the new and full moons.)

Second, ground-truthing is everything. Some spots that look like fish hotels on Google are in fact as barren of fish as a patch of Gobi sand, while others that look highly unlikely are always loaded. And some are loaded only at particular tide or moon phases, or when the wind blows from the north—or from the south. Experience rules, as in all angling.

Gearing up is simple. For seatrout, a 9-foot, 8-weight is fine, while if you’re targeting snook and reds, a 10-weight is better, especially around mangrove or oyster habitat where you may have to put some heat on them to prevent cutoffs. St. Croix’s Imperial Salt in 9-weight, among others, is a nice compromise between the two.

It doesn’t hurt to overline the rod, making for easier short-distance casting. I like weight-forward floating lines, but DT’s are fine, too. Tapered leaders are unnecessary—a rod’s length of 15-pound-test mono does the job for trout and reds. If there are snook around, you’ll want to add 12 inches of 30-pound-test tippet to prevent cutoffs on the jaws and gillplates.

Gearing up for the tarpon is a whole other game, with 12-weight rods, shock tippets and reels with some serious backing capacity pretty much essential. It also helps to be able to lay a streamer the size of a hummingbird out there 80 feet or so with minimal back-casting.

Fly choice is not critical—flats fish are not brown trout. But there are definitely days when they want whites, yellows and silvers, and other days when they want browns, blacks and purples. If you get a couple of refusals, that probably means you need to change colors—or maybe it’s a day when they want shrimp and you’re throwing a minnow imitation.

Snook have also become a target here in the last decade, with numerous fish migrating in from the south as winters warm. Photo by Frank Sargeant.

The typical saltwater fly choices usually do the job: Lefty’s Deceiver, Seaducer, Clouser Minnow and various crab and shrimp patterns, all in 1/0 to 3/0 sizes for trout/reds/snook and up to 5/0 for tarpon.

The most critical part of the deal is to get up to the hole without spooking the fish. Silence is golden, or silver in the case of tarpon—one bump of the push pole is sometimes all it takes to turn happy fish into paranoid suspicious bitches. (It’s not paranoia, though, if someone actually IS trying to stick a 5/0 hook in your mouth, is it?)

Ideally you want to approach from downwind to help your cast. If there’s current flowing through the hole—always a good thing for the bite—throw your fly to the uptide end of the hole and strip it back through, 6 inches at a time with minnow patterns, shorter with crab and shrimp patterns.

Some days, you can’t keep the fish from eating, some days you can’t get them to commit. If they follow but don’t quite open the mouth and close the deal, you can often trigger the bite by making a series of very tiny twitches of the line as the fish closes in, causing the fly to flutter back and forth just a bit.

There’s usually no problem with getting the hook into flats fish because they tend to suck it deep. Reds sometimes come in such a rush that you may get trigger-happy and set too soon. One tactic I’ve learned is to wait until you see the white inside of the mouth before you set—when they open up, the fly for sure gets sucked in and you can then stick them.

If you’re a freshwater fly fisher, just remember that snook, reds and tarpon all have fairly tough mouths and you may not get a solid hookup by raising the rod. Instead, strip set, pulling hard and fast on the line with the rod pointed at the fish. Do it several times for tarpon. When you feel resistance on the line, raise the rod and get on with the fight.

Reds often hang in the grass on the edge of the holes, rushing out to grab any bait that swims across the open sand or rock. Photo by Frank Sargeant.

The flats set up here so that they are just about unfishable except for those with powered boats. It’s more than five miles down each of the major rivers—the Chassahowitzka, the Homossassa and the Crystal (or Weewahi Iaca, to maintain the First American nomenclature)—to where the fishing begins. That’s a long way to paddle a Hobie, though those with electric assist and plenty of battery power occasionally do it.

This is enough to get you started in the hole thing. How deep you go depends on you.