Fishing shallow water in Sarasota takes anglers to the hard to reach haunts of snook, redfish, and large seatrout. Whether you’re fly fishing or delivering artificial lures with light tackle, shallow water offers a unique fishing experience for salt water anglers.

Shallow water fishing is more than fishing, it’s an experience. In Sarasota, you’ll be surrounded by wildlife as you stalk an inshore trophy in inches of water. Blades of turtle grass graze the hull of the skiff as you glide quietly through skinny water. Wading birds, crustaceans, and fish of all shapes and sizes will be your companions for the day. For willing anglers, a shallow water wilderness awaits.

An angler fishing in skinny water

Shallow water fishing success. Sarasota, FL

Shallow water fishing is known by many names; skinny water fishing, shallow flats fishing, and many more. Whatever terminology you use, they all equate to the same thing – the pinnacle of inshore fishing. Shallow water fishing is a different game reserved for the anglers cut from a different cloth.

Finding success in skinny water requires specialized equipment, knowledge, and passion. True shallow water fishing in Sarasota, occurs in less than three feet of water; preferably less than two feet.  Catching a redfish or snook in less than eighteen inches of water is pure bliss.

In its truest form, fishing in shallow water is done by delivering flies to fish with a fly rod, or pitching artificial baits on light tackle. Sight fishing is the purist approach to targeting fish, but it’s not the only way. Reading the water and selectively placing casts to locations that likely hold fish, is an effective approach.  Dissecting an area with long casts and covering water quickly can produce excellent inshore fishing as well.

A redfish in shallow water

A Redfish that was sight fished

Throughout this article, the ins-and-outs of shallow water fishing in Sarasota will be discussed. The best times of year to target certain inshore species will be covered. The best tactics for targeting redfish and snook on the shallow flats will be addressed. The equipment required to successfully fish in shallow water will be listed as well as many other skinny water fishing guidelines to follow. But first let’s begin by understanding what makes shallow water fishing so special.

The Shallow Water Experience

Peering into a recent skinny water fishing charter offers a snap shot of the challenges and triumphs of shallow water fishing. Joe & Matt, strong anglers from upstate New York, decided to fish shallow water during their stay in Sarasota. Both anglers confidently acknowledged their intentions to hunt fish with artificial baits in skinny water. They embraced the challenges or triumphs that came with it.

I have a lot of admiration for that attitude and angling spirit. “Go skinny or go home” was their mantra. A healthy level of skinny water bravado accompanied them throughout the trip. Back country redfish were the target and the backwater cove we snuck into, had plenty.

An angler holds a monster redfish caught in very shallow water

Joe’s awesome shallow water redfish

Clear shallow water for miles and active redfish. Sight fishing opportunities were plentiful, but our fish weren’t happy. Reds followed baits back to the skiff before bailing. They flared their gills and turned on baits and then just as quickly bolted. Drag it, bump it, stop it – didn’t matter, they weren’t having it. Joe & Matt remained resolute despite these terribly mean antics of the redfish. They had no interest in sliding into deeper water to find a better bite. “Stay skinny or go home” they said as they reinforced their commitment.

They stayed in the skinny water game and fished relentlessly. In the end, they were both rewarded with trophy shallow water redfish. Joe’s largest red was a beast and gave him everything an angler could want battling a redfish in 12-18” of water. Matt’s red was no slouch either. It was a beautiful shallow water fishing trip and it’s a great window into fishing skinny water.

The Shallow Water Angler

Shallow water anglers come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes. They share a common interest, more of a passion really, to pursue inshore fish in the shallowest of environments. Most have had an ongoing relationship with nature their entire life – a connection to the outdoors. They’re a sucker for the heroic visuals that naturally accompany a shallow water tug of war. Skinny water anglers tend to be driven hunters of fish – they have no quit in them.

A fly angler waits on the bow for a fish to cast at

Sight fishing requires patience and discipline

A shallow water angler prefers that their fish and experience be of the richest quality. They’re more inclined to let the mood of the trip be regulated by their surroundings, not a Bluetooth speaker. Back home, they may hunt trout in spring creeks, stalk river smallmouth along deadfall with surface baits, or pursue the vicious grab of a musky.

Shallow Water Species in Sarasota

There are three main species of gamefish that we target in the shallow waters around Sarasota. Those species are snook, redfish, and larger seatrout. During certain times of the year we can add tarpon to that list.

Snook – Snook, a premier skinny water gamefish, are masters at using shallow water to ambush prey. Additionally, they naturally use shallow water to regulate their body temperature during the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.

A snoerok in shallow wat

Skinny water snook

During seasonal movement patterns, snook will cruise Sarasota’s shallow water in groups, or on their own. Other times, they present themselves as stationary casting targets – waiting motionless near structure until they’re activated by the ill-conceived movement of their future prey. As long as the angler notices their presence before the snook notice ours, we’ve got a shot.

Redfish – Redfish love eating and they work hard to scrounge up food. Covering water to find more food is built into their operating system. We like our redfish on the move, distracted by the prospect of food.  If reds aren’t tipped off to your presence in skinny water, they will treat you to some ridiculously close encounters. Seeing a careless redfish casually cruising in a foot of water is as pure as it gets.

Seatrout –Larger seatrout do not follow size-class seatrout protocols. They are not followers, they are free thinking alphas known as gator trout or even tween trout. And they’re generally the fish we see the least of in skinny water. They like to have deeper water nearby to slide off to in case of danger. That does not exclude them from being in skinny water, it just limits where in skinny water we will find them.

Tarpon –Fishing for tarpon in skinny water is a seasonal occurrence. It happens in a few locations around Sarasota, FL. When conditions are right, tarpon will crawl up onto sandbars or even shallow grass flats. Tarpon are one of my favorite fish to target in skinny water when the conditions are right.

The Shallow Water Calendar

The species we target in skinny water and the areas we target fish, vary depending on the season. Water levels from tidal activity fluctuate throughout the year. Negative low tides put a limit on the shallow water areas that can be fished, but big high tides push water and fish into places that normally have neither.

Holding a redfish

A beautiful Sarasota shallow water redfish

Compared to other parts of the country, our tidal swings are minimal. This means very little to the fish since these are the only tides they have ever known. Following is a skinny water calendar. It forecasts what fish will be doing in shallow water throughout the year and the areas suitable to hold fish during that part of the season.

Winter: Winter reintroduces fish in skinny water to negative low tides. This is an ideal time to know where the deeper holes are on a shallow flat. Redfish, will hunker down in these holes and wait for the tide to come back in. Early winter redfish are far less nervous and wary than late winter redfish and multiple fish can be pulled from one hole.

Fishing in the many brackish rivers around Sarasota, FL is an excellent winter option. Shallow bays and creek mouths become a playground for redfish. Snook enjoy some of the same areas of the rivers as redfish do, but are most frequently found near points.

Snook will be in skinny water at first light on some of the coldest mornings. The shallow water heats up first and snook take full advantage of this. Dark bottoms and oyster bars hold the most heat and are a good place to start looking for snook on winter mornings. But don’t overlook a light patch of sand either. We’ve seen snook stacked up over sand on cold mornings.

A shoreline of a river in winter

Winter redfish country

By the end of winter, both the angler and the fish are ready for the end of negative low tides. Redfish are tired of having lures and flies plunked on their heads when they’re huddled together in hole on low tide. They become skittish. Anglers are eager to get back out to their favorite spring flats.

Spring: Spring brings boundless optimism for both anglers and fish. Clear water and the renewed presence of baitfish marks the beginning of spring fishing in skinny water. Fish are energized as the water temperature warms and nears 800 Fahrenheit. The grass flats come to life and sandy swaths are peppered with snook.

In spring, redfish roam across the shallow grass flats searching for meals on rising tides. At times, the water seems almost too clear and anglers wish for just enough wind to disturb the glassy surface of the water to conceal their intentions to the fish. Anglers welcome the rare unannounced visit of a cobia. There’s no place more special to hook a cobia, than the skinny water of the flats.

A flats cobia being held by an angler on a boat

A spring flats cobia

Summer: Fishing in the beginning of summer has similarities to the spring. Water temperatures haven’t peaked and fish remain active in shallow water. Juvenile tarpon fishing in the shallow waters of brackish rivers around Sarasota, FL can be phenomenal in the beginning of summer.

Eventually, the oppressive heat of the summer settles in and brings traditional shallow water fishing to a screeching halt. Some snook and redfish can still be found in shallow water, but they tend to be most active at night when the water has had time to cool. Night fishing in skinny water can be rewarding, but requires some local knowledge to enjoy.

The cooler water of the Gulf of Mexico is a sanctuary for fish in summer. The shallow sand flats, also known as the beach, will provide anglers with excellent sight fishing opportunities. Snook will be swimming in the skinny water near the trough in high numbers. Recently, schools of redfish have been doing the same thing during the dog days of summer.

Fall: Right when it seems that summer heat will never end, fall creeps in. Fall offers cooling relief and shorter days. The change is barely noticeable at first, but a slight cooling of the water temperature will reactivate shallow water fish.

The incredible phenomenon of schooling redfish in skinny water happens in fall. Some redfish schools are massive and unmistakable as they plow through shallow water. Other schools are less conspicuous – filled with tentative fish.

Two redfish in one net

Shallow water schooling redfish leads to a full net

In fall, snook are more willing to move longer distances to chase down a well-placed plug, soft plastic, or fly. Seatrout begin spending more time in shallow water and will exhibit careless aggression towards topwater and subsurface plugs. Fishing in back country areas begins to pick up as fall progresses.

Sarasota’s Best Shallow Water Fishing

There are plenty of places to experience good shallow water fishing in Sarasota, FL. The shallow water areas of Sarasota Bay are a favorite of many. Lower Tampa Bay has some of the best skinny water around. South of Sarasota is Charlotte Harbor and Gasparilla Sound which offers flats anglers endless opportunities to target redfish, snook, and other species in shallow water.

Amongst reputable shallow water fishing guides and serious skinny water anglers, there exists a code. DON’T BURN SPOTS. ‘Burning spots’ is telling or showing other anglers where the good spots are. Some spots are just simply known spots and were burned ages ago. Frank Sargeant is the undisputed spot burning champion of the world. He was a generational talent; we’ll never see a more prolific spot burner in our lifetime. Appreciate the legends while they’re still here folks.

Some anglers I’ve met become so anxious about spots that they exhibit symptoms of paranoia. I don’t blame them. My approach to spots is simple. I share spots with almost nobody. If I’m concerned about accidentally burning a spot, I add a dash of deception to throw them off the trail.

I don’t burn spots for a few reasons. First, it could negatively impact the fishery. Secondly, if I take clients to a spot and there are other anglers already there, at least I know that they aren’t there because I let the cat out of the bag. It would be insufferable realizing that YOU burned your own spot. Finally, fish move around. Their movements are impacted by seasons, tides, and the availability of food. They don’t stay at one spot all year long.

A giant map of the gulf coast

Enjoy my hot spot map. This is generally the area I cover on charters

I have a small circle (closer to a triangle) of angler and guide friends that I’m comfortable discussing location trends with. The other anglers that call me to find the location of the ‘hot bite’ don’t fare well. At best, they get my C or D spots. At worst they get a red herring.

However, I don’t mind talking about the components that make up a good skinny water spot. Components like physical characteristics are critical. Following is a list of a few features that I look for in shallow water. Just one of these physical features will give skinny water fish a reason to be around.

Sandbars – Sandbars mark an abrupt transition in water depth. Bait or food can become trapped on the backside of sandbars and this gives gamefish a reason to find a way to get to that backside. During outgoing tides, redfish, seatrout, or snook may concentrate on the outside edge – feeding on whatever food morsels are washed over the bar. On a rising tide, fish may be eager to get over the bar where they will hunt for food.

Oyster Bars – Oyster bars are home to an abundance of tasty food. Crabs, shrimp, mullet and smaller bait can all be found around oyster bars. Oyster bars provide structure for gamefish like snook to associate with. In the winter, oyster bars hold heat which is of critical importance for snook on cold mornings.

Creek Mouths – Coastal creeks of all sizes pepper the shorelines of Sarasota. Fish will concentrate where creeks meet the main body of water. This is especially true on outgoing tides. Outgoing tides flush food out of the creeks and into the main body of water. A good shallow water angler will come to understand when it’s the right time to fish creek mouths.

Creek mouth on low tide

Spoonbills and Ibis feed at a creek mouth on low tide

Mangrove Islands – Islands can be magnets for gamefish. Redfish, snook, and seatrout all appreciate a good mangrove island. The flats around mangrove islands almost always hold fish. Mangrove islands with depth on at least one of the edges will generally fish better than those that lack depth. The root systems of the mangrove trees offer fish protection and plenty of food. When fishing the edges of an island with higher water levels, it’s best to know how to skip baits or cast a fly rod side armed.

Troughs – Long depressions or buckets are great places to find gamefish in skinny water. Variations of troughs can be found throughout the flats. Behind a sandbar is a great place to find a good trough.

Potholes – The location of sandy craters in otherwise grassy or muddy shallow water are ingrained in the minds of many serious flats anglers. Redfish, snook, and seatrout know about them as well. These are places they hunker down at low water and places they like to use to ambush prey when it’s time to feed.

Shallow Water Fishing Equipment & Essentials

Anglers that want to explore the full array of shallow water in our area, need a shallow drafting skiff. Quiet Waters fishing charters are run out of a seventeen foot Maverick Mirage. The Mirage was designed in the Florida Keys. It was designed to draft extremely shallow while maintaining the best open water performance possible.

Maverick Mirage skiff boat in shallow water

The shallow water Maverick Mirage

Trolling motors are convenient, but noisy. The Quiet Waters’ skiff is outfitted with a trolling motor that rarely sees use in shallow water. Trolling motors are too clumsy and loud . The hum of the motor or the sound of a propeller blade banging the bottom spooks fish. The weight from the trolling motor batteries negatively impacts the draft of the vessel. Removing the batteries when running charters in skinny water has made a big difference.

Instead of using a trolling motor to move around the flats, the skiff is moved and positioned by the guide, standing on the poling platform, with a push pole. This is the quietest approach and gives the guide a great vantage point for locating cruising fish in shallow water.

Navigating shallow water, with the skiff under power, requires knowledge and experience. It’s important to know where the skiff can safely run without running aground or spinning a propeller. A good GPS system helps some. Recording safe tracks on the system comes in handy in low light conditions. The tracks can be referenced to ensure safe passage.

Utilizing tide charts is essential for understanding how much water depth is available.  It’s important to use the tide chart that best corresponds with your current location. Using the wrong tide chart could lead to critical errors. The boat coming to an abrupt stop as it runs aground can damage the skiff and injure its occupants.

Poling a skiff in shallow water

Poling a skiff is the stealthiest approach to the shallow water game

Anglers serious about fishing shallow water should carry an extra propeller and the tools to change out a propeller. A marine VHF radio is a tool that should be on every shallow water skiff. If a skiff breaks down in an area with no cell service, the radio will be the only way to find help.

Shallow Water Fishing Equipment

Serious shallow water anglers use high performance gear. Two important factors to consider are durability and weight. Fishing rods should be able to withstand the rigors of repetitive and prolonged use. Reels should be lightweight with a strong drag system. Following is a breakdown of the equipment used on Quiet Waters shallow water fishing charters.

Conventional Light Tackle

Rods – St. Croix rods are durable and light. The Premiere and the Avid series are proven performers. Depending on the application, we’ll use medium or medium heavy action rods. The Premiere series offers anglers a light, durable, and accurate rod. Step up to the Avid series and the rods become lighter, more energetic with increased sensitivity. Most rods are 7’ in length, but it’s wise to keep a 6’6” rod around for easier pitching or skipping under mangroves.

Reels – The Shimano Stradic Ci4 is an incredibly light reel that has performed well. It’s still early to call this a durable reel, but there have been no issues during the 6 months we’ve put the reels to use. Prior to using the Stradic, we used a variety of Penn reels on charters. Penn makes a good reel, but they are much heavier than the Ci4 and, in my opinion, a little clunky.

Shimano Stradic Ci4 for shallow water fishing

The lightweight Ci4

Line – Casting for distance is important in shallow water. Braided line is essential for skinny water. It’s tough to beat 10 pound test Power Pro. We’ve tried other brands, but have always gone running back to Power Pro. For leader material, Yo – Zuri fluorocarbon has been great. It holds knots well and has been abrasion resistant. In shallow water, 20 or 25 pound test are used most frequently.

Fly Fishing Equipment

Rods – The Orvis Recon is light, accurate, powerful enough, and durable. It’s the one rod that all fly anglers out on charters find the most agreeable. It’s puzzling to see fly anglers prefer the Recon to the Helios series and even to Scott Meridians. But they have and that’s something I can no longer ignore. It’s a rod that anglers of any skill level can pick up and find some immediate comfort with.

Reels – The Lamson Waterworks Speedster series has been in service for nearly a decade. These are extremely light reels for their size. The narrow width of the spool eliminates the obnoxious phenomenon of line barreling that so frequently occurs on wider spools from other manufacturers. The large diameter of the spool provides the ability to pick up line quickly. This reel is a no-brainer for shallow water fishing.

The lamson speedster fly reel

The capable Lamson Speedster

Lines– There is no perfect floating weight forward saltwater fly line. We’ve used Rio lines with some success. The most recent line put into service was the Rio Flats Pro. It shoots well, loads the rod well, but the running line has a tendency to coil into spaghetti regardless of stretching and line treatments. We will be transitioning to Monic fly lines soon. The advantage that a clear floating line could bring to shallow water is significant. We’ll let you know what we think of it after 50 or so uses.

Three Shallow Water Lures

Selecting the proper lure for use in shallow water plays a large part in an angler’s success. The artificial bait industry is saturated with countless companies trying to get a larger share of the market. So instead of getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices, try to keep things as simple as possible. I like to have three different style baits for shallow water use.

Search-Bait – I want a search-bait that is preferably weedless , can be cast long distances, and can cover water quickly. For me, that means my search-bait is going to be an Aquadream ADL series weedless spoon. Redfish and snook react well to this lure when it’s burned quickly through shallow water.

Picture of modified jig for crusteceans

Modified jigs – Darbyshire variations

Baitfish Imitation – A baitfish imitation should land softly, be versatile, and weedless. The Zoom super fluke is a great soft plastic twitch bait that can be rigged weedless. In shallow water, there is no need to use a weighted hook. Work the twitch bait slowly and it works the middle of the water column. If you speed up the retrieve, it functions as a topwater bait.

Crustacean Imitation – A modified jig with a soft plastic tail is a perfect match. I modify 1/8 ounce jig heads and dress them with rubber legs, EP Brush, and a small soft plastic grub for a tail. Tie in a weed guard and it’s ready for action.

Three Shallow Water Flies

Fly fishing in shallow water is almost always sight fishing. Often the fish will be close to the boat and soft landing flies spook less fish in clear shallow water. So if you’re tying flies for shallow water, think about tying them sparse and light. Weed guards are a must. If you’re fishing with me, there’s a good chance you’ll be using some variation of the following:

Gurgler – Having a gurgler in the fly box will come in handy for a few situations in shallow water. During times, like low light, when sight fishing isn’t an option, sliding gurglers along mangroves shorelines can provoke snook to come out and have a look. Juvenile tarpon are big fans of gurglers. I usually carry a light and dark colored gurgler.

A fly for shallow water held by the fly tyer

The everglades special is a popular shallow water EP baitfish pattern

Crustacean Pattern – A fly that is either shrimpy, crabby, or both is a requirement in skinny water. There are a number of excellent patterns to choose from. I like tying shrimp patterns with naturally colored fox fur. Fox is just a fantastic material to use in saltwater. Patterns that offer contrast to draw attention rather than flashy materials will always perform better in clear shallow water. Try to stay away from using clouser eyes and instead use lighter bead chain.

Baitfish Pattern – EP baitfish patterns work well for sight fishing in shallow water. I’ve used EP flies with great success, but I prefer using flies made of feathers. When flies made from feathers hit the water, they barely dimple the surface. They’re light to cast, yet they have a large enough profile in the water. The natural materials continue to undulate even when the fly is stopped.

Shallow Water Fishing Charters

Four hours is not enough time to seriously target fish in shallow water. I recommend that any serious angler chooses at least a six hour charter trip. Six hours makes a lot more water available to us. While Quiet Waters is based out of Sarasota, FL, I run charter trips in additional nearby areas.

The author picture

Captain Brian Boehm

The skinny water of southern Tampa Bay is a great place to be in spring. The water is clear and the fish are generally happy. Placida/Charlotte Harbor area is another great skinny water paradise. Fall and winter are great times to roam the shallow flats here. In the winter, I also add river trips in the brackish rivers surrounding Sarasota. This is a unique experience and can be a great trip for redfish or snook.

If you’re interested in a shallow water experience with me, you can reach me by email brian@quietwatersfishing.com or phone (941-400-6218). A phone call is a great way to get a lot of your questions answered quickly and book trips. If you prefer emails, I’ll respond as promptly as possible.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you on the water soon. Preferably shallow water.

Captain Brian Boehm
Quiet Waters Fishing
941-400-6218
Guide at CB’s Saltwater Outfitters
Sarasota, FL