Flats fishing in the shallow waters of Lower Tampa Bay with light tackle and artificial lures can be world class. The flats of Lower Tampa Bay are home to a healthy population of snook, redfish, seatrout, and even tarpon. Anglers committed to fishing with lures, soft plastics, and plugs will find the shallow flats of Lower Tampa Bay to their liking.
The locals living around Lower Tampa Bay, are largely fishing and boating enthusiasts. Fishing the shallow water of the flats is a favorite past time of many. The predominate way of fishing in the area remains using live bait. However, there are a number of area flats anglers that much prefer the challenge of light tackle and artificial baits to target fish on the flats.
The charter trips that I run in the shallow water of Lower Tampa Bay are geared specifically towards anglers that use artificial lures. Light tackle trips are spent in water that is generally two feet or less. We launch in Bradenton and use a shallow water poling skiff (Maverick Mirage) to get ourselves into the shallow water that holds fish. I do run fly fishing charters in Lower Tampa Bay, but this article is specifically focused on a light tackle approach. The tips in this article are the same tips that I use as a professional guide running fishing trips in Lower Tampa Bay.
The Waters of Lower Tampa Bay
Lower Tampa Bay is a term used to describe a vast area of shorelines, islands, and back country that make up, or are directly connected to the Southwest portion of Tampa Bay. Lower Tampa Bay begins roughly at Port Manatee and continues west until reaching its endpoint at Bean Point on Anna Maria Island.
In between these two points you’ll find places like Bishop’s Harbor, Rattlesnake Key, Miguel’s, and other beautiful gems. One of the common features found in Lower Tampa Bay are the natural and underdeveloped shorelines. There are many preserves along the south shore of Lower Tampa Bay which has kept things wild.
To chat with Captain Brian about a fishing trip, text/call 941-400-6218 or Click Here.
The shoreline flats of Lower Tampa Bay are buffered by expansive sand bars that often stretch for miles. Between the sand bars and the shoreline are troughs. Beyond the mangrove lined shorelines you will find cuts and creeks that lead you into the back country bays and ponds of Lower Tampa Bay. The back country is a beautiful place to spend time fishing and serves as a reminder of how things used to be.
Below are tips that I believe would be most beneficial to flats anglers that fish in Lower Tampa Bay. As mentioned before, these are tips for the anglers that are hunting fish with artificial lures using light tackle. The tips cover a wide variety of flats fishing topics. The overall goal is to provide tips that can be used in your approach to flats fishing in Lower Tampa Bay.
TIP 1: Thoughtful Approach
Anglers that use live bait can come onto a flat a little more aggressively than anglers that are trying to fool the fish with fake food. In general, the shallower the water, the more the fish see, feel, and hear. It is extremely easy to booger (frighten off) fish in shallow water.
On some days, all it takes is having one fish become aware that something doesn’t seem right. That fish may not know that you’re there, but it does know that something isn’t right and the behavior of that one fish will alert other fish.
Fishing out of a poling skiff gives a lot of anglers a false sense of stealth. You can spook plenty of fish without a trolling motor. One of the most common mistakes made in a poling skiff while working a flat is poling too quickly.
There isn’t much difference between running a trolling motor on its highest speed and poling too quickly. They’re both great ways to booger fish in shallow water. Pole slowly through the water to ensure you’re not sending out a warning wave to the fish. You should also do your best to avoid the crunching or clanking sound a push pole makes when it hits something that isn’t soft.
Become aware of the cushion between the fish and you. Keep as much distance between you and the fish while still being able to fish them effectively. Doing this well will improve your chances of pulling multiple fish out from the same place. Unfortunately, that cushion changes from flat to flat and from day to day. The amount of cushion that fish need, should become intuitive with experience.
TIP 2: Adjustment Mindset
Fish are regularly adjusting to their environment. Changing water temperatures, wind direction, tide changes, and pressure from anglers are all variables that impact fish. Since fish are regularly making adjustments, so should you.
With that in mind, you should never become too attached to a fishing spot. It’s good to familiarize yourself with spots and even develop plans of attack for spots that become dependable. But it’s wise to avoid becoming too attached to a spot.
Becoming too attached to a spot is like putting faith in a politician. Your blind faith will make you rigid and inflexible. You may end up ignoring obvious signs that things aren’t right and you won’t know when it’s time to move on.
When shallow water fishing in this area, you should always be considering if adjustments are necessary. The ‘If it worked yesterday, then it will work today’ motto isn’t an effective approach to shallow water fishing. If what you’re currently doing isn’t working, then it is time to adjust. Making small adjustments to your tackle, your retrieve, and your location will have a profound impact on your success over time.
TIP 3: Setting up Your Shots
The clear water of Lower Tampa Bay means that you will have great opportunities for sight fishing. Sight fishing from a poling skiff for snook and redfish in shallow water is spectacular fun, but it does not come without its challenges. Seeing the fish before they see you is rule number one. If you can’t get rule number one figured out, then you won’t be doing any sight fishing.
Fish are rarely happy when you are between them and the sun. There are times when you won’t be able to do much about this, but avoid this scenario when you can. If you fish productive flats regularly, you should make adjustments to how you work those flats. Over time, you should develop an approach that minimizes the likelihood of spooking fish. Some additional information regarding sight fishing in shallow water can be found here. Though it’s fly fishing oriented, you may still find some of the elements of the article useful for light tackle applications.
TIP 4: Read the Signs
Some days, the fish are where you think they should be and they happily eat artificial baits. Other days you may struggle to make sense of where the fish went or you may find fish that refuse to eat. These days present a challenge. If fish aren’t where you thought they would be, then have a look around and see if they have reason to be somewhere else. It may not always be obvious, but noticing small things can make a big difference.
The ‘watch the birds’ phrase may sound like a tired old phrase, but there’s a reason it’s still in use. It’s a vague phrase that is often misinterpreted and misleading. Yes, you need to pay attention to the birds, but it’s more important to know which birds to watch and what to watch for. Over time, you should notice some general patterns.
Certain types of birds behaving in a certain way should mean something to you. Brown Pelicans, little blue herons, and white egrets are birds that tell you things. Merely seeing one of these birds means nothing. But seeing one of these birds exhibit a certain behavior should mean something to you. On days when you’re struggling or the fish seem off, watching the birds can be the key to turning your day around.
Paying attention to the details makes a difference. There are plenty of signs not related to birds out there that can easily be overlooked. When you’re fishing, take time to make observations. You’ll pick up on small trends or see something familiar that will inform your decisions. The more frequently you’re on the water the larger data base you should have to draw from.
TIP 5: Leaving Fish to Find Fish
If you talk to enough people about fishing, you’ll inevitably hear the phrase ‘Never leave fish to find fish’. Seems like a good rule that any shallow water angler would benefit from, but there are times when you need to leave the wrong fish to find the right fish.
A local angler told me that he attended a CCA presentation where they stated that the average Tampa Bay Redfish has been caught 25 times. Yes, 25 times. These are not the same fish that your father and grandfather were fishing for. Today’s Tampa Bay redfish can be jaded.
If you fish Lower Tampa Bay, you will quickly learn what a jaded school of redfish looks like. If you’re fishing a school of redfish that were pounded by live bait anglers the day before, they will more closely resemble victims of abuse than actual fish.
These fish are on high alert. They’re looking for trouble and you will definitely represent trouble to them. When you find yourself in this situation you will have to determine if these are catchable fish, or if you should leave these fish to find other fish.
TIP 6 Downsizing and Going Light
The combination of clear water and constant angling pressure means the fish of Lower Tampa Bay have had a good look at almost every lure manufactured. Now, just because they’ve seen it before doesn’t mean they won’t keep eating paddletails or super flukes. But there are days when your favorite confidence bait will be ignored, or even worse, it will frighten fish.
If you find yourself in this situation, then you should immediately understand that something about what you are offering these fish is unacceptable to them. Sometimes doing something as simple as changing your retrieval can flip the switch. But if you’re still unsuccessful after changing your retrieve, lure color, and lure depth, then consider downsizing.
To chat with Captain Brian about a fishing trip, text/call 941-400-6218 or Click Here.
Offering an even smaller meal to large shallow water fish can seem counterintuitive to some flats anglers, but if you have some experience using smaller lures, then you know how effective they can be. Artificial lures as small as 2” catch big fish in shallow water. Tiny artificials are far less intrusive than traditional sized lures. You’ll be far less likely to spook or intimidate fish with a much smaller artificial lure.
The main issue you will encounter while using smaller lures is that they are light and can be challenging to cast for distance without the proper equipment. A high-quality light or medium light action rod, of at least 7 feet, rigged with 6-8 pound braided line will launch tiny lures. Keeping a rod like this rigged and ready in your skiff is a smart move. You will thank yourself when a situation calls for something small and you’re all rigged and ready to go.
TIP 7 Getting Away from the Crowd
Part of fishing in Lower Tampa Bay is sharing the water with a lot of other anglers. There are always going to be areas where the shorelines are peppered with bay boats and flats skiffs. Many of those places are reliable spots for anglers fishing with live bait.
What’s happening on those shorelines is not greatly different than feeding time at SeaWorld. The fish have been trained to stay in one location by daily chumming with live bait. If they stray too far, they will lose their meal ticket. An occasional lip piercing is a small price for a fish to pay for the multiple meal times throughout each day when dazed white bait rains from the sky.
You can pull a fish or two using artificial lures out of a live bait spot, but you’ll find that these fish are a little different. Their mouths show the effects of regular encounters with hooks and they lack the fight and pedigree of a truly wild fish. Most artificial bait anglers get little joy from interactions with lazy fish that have sold their soul for the sake of convenience – it cheapens the experience.
Finding and catching shallow water fish where few dare to fish is what enriches the experience. Secret locations that nobody knows about no longer exist. But there are places that only receive light or intermittent angling pressure. Finding and learning these hard-to-get-to places can be a rewarding process. It may take more work, more gas, or even a shallower drafting boat, but fishing without another boat in sight is worth it.
There is no quick fix to becoming a proficient shallow water angler. Simply reading an article does not suddenly make you an incredible angler. And it certainly won’t make you a confident angler. To be a confident flats angler, there are skills that need to be developed and knowledge that can only be gained through personal experience.
Time on the water should always come first – there is no substitute. The key to making this article valuable is combining the tips from this article with time on the water. If you do that, you will undoubtedly improve your ability to consistently find and catch fish on artificial lures in Lower Tampa Bay.
Thanks for reading,
Captain Brian Boehm
Quiet Waters Fishing