Finding A RedfishFlat

By Jack Baggette

When fishing with a newcomer to the Lowcountry, the same question always comes up, “how do I find a good redfish flat?”  Most of us have had the same question, even the rare Beaufort native.  This article is my answer to the question.  There are two basic ways of going about it.  The first is to hire a local guide and let him get you started.  Pick his brains to learn about the fish, fishing techniques and the types of places to find them.  Your fellow SIFF members may also be helpful if you approach them right.  The second way, personal exploration, is very time consuming so if you are impatient, you may want to pick another sport.  If you have some patience and good powers of observation the following will be helpful.  Believe me, finding your own flats is a lot of fun. 

The fish we target on the fly are subadults, before becoming sexually mature, at three to five years.  An excellent description of the life cycle of redfish can be found in the publications referenced at the end.  Our targeted redfish remain inshore as subadults and range from less than one pound when they leave nursery areas to eight to thirteen pounds when they depart for life in the ocean as adults.  Although we often catch adults inshore the vast majority are sub-adult fish.   

Sub-adult redfish have two things on the mind:  food and safety.  These two things determine where they are found.  After being broadcast spawned at the mouth of estuary inlets (September timeframe) the larvae are carried into the marsh nursery areas to begin their lives.  As younger subadults (seven to twenty one inches) the fish feed primarily on shrimp, crabs and some small fishes. These types of food are found in abundance in salt marsh areas.  Your personal exploration efforts should start where these types of prey live. 

Beaufort County is blessed with some great redfish water.  The State of South Carolina contains 504,450 acres of salt marsh, 20% of the East Coast’s total, according to the South Carolina Sea Grant office.  Beaufort County is home to much of this SC salt marsh. 

FLAT-  What is a flat?  Tidal flats are nearly flat intertidal surfaces that are sheltered from direct wave attack.  Flats are of two types: high marsh and low marsh.  The high marsh is the portion of the salt marsh that abuts land, frequently an island.  The high marsh flat is inundated by salt water only during “spring” high tides.  It is frequently bordered by black needlerush at higher elevations where brackish water occurs. Cordgrass (spartina), is the dominant plant with smaller populations of succulent glasswort, flowering sea oxeye, marsh elder and sea myrtle.  The Important thing to note is the height of the cordgrass.  It is a much shorter version (0.3-1.7 feet).  The relatively short height is due to a lack of regular flushing of marsh soils and the higher concentration of low-nutrient-sandy soil.  The soil is much firmer than low marsh flats.    

Low marsh flats are composed of silt and clay, usually dark brown to black in color.  It is not firm and can not be waded.  Cordgrass is the only plant that normally occurs in the low marsh.  It can grow quite tall, up to six feet, but its height varies with the amount of tidal flushing.  It is tallest between drainage creeks and behind levees. Most local low marsh flats have two major conditions: mud flats and marsh grass.  If you look at St. Helena Sound vs. Port Royal Sound, the former has very extensive marsh complexes, mud and cordgrass.  Port Royal Sound has more open water compared to St. Helena, most likely due to a relative lack of sedimentation from freshwater river mouths.    Sedimentation allows the marsh to build up a flat enough that grasses cover them.  Oysters thrive very well on mud flats.  Oysters provide a three dimensional habitat full of crevices and hiding places for bait: small fish, crustaceans, worms and other small organisms.  During low tide fish gather on a flat or in holes near creek mouths.  Holes between oyster rakes are often formed by current and also provide good places for redfish to await higher water.  

DATA-  Nobody’s memory is good enough to remember all that you will see during exploration.  There are many variables to collect and these data will vary with changes in season and the habits of bait and of the fish.  To be truly effective you need to keep a log of what you see and experience during your explorations.  Things like the date, water temp, location, and weather are logical data.  Here are several sources and numerous data elements that you may want to consider recording:

These data are hard to capture without effort and organization.  I employ a loose leaf template that is completed after a trip.  A better method may be to tape record your observations while on the water, and fill in your data sheet later.  Whatever the method you should develop a log which can be referred to in the future.  Fish will follow certain patterns that repeat in coming years.  Availability of a log allows you to analyze these patterns and improve on your fishing results.  Another technique that I find especially useful is a copy of the chart on the reverse of the log page.  With a copier this is easy.  Notations on the chart have more utility for me than written notes.   

PERSONAL EXPLORATION-   Are you ready to explore?  It is wise to visit the target area several times during each season of the year.  Plan the trip to check  low tide flats every month.  You can skip a high tide trip Dec thru March.  The key to successful exploration is to focus on what you see.  It would be best to leave your rod at home (if you can) and arm yourself with binocs. 

There is too much good water to explore it all.  I recommend you pick an area convenient to where you live and learn it well.  Start with our Sounds: St. Helena, Port Royal, and Calibogue.  Carve out water in one of these that you want to fish and do your home work.  Study appropriate navigation charts and fishing maps.  The most popular map is a waterproof Top Spot  map, published for fishermen.  Local guides have identified productive spots and flats and indicated which month is best for various species.  GPS coordinates are provided and a fair amount of info on launches, depths and navigation aids is included.  An even more useful tool is Google Earth.  This free computer program allows us to zoom down from space for a detailed aerial view of our target area.  Aerial photos are much more detailed than maps.  You will soon learn to use Google to augment info on the map and that which you see as you explore.  What are you looking for?  

Low tide flat – These flats are used year round by redfish.  Look for several characteristics.  The most important features are oysters, cordgrass and the flats ability to stay covered by water thru low tides.  Other desirable features include the presence of birds, clear water and access creek(s) into the cordgrass.  The shallower and larger the flat is the better, to avoid the bottle nosed dolphin, the redfish’s main predator.  A gradually slopping flat provides relative safety during low tide when our reds are not able to disappear into the grass.  Flats that are crescent shaped or actual lagoons are especially good.  Flats with oysters and a live bottom provide structure and sanctuary for redfish prey.  Swimming crabs, shrimp, mud minnows, finger mullet, spot, and menhaden like this habitat, as does the smaller life they feed on.  You will often find the bait collecting close to the grass, awaiting the rising water which allows them to escape back into a sanctuary.  If you see fish, that is good.  If you see wading birds feeding but no fish, that is good too, because the birds are feeding on the same bait the fish are after.  Actually seeing the fish on a flat takes some study.  You will learn to spot them with time, but that is a subject worthy of a separate article.  Winter time, when the water is more clear due to less algae, is a good time to see and to locate fish. 

High tide flats - These flats are used by redfish during warmer months and the good ones are usually near a good low tide flat.  Look in late April thru Nov.  This time period is the active season for the fiddler and mud crab, major diet items for the redfish. These crabs live in burrows along protected shorelines and hibernate during colder weather. Swimming crabs (blues primarily) will also invade these high water areas during warmer weather and can be seen capturing periwinkles (marsh snails) off cordgrass stems. A shortage of blue crabs has been known to result in a loss of marsh grass, due to snail damage.  OK, get to the flat early, at least three hours before high tide.  Locate where the first water enters the flat.  This is where the fish will be waiting as the water rises.  It may be a small creek or cut into the marsh or it is often just a shallow depression the fish use to funnel through.  A jackpot would be a good low marsh flat near a good high marsh flat, with abundant crabs and several creek or depression funnel entrees. You can sometimes fish these flats from a boat but many people prefer to wade.  Many wading flats are accessible from the road, without a boat.  Ask me for some help locating these non-boat areas.  A boat does offer more geographic options, however, and you can wade after anchoring. Look for the short cordgrass and note the differences in shades of green, usually darker and somewhat brown or even gray.  You will find the silt/clay sediment in the high marsh more firm and suitable for burrowing crabs and the shorter grass.  The average high tide does not flood the high marsh flat.  Look at the tide log.  If the Savannah Riv. high is at least 7.5 feet in the log, the water will flood most wading targets. 7.8 is the standard using a boat.  This will vary by flat and wind, so observe, note and plan accordingly.  Note: only 97 days in late April thru Nov. 2010 satisfy this requirement during daylight.  Good wading conditions are limited.  Winds can push the height of tides up or down, and rising tides are better for wading as fish get nervous and desert the flat as the water drops.  Be early because hungry reds are eager to get at the fiddlers and mud crabs that live on the higher flats.  Extreme spring tides cause rapid flow of current and difficult fishing conditions, so lesser tides that still flood the high flats are sometime preferred.  Later in the cycle, as the tide falls, plan to be where the water first filled the flat and you will usually see the fish depart the flat the same route they entered. 

Mid tide periods - Look for creeks and grass edges, good mid tide places to find fish waiting for tides to rise and allow entry into the marsh grass.  Creek mouths and depression funnels are good places on a falling tide too, as fish wait for bait to be washed out of the grass.  Each creek can be different as to the best time during the tide to find fish.  Depth, width, length and wind will effect what the fish do and when. Note what you observe.  Where you do not find fish is almost as valuable information as where you do find them. 

CAUTION – Let’s assume you are successful in your personal exploration and locate a good flat.  Is that enough?  No, it is not.  You need a variety of spots to fish.  Being a “one trick pony” and going to the same spot time after time is not good.  The flat will be known to others very soon and fishing pressure may soon drive the fish elsewhere.  Also, wind conditions vary and some flats are unfishable when the wind is out of certain directions.  Please resolve to be a good steward of our fishery.  Practice catch and release.  Avoid over-pressure on a flat and do not damage habitat with your boat.  Remember to be courteous to other anglers and give them the same consideration and elbow room that you expect. 

SUMMARY – Pick an area to learn, do your homework with maps/ charts/ Google Earth, make a log, do the exploring, observe and note the data elements selected, pick high, low and mid tide areas to fish.  Then you are ready to enjoy the fruits of your efforts.  Keep up with your log as you fish and refine your fishing plans as you learn more about our water.  Help others responsibly enjoy our fishery.  Have fun.

HELP – I have had a lot of help putting this article together.  Talking to guides, fellow fly fishers, and taking notes at SIFF presentations has been invaluable.  Dave Murray, Jack Brown, Doug Gertis and Tuck Scott have been especially helpful.  I learn something every time I get on the water, from my fishing partners or from the fish.  I hope that you will be helped by this article and look forward to hearing some feed back. When you discover something new about flat identification, please share the knowledge, as I have with you.  Thanks.  Below you will find several references used in researching the article.