Mastering the Flats

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Posted by: CaptainDave, on 04/17/2008, in category "Fish Tales"
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Abstract: April on Clarks Hill: Striperology 101
April on Clarks Hill:  Striperology 101
GON April 1999
by Capt. Dave Willard

    I really like that Spanish Fly guy.  You know, the one on ESPN.  His Name is Jose, and he is one cool dude- there is no doubt that he can walk the talk.  He’s sporting Cabela’s guidewear and Serengeti sunglasses while poling a gazillionaire fly-rod fisherman in search of 200 lb. tarpon.  
    They are shortly in the middle of a school, have a hook-up, a spectacular tailwalking battle and are back at Papa Hemingway’s for margaritas before you can say “pass the peas.”  
    Having spent a few of my formative fishing years in the Keys, I love to fish the flats and can certainly relate to Jose’s type of fishing.  While at Clarks Hill we don’t have miles of tidal flats we can sight cast, we do have areas where the topography remains fairly consistent for hundreds of yards and the depth will hold in the 6- to 12- foot ranges before dropping off gradually into a creek or river channel.  These areas are our flats and while Jose probably wouldn’t get excited enough to load his flat boat and head this way, our flats offer some good fishing for my favorite species.  If the water were clearer, we could see stripers, hybrids and largemouth bass chasing baitfish across these areas.
    As the water temperature warms into the low 60s this month, bait schools will begin to swarm on these shallow flats, drawing the predators.  Now is the time of year to master the inland flats, if you want to be a good striper fisherman.
    Locating flats is not difficult.  Anyone who has spent much time in the outdoors has looked at topo maps.  They can be used to find large areas of shallow water.
    Of course, “local knowledge” is always the best and if you know the lake, you can probably think of several areas that would qualify.  Many lakes have these areas marked with hazard buoys due to shallow depths, as some of them are at Clarks Hill, and finding them can be as simple as riding around and locating the buoys.  
    The best areas to concentrate on are large areas at the mouths of feeder creeks, where they empty into the main river or a major tributary of the river.    Next time you are on an undamned river, pay attention to the mouths of feeder creeks: you will almost always see a sandbar there, either above the surface or below it, there is a buildup of sediment washed in by the creek.  These sandbars form the flats I’m talking about in a reservoir.  The more gradual the slope of the flat, and the farther it extends into the river channel, the better.
    On Clarks Hill, some examples of good flats are in the mouths of Cherokee and Hart creeks on the Little River (Georgia) arm, and Wells, Soap, and Russell creeks on the Savannah River.  You’ll find good flats in every corner of the lake—in fact, there’s probably thousands of them.  In my lifetime I’ll never fish them all.
    After locating a potential flat, learn the lay of the land by running the depth finder over and over the area until you know it like your own bedroom.  Of course, you want to do this on a day you aren’t going to fish this particular spot and a day when no one else is there either.  Learn the relative depths and where the ledges are.  Learn the structure within the structure: are there any ditches, big rocks, stumps?  How do the fish come and go?  This will take time.
    Now that we have located a good flat, let’s talk about fishing it.  This could be a couple of volumes in itself.  Everyone has their favorite method.  Most people will use their trolling motor and cast artificials.  Some purists might want to use a flyrod.   I wrote on a method of  corking and freelining using live herring two years ago ( see “Dragging the Skeg,” GON, March’97).  All these methods can be effective.  Another method I use often is to “set up” by anchoring the boat and fishing live and cut bait on the bottom.  But before we can fish, we have to anchor and this can be the hardest part to do correctly.  
    If I was teaching striper fishing on the college level, no one would pass without showing proficiency in anchoring.  Show up with one mushroom anchor and 50 feet of rope and you flunk!
    First, you need Danforth-type anchors.  There are many variations and manufacturers but they are basically alike.  The only ones to avoid are the real light aluminum types.  They won’t dig in on a hard bottom.  The Danforths I use are made from ¼-inch steel.  The size and weight is determined by the size and weight of your boat, the amount of rope you plan on putting out relative to the depth and the composition of the lake’s bottom.  Basically, you want the lightest Danforth anchors that will hold your boat in a good wind without dragging.   
    Note I said anchors.  It takes two—one fore and one aft.  I carry three just in case I lose one.  At 5 a.m. when a client who is trying to help anchor the boat turns and asks, “Was I supposed to let all the rope go over the side?” you can smile and say, “ No sir, but not to worry, I have another one.”  
    Bass Pro Shop carries a type of Danforth called a Chene anchor along with a size chart that should be fairly accurate.  These anchors aren’t heavy so I would go the next size up.  If they won’t hold your baot with 150-200 feet of line out, send them back and get the next largest.
    “Man, look at all that rope—there must be 100 feet there!”  Well, close.  How about 300 feet fore and 300 feet aft—with a 15 mph northwesterly wind and a hard clay bottom we’ll need every foot.  Also, when we get a big fish on, the rope will be at such an angle we can take her under or over the rope and not get tangled up.  I like 3/8- inch cotton rope.  It’s easy on the hands and coils well in the bucket.  I haven’t found a better way to stow rope so it will be ready to use than to place it in a bucket.  Drill a 3/8-inch to ½-inch hole in the bottom.  This will serve two purposes.  One, it will let rain water out.  Second, pass the rope through this hole and tie a knot.  Then start winding the rope inside the bucket.  This way, if you happen to pull all the rope out of the boat, the bucket will go too and will be easy to retrieve.  
    To paint a picture of the rest of a fishing trip to the flats, allow me to recall a spring trip I had not long ago.
    First light found us heading up the Little River arm toward one of my favorite flats.  Despite the cool morning air, it was a beautiful run with a light chop from the northwest.  As we drew near, I could just see the outlines of another boat through lifting shrouds of fog.  I hope he’s not on “my spot,” I thought to myself.  
    There is nothing more conspicuous than a live-bait boat double-anchored on a flat, especially with rods bent double.  Since the river narrows so much in these areas, every boat that comes upriver passes close by, and we had been spotted by some new guys in the past few days.  They were polite and watched from a distance but must have made a mental note to beat me upriver this morning.  As we came off plane, I tried to size up the situation and determine where the other boat was located.  This is one reason why knowing the flat is so important.
    Fishing, above all, is a daily challenge to adapt and overcome.  It can be a hard decision to guess what depth the fish will be in.  Water temperature, light penetration, water clarity, wind direction and dozens of other factors known only to the fish play a part.  This morning it would be an easy decision.  I had to take the deeper water and stay away from the other boat.
    I watched the depth finder as we came off the river channel.   I shut the big motor down and went to my Navigator trolling motor.  As we came up on the edge of the flat, I saw a ball of bait in 18 feet of water.   I dropped the font anchor and asked my client to allow the rope through his fingers as the rope fed from the bucket and tell me when we get low on rope.  We backed up past the marker buoy and I dropped the back anchor.  As we started forward again, I tended the back rope and my front anchor man took up the slack.  When we reached the marker buoy, the third man picked it up and we stopped slightly past this point in 15 feet of water and secured both ropes.
          I cast out live herring on Carolina rigs as far as I could throw them.  With eight rods fan cast in every direction and placed in rod holders, the clickers on the Ambassador 6500Cs were set.
          I took yesterday’s left-over bait from the cooler and began to cut it into little pieces and throw it into the water.
          “Why are you doing that?” asked one of the guys.  “I’ve seen it done in the ocean but never in a lake.”
        “It’s the same principle,” I said.  “Stripers really like the smell of blood in the water and will follow the scent for a long distance.”
         These words of wisdom and other clever comments I made during the first few minutes were still ringing in my ears during the next three hours as we never had a rod to bend.  The only positive note was the other boat hadn’t caught a fish either.  Now, I’m a firm believer that the Lord gave us fish to keep us humble, and the most humbling experience I’ve ever had was to have a boat that I’ve never seen before pull up next to me and do everything “wrong” and just slaughter the fish while we just watched.
        Thankfully, the other boat had left without catching anything, but I still had two fellows on their first trip for stripers wondering if this wasn’t the worst of all species of fish to go after.
        “Ever do any crappie fishing?” one fellow asked.
        I’m sure he didn’t mean anything sinister by this remark but one can never be sure at a time like this.
       “We’ll give them 10 more minutes, then we’ll try another spot,” I replied, choosing to ignore the crappie fishing remark.  Actually, I have a good crappie fishing story but it is only funny when we’re catching stripers.  Frankly, I figured we were in trouble.  It was approaching midday and I had spent our best fishing hours on the only flat in the lake not holding any fish.   Then I noticed a movement from the front of the boat.  Almost afraid that it was wishful thinking, I slowly began to focus on the left front rod as the tip bent forcefully down and the drag screamed.  With speed that can only come from hours of anticipation, I had the rod out of the holder and felt a solid hook  set as I turned to place the rod in my client’s hands.  I stepped back to watch the battle and try to make sure we landed our first fish when I saw the back right rod go.   
        We had a double on after three and a half hours of zilch.  We landed two stripers, a 10-pounder and a 12-pounder, and then for the next two hours we smoked ‘em, right in the middle of the day.   I can’t tell you why these fish decided to move in at this time.   All week long it had been early morning ‘til midday.  Could a huge school have been passing by in the river channel, smelled the chum and decided to check us out?  It never ceases to amaze me at all the factors that must come together in order to catch fish.   The more I fish, the more I realize how little I really know and how little credit I can take when successful.
     As we pulled anchors, I noticed blood all over the sleeves of my Cabela’s guidewear and my mind began to wander.  I thought about the other boat and if he had located any fish.  I also wondered how many tarpon Jose had released this morning.  I fired up the engine and started up on plane.  “If you guys want to buy the margaritas, I’ll tell you my crappie fishing story.”



Comment posted by: Bill Baab, on Wednesday, April 30, 2008 2:05 PM
Except for the typos which can be ignored, it's a wonderful story, Dave. I'll share it with readers on the Fishing Page of May 2, except I'll just tell them how to find it on their PCs and let them read it.

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