Fishing The Flats
By Glenn Todd
Some of the best areas on any body of water that you will visit don't look like much, but in fact, flats in all lakes harbor fish nearly every month of the year. No, I'm not talking about creeks or channels. I am talking about very easy areas to fish, where finding the mother lode is very possible and where someone else finding your fish is very near impossible. Flats are super.
Whether you're fishing Needmore or Caney at Sam Rayburn, the southwest side of Wolf Island at Ray Roberts, or parking lots at Truman Reservoir, in Missouri, flats offer some of the best and easiest fishing in any lake.
When most anglers think of flats, they think of shallow water, say five to 10 feet deep. Shallow is a relative term. It all depends on the lake. If the lake is known for deep-water fishing, the flats you fish may be 35 to 45 feet deep. On Possum Kingdom (Texas), five to 14 feet is more like it. On Rayburn, where the hydrilla stops, 10 to 15 feet will be the depth you should look for.
You will have to keep an open mind and apply this information to your home water, depending upon the season you will be fishing. You knew there would be a catch. Seasons, how deep, which flats, nothing is as easy as it sounds, right? Oh yes it is.
The only thing you will need to know is if the lake has vegetation or not and a little information on the history of the lake. When I say information I mean reliable depths. You probably know at what depths fish can be caught on a lake during certain months of the year, so part of your problem is already solved. You also know if there is any vegetation and what kind it is and at what depth it stops. Oops, there goes another part of the puzzle. This only leaves you with where and what to fish with.
As far as what to fish with, you can't go wrong with a Carolina-rigged French fry, with a 1/8- to 1-ounce sinker depending on the depth of water to be fished. That takes care of another part.
The last part of this equation is where. This is what I will concentrate on for the rest of this article, and I'll throw in some useful tips as we go along.
First let's determine just what a flat is. On some lakes, a flat may not be very big, say 50 yards long. It will not have much depth change. Hence the word, flat. However, finding a flat with a depth change puts you closer to fish than you know. On other lakes a flat may be acres and acres of the same depth of water. I am going to put underwater islands and humps into this category also because these are the areas that will, at times, have numbers of fish on them.
Just as a deeper area on a flat concentrate fish, so do the shallower areas. As we get started, you will have to have some kind of electronics on your boat that will determine the hardness of the bottom. An LCR with a grayline feature works great, as does a flasher. On a flasher, as the bottom gets more silted or softer, you will notice the flash depicting the bottom getting thinner. As bottom features get more solid, your flash will get thicker and, in most cases, with some fine-tuning, a double echo will appear.
Let's say you are in 10 feet of water and the bottom is rock or sand. The flash on your unit is thick and very detectable. Turn the tuning knob one way or the other until another faint echo is seen at 20 feet. This is where, in most instances, you will want your unit to be set.
On an LCR, a grayline feature is a must. This is the only way to determine just what is below your boat. Unless you are very familiar with the features on your unit, the best thing to do is to just turn the unit on and let it operate in the automatic mode. A soft bottom on an LCR with a grayline feature registers as a thin line, just as it does on a flasher. The harder the bottom gets the thicker the line depicting the bottom will get, and at times, if the bottom is very solid, you will notice another echo below the other. This is what you are looking for.
One other thing, rocks on the bottom will show up as very thick lines, almost turning solid black between the echoes on some units. Finding rocks on a flat is almost as good as finding a sign that says, "Fish Here!"
Okay, you know what to look for, now where do you go? Main-lake flat points are the best places to try first, especially if you are not familiar with the lake. You will find fish on main-lake points almost throughout the year. Idle up, down, and across these points watching your bottom echoes. A sudden depth change, is what everyone will find and chances are this area will have fish, but what you are looking for is the hardness of the bottom. You are looking for a rock pile or part of the point that is harder than the rest. The reason you are looking for a spot on top of the flat point is to find fish that are easier to catch. Fish that are on a drop can move out over deeper water and catching these fish can be very tricky. If a fish has moved up on a flat or point, it is because that fish is either committed to spawning or is hungry. This makes them easier to catch, and this is what this article is all about.
What did I say? Spawning? Oh yes. Your favorite lake will have spawning fish on main-lake points and humps. In fact, with increasing fishing pressure during the spawn on most lakes, some of the largest fish in the lakes spawn where no one fishes during the spring, out in the main lake. Many times the top of a hump or point has the most solid bottom of any part of that area. For this reason, and for the most part, vegetation will not grow on top of these areas. Fishing main-lake flats for spawning fish late in the spring is either one of the best kept secrets of pros or has not caught on yet. I assure you that every lake that I have been to in Texas has spawning fish on main-lake flats at least a month after you would think the spawn is over.
Are there flats that I do not even need to consider? Yes. When you pick up a lake map, flats are easily seen by the lack of contour lines, the farther the contour lines are apart, the flatter the bottom, and this is where your homework will come into play. I told you to find the depth at which most fish are caught on a given lake. This is the depth flat you will want to find on the lake map. This flat should also be next to some kind of structure such as a creek, tank dam, well-defined ditch, or maybe as part of a main point. The next thing to do is to find something that is out of the ordinary on this structure, ditch, vegetation, stump or stumps, or what I am trying to teach you to find, rocks. Even the largest flats like Needmore at Sam Rayburn are littered with ditches, humps, and most of all, scattered vegetation, but it also has its share of rock piles.
Rarely are you going to find such large expanses of flats as the ones found in Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn, but if you do, finding the depth changes, and the areas with rock or wood of some kind is the key to finding fish. You may fish Caddo, where the entire lake is a flat. On this lake, cypress trees and vegetation are the key.
As seasons progress, you may find the fish moving to different depths of water. This is not a problem, move with the fish. Moving to different depths enables you to learn more about that area. The more you fish a certain flat, the more fish holding objects you will discover. Also, by fishing flats at different times of the year, you will learn the most productive times and depths at which to fish. This information can then be applied to other lakes.
One of the best ways to gather information about a certain area is to fish that area. The best way to fish a flat is to drift-fish. Drifting is the art of dragging your bait with the wind, or if there is no wind, using the trolling motor to pull your bait along. By using the trolling motor, you are able to stay at a certain depth and you can control the speed at which you drift. There are times when bass will school and move on flats. But most of the time, you will be looking for objects that hold fish. The larger the object, the more fish that object will hold. By drift-fishing Carolina rigs, you can cover a lot of water in a hurry. Drifting will also get you bites you would not normally get. By this I mean you can throw a Carolina rig at an object and not get bit, drift past this object and you will.
When drift-fishing, pay close attention to your depth finder, this is how you will learn the makeup of the bottom. Pay special attention to the grayline feature as you are trying to find rocks and soft spots. Soft spots, you will find, do not produce, and just a half of a foot in depth change can put you in a soft bottom.
When fishing for bass still on beds, these soft spots are not what you are looking for. Bass want a hard bottom, so you will have to find out the bottom makeup to determine if fish are going to use an area for bedding. Eggs need sunlight to hatch so as a general rule of thumb, fish no deeper than 18 inches deeper than you can see into the water. If the water is very clear, drifting may not be an option because of spooking the fish. At night, however, I have not found drifting over beds that I can see during the day to affect the fish.
Remember what I said about depth, it is relative to the lake you are fishing. Spawning fish are not usually found in water that deep, but in very clear water, they will be.
So take this information and apply it to your lake. Those depth finders are expensive, use them for what they were intended, and learn what they are telling you. Fishing flats can be very addictive because of the amount of fish that you can catch. Once you learn the basics, your off to the flats.