Backwater fishing or flats fishing are two terms that are used for the type of fishing that is done from a flats boat or skiff in shallow inshore saltwater areas. Often there is a misconception that you have to go deep-sea fishing to catch trophy saltwater fish, but once you experience the fight of a 100-pound tarpon while fishing in the backwaters or on the flats, you will realize that this is not the case. There are plenty of hard-fighting game fish to be found inshore as long as you do your research, have the right gear and know a few saltwater fishing tips.

Suggested Fishing Tackle for Backwater and Flats Fishing

There are a variety of rods, reels and tackle that can be used for backwater and flats fishing.Here are a few tackle and gear suggestions:

  • 6 to 7-foot medium-action fishing rod with either a spinning or baitcaster reel
  • 15-pound test braided line or other light line
  • Approximately 2 to 3 feet of 20 to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader line
  • Hook sizes needed will vary depending on the size of the bait used, so you may want to keep a variety on hand in the 1/0 to 3/0 range
  • A variety of lures from gold metal spoons to soft plastic jigs

TIP: Fly fishing is also a popular method of fishing on the flats in Florida when targeting species like bonefish or tarpon. Fly fishing tackle is quite specialized and is great for intermediate to  advanced angler.  

Backwater and Flats Fishing Spots Where You Can Find Fish

Flats and backwater fishing areas are typically reached by boat. A small flats boat or fishing boat can be used, or even a kayak. If you are an intermediate angler and transitioning from freshwater fishing to saltwater fishing, the backwaters and flats will feel like familiar territory. These areas will often provide hours of action and feature structures that are home to many species, from flounder to spotted seatrout, all within a shallow inshore environment.

Saltwater Inlets 

A diagram of a saltwater inlet, a good place for flats fishing

Because of the moving current, saltwater inlets are good places to fish and are typically marked by shallow sand bars or rocks that line deeper channels or sloughs. A couple saltwater fishing tips: keep in mind that you'll need to locate the deeper water in order to find the fish. Predatory game fish will hide from the current behind structure in the shallower areas, while baitfish and prey will often congregate in the deeper water to hide.

Two tactics that tend to be effective when fishing saltwater inlets:

  • Drifting: Drift your boat through the deeper water or over and along the shoals while bouncing jigs or bottom rigs.
  • Anchoring: Anchor up and cast soft plastic lures, metal spoons or live baits up current, allowing them to drift down and sweep past the fish.

Marsh or Mangrove Edges

The edge of a mangrove, where anglers can go flats fishing

Marsh or mangrove edges are another good place to target when flats fishing. At low tide, fish will often scour the borders of the marsh grass or mangrove islands looking for prey. Look for water rushing in or out of a creek or estuary near the marsh or mangrove edges to find fish that are waiting to ambush bait. Position your boat within casting distance of these edges and try a few different techniques. You can work a jig along the bottom, or try topwater fishing by casting out a live shrimp or baitfish rigged with a popping cork, or "walk the dog" using a torpedo-shaped top water plug along the marsh or mangrove edge.


Oyster Bars and Grass Beds

A diagram of oyster beds along a sandbar, a good place for flats fishing

Oyster bars and grass beds are backwater reefs that support the marine food chain; however, fishing these areas can be a challenge since you'll need to avoid snagging your line on rough bottom or getting hung up in the grass. The best fishing techniques to use when backwater fishing around oyster bars or grass beds involve suspending your bait over the rough bottom using a popping cork, top water lure or a jig. Fish will patrol the outside edges of the bars and grass beds looking for prey that wanders too far away from the safety of the reef, so fish the edges and carefully work your boat over the reef.

TIP: If you have access to a boat with a trolling motor or push pole, that will be an advantage when moving over structure to avoid spooking the fish.

Channels

A saltwater creek that provides backwater fishing spots for anglers

Channels, creeks and rivers will always feature the deepest water and often the best backwater fishing. Not only will predatory game fish patrol these cuts, but bottom dwellers will also congregate in the deeper holes, making channels the ideal places to catch a variety of fish. Larger fish will be looking for prey that ventures out of the deep water, so a jig worked along the edge of the drop or through the deepest parts of the channel will often entice them to bite. Saltwater panfish, such as grunts or croakers, also tend to school up in the deepest sections of the channel and can be targeted by bouncing your bait along the bottom using a top-bottom rig or Carolina rig.

Potholes

Potholes are areas located within the grass flats that are void of grass, and that have sandy or muddy bottoms. Potholes vary in shape and size by several yards to just a few feet. Potholes are good areas to target when fishing the backwaters and flats because saltwater game fish, such as redfish or sea trout, will often sit near the grassy edges of a pothole waiting for baitfish or crustaceans as they move across the sandy or muddy bottom. One of the best saltwater fishing tips for redfish is to cast a popping cork rigged with a live shrimp or pinfish into one of these open sandy or muddy pothole areas. You'll very likely experience a strike if you're fishing during a running tide.

Once you've become accustomed to backwater fishing and flats fishing techniques, you can challenge yourself by developing new skills and taking a deep-sea or offshore fishing trip on the open ocean. Visit the saltwater fishing tips section to find more tips on catching saltwater species.