Gamefish that inhabit the shallowest portions of saltwater flats are notoriously skittish and even the most subtle disturbance can send them scrambling. It has become almost cliché that you have to stalk these shallow-water fish as silently as possible in order to be consistently successful.
To provide a quieter approach and eliminate the noise that comes from water slapping against the hull, most flats-skiff manufacturers have eliminated hard chine edges in favor of softer ones. The results have been fantastic and it is now possible to more closely approach fish in a skiff than ever before. But despite all the technical advances in no-slap hulls, stealthy wading remains the quietest way to stalk fish in skinny water.
Understanding the relationship between underwater “sounds” and a fish’s hearing system is a prerequisite to silent wading technique on the flats. Fish have an acute hearing system that allows them to detect a wide range of sounds, including vibrations and water movement/displacement/pressure, at a much lower decibel level than humans. Nerves along the lateral line pick up these various sounds and transfer them to the inner ear. The fact that water is around 800 times denser than air and amplifies underwater sound provides further reason for a quiet approach.
Not all circumstances are conducive to wading. Some situations require fishing from a boat so prior to stepping onto any saltwater flat, make sure that the bottom is suitable for wading by testing it with a stick or by entering the water very slowly. Hard sand is easy to walk across, but some mud bottoms are so soft that you can sink to your waist, or deeper in a matter of seconds. I’ve heard of many situations where flyfishers have gotten temporarily stuck because they didn’t first check for relatively firm footing. That doesn’t mean you should avoid all soft bottoms – just the ones that are almost impossible to walk across. For safer wading on soft mud, move slowly and test the bottom with each step, but “when in doubt – stay out.”
Walk at a leisurely rate so that you make no surface noise and push as little water as possible. Keep in mind that fish are not only able to detect any splashy wading activity, but they can pick up the “sound” of water being displaced or pushed as well. As much as possible, avoid frightening any fish as even scurrying bait can alert a gamefish to your presence. A deliberate pace also allows you to study the surroundings and spot more fish in the process.
The wading technique you use largely depends on water clarity, depth, and whether stingrays are prevalent. In dark water and areas in the vicinity of a large population of stingrays, slide your feet along the bottom instead of lifting them as you walk. This “stingray shuffle” will not only help you avoid the excruciatingly painful penetration of a ray’s barb, but it will also prevent you from stepping on some other unseen sharp object. When stalking fish in water where the bottom is clearly visible and stingrays are not a problem, you have the option of lifting a foot out of the water each time you take a step and then silently placing it back down toes first – similar to the way a long-legged shorebird would walk. When utilizing the “shorebird walk,” occasionally check the bottom to avoid contact with sea urchins, sharp corals, and other items that might scrape or otherwise penetrate the skin. In deeper crystalline waters with clean sand bottoms that are void of stingrays, you have the option of moving your feet normally along the bottom. Regardless of which wading procedure you employ, movement should be slow and quiet.
Choose the right wading gear for the situation. In cool water, full chest-high waders are a good choice and they also provide excellent foot protection. On the other hand, nylon pants or shorts worn with a pair of specialty flats wading boots are far more comfortable in warm water. Lightweight and flexible neoprene wading boots are perfect on level bottoms; whereas, heavy-duty flats boots increase support on uneven bottoms and offer the best protection around oyster bars, coral, and other submerged things. Some wading flyfishers also opt to wear specialized armored shin protectors in areas where stingrays are prominent – especially in dark water where the rays aren’t visible.
In addition to stingrays, there are a variety of sea critters to keep an eye out for including sea lice, alligators, crocodiles, and sharks. Sea lice are not actually “lice,” but small crustaceans that have a bite that is more uncomfortable than painful. If they happen to be in the area you’re wading, simply wear a pair of nylon pants to avoid any contact.
Encounters with alligators in saltwater shallows are rather common in some regions, but, from my experience, the dangers of wading an area inhabited by them are blown all out of proportion. They are normally rather shy creatures that keep to themselves; however, on rare occasions during the spring mating season they can get a little aggressive and may even slowly work their way toward you – more out of curiosity than anything else. If you want to be on the safe side, simply yield the water to any that are moving in your general direction. However, in regard to crocodiles you should immediately get the hell out of the water if you were ever stupid enough to enter it in the first place!
“The man in the gray suit” is a frequent visitor on most saltwater flats. Relatively small sharks often prowl around an area where several fish have been caught in hopes of picking-off one that has been released in a weakened condition. In addition, a small shark may follow in the trail of any cloudy silt you might stir up while wading. Rarely do these small fish present a problem; but, in the event that one becomes a little aggressive or gets too close, a sharp jab on the nose with the butt of a rod or kicking water at the shark will usually scare it away. Keep in mind that the deeper you wade, the greater the chances of an encounter with a jaws-like specimen that might not be so easily frightened; and believe me, it is a stimulating event to say the least. The chances of an encounter with large sharks can be greatly reduced if you stay away from the deep flats immediately adjacent to channels and drop-offs; but sometimes those areas are unavoidable if that’s where the fish and you want to have a shot at them.
Jon B. Cave