Fishing the Flats

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On a sunny day, fishing the flats of Cape Cod is more like fishing the Florida Keys. Stripers cruise in foot deep water, much like Florida’s famous bonefish. The water takes on a turquoise color that extends for miles in every direction. Under a summer sun tidal pools warm up to near 80 degrees as terns and sea birds dive for sand eels.

At times, the flats are almost a surreal environment.  Whether you are fishing Monomoy, Brewster or Barnstable one thing is for sure – there is nothing quite like the feeling of being all on your own with miles of sandbar and stripers all to yourself.

Mix in a few terns and gulls, the ocean lapping up against the sand, and a warm sun shining down from above and you have yourself one day to remember.  Catching a few fish is really just a bonus.

fishing cape cod's flats

Looking west as the sun sets over the flats on a Cape Cod late summer evening.

The Bait

The most abundant bait fish in the area is of course, the sand eel. Most of these sand eels are on the small side, especially compared to the goliath foot long sand eels that you will find farther offshore. Nevertheless the sheer number of sand eels provides plenty of reason for striped bass to venture in shallow.

And speaking of shallow, it is not unusual at all to find bass cruising over the flats in water depths of two feet or less. This can be a refreshing change of pace for anglers accustomed to fishing deeper waters.  Fishing the flats is the exact opposite of jigging a 100 yards of wire from a boat in deep water.  In my opinion it’s a lot more fun too.

Aside from sand eels many of Cape Cod’s flats hold other bait as well.  In the past I have found schools of juvenile bunker cruising over the shallows in the fall, and the occasional herring here and there during the spring.  Grass patches hold crabs and other small bait fish too.  However, most of the time the almighty sand eel reigns supreme.

Tide

The most important factor when fishing over the flats is the stage of the tide. In the past my best success fishing the shallow water has occurred during the first part of the incoming tide. I think the fish are well aware that they have the tide at their backs, which makes heading into shallow water safer for the fish. With an incoming tide, there is no chance of getting stranded on the sand or in a tidal pool.

Kayaks as well as skiffs work best when fishing over the flats. However I typically find myself in my 21 foot boat, anchoring up wherever is appropriate and then walking to where I want to fish.  When doing this you really have to understand how the tide moves in the area you are fishing.  It is very easy to make a mistake if you are not familiar with the area and either have your boat high and dry on the sand, or out of reach when the tide comes in.

Fishing the flats can be one of the most dangerous types of fishing a recreational fisher can do off Cape Cod. It is extremely important to not get careless when wading any area-especially a tidal flat. A mile of sandbar can be completely underwater within an hour in many areas. Said another way, a completely exposed high and dry section of sand at low tide could be covered by 10-15 feet of water at high tide. Add in the fact that the sandbars undulate in depth, and that it is often possible to walk a mile or more straight out to see, and you have a potentially fatal fishing situation.

Having a strong understanding of the tide, wearing a life jacket, fishing with a buddy, having a hand held GPS AND a regular old compass is very important.  Not taking any chances is a very good idea when wading over the flats.  Be prepared to walk back to your boat, kayak or parking lot in dense fog – because there’s a decent chance you will have to.

fishing the flats

This bar stretches for miles at low tide, but has over 10 feet of water during the high.

Presentation

When done in a safe manner, fishing over the flats can result in impressive striper catches in surprisingly skinny water. Lures that have worked best for me include weightless soft plastics cast on light spinning tackle. Keep in mind that the primary bait is the sand eel. Long and slender profile soft plastics typically work best. Of course an assortment of flies can also be used with great success.

Individual bass will often cruise over the flats but don’t be surprised if you stumble upon a large school of stripers cruising in skinny water. Most of these bass will be on the small side with a few keepers mixed in. Expect them to be fussy and difficult to fool, especially if the sun is high in the sky.

My best days fishing the flats have always occurrred early in the season, usually during the month of June. By July the water becomes so warm that most of the striped bass abandon the shallows.

Cape Cod’s tidal flats are a unique and beautiful place to catch striped bass. If you’re into catching plenty of fish on light tackle in skinny water, these flats may just be your slice of fishing paradise.

Tight lines and catch ‘em up!

Ryan

fish cape cod

by Ryan Collins

I love fishing because I love being outside in nature. Catching a few fish is really just a bonus :)

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