Fly Fishing in Shallow Waters Can Equal Big Rewards

Shallow water success in Southwest Florida. Photo credit – Staci Brown.

By Tom Karrow PhDc, MES:

There are two major misconceptions about fly fishing. The first is that fly fishing is limited to surface fishing, a stereotype born from motion pictures like “A River Runs Through It,” where trout are caught on dry flies. The second misconception is that only small fish can be caught on flies. Both assumptions could not be further from the truth, especially with advances in technology. Fly anglers can now readily present flies to fish at considerable depths and stout 10, 11, 12 and heavier weight rods can tackle very large fish. Even lighter fly rods, with appropriate pressure and angler handling, can turn shockingly large fish. Remember, the largest whales on this planet eat some of the smallest foods; the same often applies to fish.

Despite technological advances that allow for fly fishing successes in deep water, shallow water sight fishing is my favorite, and shallow water is not limited to small fish! Indeed, the fish I remember most are those that I saw in shallow waters, resting in shade during the peak of the day in warm summer months, or in the sunshine on cool winter days. Many of these memorable fish were large fish, cruising mangrove shorelines in search of easy prey. While I was not always successful in catching and releasing these fish, it is these memories that stand out.

Shallow water is brought on by changes in bottom structure, but also in the availability of water. In marine environments, water availability is largely dependent on tides and it is the bottom of the tide, an hour either side of a low, that interests me most. I like some moving tide; I like a change in tide, and with low tides, fish are forced from protective structures like mangroves, docks, creeks or flats into deeper water where predators more easily roam. The narrow convergence between deep water, and what were the shallows, is where a lot of the action takes place. Careful scanning with good polarized sunglasses and a stealthy approach often reveals subtle clues to fish activity. Look for “nervous” water, wakes, pushes, busting bait, changes in color, or even fins, as fish search for food, attempt to avoid predation, and follow tides either out or back in. If all else fails, follow the birds. Shorebirds do exactly what fish do, but are far more easily seen. Birds like egrets, spoonbills, herons and gulls will work tide edges, often revealing locations of bait, depth changes and currents – the exact locations that predatory fish like bonefish, snook and redfish seek.

Shallow-water fly fishing is not easy. Fish are far more wary in shallow water. Sound, vibrations and other disturbances are more pronounced, and fish are more likely to feel unnatural pressures. Stealth is needed more than ever. Very careful poling or gentle wading, light, delicate presentations, smaller, lighter flies and long fine leaders all help give anglers an edge in these conditions. I like to use a lighter rod, like a 5-, 6- or 7-weight, as the lines for these rods are thinner and create fewer disturbances on the water. I also like softer, slower rods. I like to lead fish more, to minimize false casts, and to use fly lines that have longer forward tapers for more delicate presentations. Specialty fly lines built for bonefishing are good general-purpose lines for these applications, regardless of destination or species.

As I compose this piece, watching snow accumulate on the windowsills, I fondly recall a large snook that I fooled in Florida last summer. The tide had just turned and was beginning to come in. A rush of cooler water was invigorating lethargic fish smothered by tropical sunshine, while previously inaccessible areas were becoming inundated and allowing access for predators. The fish was cruising into the tide, and I placed my fly well in front of her, up on the beach, actually. As the fish neared where I thought it would intercept my fly, I gave the line a single slow strip. I introduced my fly to the water, and I watched in awe as the large female snook surged forward. She swirled in the clear water, and her large mouth engulfed my fly. I strip set and she was on.

For a real thrill in angling, give fly fishing in shallow waters a try. Consider a guide who will greatly advance your successes and learning, and remember that big fish live in shallow water too!

Tom Karrow is a doctoral candidate researching bonefishing sustainability in The Bahamas. He is sponsored by R.L. Winston Fly Rods, Nautilus Reels, FishPond, RIO Fly Lines, 12 Weight, Costa Sunglasses and World Angling. For more information on his research, see Tom can be contacted at

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