It doesn’t make a difference where you ply your craft. Navigating shallow water is not to be taken lightly. Although inshore fishing is widely considered simpler and safer than big game pursuits, in this exploit there are many unforeseen hazards. First and foremost, the isolated inshore venues where tarpon, snook and redfish feed with no remorse are often beyond the limitation of cell phone service. One wrong turn could have you stuck in the mud for hours with no way to call for help.
Whether charting a course through the winding maze of mangroves in Ozello or Flamingo, navigating shallow water requires tremendous knowledge, experience and awareness. Not only is it important to keep your passengers and vessel safe, but the lush ecosystems that harbor the game fish we seek are extremely fragile. An errant prop scar will mar a flat for decades, so don’t be that guy.
Unfortunately, novice boaters are often under the impression that advances in chartplotting technology reduce the learning curve, but GPS systems cannot replace decades of experience. Instead of relying on their machines, operators should be more in-tune with their sur-roundings. Situational awareness is a must.
Wading birds and emerging plants like mangrove sprouts will give you a good idea of areas to avoid. It’s also important you have amber or brown polarized lenses so you can see below the surface for a true indication of the water color and substrate. Brown water generally marks the presence of seagrass, while white coloration indicates a sandbar below. Green water is generally a safe depth, but if you are in doubt be sure to proceed with caution.
Prior to Hurricane Irma, the National Park Service was tasked with installing approximately 200 channel markers and 40 speed signs throughout the nearly 850-square-mile estuary—mostly in the area east and south of Flamingo. However, care should be taken as operators become familiar with the new corridors and modifications to existing channels. To view a map of recent changes in the bay, visit parkplanning.nps.gov.
Due to the inherent remoteness of the backcountry, many channels still lack markers. Some flats might only be marked with PVC stakes and others will not be marked at all. If a channel is marked with two stakes, stay between them. If there is only one stake, there will likely be an arrow indicating the safe side to pass. Remember that the next marker won’t always be directly off the bow. You need to be looking both port and starboard for the next designation without wandering from the channel. It’s also important to understand that due to daily ebbing and flowing of the tide, channels are generally shallowest at their entrances and exits.
If you’re heading out in an area that’s unfamiliar, be sure to scout around at low tide. This will give you the opportunity to spot any cuts, depressions, sandbars, oyster beds or other navigational hazards that would otherwise be covered during higher tidal stages. And there’s nothing wrong with idling to and from promising flats.
The most knowledgeable backcountry fishing guides have spent years learning the intricacies of the shallows. It certainly isn’t something that will happen overnight.