Fishing Oyster Bars and Mud Flats
The Bar Scene - Gimme a stout trout, a Bull Red, and a linesider, over the gunwale please!
Sound like a few drinks ordered up from the local bar? Well it’s something from the local bar, but you won’t find loud music, overpriced drinks, and shallow conversations at this bar, but rather a handful of scales and tails like black drum, bluefish, bonefish, cobia, flounder, jack crevalle, redfish, sheepshead, snapper, snook, tarpon, and trout, to name but a few.
When you visit a typical bar or night club you’ll notice a variety of people engaging in different activities, and each bar will have a particular area that seems to attract the majority of people. Whether it's the pool tables, the bar, the band, or the table full of hotties, there’s a key element of interest. In the fishing world, a common key element of interest also holds true. Oyster bars are virtually the same in a matter of speaking, and if you pay close attention you’ll quickly pick up on the differences and find the key elements of interest. Learning those differences is the key to not going home alone, or should I say empty handed since we "are" talking about fishing!
Many get confused when it comes to the variety of bars scattered within a good estuary. You'll most likely encounter sand, mud, shell, grass, and oyster bars that make up much of Florida’s awesome inshore fishing habitat, and also get frustrated when you fish these locations and leave empty handed. The key elements to any bar, whether sand, mud, or oyster, is the close proximity of various water depths, both deep and shallow, as well as grass beds, mangroves, potholes, and other features that provide ambush points and cover, which we will cover throughout this section. The deep nearby water attracts fish like cobia to the sandbars, while potholes and grass beds attract snook and trout, and the combination of these elements next to bars attract nearly all inshore species, namely the redfish. Various types of vegetation growing from the oyster bar such as sea grasses or mangrove shoots also help attract more bait fish. That's not to say that a lone bar lacking vegetation, or a lot of nearby attractions won't hold fish, but the more on-board and nearby structure you can find the better the area becomes, as with any situation mentioned throughout this book.
When fishing an oyster bar, anglers must plan their trip wisely to get maximum fishing time on the bar, as the tide ushers anglers out in preparation for the next event. Consider this clean up time. The bar slams the door shut on any new patrons wanting in, flips on the lights, sweeps out the trash, and slowly starts to restock the shelves as the tide comes back in. So how do you know if a particular oyster bar is good for fishing? Well, that depends on a number of things. I think most important is the temperature. The oysters bars that you fish will be in shallow water, and being so, mid day summer temperatures are certainly not ideal conditions. The sun heats these bar excessively, so fishing in the cooler months of spring, fall, and winter are the best times. Oyster bars are a radiant heat magnet, and when exposed in shallow water, or above water at low tide, they are able soak in the heat and retain it for long periods. As the tide comes back in, the bar remains heated and provides fish with much needed warmth. The darker the bar, the more heat it will absorb, and the longer it will remain heated.
Though they seem so simple to fish, just as the flats look to be, many anglers are simply fishing the wrong areas at the wrong times. I've taken anglers out and watched them present their first cast, and the one thing that they all have in common is the fear of getting too close. But before we get on that subject, first and foremost, as mentioned above, there is one key aspect you need to look for, and that's proximity of other structure. A loner bar that has nothing else to offer is usually the type of bar that gets inspected by passing fish but doesn't keep them long, perhaps to add reference, it's the highway dive bar in the middle of BFE. You may pull in the parking lot, but soon realize there's nothing good for you in there and you're quick to move on. However, there have been times that I've seen these desolate bars on mud flats be the most productive of the day, but not on a consistent basis, and not when there's other nearby lush structure. These bars seem to become most favorable when there are a lot of predators roaming nearby, or passing through, and bait fish get forced onto the bar by pursuing predators. There are many of these oyster bars along my routes to areas that I fish where I've seen them very active one day, yet the next 10 to 15 trips they are as dead as can be.
The simplest way to determine if the bar will hold fish is to get up and get personal with it! Go spend some time around it, look for signs of life above and below the water. Visually, birds pecking the water is a pretty good indication, as is any movement of life. Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that just because it’s an oyster bar it’ll hold fish, as you’ll be disappointed. Try to stay off the bar, as a single oyster can filter about a gallon and a half of water per hour and are vital to clean water, so destroying even a single oyster harms the quality of water. But if you need to, throw on some thick soles with high ankle protection and gracefully make your way onto the edge of the bar, and never on top of it. Be careful to stay clear from the muddy edges if possible, as they are often soft and slippery. Be sure it's not state protected before you venture out on it. Be warned, as the oysters are incredible sharp and can cut you if you stare too long!
You’ll want to search above the water line if you can reach it, below the waterline, and in puddles. Lift up some clumps of oyster shells and take a peek under them. Look for small invertebrates wiggling around in the muck, and pay close attention for the small critters, as they disappear rather quickly. You’ll really want to find crabs and mud minnows to ensure that it is a decent bar. These are usually the creatures that tend to rough it out through the low tide. These are the regulars. As the tide comes in so should shrimp, pins, crabs, and other baitfish. On a good bar, this should occur daily, but if you don’t see much action, check it down to visit another day. Also keep in mind that some bars are better fished in the winter, some in the summer, and some just seem to be rockin’ year round.
Another important feature to observe is the color of the oysters, from top to bottom. The color directly correlates to how much time it spends submerged. Darker bars indicate the areas that stay wet longer, and lighter bars indicate that it spends a lot of time drying and bleaching in the sun. A good bar should at least have a dark base, preferably 10 inches or more, which means it will hold more life on low tide being that it doesn't completely go dry. Remaining mostly submerged will hold life between tides, and though the predators can smell them, they can't enter the bar until the bouncer opens the doors, thus keeping predators nearby on low incoming tides.
I know many of us don’t want to take the time to investigate thoroughly, nor do I any longer, but just as in the river section of this book, scouting pays off. If you don’t see any signs of life on low tide, then this bar probably isn’t worth pursuing on any tide other than for warmth on cold days. A lack of life at low tide usually means a lack of life at high tide. I really only have two types of bars that I like to fish regularly in regards to the layout, but I do scout every bar I see for potential.
My favorite oyster bar is situated at the deep edge of a cut leading back into the mangroves. It is partially exposed to the main cut and also turns the corner and somewhat tucks away back in the mangroves. It has sufficient water depth at high tide on all sides, and a few narrow cuts dumping into it. It has a high build side and a steep sloping face. It also maintains a good high wet base between tides. The best benefits beyond remaining wet are obviously the cuts and deep water edges, but being a short distance to the tangled root system of the mangroves provides a major area of interest to both predator and prey. Within casting range are also grass beds sporadically patched in. When I first came across this bar I wondered if it were strategically place by someone, as I couldn't have designed one any better.
I spent an entire incoming tide stage watching the movement of this bar before I ever fished it. I noticed that most of the smaller bait stayed tight on the bar, while the larger baits moved off into the mangrove roots and then returned many times to feed. To watch a pinfish peel out of the roots and make a 30 foot run to an oyster bar, dart in and swim back by me with a shrimp in its mouth, well that told the entire story of how this bar operated. It was certainly a fast food joint with "enter at own risk" written on the front door, but happy customers seemingly exited often. There were certainly quick exchanges going on over in the bushes, perhaps a little shady, but nonetheless, it was invited action! It was also obvious which predators were local and which were travelers.
While I observed throughout the tide, I saw snook, reds and trout coming out of the cut and rolling up onto the shallows of the bar, while some chased bait into the mangroves. Some juvenile black drum were seen working the low slope side pockets, and sheepshead were dead atop like contractors on a high-rise. It was quite picturesque I must say. I deduced that the local predators know how the system operates as well, while the others simply do what comes natural. I also learned, which applies to most oyster bars, that the current is strongest on the outgoing tide, and was apparent by watching the predators swing to the cover side waiting for prey to get washed off as the outgoing current picked up, but were moving more freely on the incoming tide. ***further deails omitted - reserved for book*****
The second type of bar I favor is situated anywhere in open grass flats, as they deflect current from the protected grass. Ideally, oyster bars on open grass flats, in knee deep water, and along the edge of the grass bed tend to be prime, as they have wash out pockets and small holes around the ends of the bar. These small holes may seem just that, but trust me when I say I’ve seen fish packed in these holes like sardines in a can. I've seen as many as a half dozen snook lying in a small indention on an outgoing tide, and they do indeed compete for a well presented bait drifting by. These pockets will hold either baitfish or game fish, depending on the tide and conditions. The surrounding grass also provides refuge shelter or ambush shelter, either way it holds fish and bait!
The best time to target these pockets and holes are on an incoming tide just as the water rises to ample depth to put some water over the bar. On the outgoing, you’ll want to target this area (if its structure is suitable) from the beginning of the tidal movement and no more than 2 hours after. ***Further details omitted - Reserved for book***
Further details of this section include those omitted, a break down the oyster bars by best to worst with details, more fishing techniques, tackle, gear, etc.