Reading the Water for Signs of Fish

If you’re an angler of any sort you’ve fished around structure, in fast current, slack tides, and the list goes on. Every angler must fish in different conditions in order to be successful. The majority of my fishing is targeted to structure of some sort. The only time this may be limited is when I am flats fishing, but even then I’m working structure. It may not be big structure like pilings and rocks, but it is structure in the form of potholes, grass patches and roll off ledges. Structure is one of the most important aspects to catching fish, whether it be in a river, pond, or saltwater, you must learn how to read and work theses areas if you want to be successful. There’s an old saying that 90% of the fish live in 10% of the water. Your goal is to eliminate that 90% rather than finding the 10%. To beginning anglers this is a bit of a task as most areas look like good areas. This is partly due to the fact that beginners use a method of thinking that goes, “if I were a fish I’d be here, or I’d eat that!” To a degree that method works, but further investigation and a bit of preplanning is a requirement.  

There are a lot of variables that make for a successful fishing trip. You’ve got to deal with the weather; time of year, time of day, water level and clarity, water temperature and the list goes on. For most saltwater anglers, however, three factors generally separate the successful from the unsuccessful.

1) Ability to read the water. Experienced anglers can tell at a glance whether or not a given stretch of water will hold fish. This might sound impossible, but fish are creatures of habit and instinct. The instinct is to stay alive, find food, and live life as effortlessly as possible. The habit is to return to the best areas to do this. Figure out these two elements and the battle is mostly won. Now that’s not saying that every place that looks intriguing will hold fish on that particular day, but it sure does give you a very good starting point, and at some point will probably be a honey hole..

2) Ability to fish that spot effectively. Once a likely spot is found, you need to fish it effectively and thoroughly without spooking the fish. Boat control plays a huge factor in regards to this step, and anchoring in a fast moving current is easier said than done. Spend too much time trying to get into position and you’ve effectively spooked your target. I’ve seen many anglers quietly troll up to a great spot and spend 20 minutes trying to get in position. The anchor goes down, then up, then down, followed by some cursing of the tides and a few more anchor attempts. The noise level increase with every frustrating anchor pull, and soon the motor fires up, the reverse gears clank and prop wash sends turbulence across the surface. What was once a productive spot is now a ghost town.

3) Presentation. Once you've completed steps one and two, getting the fish to eat your lure or bait is the final step. This is normally the easiest part, as now it’s you against the fish. This is where you need your angler skills to kick in. This "how to" isn’t about presentation skills so you’ll have to check out that information in my newest book entitled Florida Inshore Angler.  


Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this how to, let’s go over some basic rules about how fish behave in current.

Rule # 1: Water current has its advantages for fish, but also comes with disadvantages. Current can easily fatigue a fish to the point that its own safety is jeopardized. For this reason fish always seek out structure to rest behind. They will always rest nose first into the current.  They are often seen darting  into the current to take prey, and then effortlessly drift back to the starting position as if it were a dance.
Rule #2: The current funnels in food. In moving water, the bait train gets swept with the current to predators lurking behind this structure, nose first, watching the buffet line move in.
Rule # 3: Find some cover, whether it be a structural roof or deeper water, both provide security and increase your odds of finding fish. Fsh, like humans and most other creature prefer a roof over their head to feel safe.
So now you know the three general rules to why fish like structure. Let’s go over some of the conditions that you may run across.

Eddies: Eddies are areas in the current that are either slack or appearing to reverse in direction. This forms a weak surface whirlpool appearance. Eddies can be found on the down current side of bridge pilings, behind large underwater structure such as rock piles, artificial reefs, fallen trees, other entry points dumping into the channel, or by colliding currents over various shoal substrates. The great thing about an Eddie is that it almost always holds fish because it provides a weak to no current condition, thus allowing for a good resting place for predators, and a no choice pit stop for smaller bait fish trying to escape the current.  A deep eddy with cover will usually hold fish year-round.

Sand Bars /Oyster Bars/Shoals: First and foremost these areas all have places that block current so we know they hold fish. Sandbars are a mound of sand, usually deeper on all edges, thus providing current block on the opposite end. They usually contain debris dumped by anglers wanting to create their own reef. As much as I don’t like to see this, they do attract baitfish and predators. Potholes are a common element of sandbars that usually don’t hold fish long, but do provide temporary relief to passing predators. Lastly, sandbars usually have grass beds when the water is well balanced. Not only does grass slow water, it provides excellent cover for all fish. Shell beds are formed on the high points of sandbars or silt bottoms with a fresh supply of moving water. They grow where fresh water meets the saltwater and also provide cover from the current. Oyster bars are pretty easy to find on a low tide, as are shoals as they rise above the water.

Wood: The main thing here is too look for fallen trees. Though we don’t have many fallen trees in the open bay, we do have rivers available that are great fishing during cold winters. As most anglers know, fish prefer deep water when it’s time to rest or move to safety, so locating a fallen tree in deeper depths should be the better choice over a shallow water tree. However, shallow water trees provide great cover for feeding fish during the midday sun. The more cover the better, meaning that a freshly fallen tree that’s still green is a better choice. Look for trees with a thicker base versus trees with lots of thinner branches, as the larger base will deter more current.


Rock: Rock piles and artificial reefs are fish magnets, and are scattered throughout Florida’s waterways. Depending on the rock pile or reef, it may or may not provide top cover, but will always provide a means to blocking current. In Tampa Bay we have rock piles adjacent to the shipping channel that are nothing short of fantastic when it comes to finding fish on them. They hold tons of bait, and during slack tide or the first and last hour of a moving tide, they attract the predator fish from the shipping channel.


Swash Channels: Locate a series of islands and look for the nearest and largest pass leading to open water. This is the direction that the outgoing tide will travel. When the water rushes from these shallow islands and connects up with the main current, a cut or deep pocket will be formed leading toward the pass. You’ll want an area that has a sharp bend versus a long straight channel. These areas are great for traveling fish, but you’ll want a weighted bait sitting in this channel as the fish will not normally hold up long and fight the current. It’s more of a highway then a parking pad unless you’re lucky enough to find some structure in one of these channels, in which case it becomes a parking pad and honey hole.

Outside Cuts Mostly in rivers and very similar to the swash channel, river bends are great because they normally hold the deepest water. The inside of these bends are mostly shallow while the outsides are deep. As with any condition, find some structure in this cut and you’ve got a honey hole! The deeper the cut the stronger the current is, so fishing here can be tough if there is structure.


Creek Mouths: This is where a flow of water from another area dumps into a larger body of water. Fish will conjugate here awaiting the bait to wash out. Predators will either be right at the mouth or just downstream. Most often an eddy is formed, which as we learned earlier creates a resting zone for fish. Creek mouths usually blend a shallow stream into a deeper body of water and create temperature and clarity changes at the mouth known as breaklines or as I like to call it, a melting pot. Baitfish often get confused when getting dumped into this water and dart recklessly into the open.  

Islands: Islands situated in the middle of an open bay, or dotting the coast line act in the same manner as any structure that blocks the current. Fish tend to bunch up on the down current tips but also can hang around areas up current in front of the island where the water meets the broad span of the island and has to redirect. This is an area of slower moving current. Also inspect the back cuts along the island for calm areas.

Keep your tip up^

Allen Applegarth

More information on proper fishing techniques, in-depth details, locations, and fishing these areas can be found in my newest book entitled "Florida Inshore Angler."