Windward Shoreline Tactics and Techniques

Windward Shoreline Tactics and Techniques
Vintage photo…Starting them out young!

This month we will discuss learning to predict and execute the proper wading approach to windward shorelines. First, windward means the wind is blowing toward the shoreline, but before we get started I recommend some prior scouting to gain knowledge of bottom stability and location of fish-attracting structure in the area. With the nearly-constant high winds we have been experiencing one would think the windward pattern have probably been lights out, but it’s been up and down for me. Mainly because the winds have been 20 to 25 mph many days and nights and the water conditions have reached a point where catching was minimal and the fun factor zero. That said, wind velocity will be the first thing I talk about.

During spring I look for higher tides to push bait tight to the shoreline. Quite often during periods of higher-than-normal tides the water along shorelines will be clear when the winds are less than 15 mph. With 20 mph wind some sanding will begin to occur, which adds color to the water, but still allows anglers to see the bottom structure that will be attracting and holding both bait and gamefish.

Remember that most shorelines have shallow sandbars that typically run parallel to the land mass. Wave action creates these bars and they protect bottom and shoreline vegetation from erosion. I call this “back water” and it’s home to many of the best trout that we have in my area. During calm periods the larger trout that make these areas home can be hard to catch but as soon as the tides rise and the water becomes a bit sandy many of these fish will drop their guard for a short period each day. I am of the belief that the larger trout eat big once a day and then put feeding in neutral until the next meal is needed.

Trout are opportunistic and will take a perfectly presented offering even after a big meal, so catching one is always a possibility. How ho-hum would our days be if we believed any other way? In the shallow, sandy water, strike zones are reduced so our odds get better. In downright dirty water, they get even better as fish become more dependent on lateral line detection versus sight. When the trout and reds are in this mode bites are usually hard strikes and easy for anglers to detect. I have seen days the past week where we found fish that knocked the rod out of our hands, and then days where the bite was so light that many were having issues knowing there was a fish on the other end. Never is it more critical that anglers have the very best rod they can afford in their hands when the bite is light or tentative.

Just today we had a lull in the winds around the noon hour and a moonset minor starting around 1:45. With this in mind I eased into an area that I had not been fishing due to the high winds. The area was windward with light ESE wind, and a shallow sandbar that ran parallel to the shoreline. Behind the bar stretching toward the shoreline was an area about 100 yards wide. Bottom structure was mostly scattered grassbeds and potholes in the deeper portions of the swag. I use the term swag to describe the deeper sections between the last bar and the shoreline. I know it’s not a word but it should be.

Small mullet and even small shrimp could be seen flipping just above the surface. You have to ease in and make long casts; we don’t want to get too close. With lateral line feeding mode engaged, I believe the fish become more keenly aware of our presence. You have to be patient and allow the movement of the fish in the swag to help you get your bait in front of them. Bites mean STOP. And IF you need to move, move parallel not forward. Young anglers have to resist being pushed by the wind at their backs or being pulled by a fish on the line. A few steps forward from either will eventually place the angler on top of the fish they’re trying to catch. I get pretty aggressive when I have worked all day to put you on fish and then you get excited and go deaf on me.

My guys yesterday were terrific. I had never fished with them but they were quick studies and followed my every move and suggestion. We caught 15 trout up to nearly 26 inches in short order, as well as a few upper slot reds after a day when few trout had been encountered earlier. I explained that the water had been super dirty in this area for several days and the waves too large to safely park the boat on the Power Poles. With diminishing winds and gradual clearing the fish that had staged in the area were able to feed aggressively during the moonset feeding period.

I prefer the bottom structures to be scattered grassbeds, sandy potholes, or scattered shell. Shoreline points that possess any of the above are dynamite areas for flounder to stack up when winds are forcing small bait against the shoreline. About a week back we caught five off one small point that had a small area of scattered shell. Wind was pushing water over and around the point that protruded into the water and the flatfish were stacked up all around it. I think that we have to truly consider working these areas during our major and minor feeding periods. I am of the mindset that if I tromp through the right stuff at the wrong time the area won’t be right when the time is right.

Many years ago I got a really good lesson from David Rowsey. Everyone knows where this guy ranks on my skill level meter so I won’t embarrass him or myself with all the accolades he deserves. He pointed out an area of potholes along a windward bank. “See those three deeper potholes? Don’t walk close to them and certainly never through them.” He was stressing the fact that larger trout often stage in such areas during feeding periods. By staying well off the perimeter and not pushing through them, the fish will remain and other fish will enter. “If anglers stay off the area where the fish want to setup and feed and never enter the zone, we can return to the area at a later time and see success once again.”

I watched David coach Ryan on this very strategy a few weeks back during a Saltwater Legends tournament we fished with him. We didn’t win but did make the top ten. What an honor for me to get to wade next to David and Ryan. Jay Ray and I have fished with David as well, so now both my boys have had the Rowsey experience. He’s a stud no doubt. I never forgot that lesson on disturbing potholes and have used it more times than I can remember.

Please make a conscious effort to avoid burning the swag just to see if fish are using the area. Yes, it tells you instantly that fish are there, might even give you confidence. More importantly though, it also spooks them. Merely seeing them does not provide the chance to experience catching them. If you don’t get what I’m saying you have work to do.

I am by no means a hater of shallow draft, top-drive boats or burning. I own a boat that is designed to run shallow and allows me to see fish and I do occasionally run and look. Saying that, I also see these tactics as a detriment to truly learning basic patterning skills. I like pulling up to an area and calling my shot based on what I am seeing and what I have learned over the years. It’s cocky and confident, but I want to be the man that calls the shot before the shot is taken.   

I use Jay Ray as an example often when this topic comes up on my boat. I tell guys that Jay Ray learned to fish by walking into an area and searching for signs and then working to get the bites that confirm that his suspicions were valid. It’s true that Jay Ray and Ryan had some coaching in this category because that is the way I learned. Walking the area prior to knowing if fish are present provides much more useful knowledge than simply catching a glimpse of fleeing fish.  

Jay Ray learned about water depth and small water depth changes, bottom contour, tidal movements and the way wind affects the area, none of which can be learned ten feet in the air. He built his fishing foundation with his feet, eyes, nose, and rod. The top-drive helps him eliminate water for sure but his mental picture of what he knows looks right cannot begin to be measured. I like the fact that many of the younger generation of fishermen realize the importance of learning why fish are where they are and what it is that attracted them. The next level of knowledge is understanding what is missing when they are not there.

Windward patterns will continue to be productive throughout the year but with springtime tides bringing more bait into our bays from the gulf, the next 30 days could be just the ticket for you to catch the trout of a lifetime.

May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide, Jay Watkins