I wrote this article primarily for our local fishermen who are just getting started fishing the flats with their own boat, and want to learn how to pole it effectively.
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Pushing Your Way Around the Flats
By Captain Keith Kalbfleisch
I’m often asked what is the biggest contributor towards success on the flats, and my answer is always the same—stealth. One of the best ways to help accomplish this is by using a push-pole to propel yourself quietly along the flats. Here are some tips on the skill of using your push-pole.
A push-pole is typically an 18-22 foot fiberglass or composite pole with a pointed end and a cupped end. They are available commercially in a wide variety of prices—typically from $200-$600. However, in reality, any pole can be an effective push-pole, and I have seen people successfully use PVC pipe, wood, etc. Due to lightning concerns, I wouldn’t use an aluminum pole.
The pointed end of the push-pole is used for hard bottoms like rock and coral, and for staking out, while the cupped end is used to push along in softer bottoms like mud and grass.
Many flats skiffs, like my boat, The MTC, have a poling platform at the rear of the boat. This allows you to get higher for fish-spotting purposes, and push the boat forward without having the motor in the way. If your boat is not equipped with a platform, don’t give up on poling; just adjust to your boat. One effective way to pole is to push the boat backwards from the front of the boat. You won’t have the height, but will accomplish the stealth.
When you use a pole, remember that you are pushing from the rear, so to move the boat to the right, you push from the right side. One key is a gentle touch—a little off to the side will correct, while well off to the side will put you into a sharp turn.
Place the pole behind you at a 45-degree angle, reach up the pole, and walk your hands up the pole, slightly leaning against the pole to provide the force to propel the boat. You can adjust the force as needed to push the boat faster (you will be amazed how fast and far you can pole), or creep at a snail’s pace.
How do you handle the wind? First, try to work with the wind all you can, poling to set up a drift. Second, it is often easier to pole directly upwind, rather than to continually adjust to a side-wind. To drift in a windy situation, pole upwind, along where you just drifted, then move over for the next drift.
Another successful wind-management tactic I use is to get on the lee shoreline and pole along the shoreline, casting out (downwind) as I work along.
What do you do as you pole or drift along and you see a redfish tailing ahead? Or you hook a fish and don’t want to keep drifting? Stop the forward progress by quietly pushing the boat backwards, alternating one side then the other, to keep the boat from turning. Practice makes perfect for this maneuver!
In some bottoms you can “stake out” by pushing the pole into the bottom. To do this you must push the pole in at a 45% angle—if you stake straight down you can break your pole. You must also have a sandy bottom that will support the weight—sometimes our softer bottom in the waters near Orlando is not conducive to staking out. The easier option is to have a mushroom anchor ready and quietly lower it.
Since stealth is the main concern, be careful not to bump the pole on the boat, tap it on hard bottom structure, or splash loudly. This can be a particular challenge during the excitement of seeing, or hooking, a fish.
Finally, some safety concerns while poling. Be careful up on that platform! I have had the questionable pleasure of falling off, and it is not fun. There is not much room, so watch where you place your feet, and move slowly. Watch your pole when switching sides of the boat—most anglers are not thrilled to get whacked on the ear.
Poling is an effective, if not essential, technique for fishing the flats. Practice it on your boat, and before you know it you will be poling like a pro and will catch more fish!