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To the untrained eye, Capt. Billy Miller’s casual saunter across a deep Tampa Bay grass flat may appear random, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Wind drifting is a popular approach for the bays and estuaries throughout the Gulf Coast and, as Miller pointed out, you’ll do yourself a big favor by paying attention to the signs. Key criteria for productive passes include:

Look for the Food
As we idled onto one of Miller’s favorite stretches, his deck hand Jason Beyer pointed to the water and exclaimed, “Look at all that bait!”

Schools of scaled sardines (“pilchards” or “whitebait”) will soon dwindle with cooling weather, but as long as they remain, trout, redfish, flounder, bluefish, mackerel, and anything else with an appetite will gobble all they can eat.

Suffice to say, a flat with lots of bait will also hold lots of predators.

Keep it Clean
Starting out on one side of a secondary boating channel proved less productive than the captain wanted, so he crossed the waterway and set up on the opposite side. Wind and tides will always leave one side more turbid than the other, and targeting the flat with optimal clarity is usually the better option.

“You always want to fish clear water, but you don’t want it too clear, because the fish become spooky,” Miller said about his daily balancing act.

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Blended Habitat
The patchwork of sandy potholes amid swaying seagrass creates a bountiful ecosystem where all that baitfish—along with crabs, shrimp and all manner of wiggly, crawly critters—provides a buffet that keeps those predators fat and happy. All sand or all grass is less productive, but when you find that “spotty bottom,” you’re golden.

Check the Edges
As we approached a significant sand hole, Miller advised all aboard to target this high-percentage spot. Indeed, the hole was active, as demonstrated by a couple trout and two nice flounder.

“I knew there would be fish on the edge,” Miller smiled. “The fish stage on those borders between the grass and sand, and eat whatever comes over with the tide.”

A handful of drifts yielded a mixed bag of edible and string-stretching catches, including jacks, ladyfish, and some of the biggest lizardfish I’ve ever seen. Will every spot on the flat hold such abundance? Probably not, but a calculated drift will bring the opportunities to you.

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