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Stick In The Mud




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Push Poling Basics.



Perhaps the most exciting way to pursue fish in the estuary environment is to sight fish for them in shallow water.  Whether it's bonefish in Florida, redfish in South Louisiana, or even striped bass in the shallows of New Jersey, fish in shallow water demand a stealthy approach.  To achieve an approach subtle enough to get close to these shallow water predators, and to escape crowded waters, more and more anglers are abandoning trolling motors, and turning to push poles.


Push poles have been around for a long time as tools of trappers and other travelers of the swamp, and have evolved tremendously in form and function.  Originally made of a wooden pole, perhaps with a folding "duck foot" type foot, push poles are now made out of a variety of materials, with efficient foot attachments suitable for a variety of bottom types.  Now available in materials including aluminum, fiberglass, graphite, and composites, push poles are lighter, stiffer and more efficient than ever.


While many anglers may still start out with a push pole made of wood, most soon upgrade to poles made of fiberglass or graphite.  Regardless of material, some important features of a push pole are as follows.


  1.  Length, which should be determined by how high you will be in the boat when poling

       combined with the depth of the water you plan to fish.  A longer pole affords you the

       opportunity to travel farther without having to lift the pole as often.  In addition, if 

       you are poling against a strong wind or tide, or "dragging bottom", a longer pole allows   

       you to maintain more momentum.  The one drawback of a longer pole is that can be a  

       little more difficult to handle.


2.     Weight - as handling a heavy pole all day can be tiring.  


3.     Type of foot - Some push pole feet work better in certain types of bottom.  Here in

        Southwest Louisiana a "delta" type foot with a crosspiece works better in our soft

        marsh bottoms than a simple "y" type foot.


Many flats boats produced today come equipped with elevated poling platforms mounted to the back of the boat over the engine.  Elevated platforms off many advantages.  The first and most obvious advantage of an elevated platform in visibility.  From an elevated perch you have a much better view of your surroundings both above and into the water.  When higher up, the angle you have to the water makes it much easier to see into the water to spot fish when wearing polarized glasses.  Poling from an elevated platform also helps prevent continually hitting your outboard with the push pole, and makes it physically easier to pole.

If you are poling from the deck of the boat, the pole will be extending farther out, directly behind you, creating a longer lever working against you.  The sharper angle of the pole in relation to you that is realized from being elevated above the water, makes the work easier.  


If you are fishing from a boat without a poling platform, try securing an ice chest onto the back seat or deck and standing on it.  Any height you are able to gain is an advantage.  When you first climb a poling platform, it will probably seem much higher than you expected.  Take the time to get adjusted to the height, and use the push pole to steady yourself.  Get comfortable with your perch before you try to move the boat.  Keep your feet spread about shoulder width and your knees slightly bent, you don't want to be rigid on the platform.


While accomplished shallow water fisherman can make push poling look effortless, it does require a bit of skill and technique.  However with just a little practice, you can quickly guide your boat to within casting range of even the spookiest fish.  The biggest mistake anglers make when beginning to push pole is making corrections that are too large.  Most flats boats are relatively light, and will respond quickly to the push pole.  Often times anglers who are surprised by a quick responding boat can be seen push polling in circles as they move from one over energetic correction to another.


The most simple way to keep a boat moving in a relatively strait course is to keep the foot of the push pole within the width of the boat.  That is, when you plant the foot of the pole behind the boat, do not plant it farther to either side, than the width of the boat.  To move the boat straight forward, you would plant the foot of the pole in line with the center of the boat, about 5 feet behind the boat as marked by the circle with the x in the picture below.  Then, holding the pole close the side of your hip, push against the bottom as you walk your hands up the pole.  When you get near the end of the pole pick the pole up, walking your hands back down, and repeat the process.  Be careful not to make too much of a splash when lifting or planting the pole, and avoid hitting the pole against the boat or motor, as this could spook fish.




Once you have gotten used to handling the pole and moving the boat forward, you can begin working on turns.  Again think small efforts.  Flats boats respond and turn very quickly.  To turn the boat to the right, you will plant the foot of the pole just a little right of center behind the boat and push forward.  The more off center you plant the pole, the sharper the turn. 




To make a left had turn, you would simply do the opposite, positioning the pole just left of center behind the boat, and pushing forward.



Once you become comfortable poling and accustomed to the way the boat moves and responds, you will find that you can often make small turns by simply shifting your weight while pushing, or by moving your arm and the pole out away from your side as you push.


On occasion you may need to make a very sharp turn, or even turn the boat 180 degrees.  For this type of turn you will actually place the foot of the push pole outside the width of the boat.  In fact the quickest way to make a 180 degree turn is to place the foot of the pole 90 degrees out to the side of the boat that you want to turn towards.  When you push the pole out to the side of the boat, it will quickly swing the back end of the boat around it's own axis.  Make sure the boat is stopped and not moving before you try to execute this type of sharp turn.


It should now be obvious that it is not overly difficult to propel and steer a boat with a push pole, but what about stopping?  When you are poling a boat and develop a little momentum, the boat will want to continue in a forward motion even when you stop pushing.  Momentum is amplified when you have a tail wind, or following current.  Often you will need to stop short to keep from over running a fish, to reposition the boat, or to allow an angler on the front of the boat to retrieve his fly from a snag.


There are several methods that are effective for stopping a boat.  Which you choose may depend on how fast you are moving, how fast you need to stop, and what type of bottom you are over.


If you are poling over a sand or mud bottom that does not have a lot of shell or rocks, and you don't need to stop too quickly, you can slow and stop the boat by simply dragging the push pole along the bottom.  If you need to stop a little quicker, apply some downward force as you drag the pole.  This technique is also good for slowing a boat that is being driven by a tail wind.  You do not want to drag the foot of the pole however, if you are over a bottom with shell, rocks, or other hard objects, as it will make noise that will spook fish.


If you are poling over a relatively soft bottom, you can stop the boat quickly by placing the foot of the pole on the bottom behind the center of the boat, and with a sharp motion jamming the foot down into the mud, then you hang onto the pole, which will stay planted in the mud and stop the boat.  Be careful and do not use this technique if the boat is moving very fast because more than a few anglers have been pulled off of the back of the poling platform like this.  You may also want to warn the angler on the front of the boat, because the stop will be sudden.


A third method for stopping the boat is to swing the foot of the push pole forward, and plant it in front of the mid point of the boat, very close to the side of the boat.  This method will cause the boat to turn toward the side the pole is planted on.


Once you become comfortable controlling the boat, you need to develop a sense for where you need to position the boat to best enable an angler on the front of the boat to reach fish.  When at all possible, you want to keep an angler on the front, casting over the front of the boat.  That is, if you have a right handed caster on the front of the boat, you want to try to position the boat so that the angler will be casting at targets on the port, or left side of the boat.  This way, as the angler makes a back-cast and forward cast, his fly line will be traveling over the front of the boat where it is less likely to hit either you are him.  The following diagram shows how you would want to set up a right handed angler to fish a shoreline.


In this situation the angler could, depending on wind, fish everything from the 7 o'clock position to the 10 or 11 o'clock position without hitting you with his cast.  An angler can cast over the center of the boat to reach fish provided he is a good and confident caster.


Another consideration regarding boat position is wind.  To make things as easy as possible for both the person push poling, and the angler on the front of the boat, it is usually best to work with the wind.  In addition, if you are in a boat that has a little hull slap, working with the wind will best enable you to sneak up on fish.  There will be times when it is not possible to work with the wind at your back, so the next best alternatives are winds quartering from the back followed by winds quartering form the front side opposite the casting arm, followed by directly into the wind, followed by the worst scenario, wind coming directly across the casting arm.  If you plan on fishing a strong wind coming across the casting arm, you need to be versed in techniques for removing hooks from human flesh.


Finally a few of tips that will make push poling easier for you.  Pay attention to weight distribution.  A boat will float it's shallowest if it is level in the water.  Since the weight of the outboard is on the back of the boat, you may need to move or store gear, batteries, and fuel tanks forward of amidship to balance the boat and achieve as shallow draft as possible.  If you plan on fishing by yourself consider standing on the front deck and poling the boat backwards.  In most boats this will actually allow you the shallowest draft.  If you have enough water to pole and fish by yourself from the poling platform, and wish to do so for the improved vantage point, get yourself a large diameter stripping basket.  Strip your fly line into the stripping basket, stand your rod up in it, and place the basket on the deck right in front of the poling platform.  If you spot a fish you want to cast to, you need only secure your push pole (sticking it between your legs works well) pick up your rod, which will be sticking up right in front of you, and cast at the fish.


Learn proper push poling techniques, and you will have entry into a world of some of the most productive and exciting fishing to be found.





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