by Bob McNally
Shell bars are among the most productive and fish-rich of all inshore saltwater hot spots. They rival the productivity of jetty rocks and grassbeds for consistently yielding heavy catches of sportfish.
Shell bars can give up inshore fish in the toughest of angling conditions, at almost any time of day and time of year year. And a wide variety of lures, baits and fishing methods can be used to score well on an anglers fishes shell.
Most shell bars are made up of oysters, and often they form a hard-bottom “high spot” that’s a natural feeding station for a wide variety of inshore fish, including red drum, seatrout, black drum, flounder, sheepshead, jacks, bluefish, ladyfish, tarpon, and even snook.
A shell bar can have a sharp elevation change of several feet, creating an abrupt ledge or high spot. A productive shell bar may also be less distinct, merely a slight, tapering rise of only a few inches or so, but it can still be rich in live and dead shellfish, which is a key link in the food chain. The important thing is that the bottom has shell, which is almost sure to be alive with small crabs, shrimp, little baitfish and other wiggly, lively things that ultimately attracts inshore sportfish.
A shell bar can hold fish almost anywhere it’s found, and for that reason all shell bars should be checked by anglers. However, there are certain features about some shell bars that make them inshore super stars. For one, an isolated shell bar far from other types of productive bottom configurations can make the place especially appealing to fish. Such an isolated shell bar can be likened to a single oak tree in a pine forest. When the oak’s acorns are ripe and begin to fall, you can bet deer will be there in force because acorns are a choice food in an otherwise food-barren pine area. A shell bar is much the same when found on an inshore mud or sand flat, since it acts like a healthy reef on a barren sea floor. It’s the only piece of inshore bottom fish can relate to in a barren area, so fish and forage are concentrated.
Another feature that makes a shell bed especially appealing to fish is if it has good current or tide flow, particularly strong, salty water from a nearby sound or bay.
Another important ingredient for a world-class shell bar is deep water nearby. If a shell bar is located on a broad flat that’s a long way from deep water (at least 4 feet, 6 or 8 feet is better), it’s doubtful the place will consistently hold many big fish through the seasons. An ideal shell bar would be located close to a channel or deep tidal bay or river, say within 100 yards. Big fish live in the deep water and move shallow near the shell when tide and current are ideal for feeding.
Often the best shell bars are ones not shown on maps. Such places are sure to receive less fishing pressure than well-marked shell bars. But you can use maps to help speed the search for uncharted shell mounds if you use a bit of fishing ingenuity. For example, by using a chart to locate marked “shell bars” an angler can then scour the area with a depthfinder to learn if there are other shell beds nearby.
Where there are visible shell bars, it’s often a good bet there are additional submerged shell mounds in the immediate region. This is especially true in places with a high tide differential. Sometimes only the lowest tides reveal all bars in an area. Anywhere a visible shell bar is located, be sure to carefully check the area with a depthfinder looking for uncharted, submerged shell bars. Sometimes a second or third smaller shell bar will extend off a slight point or finger of a map-marked big shell bed.
In regions where there’s good tidal fluctuation, shell bars often can be seen easily when water levels are down. Smart anglers record their locations for later fishing when tides rise and shell bars again disappear. GPS coordinates are a godsend for pinpointing spots again.
Surface water disturbance can be a good indication of submerged shell mounds. Watch the way tidal currents push and swirl in likely areas. If there’s something unusual in the flow, it may be from a shell bar. A few probing casts with a jig may confirm your suspicions. Sometimes a jig will pick up a piece of shell, but more often you can “feel” hard shell through the jig, line and a sensitive rod. Braided line is outstanding for interpreting bottom feel such as this. Sometimes wave action can reveal the presence of a submerged bar too. Check suspect areas carefully with a fathometer for shell mounds, and be mindful of motor props.
Sometimes locating a shell bar is winning only half the inshore fishing challenge. Frequently you must carefully search the shell bar itself, using different lures, baits and fishing methods, to locate fish living or feeding there. This is particularly true on large shell bars or where there are multiple smaller nearby bars that may cover an acre or more. Shell bars in deep water (8 feet down) where fish are not aggressive may also require attention to fishing methods or lures. Sometimes lure presentation methods are difficult, like in rough water, ultra-clear water, muddy water, cold water or unstable weather.
One consistent key to locating a shell bar’s choice fish-holding spots is that a distinct point, turn or ledge on the shell bar edge closest to the deepest water likely is the major contact point for schools of large, mature fish. Good, strong, saltwater current flow there make it even more attractive.
Often a sensitive depthfinder helps in locating a “spot on a spot,” not only by determining depth and bottom composition, but also by marking fish. Bait and fish frequently show on shell bars, especially suspended fish, which are notoriously difficult to catch, particularly if they’re deep (20 feet or more). Sliding-sinker rigs, float-rigs and natural baits usually score best on fish suspended deep off shell bars, but anglers must use proper boat control and be skillful in the use of depthfinders to aid in lure and bait presentations.
Drifting across shell bars with the wind while bumping jigs, spoons and live baits along bottom is an effective way to work these productive places. Using an electric motor to pinpoint bottom contours while casting a shell bar is deadly, too. Small diving plugs, surface lures, snagless spoons and spinner-baits are some of the best lure tools for checking shallow shell bars fast to learn if fish are present and feeding. If you catch a fish or two, slow down and work the shell bar more carefully with jigs and live baits.
Finally, it’s sometimes amazing how often inshore game fish surface school over shell bars, particularly in late summer when bait schools are very abundant. Baitfish often gravitate to shell bars, and sometimes fish push forage schools up from the depths against the surface as they feed on them. Whatever the reason, next time you see fish boiling on baitfish in open water far from anything you would ordinarily stop and cast to, turn on your depth finder and check out the bottom. You might be surprised to learn it’s not as deep out there as you thought it was. And if it’s shell, learn the spot by fishing it hard, and record it to GPS memory.
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