Saltwater anglers along the southeastern Atlantic coast have some difficult choices to make during April as a number of popular game-fish species make their season debut. Flounder, one of the most sought after species of summer, sometimes get relegated to the back burner in favor of more glamorous options during early spring.
Savvy flounder enthusiasts, however — especially those of the light-tackle persuasion — will take advantage of a short-lived opportunity to target these tasty bottom dwellers as they move into angler-friendly waters that are shallower, calmer and closer to shore than any they will inhabit at other times of the year.
After wintering over in warm-water depths of the Atlantic Ocean, flounder follow migrating bait toward coastal bays, tributaries and other relatively shallow inland waters that offer generous supplies of food as well as the warmer water temperatures that flounder prefer this time of year. Importantly for anglers, such habitat also provides shelter from spring’s notorious winds and allows for the use of lighter tackle than that required for fishing deeper, rougher waters.
As a bonus for boatless anglers, many of these sanctuaries now offer high-quality action within casting distance of piers, bridges, surf and shore. In fact, anglers fishing from such venues need to resist any natural urges to cast their offerings as far out as they can. Both bait and flounder will be spending more time in shallow water that is warmed more quickly by the sun. During outgoing tides, flounder will attempt to trap baitfish being flushed out of cover near shore. Lures or bait fished around points and shoreline rocks, brush or cuts are likely to get their attention.
WHERE AND WHEN
While any inshore waters with bait and structure will hold flounder in the spring, anglers who put some thought into planning their outings will enjoy a big advantage. Water temperature, while always a factor in flounder fishing, is especially important in the early spring. Anglers should bear in mind that smaller inlets and bays will warm faster than larger ones, making them more attractive to flounder when they first arrive inshore. Shallow bays and flats close to a channel or cut can be especially productive. Any cut running from a channel to the shore is likely to see a lot of traffic during tidal flows as flounder and their prey move in and out with the tide.
Tides, always a major consideration, play an even bigger role this time of year. Unlike summertime, flounder are now more active when water is warmer. On a rising tide, cold water from the ocean enters the bays and creeks and is heated in the shallows, then moves back out — several degrees warmer — on the outgoing tide. Anglers who catch the beginning of an afternoon outgoing tide on a sunny day are likely to enjoy the fruits of a feeding frenzy along the channel edges as bait is swept out of the shallows and flushed toward the ocean.
The warmest water in an inlet, and therefore some of the early season’s best action, will be found in the sun-baked back bays farthest from the inlet’s mouth. Prime time will be the first two hours of the outgoing tide. In addition to drifting the main channel edge, anglers should check out smaller channels and any confluence of cuts, creeks and sloughs. Any creek mouth with good tidal flow should be thoroughly investigated, especially around hard structure or eddies. Even a small dropoff or slope can hold flounder this time of year. Flats and sand bars near a channel may also be productive, as flounder will often leave deeper water to chase bait in the shallows. Larger creeks can also hold a lot of flounder farther upstream, but those with the clearest water will be most productive.
As the tide moves out and fishing slows down, anglers can extend the action by continuing to drift or slow-troll with the tide toward the mouth of the inlet. Special attention should be paid to areas where the channel narrows, causing a concentration of bait that makes the grocery shopping easier for flounder.
The mouth of an inlet usually has abundant structure that will hold flounder on either moving tide. In addition to the main channel, secondary channels, jetties and any breakwaters can all be productive.
Fishing is sometimes better just outside the inlet during an outgoing tide as flounder wait for bait to be swept out into the ocean. With agreeable water conditions and enough boat, anglers can pursue other options in nearby ocean waters. Most flounder migrate to the shallows in stages, stopping off on bait-holding structure along the way. They may be found a mile or two offshore, fattening up around reefs and wrecks or hunting along near-shore shoals, humps and rocks. Surf anglers can score near the beach, sometimes right in the wash of the breakers where flounder dine on prey disoriented by the waves.
A major benefit of spring flounder fishing is the opportunity to downsize tackle for the shallower water and weaker currents of protected waters where most of the action will be in depths of just a few feet. Scaling down the gear allows for easier casting, better contact with the bait or lure and more fun playing a fish.
A medium-action spinning or baitcasting reel matched to a 6- to 7-foot rod with a fast-taper tip will accommodate most inshore conditions. Depending on tide and current, eight- to 17-pound-test monofilament or braided line will be sufficient. A 1- to 2-foot shock leader of 20- to 30-pound test can be employed to protect against the rough bottoms and hard structure favored by flounder. A 1- or 2-ounce sinker and a 1/0 to 3/0 wide-gap or Kahle hook will round out the setup.
Anglers fishing with live or cut bait can use smaller, lighter versions of standard flounder rigs designed to be drifted, trolled or retrieved slowly across the bottom. Fishfinder or sliding-sinker rigs will allow a flounder to swim away with the bait without feeling resistance. Best baits are live or cut specimens of whatever species are prevalent in the area. Mud minnows, killifish and shrimp are common springtime favorites.
Early spring also represents the angler’s best opportunity to enjoy light-tackle action with artificial lures and synthetic baits. Again, best results will come to those who match the hatch, choosing sizes, shapes and colors that best mimic what flounder are feeding on at the time. Productive favorites include hair- or rubber-skirted leadhead jigs and soft-plastic minnow imitations or a combination of the two. Anglers can sweeten the deal by tipping the hook of a jig or bucktail with a live minnow, a strip of cut bait or a scented soft-plastic bait imitation.