New Jersey's Doormat Flounder Fishing

Here are five inshore picks where anglers can expect to find lots of hefty summer flounder this season -- plus tips on the best baits and tackle to use as well! (July 2006)

I'd just landed a fluke that didn't quite make the New Jersey's 16 1/2-inch minimum size, so I promptly released it. Just moments later, Eric Burnley landed a keeper that didn't require measuring, since it was a fat flatfish that lit up the digital scale at 3 pounds, 1 ounce. Within a half hour, I repeated the same procedure twice, releasing both short fish. Meanwhile, Eric repeated the same, only this time landing an even larger keeper!

We were fishing along the Sandy Hook channel, just north of the point of Sandy Hook on the northern New Jersey coast. It was the kind of day you dreamed about back during the winter months, just a gentle breeze to ensure a nice drift -- and summer flounder biting with some regularity. The balmy, shirtsleeve temperature was typical of May and June, which is when summer flounder move into inshore coastal waters from their wintertime haunts along the Continental Shelf.

Would you believe that the same fishing pattern just described kept repeating itself again and again as we drifted along aboard Capt. Art Hilliard's party boat Eagle, which sails from Atlantic Highlands? Well, that's what happened. By day's end, I didn't have even one keeper among the seven fluke I'd landed.

Meanwhile, Eric's cooler carried four fluke, with the remaining two being progressively larger than the first two. Just how big were these flatfish? A substantial 4-pounder was one of 'em, while the next flounder stopped the digital scale at 6 pounds, 8 ounces!

While driving up from his home in Delaware, Eric had stopped at Julian's Bait and Tackle Shop in Atlantic Highlands. The shop owner Joe Julian, a dear friend of mine since we were teenagers, suggested he try a 4-ounce Tsunami ball jig, because his customers were enjoying great success as big fluke swarmed into the waters of Ambrose and Sandy Hook Channels, and the broad expanse of Raritan Bay.

Bottom line: Eric heeded Joe's advice. He not only scored with the most keepers on board that day, but he was the pool winner as well!

Sitting back and critiquing what I'd done during the day as compared to what Eric did, I realized I was fishing pretty much the "old-fashioned way" with a conventional bottom rig, small strip of squid and spearing combo. Eric was using an airbrush-painted ball jig, with a strip of squid three times the size of mine, topped off with a sizeable spearing. Bottom line: That old adage of "Big baits catch big fish" paid off, especially when combined with the hottest lure on the fluke-fishing scene: the ball jig.

While New Jersey anglers have experienced unprecedented fluke fishing for several years, their problem has been the quantity of undersized fluke they've had to return to the water. Indeed, in some waters of our state, it's not uncommon to catch 20 fluke without a single fish measuring up to the minimum size.

But in fact there are substantial quantities of larger fluke, from 2 pounds on up to substantial 10- or 12-pounders. The problem is that many anglers keep using vintage techniques, rather than recognizing that the easiest way to avoid catching undersize fluke is to use a lure/rig/bait combo that's too big for the small fry. During the balance of last summer, I had the opportunity to fish many of the renowned fluke grounds off the Jersey coast, aboard both party and private boats. What I experienced firsthand was the need to scrap the old ways and target the heavyweights.

I found a consistent pattern among the more successful fluke fisherman, in that they put away the heavyweight tackle of an earlier era. Graphite rods measuring 7 to 8 feet in length, with medium-action tips to work both ball jigs and bucktail jigs, have become the norm. Small levelwind reels dominate, since you don't need a bulky, heavy reel when using braided line. Where braided line comes into play, its fine diameter offers less resistance in the water, which in turn lets you use lighter-weight lures such as ball and bucktail jigs, or a lightweight sinker if you're using natural baits.

Many fluke buffs will spool 40- or 50-pound-test braid. The heavier test has the diameter of only 12- or 15-pound-test mono, but its strength enables you to fish over the rough bottoms that are frequented by big fluke searching for a big meal. In fishing this type of bottom, you're apt to get hung up on mussel beds, rocks and bottom debris. And with the heavier- test braided line, you're able to pull free, rather than suffer losing one rig after another.

Chromed ball jigs and their airbrush painted counterparts have been around for many years, but only in the last few years have they really taken off in popularity. They're simple lures that actually replace having to employ a sinker. Most of these jigs are round in shape, although some variations on the market expand into a torpedo shape.

Each of these lures has an eye for attaching a length of 30- or 40-pound- test fluorocarbon material. An O'Shaughnessy-style hook with a bucktail skirt is attached to the ball's remaining eye. Some anglers will fish the ball jig as it comes from the package, while others add a strip bait of squid, mackerel or salmon belly to the hook. That's what Eric was doing, and he did extremely well with it.

Many anglers go a step further, adding a small, 2- to 4-inch piece of leader material to tie a stinger hook, usually a 4/0 or 5/0 O'Shaughnessy, to a beak- or claw-style hook of the same size. With the stinger hook, they can employ strip baits up to 8 to 10 inches long, placing the strip bait's head on the hook with the bucktail, and placing the trailing stinger hook in the middle of the strip.

When employing a ball jig, the most successful technique is to keep your line as nearly perpendicular to the bottom as you can. That means using a jig of sufficient weight, which may range from 2 to 10 ounces. You've got to remember that you're not using the ball jig for bluefish or mackerel. Violent jigging action is a no-no. Instead, permit the jig to settle to the bottom. If you're using a rod with a sensitive tip as outlined earlier, just keep bouncing the jig gently. Lift your rod tip a few inches, causing the jig and its trailing strip bait to lift off the bottom, swim along, and settle back down in an enticing manner.

When a hit occurs, often it'll feel as though you've snagged bottom, especially when there's a slow drift. Most fluke will just gently swim up to the bouncing jig and settle back down to the bottom. When you feel this, just lower your rod tip. That allows the fluke to mouth the bait, and then slowly begin reeling. When you do, the fluke will invariably turn away and get hooked in the process.

When using bucktail jigs, as

opposed to ball jigs, the technique varies considerably. Among the most popular is the SPRO, which is available in weights up to 6 ounces, and features a rigid O'Shaughnessy-style hook. The SPRO jig is balanced in such a way so that it doesn't hang at a 45-degree angle, as is the case with many bucktail jigs. Instead, these jigs hang horizontally. This means that the nearer to perpendicular that you keep your line, the more the jig will appear to be swimming parallel with the bottom as you drift along.

With the SPRO and other bucktail jigs, many anglers will just place a strip bait on the jig and send it down to the bottom, working their rod tip to lift the jig off the bottom, where the strip will flutter, and then settle to the bottom again.

Another technique employed with the SPRO bucktail is to rig a trailing stinger hook, and use a strip bait ranging anywhere from 6 to 10 inches. Many anglers will cast out and away from the boat, permitting the jig to settle to the bottom and then retrieve, while alternately imparting action to the jig with their rod tip, causing it to bounce and gently lift off the bottom as it swims along, with the strip fluttering.

Anglers using large live or dead natural baits also catch many fine doormats each season. Simplicity is the key in rigging these baits. Begin by tying a three-way swivel to the end of your line, then add a 6- to 8-inch piece of monofilament to one of the remaining eyes of the swivel. Use a Surgeon's loop on the end so you can slip a bank-style sinker of enough weight to hold it on bottom. The next step is to tie 3 feet of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material to the remaining eye of the swivel. Complete by tying a Gamakatsu or Owner live-bait-style hook in 5/0 or 6/0 size to the end of the leader.

With this rig, you're all set to use big live baits. Live spot are very popular in southern New Jersey and can be caught on hook and line, or purchased at many coastal marinas. Live snapper bluefish are also very good. Both baits may be hooked through the lips or through the back just forward of the dorsal fin.

ROUGH BOTTOM OFF

SEASIDE HEIGHTS:

A GOOD PRODUCER

Some anglers use a second, or stinger hook, when using this rig with strip baits. Six- to 10-inch strips of squid, mackerel belly, or fillets of bergall all work extremely well. Anglers using these strips regularly score while fishing aboard Capt. Bob Bogan's Gambler out of Point Pleasant Beach, which often fishes the rough bottom located off of Seaside Heights.

"Tell your readers that the most important thing when fishing with this rig in 50 to 70 feet of water -- which is where we hook many big fluke -- is to use sufficient sinker weight. On a windy day, it sometimes takes 16 ounces to hold bottom. And if you're not keeping your bait on the bottom, you just won't score with the doormats."

FLUKE GROUNDS OFF ELBERON & DEAL

Captain Joe Bogan's a veteran party boater who sails his Jamaica II from Brielle. He sails half-day trips throughout the summer, except on Mondays. Monday is an all-day fluke marathon, when he and his patrons target the heavyweights. Indeed, it's not unusual for daily pool-winning fish to weigh in at 8 to 12 pounds. I recall one day when an angler landed a 12-pound beauty in the morning. He thought he had a lock on the pool money, only to see another angler catch a fluke a few ounces heavier later that same day!

"Don't be skimpy on the size of the bait you use," advises Capt. Joe. "Also, it's important to keep the line as near perpendicular to the bottom as possible. And when you feel a pick-up -- especially when fishing with a big sand eel, spearing or strip bait -- lower your rod tip, even relinquishing some line, then locking up, which gives the fluke plenty of time to get the bait well into its mouth where the hook's in position to penetrate."

BARNEGAT'S RIDGES & REEF, HOME TO HEAVYWEIGHTS

The party boat and charter fleet sailing from Barnegat Light have great fluke habitat at their artificial reef, plus both the North and South Barnegat ridges. The ridges are much shallower than the surrounding water, and concentrations of sand eels, herring, bergalls, small sea bass and porgies take up residence there. In turn, big fluke move in to take up residence, since they know there's always a good meal in the offing. Capt. Frank Fuhr, veteran Barnegat Light skipper, regularly scores on this rough bottom.

"Part of the problem is you get hung up a lot, and anglers who use light lines will lose a lot of rigs. With heavier braided line, you're much better off. And when (it's) used in conjunction with chromed ball jigs or SPRO bucktail jigs, you'll catch a lot of big fluke. Just work your rod tip lightly, and have a moderate drag setting, so when a doormat hits, you don't risk a break-off."

THE CHANNELS OF RARITAN & SANDY HOOK BAYS

The same channels that accommodate big tankers, container ships, cruise liners, and other marine traffic are home to some of the biggest fluke caught in New Jersey waters each season. Along the perimeter of Ambrose, Sandy Hook, Raritan Reach, Old Orchard, and Swash channels there are mussel beds galore, which play host to a variety of baitfish and small bottom fish such as sea bass, bergalls, blackfish and porgies -- just what the doctor ordered for big fluke.

The party boat fleet from Atlantic Highlands, Perth Amboy, Morgan, Keyport and Highlands regularly fishes these grounds, along with a huge fleet of private boats. For the most part, these are placid waters during the summer months, but you've got to be cautious of the huge wakes that often build up from the ship traffic using the shipping channels.

Veteran fluke buff Johnny Creenan is not averse to towing his trailer rig to wherever the fluking is best. He spends most of his time fishing along the channel edges. "Years ago, I used to catch a lot of big fluke on fluke belly baits. But now that you're no longer permitted to use fluke belly or backs, I buy the largest squid I can find, cut them in long, thin strips and rig them on a two-hook bottom rig. I like a bait measuring about 8 inches in length and always use a sinker that's too heavy rather than one that's too light." Creenan also notes that often a rod dead-sticked in a rod holder hooks more fish than one being held by an inexperienced angler!

RIVERS & BAYS PRODUCE HEAVWEIGHTS, TOO

My wife June, and I regularly fish protected waters ranging from the Shrewsbury River, Shark River, the Manasquan, and the waters of Barnegat Bay. People seldom realize that while these waterways hold an abundance of small fluke, there are plenty of doormats there as well. Unlike fishing in the open reaches of the ocean, or the deep waters of Raritan and Sandy Hook bays, angling in shallow waters of the rivers and southern bays requires a more delicate touch, both with respect to tackle and terminal rigging.

June and I most often use a popping rod with a levelwind casting reel filled with either mono or braid. As to baits, bigger is still better. If you fish with live killies or spearing, you'll catch fluke until arm-weary, although most will be throwbacks. But for bigger fluke, try using live spot, or squid, mackerel and salmon-belly strips (available at your local seafood market) that measure 6 to 10 inches long. Fish th

em on a two-hook Sneaky Pete fluke rig with a small Colorado spinner ahead of the leading hook, or an Owner Boa Rig with a secret knot that permits one of two hooks to slide on the leader and be positioned in the bait exactly where you want it.

As you read this, fluke will be invading inshore waters and will provide exciting fishing action throughout the summer. Keep in mind, however, that fluke feed hard and heavy during September and October, before heading east to spend the winter along the edge of the Continental Shelf -- so time is on your side right now.

Use big baits, and give your bait or jig a gentle, enticing action. Remembering to hesitate before you strike is the best advice I can offer as you target doormat fluke throughout this new 2006 season.

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