Barnegat Bay Winter Flounder

Barnegat Bay Winter Flounder

The wide expanses of this centrally located bay offer flounder enthusiasts plenty of elbowroom to seek their favorite quarry. Here are five select areas you should try!

By Milt Rosko

Never before was that old saying "the early bird catches the worm" more appropriate than on opening day of last year's winter flounder season in New Jersey. The winter proved to be one of the mildest on record, with hardly a trace of skim ice on our lagoon in Mantoloking on the shores of Barnegat Bay. It was not unusual years earlier to experience a foot or more of ice, and sometimes the lagoons didn't become ice free until early in April!

It was a winter where daytime temperatures often ranged from 50 to 60 degrees, and hardly ever did coastal temperatures dip below the freezing mark. Where in years earlier winter flounder would bury in the mud and be inactive, with the warm water temperatures and no ice to chill it down, the flatfish apparently stayed active, feeding all winter long.

By the time opening day rolled around, the flatfish were already fat and happy, and the females had deposited their eggs in the bay's waters. They continued to feed heavily in anticipation of their travel eastward, where they would exit either Manasquan or Barnegat inlets for their trek to their summer grounds along the edge of the continental shelf.

The very limited number of anglers who had their boats operational and ready to go on opening day realized excellent fishing from the start. It lasted about a month throughout many favorite winter flounder haunts in Barnegat Bay.

Local bait shops, such as Bobbie's in Barnegat Light, reported a run on bloodworms and sandworms, both favorite baits. The same was true at the north end of the bay where Pell's Tackle, just a short distance from the Mantoloking Bridge, reported a demand for bait. Brielle Bait and Tackle reported a steady stream of anglers picking up their bait and chum supplies, too. The traffic and chatter moving through the local bait shops told the story. The winter flounder certainly weren't in the mud, and they were in a biting mood!

Capt. Al Ristori unhooks a fat winter flounder. Winter flounder have tended to be larger on average over the last several seasons. Photo by Milt Rosko

Before discussing my five favorite areas for winter flounder, I feel it appropriate to discuss the techniques I've found most successful in bringing a good catch to boat. For I've found that the basic tackle and techniques used to score are essentially the same throughout the bay, whether fishing from a boat or shore.

The best fishing areas are reached by boat, and the majority of bay anglers use boats ranging from 15 to 24 feet in length. There are a number of spots where shore-based anglers can cast to productive water, especially from the many docks of marinas located along the bay's extensive shoreline.

Unquestionably, the best advice I can offer boat anglers is to have a pair of anchors on board. For even on all but the calmest days, wind and current can cause any boat to swing excessively. When seeking winter flounder I always employ bow and stern anchors, snubbing the rope tight so the boat remains in one position. This is especially important when using chum to attract flounder to your baited hooks, as you don't want the boat swinging on the end of a long rope. And use chum you must, if you want to score consistently.

I make my chum using a recipe that's evolved over the years. Whenever there's a nasty northeaster along the coast, I'll take a 5-gallon pail and go down to the beach near my home in Mantoloking. I'll fill the pail with skimmer clams that have washed up on the beach. I shuck the clams, and separate the muscle tissue and the clam meat. I brine the muscle tissue, found along the edge of the clamshell, in a solution of half kosher salt and half fresh water, which hardens the meat. This is set aside for later use as bait. I then put the remaining clam meat through an old-fashioned meat grinder, using a cutting blade that results in pieces sufficiently small enough to slip through the 1/2-inch mesh of my chum pot.

Next, I'll boil a box of white rice. Also included are a couple of cans of whole kernel corn, and finally I'll add shucked mussels. I first remove the muscle tissue from the mussel, which is placed in a brine solution, much as was done with the clams, to be set aside for later use as bait. I purchase a 3-pound bag of mussels at the local supermarket. They're commercially grown in Maine, and an economical source of chum and bait.

I combine the ground clams, mussels, rice and corn together, and even add a small amount of menhaden oil for its fish-attracting scent. Stirred together until it's well mixed, I then spoon the concoction into paper or Styrofoam cups of a size sufficiently small that they fit into the chum pot. The cups, holding close to a quart of chum, are then stacked into the freezer until it's time to head to the flounder grounds.

On the way to the spot I plan to fish, the chum logs are placed in a small cooler so they remain frozen. On reaching the grounds, I double anchor. Then I place a frozen chum log in the chum pot and lower it to the bottom on a piece of strong 1/8-inch nylon cord. Within minutes of it entering the water, the chum begins to thaw and ooze from the pot under the boat. If I have additional fresh mussels or clams, I'll crush several with a hammer in the bottom of a pail, leaving the meat attached to the shells, and distribute a half dozen or so around the boat, supplementing the ground chum.

With the chum line on its way to attracting flounder within range, I'll switch to rigging up. Many anglers like to use spinning tackle when flounder fishing, but I've found a popping rod and lightweight levelwind casting reel loaded with 8- or 10-pound-test line is ideal.

As far as terminal tackle, keeping it simple is the key. I use a pair of No. 8 or 9 Chestertown hooks snelled to 12-inch leaders. I then use a blood knot or dropper loop in the center of one of the leaders to attach the second hook. A tiny three-way swivel and a 1-ounce Dipsey- or bank-style sinker completes this rig. The result is a pair of hooks, both of which are resting directly on the bottom.

There is a wide variety of baits that you're able to employ. Sandworms and bloodworms are very popular and easily obtained. May I caution you to not use too large a bait? Cut large worms in half, and just thread a 2- to 3-inch-long piece on the hook, permitting the worm to trail from the hook and not be balled up on the hook's shank. In this way a flounder can easily inhale the bait and be hooked in the bargain.

The muscle tissue of mussels and clams are also very effective baits, especially when brined. They make tough bait, and I use a piece the same size as with a sea worm. Use a fine-meshed, long-handled ne

t and work it along dock pilings to obtain grass shrimp. They are a fine bait, which constitute a sizeable portion of the diet of winter flounder.

Tidal flow through much of Barnegat Bay is minimal, especially in the area located midway between Manasquan Inlet and Barnegat Inlet, and as such isn't a major factor when seeking flounder. But in constricted areas, such as near the mouth of the Bay Head Canal and around the Mantoloking Bridge, along with most of the Manasquan River and the channels near Barnegat Inlet, the tides come roaring through. At such times you'll find the winter flounder become most active an hour before, an hour after or during slack high or low tide. Plan your strategy and the spots you select accordingly, keeping in mind that slack water on most tide charts occurs anywhere from an hour to two hours after high or low tide.

Patience is a virtue, so the saying goes, and it applies to flounder fishing. As the baited hooks are sent to the bottom, and the chum oozes from the chum pot, it becomes a waiting game. Give a firm yank on the chum pot's cord at regular intervals, which will hasten the thawing chum to be carried from the pot and along the bottom. In time the flounder will begin picking up the tidbits and move toward the source to finally find your waiting baits.

There are two schools of thought as to the best technique for fishing your baits on the bottom. The dead stick approach, where you simply permit the bait to rest on the bottom until a strike is received, works well. There are times, however, when working your rod tip, causing the bait and sinker to lift off the bottom, and then bouncing it back into the mud produces the best results. In this case, the sinker stirs up a puff of mud, which attracts the inquisitive flounder.

Perhaps the single most important bit of advice I can offer is to discipline yourself not to yank back to set the hook when you receive a strike. Often this simply pulls the bait away from the flounder. Lift back slowly with the rod tip, and as you feel the pull of a flatfish, just begin reeling slowly. The flounder will bite down all the harder, and you'll hook it in the bargain.

The last several seasons have seen appreciable flounder in the 2- to 3-pound class, which is a departure from years ago when 1-pound fish were the norm, some even smaller. I always like to keep a small landing net on board and when a heavyweight flatfish is on, I'll use the net to bring it aboard, rather than risk losing it.

MANTOLOKING BRIDGE & DALES POINT

Historically, one of the first locations to provide action is around the Mantoloking Bridge and the area off Dales Point, located in the northern end of the bay. Here the shallow bay waters warm quickly as the days grow longer, which stimulates the feeding activity of winter flatfish.

Just south of the bridge an outfall pipe runs across the bay, leading to the ocean. It's located in a hole where the flounder regularly congregate. This pipe is found opposite the church spire, which is clearly visible to the east. Here the best fishing often occurs between the main channel and the eastern shore.

However, as the water warms and the flounder vacate the deep water, there's often fine action on the flats south of the bay, extending from the main channel to the western shore, toward Swan Point and Sloop Point. Here the waters range from 4 to 6 feet in depth for the most part, and the flounder spread out across the broad expanse of flat to feed on the plentiful grass shrimp and other forage.

To the north lies Dales Point, still another fine locale, where there are numerous flats on either side of the deep water of the channel. At first the flounder stick with the deeper water, and anchoring along the edge of the channel proves successful, but as with the area south of the bridge, they move to the adjacent flats as the water temperature rises.

OYSTER CREEK CHANNEL

The warmwater discharge from the power-generating station on Oyster Creek results in winter flounder becoming active earlier than in other parts of the bay. Where the creek empties into the bay is a favorite area frequented by early-season flounder buffs. The same is true of the entire western bay shore from Forked River to Waretown and Barnegat Beach. You've got 5- to 7-foot depths along much of the bay shore with a mixture of mud and sand bottom. Where you find the dark mud, you'll see that the flatfish take on an almost black color; hence the popular name "blackback" flounder. On a sandy bottom they take on a much lighter, mottled beige and brown coloration.

Oyster Creek Channel is a highly traveled channel leading from Barnegat Inlet to the deep waters on the western shore of the bay, and is flanked on both sides by extremely shallow flats. Flounder fishermen anchor up along the channel edges during an ebbing tide in spring when the warm waters are flowing out of the bay and score very well. Often incoming tide results in a cold rush of ocean water that turns the flounder off.

MYERS HOLE

Located on the east shore of Barnegat Bay, Myers Hole is almost within the shadow of famous Barnegat Light. Parts of Myers Hole have depths ranging from 15 to 19 feet deep with a mushy mud bottom favored by the flatfish. You'll know you're in the right spot when you go to lift your anchors, for on the tines will be several pounds of black muck that is filled with forage.

Examine the mud the next time you pull the anchor and you'll find tiny crabs, grass shrimp, bloodworms and all kinds of wiggly creatures, all of which make for an inviting meal for hungry flounder.

DOUBLE CREEK CHANNEL

Double Creek Channel meanders through miles of very shallow flats south of Oyster Creek Channel. It has depths that range up to 9 feet, and at times as the tide recedes, the surrounding flats are all or partially exposed, resulting in the forage and flatfish congregating in the narrow channel. There isn't as much boat traffic in Double Creek as in Oyster Creek Channel, and I've always preferred to avoid the crowds whenever possible.

Toward this end, if your schedule permits, try to avoid the weekends in the more popular spots, for at times they do get crowded. With lots of boats chumming, the flounder tend to feed and then quickly shut down. During the week there's hardly a soul around, especially early in the season, and your chances of scoring are enhanced appreciably.

TICES SHOAL

The majority of Barnegat Bay from Holly Park to Pebble Beach has depths from 5 to 10 feet, and there are no doubt thousands upon thousands of winter flounder on every inch of the bay bottom. There is a great amount of very shallow water, just 1 to 3 feet deep, extending out from the shore of Island Beach State Park on the east side of the bay. One particular area, with water ranging from 4 to 6 feet deep, is Tices Shoal, a broad area identified on most coastal charts, about halfway down the length of the state park.

I suspect many winter flounder move across the shallow flats to feed, returning to the deeper water of Tices as the

tide ebbs, where they're readily attracted to a spread of ground chum being carried by the current.

While this article highlights the great flounder grounds of Barnegat Bay, there's superb fishing to also be enjoyed in the Shrewsbury, Navesink, Shark and Manasquan rivers to the north using much the same techniques.

New Jersey's current marine recreational fisheries regulations include an 11-inch minimum size on winter flounder with no bag limit. The season is open from March 1 through May 31 and again from Sept. 15 through Dec. 31. Always check the regulations before embarking to ensure compliance.

While throughout this article I've dwelled on the catching, the real treat comes when you repair to the kitchen for the eating. Winter flounder are truly a culinary delight, just delicious when prepared in any one of a variety of ways. After a winter of being housebound, not only are winter flounder a reason to get out on the water, but they're also a reason to belly up to the dinner table as well.


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