New Jersey's Big Fluke Offshore
October 04, 2010
With lots of throwbacks these days, anglers are now plying the deeper waters of the Klondike Bank and Manasquan Ridge, plus countless other lumps and bumps.
By Milt Rosko
It wasn't too many years ago when fluke fishermen exited Jersey's inlets and headed either north or south along the beach, shut down their motors a couple of hundred yards from shore and began fishing. Those were the days when fluke were plentiful, and there were lots of 14- to 15-inch-long summer flounder to satisfy the whims of anglers. Today, the size limit imposed upon anglers is a respectable 16 1/2 inches, and it really takes a lot of effort to consistently catch fluke of this size along the beach.
Now, as the fleets of charter, party and private boats leave the inlets, they head east, often traveling several miles to choice bottoms, the ridges, lumps and banks that rise high off the surrounding depths. Still, others set up along the edges of the shipping channels, such as those leading to New York Harbor to the north and the Delaware River ports to the south.
The reason fluke fishing has taken on this new dimension is that larger fluke consistently take up residence on the grounds farther from shore, where there is an abundance of forage, such as sand eels, herring and squid. In addition, the big fluke will often dine on the yearling of bottom feeders, such as porgies, seabass, bergalls and blackfish that also reside on these grounds.
Unfortunately, to fish these deep-water offshore grounds, you'll have to forego the light spinning and popping outfits you may be accustomed to using. The offshore bottom is just so strewn with rocks, mussel beds and debris that light lines would result in too great an attrition of rigs.
As such, I generally move up to a medium-weight graphite boat rod, measuring 7 feet in length and rated for 20-pound-test line. However, instead of spooling 20-pound-test monofilament, I'll often use braided Spectra or Dyneema that tests out at 30 or 50 pounds, which enables me to usually pull free of snags with ease. The braided line also provides a finer diameter, enabling me to use a lighter weight sinker, and a ball jig or leadhead jig to maintain my line as near perpendicular to the bottom as we drift along. The line's no-stretch feature allows me to feel even the slightest tug from a flatfish inhaling the bait as the current carries us over choice bottom.
Mate Jim Berardi holds up a doormat fluke caught on the Gambler out of Point Pleasant Beach. Photo by Ron Sinfelt
When you walk into a tackle shop, you're often immediately taken aback by the assortment of fluke rigs that are available. Many are elaborate multi-hook models festooned with a variety of often-large snaps, swivels, beads, blades and bucktails, designed to look elaborate and bring top dollar. I don't challenge their fish-catching effectiveness, but also must mention their bottom-catching effectiveness. As such, I've found that simplicity works best for me.
Unquestionably, the greatest leap forward in fishing the offshore lumps, ridges and banks is the ball jig and its torpedo-shaped counterpart. Neither of these jigs is new. Fred Schrier of Toms River introduced me to them over 35 years ago. They just never seemed to catch on with fluke fishermen, but now they've almost come to eliminate the need for using sinkers.
As its name implies, the ball jig is nothing more than a ball of lead, some as big as a golf ball, with the 5- to 8-ounce models being most popular. They have an eye to which your leader is attached, and another eye to which an O'Shaughnessy-style hook with a bucktail skirt is attached and swings freely.
Some anglers, most notably Dave Arbeitman who holds forth at the Reel Seat in Brielle, modify the jig, adding a second (or stinger hook), so it trails 3 or 4 inches behind the primary hook. This allows anglers to place a large strip bait, 7 to 9 inches long, of squid or sea robin belly on the lead hook, with the stinger hook being placed in the rear-most section of the strip. It's the stinger hook that nails many of the short-striking heavyweight fluke.
Close on the heels of ball jigs on the offshore grounds is a plain, old-fashioned heavy leadhead jig with a bucktail skirt. For probing the depths, the 2- to 4-ounce models are favored, as keeping the line perpendicular is important to success. If a fast drift causes your lure to come off the bottom, then you'll be out of the strike zone where doormat fluke are feeding.
With the ball, torpedo and lead- head jigs, many anglers tie a dropper loop to their leader approximately 18 inches above the jig and slip a 36-inch-long leader onto the loop, with a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gap or claw-style hook. This high hook can be baited with a strip bait, live killie, herring or snapper bluefish, or a combination of strip and live bait.
Should you prefer to fish with a conventional fluke rig, I'd suggest a simple rig, consisting of a small three-way swivel, 36 inches of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material and either a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gap, beak- or claw-style hook. Use a bank- style sinker sufficiently heavy to keep your bait and rig on the bottom.
Captain Bobby Bogan of the Point Pleasant Beach-based party boat Gambler, says. "Always use a sinker heavy enough to hold bottom. It's far better to be too heavy than too light." This means you should carry weights ranging from 5 to 16 ounces, which will cover all contingencies, including strong current, tough wind and deep water.
Remember that you're targeting big fluke. Once fluke get to 16 1/2 inches and range to 10 pounds or more, they're looking for something big to eat. Sure, you'll occasionally catch a doormat on a 2-inch-long killie or tiny spearing. The key is using big baits.
Live baits such as baby spots that can be caught in coastal bays and rivers are also ideal, as are the snapper bluefish that can be caught off most any coastal dock as the summer progresses. Another alternative is to use live herring, which some coastal tackle shops obtain from freshwater sources, and which measure 5 to 6 inches in length.
Small, whole squid measuring 4 to 8 inches in length are good, too, as are strips of squid cut from large squid. When it comes to really effective strip bait, don't hesitate to cut strips from a large sea robin or dogfish. I like these freshly cut strips, as they're tough. If a fluke misses getting hooked on the first pass, it'll come back to the bait repeatedly, without ripping it from the hook.
Many veteran party boat anglers regularly use strips measuring a full 8 to 10 inches in length to win the boat's pool. "Strips are excellent bait," notes Captain Joe Bogan of the party boat Jamaica II out of Brielle, "but you've got to be patient and let the fluke have time to inhale the bait, and th
en avoid striking the fish. Just begin reeling and you'll hook more fish than yanking back to set the hook."
RARITAN BAY AREA PICKS
Boatmen sailing from Atlantic Highlands need only sail to the channels leading into New York Harbor to find good sport. Both Ambrose and Sandy Hook channels hold big fluke throughout the summer, as do the edges adjacent to these channels. There are times, however, when current is a factor, particularly when you have a strong northwest wind and outgoing tide, which causes an extremely fast drift, where even with 16 ounces of sinker it's difficult to hold bottom.
Each season sees some of the biggest fluke on the coast landed from these waters, with live snapper and spots being favored baits.
The channels of Raritan Bay also provide their share of heavyweight fluke, as does Flynns Knoll, a huge shallow area just north of the tip of Sandy Hook and Sandy Hook Channel. Because of its shallow water, Flynns Knoll can get very rough, particularly if you get a wind against tide situation, where it's difficult to maintain a steady drift.
One of the most popular spots for big fluke is off the Red Church in Takanassee. The grounds a couple of miles off this area are popularly called the Elberon Grounds, but really extend from Long Branch south to Asbury Park. There are rocky outcroppings throughout the area, covered with mussels.
When you peruse the bottom with electronic fish-finding equipment, you'll often see large schools of sand eels down near the bottom and schools of herring at various levels of the water column. You'll also see lots of life on the bottom, most often small bergalls, porgies and seabass, all of which fluke regularly feed on. In fact, when you're using strip baits, you'll often be pestered with strikes from these tiny bait stealers. A bonus catch on these grounds is seabass, some of which will be in the 3- to 4-pound range, and as delicious on the dinner table as the targeted fluke.
KLONDIKE BANK & MANASQUAN RIDGE
The Klondike Bank and Manasquan Ridge have depths ranging from 8 to 10 fathoms, while the surrounding bottom drops off to 11 or 12 fathoms. Baitfish tend to congregate over the shallow banks and ridges, rather than the adjacent deep water, and this brings on the fluke, too.
While many anglers think of these areas as specific spots, the areas surrounding the primary Klondike grounds hold a half-dozen or more other lumps, all of which hold big fluke. Much the same is true of the Manasquan Ridge, which has a number of ridges adjacent to it, all of which hold fluke.
By watching your depthfinder and moving onto the high bottom, and then moving into the wind until the bottom begins to fall away, you can position your boat to drift over choice bottom. As soon as the water begins to get a couple of fathoms deeper, start up and repeat the same approach, moving to the left or right, so on each drift you cover new bottom. If, however, you catch flounder, don't hesitate to repeat the same drift, as big fluke often congregate where they've found an abundance of bait.
Both the Klondike Bank and Manasquan Ridge are prime big fluke territories, and two spots where the ball jig came into its own this past summer. To work the ball jig effectively, lift your rod tip smartly, causing the jig to dart off the bottom toward the surface and then settle back down. Fluke that are resting on the bottom and waiting to ambush any smaller fish will readily hit a ball jig worked in this fashion.
NORTH & SOUTH
The general area called Barnegat Ridge is really the ridge proper, with a small area called the North Ridge and another small area called the South Ridge. These ridges have water depths in the 8- to 9-fathom range, but the surrounding water is quite a bit deeper, often plummeting to 12 to 16 fathoms.
You can hardly move across any of these ridges in the summer without viewing concentrations of sand eels, which bring in not only fluke, but great numbers of bluefish as well.
While obtaining live bait is time-consuming and sometimes difficult, it does pay to have live spots or snapper blues in your livewell. Hook them through the fleshy part of the back, just forward of the dorsal fin or through the lips. They'll stay alive and active for a long while. With live bait in particular, make certain to hesitate when you receive a strike.
I often fish with my reel in free spool, and when I feel a pickup, I'll permit several feet of line to slip from the reel as I continue to drift along. I then lower my rod tip, lock the reel in gear and slowly begin reeling, without striking the fluke. At this time, the fluke will often turn, and in the process becomes hooked. By all means, do not strike back at the first feel of a pickup, as you'll invariably pull the bait away from the flatfish.
CAPE MAY TO GREAT EGG HARBOR INLET
A glance at a geodetic chart of Cape May to Great Egg Harbor Inlet immediately shows that the 10-Fathom line extends farther from shore than anywhere on the Jersey coast. Within that area, and extending south of Cape May to the shipping channel entering Delaware Bay, is a fertile fluke ground if there ever was one.
There are many shoals inshore, with mussel beds and other fertile bottom. What really attract the big fluke are myriad wrecks scattered about the bottom. The wrecks hold forage species, plus the bottom-feeders mentioned earlier, and big fluke set up residence on the sandy bottom adjacent to these wrecks waiting for a meal to happen by.
You're apt to lose some terminal tackle fishing the bottom from Cape May to Great Egg Harbor Inlet, in spite of using heavy line, for when you snag, it's tough to pull off. But that's where the fluke are, and a few lost rigs are of little consequence when the reward may be a doormat fluke.
There are also a number of lumps just offshore of the 10-Fathom line. Because of their distance from shore, these areas receive little fishing pressure, but hold a good number of hungry flatfish throughout the summer and well into late October. These areas certainly warrant your attention.
There's also some fine summer flounder action to be enjoyed in our bays and rivers, although you may have to work through a lot of throwbacks to obtain some fish for the table. A lot of the details on fishing these waters are included in my book: Fishing the Big Four, Stripers, Bluefish, Weakfish and Fluke, which may be obtained at email@example.com.
It appears the New Jersey size limit for summer flounder, most often called just plain fluke, will remain at 16 1/2 inches for 2004. Make certain to check the regulations, however, as they're always susceptible to change.
In closing, my best advice is to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom and hesitate, hesitate and hesitate some more before setting the hook. That little bit of patience may help to put some nice h
eavyweight flatfish in your cooler.
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