How to Find the Flounder You Want
September 24, 2010
For countless anglers, summer means flounder fishing. Some anglers like lots of bites; some wait patiently for the telltale strike of a doormat. Here's how to find the action you like best.
By Mike Marsh
Flounder are famous saltwater fish. Commonly called the "fish for people who don't like fish," flounder are a favorite among restaurant patrons and families gathered in backyards to fry the day's catch. The great taste of flounder is just one reason that they are consistently among the top fish that show up in surveys of recreational saltwater fishermen.
Flounder fishing is much like lake fishing for largemouth bass, and that may be another reason they are so popular. The same types of fishing gear can be used, and the types of structure that hold largemouth bass are arguably among the most likely to hold flounder. As with largemouth bass, there is even a separation of techniques used to catch a limit of keeper fish as opposed to singling out a trophy from a secret fishing hole.
To catch a limit of flounder, anglers usually think in terms of methodically covering large areas of water in the fishing time they have. While average-sized flounder congregate in specific areas, they are usually scattered about the bottom in small groups or by themselves. Covering some ground and covering it efficiently can pay off in numbers of fish caught.
A prime example is an inlet. Most flounder fishermen start their quest where the current flow is narrowed down at an inlet. The narrow channel creates concentrations of baitfish as well as provides dips, troughs, bars and drop-offs where flounder can wait to ambush prey as it swims by.
The current flow through inlets and the boat traffic combine to make anchoring a secondary choice for catching flounder. Most anglers use drifting tactics to take advantage of current flow.
Author Mike Marsh took this big flounder from some classic doormat habitat: a dropoff at the edge of a deep channel. Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh
The best fishing usually occurs on rising tide at an inlet. Fish head out to the ocean side of an inlet as the tide falls. The rising tide brings them back inside, following the same tidal migration pattern of baitfish.
Anglers use a variety of drifting rigs, depending upon regional tastes and bottom conditions. The standard flounder rig consists of an egg sinker weighing anywhere from 1 to 3 ounces (depending upon current flow and water depth), a swivel, a leader and a wide-bend hook. Also called a sliding sinker, fish-finder or Carolina rig, variations include the addition of spinner blades, skirts, colored beads and different hook styles. For cloudy-water conditions anglers use a dropper rig with the sinker at the bottom and one or more hooks tied above the sinker. The sinker tickles the bottom while the hooks ride high enough for a flounder to spot them. Another advantage of the dropper rig is that if the sinker becomes hung, the angler can break the leader without losing the hook or hooks tied to the line.
Drift-fishermen survey inlet conditions prior to wetting their lines. At each moment, wind and tide flow patterns are shifting. This makes each drift a little different from the last.
Watching other anglers can quickly tell drift-fishermen what to anticipate. Drift-fishermen head to certain places where the water is shallow. They maneuver upwind or upcurrent to begin their drifts, shut their motors or idle them down. Anglers usually follow one another, with boats spaced far enough apart to avoid tangling lines. They drop their lines overboard and let the wind and current carry their rigs across the bottom. The best bait is a live minnow, usually a menhaden, mullet, mud minnow, or killifish. Fish cut into strips also work well when live baits are scarce. Minnows that have been salted and frozen also catch flounder under drifting conditions.
Each angler can use several lines while drifting. In popular drift areas, any style of boat will do. Johnboats, skiffs and even pontoon boats will handle multiple lines trailing behind them. Most anglers drift-fish with light saltwater spinning or baitcasting rods and reels spooled with 10- to 15-pound-test monofilament lines.
As the bait passes a flounder, he strikes. Often the bite is difficult to detect. To inexperienced anglers, it seems likes just another bump on the bottom. But experienced anglers watch their rod tips. There is a break in the bottom-dragging rhythm when a flounder is on the line. After an initial tightening or tap that causes the rod tip to dip, the rod tip rises back up and shows a steady bend as the flounder follows along while swallowing the bait. Free-spooling the bait to the bottom or just pointing the rod tip toward the fish allows slack. The flounder falls to the bottom and chokes up on the bait. After waiting a few seconds, the angler sets the hook. Some anglers just watch the rod tip until it twitches steadily. This means the fish has hooked itself and is trying to get away.
Missed flounder leave diagonal tooth marks, usually paired and most often near the anal fin or tail of a baitfish. Bite marks like that on a bait mean that the flounder dropped the bait when something alarmed it or the angler did not allow enough time for it to swallow the bait before setting the hook. The size of the fish can be determined by the gap in the tooth marks, and that leads to spirited estimations of weight of the big one that got away.
Play flounder on a tight line and drag settings of 4 to 6 pounds. Large landing nets are necessary to boat the wide-bodied fish. Holding the net beneath a small flounder as you lift it out of the water with the line adds insurance against the fish flopping off, while at the same time avoids the possibility of the hooks tangling in the net. This tactic is especially useful with multiple-hook rigs.
Trolling for flounder is a variation on drifting. While some anglers use their motors to guide boats when drifting across known flounder hangouts at inlets, others use them to troll the backwaters where wind and current will not move the boat. Trolling rigs are much the same as drifting rigs. Wide, shallow bays, rivers and navigation channels are popular trolling areas.
Most anglers troll into any wind or current flow because holding the boat on a steady course is much easier under those conditions. They maneuver their boats along grass beds, beside oyster beds, and across dredged areas and sandbars. Flounder are usually found in dips, depressions and the deep sides of bars, so trolling anglers target these areas. A spot that holds one fish generally holds more. If you catch a fish from an especially good piece of habitat, new flounder will move into that spot eventually. Experienced flounder fishermen commit to memory or a GPS unit the location of any particularly fruitful spots they find and return to these spots on future trips.
Since covering lots of water is the key to catching lots of flounder, artificial lures are an effective choice for terminal rigs. Jig heads tied with natural or artificial fibers and tipped with fish strips, live minnows or scent-impregnated plastic trailers have become increasingly popular as bass tactics make their way to saltwater marshes. On rocky bottoms, oyster beds and grass beds where jigs may hang up, spoons with weed guards and strip trailers can catch plenty of flounder. A spoon rattling across a hard bottom seems especially good for attracting attention.
The ideal structure for catching flounder with artificial lures is much the same as for largemouth bass. Boat docks, seawalls, jetties, pilings, bridges, shorelines, rocks and grass beds are all likely to hold flounder and give visible targets for casting. Anglers anchor beside structure or use trolling motors to maneuver the boat and cast to the area in a methodical fashion. Several flounder can often be caught from a single dock or other small piece of structure.
When using artificial lures for flounder, anglers should not wait to set the hook. The strike is usually a hard one as the fish takes a lure hopped or skidded across the bottom and should be met with an instantaneous hook-set.
Baits moving along behind boats and artificial lures bouncing across the bottom certainly catch lots of flounder. However, drifting baits and casting lures only results in the occasional doormat. Anglers who target truly huge flatfish will do well to copy the proven tactics of tournament winners.
There are four parts to solving the puzzle of catching trophy flounder. First, big flounder are found where there is a steady supply of food. Second, the food is close to hard structure. Third, their favorite haunts are in deep water or where deep-water access is very nearby. Fourth, the best bait is a large menhaden or mullet.
Expert trophy flatfish anglers usually have a series of secret spots located that include the first three of these characteristics (and the anglers themselves bring the menhaden or mullet). They know that big flounder are usually solitary and are often found where there are very few smaller flounder.
Trophy flounder anglers do not want to be bothered with small flounder that are not capable of swallowing super-sized bait. They arrive at a location and fish it for several hours before moving. Many trophy hotspots are best on a particular tide stage or certain time of year and consistently hold fish year after year. Many are so good that if a big female (trophies are always female) is caught from the area one day, then there will be another to take her place the next day.
The trophy flatfish angler begins by finding a school of mullet or menhaden from 6 to 9 inches long. These would be considered smallish-sized king mackerel baits by most anglers. The fish are caught in a cast net and held in a livewell. They are replaced whenever they have reddened mouths from friction with the tank or when the buttery feeling of the slime coat deteriorates. Ideally bait is replenished every couple of hours, but during a tournament or busy weekend, an angler who leaves a hotspot may lose it to another angler.
The fisherman then heads to a spot he has found that shows evidence of a consistent food supply. Docks with deep channels that have fish-cleaning stations or crab-pot lines dangling into the water are good bets. Commercial fish and shellfish operations are also good choices. Places where baitfish consistently school are also good, as long as they also have deep-water access and hard structure.
The angler heads close enough to cast accurately, then drops the anchor as quietly as possible. He may re-position the boat several times to get good casts to the same piece of structure as the tide and wind shift. He knows that the big one is lying there, waiting for a meal to swim within easy reach.
So structure-oriented are big flounder that most trophy anglers now use superbraid lines. Hard structure grows oyster shells and barnacles that easily cut monofilament. Superbraids also make the strike easier to detect. Their low stretch qualities help offset line-bow in a current. They also help the angler get a big flounder away from structure before he has a chance to tangle the line.
In spite of using superbraid lines, trophy anglers almost universally stick with monofilament leaders. Fluorocarbon leader material is excellent for the purpose. But some anglers still prefer hard mono leaders. If structure is particularly tough, they may grudgingly switch to plastic-coated multiple-strand wire leader.
In any case, the best leader to use is the lightest that will fool the fish and still be strong enough to cheat the cover. Big flounder have seen lots of baited hooks and take their time when checking out a live bait. They are queens of their domains and seldom get in a hurry to do much of anything.
Strange as it may sound, some big-fish anglers position their boats beneath large docks. They theorize that a big flounder would rather head away from line pressure than head deeper into cover. They tie off to the dock with a slipknot. Once the flounder heads away from the dock, they release the knot and follow the fish into snag-free water.
A cast that lands a slip-sinker rig in a small washout downcurrent of a piling is met with a tap-tap or possibly a heavy feeling. A gentle lift of the rod tip gives the sensation that the hook is hung up - again. But there is something different, a vibration, perhaps another tap like a pinfish nibble.
It is difficult for an angler to allow a huge flounder enough time to swallow a bait that seems too large. But anglers miss more flounder by being too quick to pull the trigger than for any other reason. Flounder have big mouths, but they grab and hold their prey for a long time, taking several chomps to get to the lips of a baitfish where a hook is protruding.
Because of the methodical feeding habits of the flounder, the trophy angler bides his time until the flounder begins to move. Once the fish has the bait, she will eventually swallow it. After several minutes, if he is confidant the fish has had the bait in her mouth long enough, the angler may tighten the line and strum it like a guitar string to irritate the flounder enough to make it finish swallowing the bait and swim away.
The angler sets the hook hard while turning the reel handle to get the fish headed away from the structure. The drag is set just tight enough to keep the line from breaking. But a lost fish can still result from a straightened hook. A flounder's weight can exceed 20 pounds. Despite the reputation small fish have for a lack of fighting ability, a big flounder will give any angler a run for the money when hooked on light tackle near structure.
The fish tries to get back to the structure, rips sideways, dives, then digs for the bottom. She may wrap a piling, cutting off even a super-line on an oyster shell. She may even "sky," leaping across the surface as she spots the landing net sliding beneath her. Fish that break the surface are most likely to throw the hook. They toss their hea
ds up and down, creating slack in the line that lets the hook shake free. Stories of huge flounder that spit the hook right at the boat are common around any tackle shop or boat dock.
But if the angler keeps the line tight, even if he has to dip the rod tip below the surface to keep the fish's head down, and if luck is on his side, the only sound louder than the doormat flounder flapping on the landing net mesh in on the deck of the boat will be the back-slapping congratulations by a fishing partner.
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