Hunt the Flats for Fall Flatfish
September 28, 2010
Often overlooked by anglers in pursuit of speckled trout and redfish, the No. 3 fish in the Cajun Grand Slam makes fine sport — not to mention excellent eating!
By John N. Felsher
Most saltwater anglers probably catch flounder more by accident than by design. They hit many of the same baits or lures that fool speckled trout, redfish, black drum, sheepshead and other fish. While fishing for other species, anglers nab a few flounder as lagniappe - Cajun French for "a little extra."
Frequently, the only people who intentionally search for flounder go armed with spears called "gigs" instead of fishing rods. At night, armed with their gigs and powerful lanterns, they slosh either on foot or in small, shallow-draft boats through sandy flats, stalking a fish that can easily disappear into a thin, silty veneer.
Masters of camouflage, the elusive flounder bury themselves in sand or mud. Their spotted mottled-brown skins blend perfectly with soft slop on the bottom of most Louisiana estuaries. Only their two eyes protrude above the muck, watching and waiting for anything to swim foolishly close. In an instant, they dart from their sandy coating to devour baitfish or passing shrimp with astonishing speed for such oddly shaped fish.
To start gigging on foot, sportsmen only need a pair of boots or old shoes with non-slip soles, a powerful light and a stringer with a float to keep the catch off bottom and away from crabs. Walking giggers might want to use barbless spears in case they accidentally stick stingrays. Common gasoline lanterns make excellent illumination devices. Some people shield one side of a lantern with aluminum foil to reflect more light forward into the water. A simple headlight makes a great addition to the equipment list.
With a boat, the process and equipment list remain largely the same except for the substitution of a barbed spear for the gig. In deeper water, flounder hunters might want to use archery equipment instead of spears. Some flounder enthusiasts hang several generator-powered lights off their boats. Usually, giggers in boats work in teams. One person poles or paddles in the stern while the "harpooner" looks for fish. Electric motors don't run as shallow as is necessary and often make too much noise or commotion.
IT'S AS MUCH HUNTING
AS IT IS FISHING
Either in a boat or on foot, flounder giggers, who stalk their prey stealthily during an incoming tide, will do well to think more like hunters than like fishermen. Walkers should slide their feet slowly along the bottom instead of lifting them out of the water. Breeze-driven waves reduce visibility, making flounder gigging nearly impossible. On calm, moonlit nights, giggers should look for flounder at the mouths of cuts, bayou shelves or along weedy shorelines.
Small ditches draining marshy ponds make excellent places to look for flounder. These tributaries typically create mini deltas when they merge with larger water bodies. Usually, tidal flow forms a shallow, muddy shelf on one side of a bayou and a deeper channel on the other side, depending upon prevailing tides and currents. Often, the shelf drops into deeper water when it hits the larger water body. Flounder frequently feed in reedy shallows, sandy flats and shelve next to these tributaries and may enter extremely thin water.
Giggers should look for anything out of the ordinary on bottom. Sometimes, they may see a perfect fish outline, almost like a fossil in the sand. Sometimes, they can only see two eyes reflecting of the bottom. Sometimes, they might only see an unusual brown splotch. When in doubt, spear it - but first make sure it's not your partner's brown shoe!
With either gigging equipment or conventional fishing tackle, flounder fishermen can usually find plenty of places to pursue their quarry along the Louisiana coastline. Just about every estuary, bay or coastal lake in Louisiana can harbor excellent flounder populations whenever people can find the right combination of clean, shallow, brackish water and abundant baitfish.
Soft plastics hopped along the bottom will often draw savage strikes from fall flounder. Photo by John N. Felsher
Flounder sometimes enter freshwater rivers and may appear miles inland. Flounder can tolerate remarkably fresh conditions, as many bass anglers discover when working plastic worms in estuaries. Heavier than fresh water, a thin layer of salty water may run along the bottom of most rivers, giving flatfish just enough brine to keep them going.
However, both southern and Gulf flounders start to move toward the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the fall. Flounder spawn offshore in the fall and winter. Anglers have taken flounder in more than 200 feet of water. Fishing about 12 miles off South Pass at the mouth of the Mississippi River, Gary Hargis caught a 13.06-pounder, the Louisiana record, in June 1998.
"Flounders leave the interior marshes and bays in the fall to go offshore to spawn," said John Venissat, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist in New Iberia. "They return inshore in the spring. They spawn in late fall and winter in deep water. If people can catch them moving through the passes in the fall, they can catch a lot of big flounders."
To reach Gulf waters, flounder must often pass through several chokepoints. In the old days, the cowboys said, "Head 'em off at the pass." Anglers might take a cue from old Western movies. In places like Sabine Lake, Calcasieu Lake, Barataria Bay and Lake Pontchartrain, flounder are presented with but few options as they course towards the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Passes not only concentrate flounder, but concentrate baitfish as well. Funneled into restricted waters, migrating flounder sometimes congregate in huge numbers. Anglers catching one or two flounder in one spot might drop anchor and load a boat with delicious flatfish.
Sabine Pass, on the Louisiana-Texas border, provides one of the best chokepoints for intercepting migrating flounder. Sabine Lake produced the Texas state-record southern flounder, a 13-pound fish caught in February 1976. Sabine Pass connects Sabine Lake with the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Lake Charles. Fed by the Sabine River, the lake averages about seven miles wide, 7 feet deep and extends for about 20 miles inland. Although punctuated by oyster reefs that hold fish, vast marshes broken by tributaries on the Louisiana shoreline feed the estuary, providing the best flounder habitat on the lake.
These marshes serve as nursery grounds for shrimp, crabs and baitfish. With abundant forage, flounder fatten themselves along the grassy shorelines and tributary mouths. Flats at the north end of
the lake also attract flounder. Shell reefs and tiny islands provide more habitat.
During a falling tide, flounder often face upstream at the mouths of tributaries. With their splotchy bodies, they hide under a layer of silt along the tributary flats and wait for currents to flush dinner to them. Tides pull baitfish, shrimp and crabs from the interior marshy ponds. When these morsels wash over the concealed flatfish, hungry flounder strike with surprising speed and aggression. After slashing at minnows or shrimp flowing over their heads, they again shake some mud on themselves to wait for the next unsuspecting morsel to flow over them.
A jighead sweetened with a whole shrimp or a live cocahoe minnow hooked through the eyes makes an excellent temptation. Use as little weight as possible - only enough to carry the line on a cast. Throw the bait as far upstream as is possible and let it bounce slowly downstream. Almost as if you were fishing a plastic worm, gently raise the rod tip to move the bait a few inches at a time. Reel in the slack and repeat. Let the current do most of the work.
Soft plastics also work for flounder, as flatfish can't resist a shrimp floating downstream. Rig a plastic shrimp on a split-shot rig. Attach a split-shot sinker about 12 to 24 inches above the bait. If possible, use no weight, or use a sinker just big enough to allow casting. Let the bait flow downstream as naturally as you can. Reel line just fast enough to take out the slack. The current provides all the action necessary.
Other lures also work for flounder. Just about any lure that might tempt a trout tempts a flounder. In the past, anglers caught flounder on everything from soft-plastic minnows, jigs, flies and spinnerbaits to topwater baits. Try sweetening a lure with a pinch of fresh shrimp if finicky flounder need a little extra encouragement.
To reach Sabine Lake, anglers can launch on the Texas side of the state Highway 82 bridge. They can also launch at Pleasure Island on the Intracoastal Waterway, in Port Arthur, Texas, or at Adams Bayou in Orange, Texas. A small, unimproved ramp allows access for small boats on the Louisiana side of the bridge.
CALCASIEU SHIP CHANNEL
East of Sabine Pass, the Calcasieu Ship Channel connects the port of Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico through four lakes. The 40-mile-long and 40-foot deep channel runs adjacent to Lake Charles, Prien Lake, Moss Lake and finally Calcasieu Lake. It exits Calcasieu Lake about eight miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. Marshes in the entire estuary provide excellent habitat for flounder.
Several cuts in the channel allow water, bait and fish to flow from the Gulf of Mexico into Calcasieu Lake, which measures 12 miles long by nine miles wide. Grassy shorelines, oyster reefs, points and channel cuts promise good flounder fishing.
At the southeast corner of Calcasieu Lake, Grand and Lambert bayous flow through the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge marshes. Weirs block these bayous. Federal authorities keep these weirs closed during times of high salinity or during duck season. If the boat bays are open, anglers can enter the marshes along the southeast shoreline of Calcasieu Lake. Even if boat bays remain closed, anglers can often pick up flounder outside the weirs.
Oyster Bayou and West Cove off the ship channel excel for flounder. Joe's Cove west of the ship channel holds many flounder. Points along the channel produce flatfish on occasion. Islands along the Calcasieu Ship Channel and cuts between these islands provide good flounder fishing at the Washout, Nine-Mile Cut or Hog Island Gully.
North of Calcasieu Lake, Kelso Bayou connects the ship channel with the marshes surrounding Black Lake. Myriad oil-field canals feed Kelso Bayou. Running north to south, the Salt Ditch connects the Kelso Bayou/ Black Lake marshes with the Intracoastal Waterway. All of these marshes offer excellent flounder action at times.
Launches at Hebert's Marina in Grand Lake and Dugas or Spicer's landings in Hackberry provide access.
In eastern Louisiana, the 5,000-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain basin on the northern boundary of New Orleans offers some of the best flounder fishing in the state. Two deep passes, the Rigolets and the Chef Menteur, flow from Lake Borgne into Lake Pontchartrain, connecting the estuary with the Gulf of Mexico. Marshes along these passes and the lakes offer excellent fall flounder fishing. Many people fish the Lake St. Catherine marshes or the passes by Little Lake in the Pearl River delta near Slidell.
"In the fall, people catch a lot of big females in this area," said Thomas Rowley, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Slidell. "I've seen flounders up to 9 pounds, but a 5-pounder is a good flounder. I've seen a lot of 5-pounders. Most flounders are in the 1- to 3-pound range."
Several bayous and canals feed the system. Geoghegan's Canal runs parallel to U.S. 90 where it crosses the Rigolets at Fort Pike between New Orleans and Slidell. Several bayous off this canal hold abundant flounder. Other flatfish honeyholes include St. Catherine's Pass, Unknown Pass and islands in Lake Borgne.
Lake Pontchartrain itself harbors good flounder populations at times. In Lake Pontchartrain, anglers fish the grassy flats along the North Shore, the mouths of tributaries or around bridge pilings. Several bayous and rivers enter Lake Pontchartrain along the northern, northwestern or western shorelines and often provide outstanding habitat. These include Salt Bayou, Bayou Lacombe and the Tchefuncte River.
South of Lake Borgne, the marshes of Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach offer outstanding flounder action every fall. Bays opening into Breton Sound or Black Lake swarm with the flattened fish. Fish the islands in these bays or the mouths of bayous. Fish cuts connecting two larger bodies of water, which create chokepoints.
"The Delacroix area usually produces a lot of flounder in the fall," Rowley said. "The Shell Beach area also produces good flounder fishing in the fall, as does the Hopedale and Biloxi Marsh areas. In Lake Pontchartrain, the old Highway 11 bridge and the railroad trestle attract fish. Anglers catch many flounder in Chef Pass and the Rigolets. It gets good tidal flow through those passes."
Down the Mississippi River, shallow bays and ponds on either side of the river around Empire, Port Sulphur and Pointe Ã la Hache provide flounder and flounder fishermen with great hunting opportunities. Numerous pipelines and bayous allow access to interior marshes and ponds and exterior bays.
Near Venice, the Mississippi River Delta pours billions of gallons of water through one of the most fertile marshes in the world. Nutrients from the river feed a lush environment that spawns outstanding flounder action. Numerous canals, bayous, passes and bays offer nearly unlimited flounder habitat.
Many people fish the "mud lumps" near South Pass. Tons of silt
scoured from three-fourths of North America pour down the Mississippi River and settle in the Delta. This settling action pushes up shifting "mud lumps" in places. Lumps remain for a while, and then wash away, only to rise in another spot. Flounder often feed in shallow flats near these lumps.
Similarly, the Atchafalaya River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico south of Morgan City. It spreads through Vermilion Bay, Atchafalaya Bay, and East and West Cote Blanche bays. While river water normally freshens the bays, the flow usually drops in the fall. Anglers can tempt flounder at numerous reefs and passes.
"At times, fishing for flounders is very good in this area, especially when the flounders start coming out of the marshes and moving out into the bays, passes and the Gulf of Mexico," Venissat said. "The reefs along Southwest Pass at Marsh Island are good for flounders. Diamond Reef and the Shell Keys are very good. The eastern end of Marsh Island has a lot of flounders in the fall. Vermilion Bay has some flounders around some structures, but most of the people fish for flounder farther out. Most flounders range from a half-pound to about 3 pounds."
Coastal islands south of Houma and eastward to Venice also provide excellent fall flounder action. Look for flounder at passes between islands in Timbalier, Terrebonne and Barataria bays or surrounding waters. Frequently, storms cut small passes through barrier islands. Flounder hunt in these passes.
Some honeyholes include Caminada Pass near Grand Isle, Barataria Pass, Belle Pass, Cooperbell Pass, Four-Bayou Pass or Hackberry Bay. Also look for flounder near Bayou St. Denis, Little Lake, Turtle Lake, Bay Round or by the Manila Village. The backsides of Grand Isle, Grand Terre and other islands also make excellent places to hunt big flounder.
People in coastal Louisiana never need to travel very far to find the main ingredient in stuffed flounder.
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