Late-Summer Tactics For Big Flounder
September 28, 2010
Big flounder don't like to waste time and energy during the heat of summer. Savvy anglers will follow their lead.
Deep, hard-bottom structure often holds good flounder. These specimens were taken on live bait off an inshore wreck.
Photo by Charlie Coates.
There are plenty of reasons why flounder are so popular among saltwater anglers along the Atlantic coast. From their high ranking as table fare to the challenge they present to trophy hunters, these noble lords of the bottom have much to offer their legions of devotees.
Perhaps one of their greatest attributes is that flounder are, well, different. Unique in both appearance and behavior, flounder are not likely to be mistaken for any other game fish that might be tugging on an angler's line.
A cursory look at the flounder's distinctive anatomy reveals a lot about its behavior and lifestyle, divulging helpful clues about how best to target them. The wide, flat body is darkly mottled on one side, capable of changing its hue and pattern to blend in with its surroundings. Two eyes on one side of its head are custom-made for lying half-buried and camouflaged on the other side while gazing upward in search of unsuspecting prey passing overhead. The wide mouth full of razor-sharp teeth allows the flounder to engulf and quickly disable its victims. Add a surprising capacity for short, explosive bursts off the bottom, and you have an extremely efficient ambush-feeding machine, singularly equipped to excel at what it does for a living.
A working knowledge of the flounder's efficiency in both physical configuration and behavior can make the angler better at what it does as well. Flounder, especially the larger specimens, are very much into energy efficiency, loath to expend valuable time and calories without sufficient reward.
Such prudence becomes even more important during the heat of summer, when larger fish are more lethargic, preferring easy meals delivered to their homes. They spend the majority of their time lying hidden on the bottom -- usually in deeper, cooler water than they prefer in spring and early summer -- waiting to ambush a meal of worthwhile size.
Anglers should be able to identify with such a philosophy. Most of us have a limited amount of time for fishing and want to make the most of it. Therefore, our time on the water is best spent fishing where flounder spend most of theirs. We should make every effort to deliver the meal of their choice right to their dinner table.
An angler's first challenge is to locate the flounder's summertime home. Playing the odds, we can eliminate all but the lowest level of the water column as well as any barren bottom. To make the best use of our time, we can also pass over all but the most productive, food-rich structure. For large summertime flounder, that means concentrating on relatively deep, hard structure with sharp dropoffs, such as bridge pilings, rockpiles, reefs, wrecks and channel edges.
Once a suitable neighborhood is identified, anglers can narrow their search to the nicest homes within that neighborhood. The largest flounder will cohabit among themselves, claiming the most desirable real estate for their own. Prime locations include the sharpest dropoffs along a channel edge or a patch of rough bottom surrounded by mud or sand. Any change in topography -- especially abrupt change -- is likely to concentrate larger fish. The most favored structure will divert strong currents around it, bringing disoriented prey to the flounder's dining room.
Much flounder-holding structure will be visible above the water's surface, but less evident and less fished locations can be well worth the chart study and sonar work required to find them. Anglers should also be on the lookout for rips or boils caused by tide or current sweeping over structure beneath the surface. Submerged shoals, humps and rockpiles can be hotspots for flounder as they hold on the downcurrent side to take advantage of disabled baitfish being swept over the structure.
Anglers should always be aware of where and how deep they are fishing, so that when they hook a nice fish, they can get their bait back to the same spot at the same depth. Flounder tend to congregate at a particular depth -- even on different structure -- during certain tidal conditions. These patterns can hold up for days or weeks, so a logbook or a good memory can save valuable time on future outings.
PREPARING THE MEAL
Once a flounder's likely dining location is determined, it's time to put together a delivery system for the meal. This starts with the right rod-and-reel combination for the job at hand, and it's best to go prepared with a variety of weapons to handle different situations. Fast-action spinning rigs are fine for casting and drifting under normal conditions, but in deep, turbulent water, a baitcasting or level-wind reel will provide better control of the line and a better feel for strikes. An angler can leave the reel out of gear and hold his thumb on the spool to quickly let out line as the bait drops deeper or apply pressure to slow down a drifting bait. The angler can also respond immediately to the tug of a flounder, dropping the bait back to give the fish time to work its way up to the hook.
Many serious summertime flounder hunters will "heavy-up" for big fish in deep water, especially when dealing with strong winds, tides or currents and rig-stealing structure, such as rockpiles or wrecks. Such situations require stout gear to handle big flounder and the half-ounce or heavier sinkers required to keep a bait down in the target zone. Sturdy conventional rods and level-wind reels spooled with 30- to 50-pound braided line are best suited to keep the bait straight down beneath the boat on a taut line in order to avoid snags. Braided line also provides better sensitivity, allowing the angler to distinguish between fish and snags.
Terminal tackle should consist of a three-way swivel with one or two wide-gap 2/0 to 5/0 hooks, depending on the size of fish being targeted, and an egg or bank sinker attached by dropper loops. An assortment of sinkers up to 8 ounces or more may be needed to provide just enough weight to hold bottom.
The best live or cut bait will be whatever flounder are feeding on at the time. In summer, that usually means larger baitfish, such as mullet and menhaden, as well as whatever bottom fish are present. Minnows and squid are also effective, especially in combination.
While gathering your gear, make sure you have a big net. Underestimating the size you need could cost you the flounder of a lifetime.
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
All that's left now is to deliver the meal to the flounder. In a perfect world, that would be accomplished by drifting with the tide and a
llowing the bait to drop naturally along structure right into the flounder's lap. Occasionally, such a scenario will play out, but anglers will often be confronted with such challenges as uncooperative tides, strong winds, opposing currents, recalcitrant flounder or just plain bad karma. All but the last can be dealt with in some manner.
Tides, winds and currents that fail to work in harmony can be dealt with in several ways. Slow-trolling -- kicking the motor in and out of gear to control the boat's speed and direction -- is an effective method for working hard structure, such as rockpiles, reefs and wrecks. The motor can also be used to hold over a productive portion of structure and jig straight down to the sweet spot. Anchoring upcurrent of the target is another alternative.
Some flounder specialists prefer trolling under all conditions, feeling it frees them from worrying about the whims of tide, current and wind, allowing them to move over a piece of structure or alongside of it as they choose. Trolling is also an excellent way to cover a lot of water when the fish aren't grouped up in their usual haunts.
Whatever method you use, there will be days when the flounder just won't cooperate, especially during long periods of hot weather. Anglers should try to take advantage of their quarry's penchant for energy efficiency by offering super-sized meals requiring minimal effort. Big, tasty, slow-moving baits fill the bill.
If that doesn't work, try appealing to their other senses with artificial lures, including bucktails and jigs tipped with cut bait. Feeding primarily by sight, flounder show an affinity for white and silver baits, and a vibrating blade just might help get their attention, especially in murky water.
Once you hook that doormat flounder and get it near the surface, it's time to close the deal. Keep the rod tip up and reel steadily, allowing no slack line. Never pull its head up out of the water, as big flounder are noted for their head-shaking escapes at the boat. Net it head first, and get it into the boat, grateful that you bought that net that looked so big in the tackle shop.