Hit The Creeks For More Flounder

Anglers up and down the coast can take advantage of great summer flatfish action by hitting the coastal creeks and rivers.

Though creeks often hold good numbers of flounder, that doesn't mean you won't catch some nice ones, as guide Chuck Nelson demonstrates.
Photo by Dan Kibler

When Chuck Nelson moved to the North Carolina coast several years ago, one of the first things he did was acquaint himself intimately with all of the little saltwater creeks and brackish rivers that poured into the sounds that separated the barrier islands from the mainland.

You would expect a person who has worked as a mapmaker to catalogue all the twists and turns of a marsh river into a mental index that would rival any chart book. And you'd be right, but maybe for the wrong reason. He wasn't actually making maps.

One thing that Nelson, who now operates a guide service, knew from previous experience on other parts of the coastline was that those relatively small strands of flowing water hold some of the best year-round fishing for one of the most popular of fish: the flounder.

"Sometimes it surprises me how big a flounder you can catch in less than a foot of water in some of these places," Nelson said. "You catch a 3-pounder out of a little ditch that's only a foot or two wide -- that's the big fish in the hole right there."

The fishing isn't as easy as one-two-three, although he's had half-day trips that produced almost two-dozen fish. But one-two-three is a nice way to describe the waltz that Nelson does with big flatfish. When he gets into a creek or a river, he's looking for three main places that flounder like to frequent. Once he finds them, it's a matter of putting bait in front of a hungry fish.

The three hangouts are deep holes, side ditches and oyster bars.

A deep hole is exactly what it says it is: an area in a river or creek that's markedly deeper than surrounding waters. Flounder love 'em because they can lie on the bottom and wait to ambush baitfish and, at the same time, get some measure of protection from the danger that lurks above shallow water.

And the easiest places to find deep holes are on the outside bends of a river or creek channel. Another source would be boat docks to which larger boats are tied because the "blow-out" from engines also scour the bottom.

Fishing deep holes, Nelson said, is not difficult.

"Moving water is the key. You don't want to fish slack water, like at dead high or dead low tide."

Nelson positions his boat on the downcurrent side of the hole and casts upcurrent, letting his bait sink to the bottom and crawl its way through the hole. "You want to let the current carry the bait, just as slow as you can," he said. "You want to just barely drag it along."

The slow presentation gives a flounder that's plastered to the bottom a better chance of seeing the bait and a longer window for a strike. Nelson will often make a half-dozen more casts and drifts with his bait, especially if he can hold his boat in place.

The second "hot hole" for creek flounder is a side channel or ditch that carries water from back in the marsh into the main creek or river. They can be as small as a foot or two wide -- or big enough to float a boat.

"You can fish up in a creek like that if it's big enough, and if you can get a boat in there, for most people, you'll be fishing overlooked water," Nelson said. "If you don't know for sure, it's better to go up on a rising tide."

Rising water pushes baitfish and game fish deeper into creeks and ditches and scatters them over a wider area of the bottom, but in the case of smaller side creeks, it also opens up new water.

"Flounder won't usually get back in the (marsh) grass on the sides of the channel," Nelson said. "You're really looking for little bends in the creek and sandbars. And if a little creek is big enough for a boat, it will have more little tributaries running into it that you can fish. You fish all of them."

Nelson's preference is to fish side channels on falling water because as the tide drops and water is sucked out of the surrounding marsh, baitfish have to move with the current and head out of the grass toward the main channel. The mouth of a side channel is a perfect spot to find game fish taking advantage of the inexorable flow of food toward deep water.

"The water level really matters," Nelson said. "I like it when it really starts flowing out of the grass. Once the water drops out of the grass, there's nothing to drain anymore. There won't be any more bait coming out of the grass.

"I usually won't anchor up on a little creek or a ditch," he said. "If I can get a good drift, I'll make a couple of casts toward the mouth of that ditch. If you can get two good casts in there, you'll have your shot.

"I will usually make one long cast up into the ditch before I begin my drift, then I'll work around the mouth," he said. "As I'm coming up to it, I'll cast off the side of the boat and just let the bait drift along with the boat -- as slow as I can, as slow as the current will let me. You have to keep a tight line and let the current carry the bait along because you want to fish it very slowly.

"If you pick up a fish on the first drift, you go back and drift again. You can catch several fish out of a hole like that."

Oyster bars are the third flounder hangout and Nelson's least favorite -- unless he happens not to mind catching puppy drum (redfish), which also love oyster rocks.

"There are a couple of oyster beds that, when I'm fishing for drum, I'll stop and fish them for flounder," he said. "On straight stretches of bank, they'll be just good little sand flats sticking out with decent-sized oyster beds. That's the kind of structure that will hold little minnows.

"How you fish it depends on how the bar is lying. You want to set up on the downcurrent side and cast up, but not into the oyster shells."

Flounder won't set up in the shells; they'll be on the sandy bottom off the edge of the oysters. Redfish will normally be right up in the oysters, because they're cruising a few inches off the bottom, searching for food. Flounder set up on the bottom and let the food come to them.

Nelson casts to the edge of the shells and slowly crawls his bait back down the side of the bar, throug

h the sand, prospecting for a flounder. Sometimes, a redfish takes care of the bait; sometimes, it's a flounder.

As far as rigs and bait are concerned, Nelson doesn't make very many changes from spot to spot, from deep hole to side channel to oyster bar. His stock in trade is what freshwater fishermen call a "Carolina rig."

It's a simple rig to build and fish. You slide an egg sinker onto the line that runs to your rod and reel, then tie to a barrel swivel. To the other end of the swivel, tie on a leader of about 18 inches, then tie on your hook. The egg sinker stays in contact with the bottom at all times as it is dragged along, but the bait is able to ride up a few inches off the bottom -- in perfect view of any predator fish.

"A Carolina rig is about all I ever use; I use it 99 percent of the time," Nelson said. "It keeps everything simple. I usually have 12-pound-test on my reel, and my leader will be about 18 inches long and be of 20- to 25-pound-test fluorocarbon. Then I'll tie on a wide-bend hook, the size depending on what size minnow you're using.

"I'll go all the way down to a No. 4 on a real small mud minnow, and all the way up to 1/0 or 2/0 on big mullet minnows or menhaden," Nelson said. "Depending on the current, I'll use a weight anywhere from 3/4 of an ounce to 2 ounces."

Bait changes with availability. Early in the year, Nelson will set minnow traps in creeks and catch a lot of 2- to 3-inch-long mud minnows. Then in the early summer, mullet minnows, the 4- and 5-inch baits that Nelson really prefers, show up.

The main thing that the size of the bait changes is how long Nelson waits after he feels a flounder bite before he sets the hook. Flounder are legendary for the "patience" with which they strike and swallow a bait. Many fishermen set the hook too soon before the fish has had a chance to move the bait back into its gullet.

"When you figure it out, you've got it figured out," Nelson said. "A flounder will tap-tap on a minnow. All he's doing is grabbing it, then he's going roll it around (in his mouth), suck the tail off, scale it. Then, you break his jaw."

Nelson said that in the spring or early summer, when he's using small mud minnows, he gives a flounder maybe five to 10 seconds to ingest the little bait before he sets the hook. Later in the year, when he's using bigger baits, he'll give them anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. It's a talent that's partly acquired through experience.

"I'll start fishing for flounder in the spring, when I'm finished trout fishing, and flounder fishing will stay good all the way through the fall in the creeks and rivers," Nelson said.

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