Hit the Skinny Water for our Coastal Flounder

Hit the Skinny Water for our Coastal Flounder

Trolling isn't the only technique for landing doormat-sized flounder. This expert uses a freshwater bass approach for pulling them from coastal rivers.

By Walt Rhodes

The endless parade of small boats in the inlet was monotonous. Each vessel was turned perpendicular to the flooding current, and aboard anglers held rods pointed toward the ocean. The classic yellow and white minnow bucket was attached with a short rope to the rear cleat of nearly every boat.

I watched from my sandy post, having taken a break from the floating traffic jam to do some beachcombing. The anglers sat like statues. The only thing moving was an occasional landing net poking out of an unused rod holder like a pirate flag blowing in the breeze. No one seemed to be catching any fish, which was why I was walking on the beach.

The taste of flounder, however, is addictive. Nobody was giving up. At the end of each drift, the motor was cranked up and each boat was run back to the starting point of the drift at the inlet's mouth. Again and again, the process was repeated. The only interruption was a very rare "whoop" of someone landing a flounder.

On another day, I was one of a small bunch of boats trolling for flounder in a tidal creek behind Pawleys Island. The scene was strikingly familiar.

Around and around we all went. Up the creek against the tide, then turn around, and head downtide to the bend in the creek to begin again. We trolled mud minnows up the creek in hopes that a flounder lying amongst the scattered oyster shells littering the sand bottom would grab our bait. One or two did for everyone before the tide went slack.

Russell Bennett holds up two very nice doormats taken in Charleston waters. Photo courtesy of Walt Rhodes

Drifting or trolling baits for South Carolina flounder is the most popular method, along with gigging, to land these tasty fish. On any given summer day at anytime you can find someone dragging a bait for flounder in South Carolina.

However, despite the tactic's popularity and, at times its success, it's not the only way to score on flatfish. If you're drifting the same old way for flounder on a day that's just not working, it helps to have a couple of new tactics up your sleeve.

"I take a freshwater approach to fishing for flounder," said 38-year-old Chuck Bennett, who along with his brother, Russell, own LEHI Bait Company in Charleston. "It's a flipping technique that someone would use for catching largemouth bass around structure."

Flounder, of course, are one of the few fishes in the world that are flat and have both eyes on one side of their bodies. While this oddity seemingly makes flounder weird, it is an amazing adaptation, and along with the ability to change color for camouflage, flounder are efficient ambush predatory fish.

"Flounder are very structure-oriented fish," Bennett explained. "Baitfish are attracted to structure for cover. Flounder know this, so they use their camouflage and eyesight to lie in wait for baitfish to drift too close. The main thing an angler has to remember when fishing for flounder is structure," he emphasized.

According to Bennett, structure comes in many shapes and sizes. He thinks most anglers tend to think about only certain kinds of structure for flounder and that mindset causes the average angler to overlook lots of other forms that will also hold fish.

"If you ask someone about catching flounder, many people will tell you to look around oyster bars. Oyster bars are great places to find flounder, but they are certainly not the only places to find fish," Bennett noted.

Bennett suggests that the first good alternative structure to look for is usually manmade. Rock walls of riprap, bulkheads, piers and poles associated with floating docks - even a single pole in the water - are all capable of holding flounder, according to Bennett.

"A lot of people don't think that flounder will hang around poles, thinking there is not enough structure there, but they do," Bennett said. "Once my brother and nephew and I were fishing near some poles. The first cast I made I caught a flounder. My brother cast to the exact same spot next and he caught a fish. My nephew then said, 'I want to catch a fish.' We cast his line to the same spot again, and he also got a flounder.

"Three straight casts, and we got three flounder from one spot. The point is something as plain as a pole or series of poles attract flounder, and sometimes more than one," he said. "Even if you catch one fish from a spot, don't stop casting until you are sure there are no other fish."

To find flounder holding on structure, Bennett does not take a "run-and-gun" approach, but he is willing to move around if he is not locating fish. This strategy helped him win the 26th Annual Alison Oswald Sr. Memorial Tournament last year at the James Island Yacht Club.

"During the tournament last year, I decided I was only going to fish one area. I was just going to concentrate on all of the structure in this one general area.

"It seems that if you stay with a spot long enough, the flounder will eventually turn on," he said. "I don't know what happens, but you can be fishing a spot for a long time without catching a fish, and then all of sudden you catch several."

He's not sure whether the flounder are there all the time and suddenly turn on in the presence of bait, or whether flounder will eventually move into "empty" structure if the angler waits long enough. Either way, the tactic works - if you pick the right structure.

One of the things Bennett looks for to help him decide which structure to begin fishing is the presence of baitfish scurrying across the water near potential structure.

Live bait is used exclusively when trolling or drifting for flounder, but Bennett prefers an artificial bait.

"One of the baits we make is a soft-plastic, paddle-type bait called a Super Shad. My favorite color is chartreuse with a silver flake. I have used it successfully by itself to catch flounder, but it really performs well when live bait is added," he said.

Bennett usually piggybacks a live finger mullet about 3 inches long onto the bait. Instead of hooking the mullet through both lips, he only hooks it through the top lip so the fish can still breath, and he uses the lightest lead possible.

"Most of the baits I use will weigh about 1/8 of an ounce. When you are fishing around structure, you tend to lose a lot of baits. Ho

wever, if your mullet remains alive and you are patient, many times it will swim your bait free from any obstructions," Bennett stated.

His favorite live bait for tipping the lure is mullet, but you can use others.

"Finger mullet are typically plentiful during the summer. You can use mud minnows as well," he said. "I have tried menhaden, but they don't hold up nearly as well as the other baits."

Bennett takes a very thorough approach when he fishes any structure. "First thing is I don't use an anchor when fishing structure," he said. "I use a bow-mounted trolling motor to keep the boat in position. I think the trolling motor is a huge advantage because it does not scare fish like an anchor can when it's tossed overboard, and it lets you be very mobile so you can cover all possible spots around structure."

For example, most people would probably fish a dock from only one side. Typically, the angler anchors offshore of the pier and casts toward it. If he doesn't catch anything after awhile, he moves on to another spot, convinced there were no fish at the pier. Bennett works a pier considerably harder than that.

"When I approach a pier, I fish all sides of it, parallel to it and perpendicular. I hit all the angles. The reason is that if you only fish from one direction, there is a good chance you are going to miss the flounder," He said. "Think about it for a second. A flounder usually sits on the down-current side of structure with his head facing into the current. That way when something to eat comes drifting over in the current, all he has to do is rise up and snatch it.

"Now, if the tide is flowing from right to left and you cast perpendicular to it toward the pier, your retrieve might bring your bait behind a stationed flounder where he can't see it," Bennett said. "Once you switch positions and cast parallel to the pier and retrieve your bait into the current, it might come right alongside the fish or directly over it. He is much more likely to see it and eat it that way."

Bennett suggested to keep casting to structure even if you catch a flounder. He said very often there is more than one flounder staging on the structure.

The tide and depth that Bennett has the best luck might surprise you: three hours before the low tide and the first three hours into the rising tide.

"Most of the places I fish will be in less than 15 feet of water, and sometimes it is only inches deep. Fishermen are surprised when I tell them I catch flounder in water only inches deep. If you see bait busting around in water that shallow, it is a good chance there is a flounder," he said.

He points out that anyone who has ever been gigging knows how shallow you can find flounder; flounder don't change their habits simply because you have a fishing pole in your hand.

"It helps to keep that in the back of your mind when fishing. If you see a pole or the edge of bulkhead that has frightened bait around it and the water is shallow, I wouldn't hesitate to cast up there," he said.

Bennett recommended using a medium-action spinning rod with a sensitive tip. His favorite line weight is 8-pound-test. The light setup helps with detecting strikes and hooking a flounder, a trick that is usually difficult for novices to master right away.

"You will feel a flounder take the bait. It is like a thud. A flounder will hold a bait in its mouth until it quits wiggling, which takes 15 to 30 seconds sometimes. However, the fish rarely has the entire bait in its mouth. If you set the hook right when you feel the fish hit, you will pull the bait right out of the flounder's mouth," Bennett said. "Thinking I have securely hooked a fish, I have started reeling one to the boat only to have it let go of the bait right at the boat. You have to give them time to take the bait entirely."

Bennett does have a trick, however, if he's missing several flounder. He will attach a stinger hook, not unlike what you would do when live-baiting for king mackerel.

"You need to use a light, single hook," he stressed. "It can't inhibit the bait. Something around a No. 2/0 should work fine."

To attach the hook, he ties a short piece of monofilament at the bend of the bait's main hook. Then he ties on the stinger hook, taking care to be certain there is enough slack in the line so the bait can move. He hooks the hook into the underside of the bait, usually one of the fins.

The theory is that the flounder will get at least one hook in its mouth when it grabs the bait. This modification also helps if you have a beginner on board who insists on setting the hook immediately or a veteran angler who is becoming overly anxious.

Once a flounder is hooked, your reel's drag becomes the next critical step in getting that fish into the boat.

"The most important thing with your equipment is to have a good drag that is kept fairly loose. Flounder are not fighting fish, like spottail bass that make multiple runs in an attempt to get away," Bennett said. "A real big flounder feels like a boat when you are reeling him in. It's real deadlike, but once he sees the boat, he often makes a very powerful run. If your drag is not adjusted properly, he will pop your line every time."

There is also one other essential piece of equipment needed if you are going to be a successful flounder fisherman. Bennett stressed that you must have a landing net.

It is nearly impossible to land a flounder by swinging him over the gunnel. And you can't lip them because of their teeth. Although they have big mouths, Bennett said trying to land one with a Boga-grip or other similar device is next to impossible as well.

There are numerous places in the greater Charleston area to begin your search for river flounder. Nearly all of the industrial-type structure will be associated with Charleston Harbor. Range markers and other navigation aids, bridge pilings, old wrecks and partially sunken barges, abandoned and active piers and current walls are all types of structure that will hold flounder.

Once you move away from the harbor area, most of your structure will be residential piers, bulkheads and more natural structures, such as oyster bars and fallen-over trees. Heavily concentrated piers are located along the Intracoastal Waterway and up both the Ashley and Wando rivers. You will also find a good smattering of piers along the Kiawah and Stono rivers and down toward Edisto Island.

The limit on flounder is 20 fish per person per day with a 12-inch minimum size. Most flounder landed are in the neighborhood of the 12-inch limit; however, using bigger baits will allow you to catch flounder weighing several pounds.

Flounder are the third most popular inshore saltwater fish in South Carolina behind spottail bass and spotted seatrout. Once you learn to successfully fish for them around structure, they might move u

p on your priority list.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
In addition to saltwater soft-plastic baits, LEHI Baits also manufactures freshwater baits, including spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. You may contact them at (843) 225-LEHI (5344) or visit them online at www.lehibaits.com.



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