Virginia's Big-Bait Flounder

Virginia salt water gave up unprecedented numbers of trophy-sized flounder last summer. Here's how you can get in on the action! (July 2006)

Captain Steve Wray finds trophy flounder by drifting large live baits over the rock-covered tunnel tubes of the CBBT.
Photo by Charlie Coates.

Virginia's saltwater anglers dearly love their flounder. Despite intense competition from a host of worthy game fish, these bottom-dwelling delicacies reign uncontested as summertime favorites of the brine.

It hasn't always been easy for the Commonwealth's flounder-pounders. Less than a decade ago, keeper-sized fish were hard to come by. But sound management practices along the Atlantic coast have spurred a recovery in recent years. Nowhere is that recovery more noticeable or appreciated than in Virginia's portion of the Chesapeake Bay. During recent seasons, the state's anglers have been rewarded for their patience and persistence with huge numbers of flatfish that are not only keepers but true trophies.

In 2005, anglers earned citation awards for 902 flounder weighing 7 pounds or more, and another 35 awards for releases measuring a minimum of 26 inches. This was by far the state's best year for flounder citations since the minimum qualifying weight was raised from 6 pounds in 2002. The largest flounder registered last year weighed a whopping 17 pounds, 2 ounces, just 6 ounces under the 24-year-old state record. Sixty-five entries tipped the scales at 10 pounds or more during the best big-fish season in memory. Making those numbers even more impressive, this all happened in a year that actually produced fewer total flounder than in 2004.

"Flounder fishing in the bay was down from prior years, although citation numbers went up," said Claude Bain, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, who was kept busy last summer processing citation applications.

Indeed, recreational catch surveys indicate that overall flounder numbers were lower in 2005 for most areas of the bay and its tributaries. Meanwhile, specific structure, notably the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), provided more and considerably larger flounder than usual.

Bain feels much of the increase in trophy flounder catches is attributable to refined techniques used by knowledgeable anglers in specific locations.

"The surge in citations, particularly the increase in double-digit fish, was fueled by the CBBT, and was probably technique-oriented," Bain opined. "Many anglers learned to use big live bait to catch big fish."

By big live bait, Bain is referring to spots, croaker and menhaden of 5 to 7 inches, markedly larger than the 2- and 3-inch minnows and "peanut" bunker (small menhaden) traditionally employed. Drifting with the tide, another time-honored tradition, was often scrapped as well.

"Rather than long drifts along or through the bridge or dropoffs, the baits were fished right in the pilings," Bain said. "Skippers would hold the boat against the tide to keep it positioned under the bridge and let the live baits swim around. They would anchor around known flounder-holding structure associated with the bridge, or use the motor to hold the boat against the current to keep baits in the productive zones longer."

Jon Lucy, a marine recreation specialist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, believes Bain is onto something in crediting the use of larger live bait with increased catches of big fish.

"There was considerable buzz among serious flounder anglers that larger baits were resulting in larger fish caught," he said. "There also seemed to be more talk about using live bait last year, something which appears on the increase for flounder."

While live bait was all the rage with trophy hunters around the CBBT last year, anglers farther up the bay tended to stick with time-tested strip baits of squid and cut fish. Still, the "bigger is better" mantra concerning bait for trophy flounder was in effect in perennial big-fish havens such as the Cut Channel and the Cell, each of which accounted for scores of citation flounder in 2005. Four- to 8-inch strip baits were often replaced by baits measuring 10 inches or more. And like their brethren at the CBBT, impatient anglers were abandoning old tide-dependent drifting techniques, opting for a more pro-active approach.

"Most of the guys up my way discovered power-drifting this past year," said Captain Rob Wilhoite, who runs charters out of New Point Campground on the Western Shore's Middle Peninsula. "They mounted 2- to 5-horsepower outboards on the transom to drift when current stopped. By doing that instead of using their primary engines, they could spend more time fishing instead of putting their boat in and out of gear. Plenty of flounder were caught by this method from the Cell to buoy 36A off Cape Charles. Most of the good flounder fishermen consistently brought back 5- to 8-pound flounder."

The Cell, like the CBBT, offers the deep structure and sharp dropoffs favored by the largest flounder. This manmade circular reef sitting in 30 to 60 feet of water has a 2,000-foot radius of ideal habitat for doormats that return year after year. Large flounder are usually abundant here through midsummer, but action begins to taper off by August.

Results from the Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program, headed by Bain and Lucy, indicate site fidelity patterns for flounder in the Chesapeake Bay, both seasonally and from year to year. Tagged fish have been recaptured repeatedly in close proximity to where they were originally tagged, indicating a tendency to remain in a given area throughout the season.

Most of the tagging has involved smaller flounder, so it is not known for sure if the same fidelity is present in larger fish. Lucy speculates that the late-summer decline in large flounder catches at the Cell might be linked to a similar site-fidelity pattern.

"Heavy angling pressure on the larger fish at the Cell might result in some actual decline in numbers of larger flounder as the season progresses," he said. "Site-fidelity behavior might then result in fewer larger fish moving to the site from other areas later in the season."

In addition to the Cell itself, patches of rough bottom along a channel running northwest of the Cell about two miles to buoy 42 also hold good numbers of citation-sized flounder each year. This 5- to 6-square-mile area is best fished by drifting with long strip baits tapered to a point, causing them to flutter in the water. Once you catch a flounder, mark the spot and return to it. These small patches of rough bottom concentrate the flounder and eliminate wasted fishing time. Power-drifting can keep you over the sweet spots longer.

Other deep-structure sites in the bay also show up regularly on the annual list of top trophy flounder producers. Back River Reef, off the mouth of its namesake river just north of Hampton, gave up two-dozen citation flounder last year, including the 17-pound, 2-ounce behemoth that topped all entries. Across the bay, the dropoffs around Cape Charles attract their share of big flounder each year, especially near buoy 36A. The Cape Henry Wreck at the mouth of the bay holds big fish during the summer, and sometimes well into winter. Flatties in the 7- to 9-pound class were still being caught there by anglers trolling for stripers during late January this year. Other wrecks off Virginia Beach provide more late-season action for large fish.

But for truly big flounder during July and August, there's no better place to look than the 18-mile-long fish haven known as the CBBT. And there's no better bait to use here than super-sized offerings of live spots, croaker or menhaden. This was especially true last summer, as savvy anglers refined their trophy-hunting techniques.

"The biggest problem was finding bait that was big enough," said Captain Steve Wray, who runs a charter boat out of Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach. "Most guys ended up fishing with peanut bunker that catch mostly smaller flounder. Bigger bait will weed out the smaller fish."

Wray often starts his day by throwing a cast net in the inlet on his way out to the bay, and transferring the catch of spots, menhaden and small croaker to his livewell. Then he heads for his favorite section of the CBBT, the mile-long rock-covered tunnel tube between the third and fourth islands toward the Cape Charles end of the complex.

"The big flounder stack up on the ledges along the tube," Wray said. "Divers report seeing them shoulder to shoulder, lying on top of each other."

Wray rigs the live bait on a 3/0 Kahle hook, using a three-way swivel with a dropper to a sinker that is just heavy enough to hold bottom. Fifty-pound braided line with a diameter equal to 12-pound monofilament helps distinguish between rocks and flounder in the 50- to 60-foot depths as the bait is drifted over the ledges along the tube.

Wray controls his drift by kicking the engine in and out of gear, keeping baits in the strike zone as long as possible. Anglers need to stay alert as they work their baits up and down the ledges, lifting them up off the bottom, then dropping them again, in order to avoid getting snagged in the rocks.

"You can lose a lot of tackle if you're not paying attention," Wray said.

Still, fishing is the easy part of this exercise compared with maneuvering the boat in a manner that results in the bait being swallowed by a huge flounder instead of a boulder. But if catching big fish was easy, everyone would do it.

Anglers in smaller boats have the option of working the pilings along the bridge or the rocks surrounding the four islands. Here, anglers can use motors, anchors or both to hold their position over productive structure. For security reasons, it is now illegal to tie up to the bridge pilings, so many anglers will anchor on top of bottom structure that includes ship, vehicle and equipment wreckage, along with discarded bridge pilings and tons of boulders that protect the islands and pilings. All of this structure offers ideal ambush points for big flounder.

"Action is especially good behind the fourth island," Wray said. "The large pilings in the deep water at the High Rise are also very good. If you don't have live bait, strip bait on a 3- or 4-ounce jighead will work here, too."

Strip baits should be hooked once near the wide end to ensure that they flutter steadily in the current. Check and clean them often to make sure they retain their action. Flounder show little interest in a lifeless chunk of weed-covered bait.

As productive as the CBBT complex can be, Wray keeps close tabs on other locations that can also be hot.

"I sometimes found bigger fish at Cape Henry last year," said Wray, who was among those still pulling up big flounder from the Cape Henry Wreck well into winter. "Just fish a three-way rig straight down into the structure."

When flounder move off the CBBT during their fall migration, they will often linger along the Baltimore Channel that runs from the northernmost tunnel to the mouth of the bay. Wray suggests drifting the channel edges using rigs employing skirts and blades to attract the flounder's attention. For bait, he'll use tapered strips of squid and bluefish or flounder belly tipped with a gudgeon. The channel will hold flounder all summer, too, though not usually as large as the ones inhabiting the CBBT.

Depending on water temperature, flounder usually leave the bay by November, but die-hard fans will follow them to a number of wrecks off Virginia Beach, where late-season trophies remain available.

TACKLE AND TIPS

Fishing for big flounder around deep-water structure in the bay calls for sturdy tackle. Strong tides and currents will require heavy sinkers to hold bottom. A fairly heavy-action 6- to 6 1/2-foot graphite rod matched with a quality reel is needed to do the job.

A baitcasting or level-wind reel will provide better control of your line and a better feel for strikes than a spinning outfit. You can leave the reel out of gear and hold your thumb on the spool to quickly let out line as the bait drops deeper or to slow down a drift. You 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. The wait time is less with live bait, but it's still imperative to resist the temptation to set the hook right away.

Thirty- to 50-pound-test braided line provides the strength needed to horse a reluctant flounder out of deep structure, and its no-stretch quality facilitates hook setting. Its thinner diameter provides the sensitivity to feel a flounder pick up the bait.

Good electronics are extremely helpful in finding deep-water structure, as well as for marking productive locations and depths after fish are found. Flounder will usually hold at the same depths throughout the day, even at different locations, so the odds are in your favor if you continue to work the same depths where you caught a good fish. By the same token, a spot that harbors good-sized flounder one day is likely to hold others the next day.

If you're not accustomed to catching big flounder, it's easy to underestimate the size of the net needed for trophy fishing. These are not flounder that you swing over the transom or try to stuff into a net meant for panfish. Many anglers discover the inadequacy of their nets the hard way, futilely trying to envelop would-be trophies with nets more suitable for scooping bait out of the livewell. A net that looks huge on the wall of a tackle shop appears much smaller in the heat of battle with a double-digit doormat.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Tackle shops in the area you are fishing can pr

ovide valuable information on the latest fishing conditions and the best baits, rigs and methods for catching big flounder. They also carry maps and charts to help you locate the deep-water structure that holds the bay's largest trophies.

Anglers are allowed to keep six flounder per day measuring a minimum 16 1/2 inches. Regulations are subject to change at any time, however, so it's best to check before you go. For information on current regulations, details of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, boat ramp locations and weekly fishing reports, visit the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's Web site at www.state. va.us/mrc.

For fishing information or charters in the Middle Peninsula area, call Captain Rob Wilhoite at (804) 730-6448, or visit his Web site at www.triplefcharters.com.

For fishing information or charters out of Virginia Beach, contact Captain Steve Wray at (757) 481-7517 or www.vbsf.net/captainsteve.

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