How to Read Inshore Flounder Water
June 03, 2008
Inshore Flounder are an abundant fish, but they aren't stacked like cordwood everywhere on the bottom. Here's how to zero in on the best cover and structure to fish.
Flounder fishing can be a lot like going to the mall to shop for a present.
You can find success in many places, but you need to know where to look first, and you need to know something about what you're looking for.
Consider, for example, your last fishing trip for flounder. Early on a summer morning, you slowly motored out of a coastal inlet and were greeted by a glorious sunrise shining over a great expanse of ocean. So far, so good. Jetties running parallel to you on each side were the only hint of structure interrupting the water's surface. It was a huge place to be looking for a 20-inch fish.
You decided that along the rock jetty would be a good place to start your morning. With a live finger mullet hooked, you began trolling back and forth along the jetty. Hours passed with no bites. Still more time ticked away; the tide went from ebbing to flooding but you still did not land a flounder.
Undaunted, you figured that catching the last bit of the rising tide in the creek might salvage your morning. A slow-retrieved mud minnow might be just the ticket for success. The sun reached high noon, however, and all you had to show for your efforts were a sunburn and a snagged oyster shell that mimicked a flounder's bite.
This flounder trip is probably typical of the majority of anglers on the water or fishing from shore. Saltwater fishing, even if it is in a tidal creek, usually involves fishing in expansive territory. To be successful, you must break the large area down into smaller pieces to find your intended (or sometimes unintended) quarry.
Flounder fishing near the jetty is a good example. To the unschooled eye, most jetties look the same - a mound of rocks strung out perpendicular to the beachfront. Look closer, though, and most jetties will reveal slight variations that can provide favorite ambush spots for predator game fish. Perhaps there is a slight bend in the jetty that creates an eddy when the tide is flooding. What a wonderful ambush spot for a doormat flounder to nab an unsuspecting baitfish that is concentrating on fighting the current. If you slow-troll a live bait through the eddy, then you've significantly increased your odds of tempting a flounder.
Another prime location on many docks involves a dip in the rocks. Sometimes along a jetty there will be spots where a few rocks are missing, and during the last part of high tide the current will rush through this break, sweeping bait along with it. Flounder recognize this buffet when they see it. Anglers who recognize and take advantage of the same ambush spots the flounder uses will connect with fish more often.
Noticing subtleties like these will make you a better flounder fisherman. Here is a profile of several different summer hideouts for flounder, how to spot them and how to fish them.
THE SURF ZONE
Most people tend to overlook the beachfront as a potential flounder spot. While it might not be the best place to catch flounder, these fish will make use of skinny water, and the shore-bound angler can use some techniques to increase his odds of success in the surf.
To successfully fish the surf zone, you need to be able to recognize where the fish might be hiding. If your favorite beach has no hard structure to attract flounder, then you need to be able to read the waves to determine flounder ambush spots.
When waves roll in toward the beach, shallow water causes them to break. Consequently, waves breaking offshore indicate an offshore sandbar. If, on the other hand, the waves are rolling in very close to the beach before breaking, then that part of the beach drops off fairly quickly to deeper water. These are the sorts of clues that help expert flounder anglers best position their baits for waiting flounder.
Runnels are another beachfront formation that will concentrate numbers of feeding flounder. A runnel is a shallow, linear depression that runs parallel to the beach. Think of it as a long mud puddle. They are best spotted during low tide. The runnel will be the area that is still holding water once the tide has gone out. It is usually the pool of water where little kids are splashing around.
Runnels serve as travel routes for baitfish and larger fish, particularly as the tide begins to flood and in the later stages of the ebb. If you have ever walked through a shin-deep runnel at low tide, you probably have noticed the schools of baitfish scurrying away. Once the tide starts back in, runnels will begin to receive new water and any baitfish stunned by the inrushing surf. Flounder simply wait in the runnels, often near the small break where the water is rushing in, and pick off baitfish as they move along the surf zone.
Live bait is hard to beat for surf-zone flounder. You could use pieces of cut shrimp, mullet or menhaden in the surf, but several other species of fish, primarily pinfish or small sharks, would likely grab the bait before a flounder reacts.
A Carolina rig is probably the most versatile setup to use. Thread an egg sinker onto your main line. Because you won't be fishing right in the crashing surf, you won't need as heavy a weight as you would for other surf-fishing situations. Likewise, you don't want to use a sinker style, such as a pyramid sinker, that "bites" into the sand. The sinker should hold the bait on the bottom, but you'll need to be able to bring the bait back to you with a slow retrieve.
After tying on a swivel, approximately 18 inches of monofilament will suffice for a leader. A No. 2/0 brass Kahle-style hook is a popular choice for flounder, but don't overlook the conservation value of using a similar-sized circle hook. Mud minnows are going to be the best bait due to their hardiness.
When anglers think of fishing on the beach, an image of rods positioned up and down in the beach in surf spikes quickly comes to mind.
But for flounder, leave the surf spikes at home. Beachfront anglers fishing for flounder will be slow-retrieving their bait and need to be mobile as surf conditions change.
During low tide along the beach, the surf is usually at its calmest point. At that time, wading out to nearshore sandbars is a good tactic. Fan-cast the edges of these bars with a Carolina-rigged minnow, and slowly retrieve the bait back to you.
Once the tide begins to flood, fishing around the runnels and any drop-offs along the beach are going to be your best bets. Again, look for ambush spots at these sites and slowly pull your minnow through the strike zone. As the water rises, you'll have to move with it and fish different portions of the beach features.
Obviously, it is critical that you pay attention to the tide while you are doing this, not only to catch more fish, but because if you don't, it could be fatal. Be aware of strong currents as the tide begins to come in.
The fishing action in salt water always seems to wane once the tide goes slack. After the tide has crested and begins back out, all you have to do is reverse what you did when the tide was rising. Now, watch for water draining from runnels and put your bait in the discharge. As the water continues to recede, work farther offshore, concentrating your efforts in channels still submerged, until you reach any offshore sandbars.
Remember, watch the waves to determine where the bars and depressions are located.
Reading the waves is paramount. While you might have figured out on this trip where all of the dips and bumps are located, the waves will have reworked the beach and all the familiar spots will be gone when you return. So, reading the water is something every angler must do on each trip.
HARD STRUCTURE AND BEACHFRONT FLOUNDER
Any beach with hard structure close to or connected to shore will make the job of patterning flounder easier. Flounder love hiding around structure as much as a largemouth bass adores a point with a nice dropoff. The reason is the same - structure attracts something to eat.
Structures most commonly seen along the beach are fishing piers and groins, the latter being constructed from either rock or wood. Flounder will be holding around the fishing pier's pilings along its entire length. The trick is to thoroughly work your bait around all portions of the pier, including any cross braces that are submerged. Because there is a lot of turbulence from the waves smashing around the pilings, pier anglers often use heavier weights than are necessary to fish runnels.
A word of caution: You should be very careful when wading around or underneath a fishing pier. While piers are good places to fish, they can be dangerous. Wading out past waist-deep water is ill advised because you can easily lose your balance in a wave. Once that happens, you'll be tossed suddenly into a barnacle-encrusted piling, which can cut you like a loose pile of razor blades.
Groins can be equally dangerous. You should never walk out on a groin, no matter how large or safe it appears. They are slippery, and in addition to the barnacles that grow on them, groins usually have rip currents associated with them.
Despite the inherent dangers of groins, anglers who keep both feet on the dry beach can safely fish them. Cast out from the beach parallel to the groin. Flounder lie on the bottom anywhere from right next to the cover to a few feet away from it. Slowly retrieve your bait back as you did when fishing other surf situations.
Currents are something to consider when fishing near a groin. Along the East Coast there is a current known as the longshore current. It runs in the surf zone and just offshore parallel to the beach in a north-to-south direction. A groin is constructed to intercept this current, which causes the water to slow down and deposit sand on the north side of the groin.
The north side of the groin is shallower because of the sand deposit. There might be a flounder or two on this side of the groin, but the fish are more likely to be located at the end of the groin where the water sweeps around the tip and on the down drift, or south side, of the structure. Concentrate your fishing efforts on the down-current side.
Inlets are another key flounder spot along beaches of the Atlantic coast. Inlets come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the amount of water that drains in and out of them. Some are large enough for ships to pass through, while others would be hard-pressed to float a log.
Most large inlets have jetties at their mouths. The jetties are placed to stabilize the inlet and allow the channel to remain stationary to ease navigation. Beaches are dynamic, and without jetties, inlets would move up and down the beach as sand is deposited and the beach reshapes itself. The morphology of an inlet is complex. As an inlet drains the tidal marsh behind it, sand accumulates out in front of the inlet's mouth.
These offshore bars, like those off the beach, are great flounder locations. Closer to and in the mouth of the inlet, the water is typically deeper and the dropoff steeper because the water is constricted between the arms of the inlet. Some flounder will be found in the main channel, but the current usually precludes fishing for them there, unless it is a smaller inlet and the volume of water it moves is small. Inside the inlet the main flounder spots are going to be along the edge as the shore slopes toward the channel.
Most inlets have a creeklike appearance in their upper reaches. Some inlets, however, will open in large, shallow coastal bays. Regardless, the water usually gets shallower, the banks become more gradual and oyster bars and marsh-grass edges become common.
If your favorite inlet has a jetty, you can use a boat to fish the jetty much like you would fish a groin on foot. Chances are that if the inlet has a jetty, then the current is pretty swift and it should not be waded under any circumstance. Anglers aboard boats, however, can have good luck by trolling Carolina rigs or tandem-hook fish-finder rigs along the rocks. As when fishing groins, it is best to stay on the down-drift side of the rocks, unless the crowds simply force you to be on the other side.
Flounder will stage along the entire length of a jetty, but look for irregularities in the jetty rocks (which will create eddies) to increase your odds. As mentioned, a bend in the jetty or a dip or break in the rocks where water spills through are good examples of such irregularities. Each time you get a strike or catch a fish, make a mental note of where it was along the jetty. Soon a pattern should emerge that keys you in on the best section of jetty. After all, there could be some sort of submerged formation that the flounder respond to but you can't see.
Some of the largest jetties are paved on top so that people can walk out on them. You can slow-retrieve a live bait from the top, but another way to fish from the jetty is with a long, telescopic bream-buster pole.
These commercially made rods are available at almost any tackle shop. To fish for flounder with one of these poles, attach to the end a heavy piece of monofilament - 20- to 30-pound-test line should suffice - that is slightly longer than the pole's length. With a weight and hook added, walk along the jetty periodically dropping a live bait down into the rock crevices.
Most flounder action takes place inside the inlet's mouth along the edge. This location is available to both shore- and boat-bound anglers. In either situation, the key to fishing here is adequately covering the slope.
Flounder will orient themselves facing into the current along this slope. Their location on the slope is dependent on where the baitfish are running, which tends to be fairly shallow. Most fish will be caught in water less than 5 feet deep. Because flounder are flat fish, it doesn't take much water to cover them. Their camouflage does the rest for them.
If you are in a boat, start by drifting with the current and then turn around and troll against the current. Cover all depths along the shore to determine where the flounder are located. If you have a fishing partner, you can cover various depths by having each person fish off different sides of the boat. Even as the tide changes, the flounder should move with it and stay at approximately the same depths.
Anglers without boats can work the edges on inlets by casting offshore, and slowly retrieving a bait back up the slope. Soon, the right depth should become apparent. Like a boat-bound angler, the shore-angler can move up and down the inlet, concentrating his bait in the appropriate depth. Just as when fishing a jetty, any angler fishing inside an inlet should look for abnormalities that redirect the water.
Looking for flounder along the beach and near-ocean waters can be troublesome. Once you learn to read the water, the clues will become evident and the stringer will get heavy.