Photo by Pete Barrett.
Want to catch plenty of fluke? Try fishing Jersey’s back bays; after all, our back bays give up good catches of dinner-sized summer flounder.
Want to catch big fluke? Jersey’s back bays are still a good bet. Over half of the winning fish entered in the annual Jersey Coast Anglers Association’s statewide fluke tournament are caught inside the coastal inlets in relatively shallow water. The Garden State’s back bays are virtual fluke factories. Let’s check out seven hotspots that will put more, and bigger, fluke in your cooler this summer.
Over the past few years, all the attention on deep-water fluke fishing has left some of the best back-bay areas with fewer fishermen, more elbowroom and some exceptionally good fishing opportunities.
Reduced competition from fellow anglers makes your recreational experience much more pleasant, and also puts the odds of a good catch more in your favor.
To further improve your chances, time your fishing trips when tidal currents serve up a buffet of grass shrimp, baitfish and crabs for summer flounder to feast upon.
Some seasoned anglers prefer the incoming tide because it sweeps fresh, new water into the many miles of marshes and salt creeks bordering Jersey’s coastal back bays.
Yet an equal number of fluke experts believe the falling tide is the better time to fish because as the tide falls, it flushes bait from the shallows.
For trophy catches, concentrate on the first and last half hour of every tide stage. Unlike the smaller fluke, those big bad 5- to 10-pound fish don’t waste energy chasing bait that sweeps quickly past them in a fast current. The big ones are opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat most aggressively just after and just before the tide change — when the currents are still swirling, but at moderate speed.
Light-tackle techniques are an advantage for back-bay fishing. Take a tip from the fluke pros and lighten up a little. You’ll catch more fluke and have more fun doing it!
Avoid stiff, heavy leaders that make the bait act unnaturally. Use 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament to tie up rigs with more flexibility. That imparts more enticing action and enhances your bait’s motion.
The reduced visibility of lighter-test lines helps prevent wary fish from being spooked.
A 2/0 hook is a better choice than a heavy, bulky 6/0 size. Circle hooks are beginning to find great favor among the best fluke anglers and charter skippers. With these hooks, all you need is a slow, gentle lift of your rod tip to make the line come tight and hook nearly every fish that sniffs the bait.
With regulations that require the release of so many short-size fluke, straight-shank J-style hooks are falling out of favor. But the traditional Kahle hook, similar to a circle hook and also known as the English bend hook, is still popular.
When purchasing ready-made rigs or tying your own, remember to keep things simple. The best rigs for summer flounder usually don’t feature a lot of hardware.
All you’ll need is a three-way swivel, maybe a single spinner blade or a flashy bead. Avoid rigs with a lot of Christmas-tree ornaments.
Over the past several years, back-bay baits too have become simplified. The traditional squid strip and live or freshly dead bait combo is being replaced with a single live killie.
For trophy-sized fluke, sharpies are using slivers of salmon or snapper bluefish belly because they are oily and so full of natural scent.
For fake baits, Berkley Gulp! is a good choice especially the swimming minnow in pink or chartreuse, or shrimp or sandworm imitations.
Soft-plastic tails draped on a leadhead or bucktail jig are gaining in popularity. Shad, curlytail and jerk- bait tails are terrific for fluke, especially when jigged off the bottom in short hops. Make an underhand cast a few yards away from the boat and lift the rod tip repeatedly to make your plastic bait hop along the bottom.
When fishing plastic, there’s no drop-back. The fluke will whack it like A-Rod belting out another home run.
Fish your soft-plastics and bucktails along channel edges, marsh edges, cuts in sandy shoals, at the mouths of salt creeks, in rips, deep holes and at dropoffs where points of land jut into the bay waters.
When shallow jigging gets few bites, try casting out and away from the boat. Retrieve the leadhead in short hops, at slow to moderate speed.
To achieve maximum sensitivity, use a braided line. It has no stretch, great strength and a very small diameter to cut through water.
When using braided line, you’ll feel every tap, tap of as a fluke mouths the bait. You’ll also get down to the bottom with less weight.
SANDY HOOK BAY
The crown jewel of Gateway National Recreation Area is the thin peninsula known as Sandy Hook. The west side of the park stretches from Plum Island, at the mouth of the Shrewsbury River, past Horseshoe Cove on up to the tip of the Hook. Here you’ll find a beautiful blend of sandy beaches, marshes, coves and sandbars.
A favorite local hotspot, known as Officers’ Row because of the several stately buildings dating back to 1893 and used through WW II, parallels a dropoff from 7 to 20 feet.
This area holds plenty of fluke all season. At high tide, work close to the shore, then move to the drop as the tide ebbs.
Horseshoe Cove, another good spot, has lots of up-and-down bottom structure, including an 18-foot hole that gives up big fluke in July. The outside edge of the cove’s sandy bottom falls off from 3 to 8 feet, and then down to 20 feet deep.
The last of the rising tide and the falling tide seem to produce the best flounder fishing.
Farther west, where Sandy Hook Bay meets Raritan Bay, lies another popular fl
uke spot known as the Keyport Flats. These flats lie between the green 1 buoy off Keyport Harbor and the Conaskonk marsh on the west side and the green 11A buoy off Keansburg Point to the east.
NOAA chart No. 12327 shows all the good bottom structure that holds fluke all season long.
Another favorite summertime hotspot is the Borrow Pit, located about midway between the beach at Keansburg and the 11A buoy. The pit is about 25 feet at its deepest, surrounded by sandy flats of four to five feet. North of the pit, the sandy point jutting into the bay off Keansburg drops from five to 10 feet, then to 20 feet or more.
It’s well known as a good fluke location. The cool, deep water of the pit often holds exceptional numbers of fluke in midsummer when nearby shallow waters heat up and become uncomfortable to flatties.
There are dozens of good places in the Manasquan River to fish for summer flounder. Two of my favorites are the main channel just inside the inlet along Gull Island to the railroad bridge, and at the channel elbow at the green 7 marker.
Both locations are close to the ocean and can be sensitive to temperature. A south wind tends to cool the river, while a west wind warms it. It’s not unusual to have a well-defined temperature break move up and down the river, pushed like a wall by the incoming and outgoing tides.
Locals anglers will often start their fishing at the start of the outgoing tide and then work the temperature break from the 7 marker, toward the 5 marker at the state Route 35 Bridge, finally ending up at the last of the tide, working their drifts from the railroad bridge toward the inlet.
They reverse the sequence on the rising tide and as the temperature moves back upriver.
Off to the south side of the 7 marker, outside of the main channel, is a hole slightly deeper than the surrounding water that often holds plenty of fluke on the falling tide. To the west, the channel narrows in front of Clark’s Landing at the 9 marker and 10 buoy. And on the second half of rising and first half of falling tides, many flounder fishermen will work the sandy flats in front of the marina.
The huge expanse of Barnegat Bay offers some of New Jersey’s most interesting fishing opportunities for summer flounder. Here are wide grassflats, deep channels bordered by sandy shoals and marsh sedges, and several creeks and small rivers that pump vital nutrients and food into the bay’s waters.
Twisting, snaking Oyster Creek Channel is the main entrance to Barnegat Bay from the ocean. It gets busy with boat traffic, which can make it an exciting place to fish.
To avoid excessive boat wakes, try the channel just inside the inlet where it doglegs past the lighthouse, then does a 180-degree turn and heads back north, passing the dike. The fluke are numerous and often quite big here, especially at the dogleg, where the tides wash huge volumes of water to and from the bay. Use your seawater temperature gauge to locate the warm water and stay with it as the tides wash back and forth.
If the boat traffic is too extreme, try Double Creek Channel. There’s less water here, but shallow-draft boats can manage it. The fishing can be quite good at the top of the tide on the west side of the dike, which is a manmade sandy finger created from dredge spoils.
Inside the bay, deep flats stretch from the BB marker off Forked River, the BI marker off Waretown Creek and the No. 42 marker off Barnegat. These areas are well known for giving up plenty of fluke.
Just aimlessly drifting will not be as productive as making careful drifts over the deep basins, dropoffs and along the shoals that are clearly marked on the NOAA Small-Craft Chart No. 12324. The bottom along the three markers has no severe changes in bottom structure, so look for those subtle changes where the bottom changes by two or three feet.
LITTLE EGG HARBOR & GREAT BAYLittle Egg Harbor and Great Bay are next-door neighbors, separated by the incredible vitality of expansive marshes just inside Little Egg Harbor Inlet. Narrow channels and deep thoroughfares slice through the sedges, which create natural highways for bait and fluke to commute to their daily lives of hiding and feeding.
One terrific fluke spot is the channel that runs north from the inlet along the backside of Long Beach Island, and then makes a westward dogleg at Mordecai Island behind Beach Haven.
The bottom here is very confused. The jumble of sandbars and dropoffs are well-known hotspots for summer flounder.
A few hundred yards to the west is another good spot — the dogleg marked by the red 4 buoy. The channel curve creates sandbars, shoals and dropoffs that consistently hold lots of bait, like spearing and bay anchovies.
Of course, the area also holds lots of summer flounder.
Looking to the south of Little Egg Harbor, the beautiful marshes offer some incredible opportunities for shallow-draft skiffs to fish the many deep fingers intruding between the sedge islands. Once you hop over the shallow flats at the edge of the sedges, you can fish the cuts in water as deep as 15 feet and catch fluke like nobody’s business.
Try the deep channels between Middle and Hither islands, and between Hither and Story islands.
The very deep Marshelder Channel can also be superb. But it gets a lot of boat traffic and is a better bet on weekdays when fewer boats are around.
The Mullica River feeds Great Bay, and the bay is blessed with a myriad of ever-changing channels that lead through pristine marshes toward Little Egg Inlet. The shoals and channels around Seven Islands and Fish Island are popular, as is the area known as the Stakes just off the main channel.
The center of Great Bay has a relatively deep basin of about seven feet deep. On a falling tide, it can be very productive for fluke fishing.
The Mullica River pushes into this area a vast smorgasbord with unending servings of shrimp, baitfish and crabs. Numerous small creeks enter Great Bay, and fishing the mouths of these creeks on a falling tide is the prime time to catch summer flounder on a leadhead.
Bounce the bottom or drift along with a live minnow or a sliver of snapper belly to see what happens.
A hundred yards west of the Brigantine Boulevard Bridge, you’ll leave the glitter of Atlantic City and enter the perfect wildness of the Absecon Wildlife Management Area. Here you’ll find many square miles of interrupted marshes split by several finger-like deep cuts, creeks and channels. Bring bug spray because otherwise, the greenheads and mosquitoes will eat you alive. But it’s worth it, since the summer flounder action here can be superb.
Facing west after you go under the Brigantine Bridge, the southernmost channel is Beach Thorofare, and then Absecon Channel and Broad Creek pointing right down the middle.
From these main channels, several smaller cuts penetrate the marshes, and some are deep enough to hold good numbers of flounder.
Big fluke tend to station themselves at the junctions where two channels meet, and local experts favor the junction of Broad Creek and Absecon Channel. Drift this area on the falling tide past the bridge and toward the inlet. The green 17 can marks a shoal just east of the bridge and the red 12 buoy and offers good bottom structure with high ground, dropoffs and deep fingers. Summer flounder like this spot. Big ones, too!
GREAT EGG HARBOR BAY
Tucked behind Ocean City, Jersey’s favorite family beach town, is Great Egg Harbor Bay. Fed by the Tuckahoe and Great Egg Harbor rivers on the west and on the east by the ocean at Great Egg Harbor Inlet, this famous back-bay summer flounder hotspot has plenty of good bottom structure to hold fish and bait. The dramatic flushing of tides helps keep the pantry well stocked.
Heading north from the inlet, the fluke angler can work the marshes and deep cut of Risley Channel and its several feeder creeks. The stretch from Beach Thorofare through the Longport Bridge and along the channel by the red 6, 4 and 2 buoys is a favorite flounder area.
Looking to the south, Rainbow Channel sweeps into the bay with its constantly changing bottom structure of hills, lumps, sloughs, rips and shoals. The western main channel is closer to the mainland and is much deeper. It runs past Elbow Thorofare, a small cut and great spot for small boats to squeeze into.
Once you’re past the causeway bridges, look for good fluke action in the deep basin between the Garden State Parkway (GSP) Bridge and the Rainbow Islands at the causeway bridges. To the west of the GSP, the junction of the Tuckahoe and Great Egg Harbor rivers is another proven location.
TOWNSENDS & HEREFORD INLETS
The twin inlets of Townsends and Hereford are separated by a mere seven miles of beach. Like much of south Jersey’s back-bay coast, they open up into a maze of marshes that dazzle the eye with their natural beauty and excite the angler with excellent fishing action.
Just inside Townsends, the inlet splits into Ludlam Thorofare, running north, and Ingram Thorofare to the south. At Hereford Inlet, Grassy Channel cuts right through the middle of the marshes, then ducks south while Great Channel heads north behind Stone Harbor.
Fed by vast acres of marshes, all four cuts brim with baitfish, crabs and shrimp, which in turn attract and hold flounder all summer long.
New Jersey is blessed with amazing back-bay fishing opportunities. Though the beachfronts are well developed with motels, restaurants and kiddy rides, the back bays are generally undeveloped — especially from central through South Jersey, where thousands of acres of marshland offer abundant opportunities for summer flounder. The fish are relatively easy to catch and there are trophy-sized flounder to add to the excitement of the day’s catch.
Best of all, you don’t need a big expensive boat to catch them. It’s truly a summer flounder fisherman’s paradise.
Find more about Mid-Atlantic fishing and hunting at MidAtlanticGameandFish.com