Photo by Milt Rosko.
Look at a nautical chart, and you’ll observe a substructure configuration from Indian River Inlet south to Ocean City Inlet that lends itself to bottom-fishing for summer flounder.
For many years, our family visited both inlet areas, usually aboard a motor home.
We enjoyed fine fishing for a variety of inshore species, most notably summer flounder — because this species provided us many fine dinners.
During that era, we fished the productive waters of Indian River, Rehoboth, Isle of Wright and Chincoteague bays.
When calm seas were predicted, we ventured into ocean waters via Indian River Inlet and Ocean City Inlet, where a beautiful sandy bottom stretched to the north and south.
In the 20- to 30-foot depths, it always seemed easy to put together a catch of fine-eating summer flounder.
There are still plenty of summer flounder in these waters. And using the same techniques of years ago — a three-way swivel, a leader 36 inches long, 2/0 hook and squid or minnow bait — will produce a good catch.
During the intervening years, however, the waters of both states imposed minimum-size restrictions on recreational anglers.
This in itself makes it difficult to put together a catch of what are popularly called “keeper-size” flounder.
Last year, Delaware had a 17-inch minimum, with a four-flounder creel limit for ocean, bay and tributary waters. Believe me, it was tough trying to catch a limit, when we had to release 20 or more undersized flounder in order to retain one keeper.
Maryland anglers had a 15 1/2-inch minimum-size limit with a four-flounder creel limit all year long in ocean and nearshore waters — and more importantly, a 15-inch size limit and a two-flounder limit all year long in the bay and tributaries.
I’ve closely analyzed regulations along the entire Northeast coast, and daresay that Maryland anglers have had the most sensible regulations.
Their catch is limited to two flounder in the bay and tributaries. But at least that gives anglers a chance to catch a couple of fish for the table throughout the year.
Of extreme importance, especially for youngsters and retirees, there was a legitimate chance to catch a keeper, whereas under the harsh restrictions in other states, this group of anglers is essentially forgotten.
OCEAN CITY INLET
Heading out of Ocean City Inlet to the northeast, you’ll encounter a series of lumps or ridges, including the Isle of Wight and Fenwick shoals, along with numerous shoals between the inlet and these offshore spots.
To the southeast are Little Gull and Great Gull banks. As you move farther offshore, a series of lumps and ridges extend up from the bottom. On these offshore shoals, bigger summer flounder tend to congregate.
Scattered throughout the entire area are numerous wrecks and reefs, still another congregating point for keeper-size flounder.
The smaller fluke invade the ocean shallows and the two bays, where they dine on small forage such as minnows, spearing, glass minnows, grass shrimp and other minute marine organisms.
Bigger flounder will move to the lumps, ridges, reefs and sand bottom adjacent to the wrecks because that’s where their big forage is available.
It’s not unusual for big flounder to feed on juvenile cunner, tautog, scup, spot, sea bass, squid and crabs, which are available in huge quantities on this type of bottom.
INDIAN RIVER INLET
As you heading northeast from Indian River Inlet, there aren’t as many lumps and ridges as to the south, though Fenwick Shoal is within reach.
However, numerous wrecks are located in 30- to 60-foot depths. And at the Old Grounds, some lumps and ridges extend from the ocean floor in 90-foot depths.
I’ve made the 10-mile run north to the shoals located in that stretch from Rehoboth Beach north to Cape Henlopen. The Hen and Chicken shoals extend from the Cape offshore in a southeasterly direction.
The shoal proper ranges from depths as shallow as 18 feet close to shore, down to 30 feet at its outer end. Surrounding depths plummet to 60 feet or more.
Along its outer range, the several vintage wrecks and accompanying mussel beds along the bottom are favorite haunts for the bigger summer flatfish.
INDIAN RIVER & REHOBOTH BAYS
“Shallow” is the best way to describe Delaware’s Indian River and Rehoboth bays. Many years ago, it was common practice for local residents to go forth at night in rowboats equipped with bow-mounted lanterns. They used a gig affixed to a long handle to spear flounder — an illegal practice today — in the 2- to 3-foot depths that prevail in these bays.
These bays’ shallow flats, along with the deeper channels, often provide good fishing, especially for those anglers willing to get on the water early, before boat traffic disturbs the waterway. Most of the flounder encountered in these waters are a year or older and usually range in size from 12 to 15 inches.
That makes it difficult to catch a keeper, although there are nominal numbers of keeper-size flounder in the bay populations as well.
ASSAWOMAN, ISLE OF WIGHT & CHINCOTEAGUE BAYS
“Shallow, very shallow” best describes all of these bays. “Abundant” also properly describes the forage found in these waterways, which lie inside the barrier islands separating the bays from the ocean. Myriad forage species include menhaden, mullet, spearing, shad and alewife, along with blue crabs, grass shrimp and various sea worms.
Summer flounder love all of these forage species. In recent years, Maryland anglers have had the opportunity to retain smaller flounder than anywhere else along the Atlantic coast. While a couple of inches may not seem to make a difference, by midsummer those 1 1/2-ye
ar-old flatfish regularly grow enough to make them long enough to keep.
While some may scoff at Maryland’s small size and two-fish limit, most everyone I know throughout the Northeast would delight in having such liberal regulations.
MILES OF GORGEOUS SURF
A search for summer flounder in the waters of Delaware and Maryland must necessarily include the miles after miles of gorgeous Atlantic Ocean surf from Cape Henlopen to Assateague Island. The surf is beautiful, with a wide variety of configurations, including deep-water dropoffs close to inlets. There are miles of gently sloping beaches. Some beaches have sandbars paralleling the shoreline, with deep cuts or holes between the bars and shallow troughs inside the sandbars. Every inch of this dazzling surf holds forage, and the summer flounder regularly feed on this abundance of food, often within a few rod lengths of the sand.
Surfcasters generally fish these stretches of beach using conventional bottom rigs and natural bait to target striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, croakers, kingfish and spots. As a result, they catch fewer summer flounder than if they targeted this flatfish specifically. I can vividly recall many instances when I scored with lures or a combination of bottom bait and teaser while probing these beaches specifically for flounder.
Many surfcasters, I suspect, fail to realize they could score with flounder if they used a walk-and-cast approach to probe a long stretch of beach, as opposed to sticking to one spot with their baits just sitting on the bottom.
When targeting big flounder, I’d recommend using a conventional outfit with a rod rated for 20-pound-test being ideal. I use a Daiwa levelwind reel with a depth-counter mechanism, which immediately lets me know the precise depth at which I’m receiving strikes. This lets me reposition the boat to the desired depth, since different depths have different temperatures, and flounder often congregate within a very narrow range of their preferred temperature.
Inasmuch as I like to fish around structure — which is where the big flounder hang out and forage is plentiful — I opt for 40- or 50-pound-test Sufix or Ande braided line. The braid has no stretch and lets you immediately feel a flatfish picking up the bait. It also reduces the attrition of terminal tackle as a result of snagging bottom. With the heavier test, you can easily pull free, whereas if you were using 20-pound monofilament — which is thicker than 50-pound braid — you’d be losing rigs constantly.
During the past several seasons, I’ve chosen to forego using sinkers for the most part. Instead, I’ve switched to chromed ball and torpedo-shaped jigs with a bucktail-dressed hook, favoring the Jelly Bellies, Fluke Bullets and Bait Tails manufactured by Ralph Votta of West End Fishing Tackle. Other favorites are SPRO bucktail jigs in the 3- to 5-ounce sizes.
With both ball jigs and bucktail jigs, I employ a stinger hook trailing the jig, attached with a short piece of leader material with an Owner Dancing Stinger hook, in 3/0 or 4/0 sizes. The front section of the 8- to 10-inch long strip bait is placed on the jig’s J-style hook. The stinger hook is inserted into the strip’s trailing section.
You can use these jigs with just a 3- or 4-foot piece of leader material between the line and the lure. However, I’ve found that by introducing a trailing high-hook strip bait, I’ve caught more flounder. With this rig, I begin with a 5- or 6-foot piece of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material. I’ll tie a small SPRO barrel swivel to one end of the leader and a duo-lock snap to the other end.
Next, I tie a dropper loop into the leader, about 2 feet from the snap. Finally, I cut an Owner Boa Rig’s leader to about 3 feet, with a surgeon’s loop on the end, which I slip onto the dropper loop.
The Boa Rig is available with several hook sizes, and I’ve found the 4/0 or 5/0 hooks are ideal for big squid strips, or for using whole spots or snapper blues as bait.
During the past couple of seasons, I’ve used Berkley’s Gulp! synthetic biodegradable strip baits. These baits emit a great deal of scent, which attracts flounder. The strips come in several colors, and for the most part I’ve opted to use chartreuse. The Gulp! strips come in sheets, which are easily cut to a torpedo shape with a pair of scissors.
On occasion, I slip a 3-inch plastic squid onto the leader of the Boa Rig, and then place the strip bait on the hooks.
I’ve found this to be very effective: As the ball jig or bucktail jig with its strip bounces along the bottom, the Boa Rig flutters along above and to the rear, giving the fish a pair of enticing offerings.
The key in using this rig is keeping your line perpendicular to the bottom as you drift along. I like a fast drift, since it enables me to present my strip baits over a wide expanse of bottom. The faster the drift, the heavier a ball or bucktail jigs I use. This often this means moving up to an 8-ounce jig.
The most successful approach is to move your rod tip gently, causing the jig to lift 6 to 12 inches off the bottom. Bounce it back down while allowing the strips to flutter along enticingly.
Often I see anglers working a jig as though they’re angling for bluefish, with vigorous rod action causing the jig to dart 5 or 6 feet off the bottom.
I’d suggest you avoid this approach. Use merely a moderate lift of the rod tip to impart a tantalizing action. Faced with a fast drift and fluttering strip, a flounder has to make up its mind fast. Most often, the strikes are far more forceful than during a slow drift.
These jigs are made in sizes as light as 1 ounce, and scaled-down models are effective in the bay and river waters mentioned earlier. This is especially true when fishing along the edges of channels: On an ebbing tide, the flounder often move from the shallow surrounding flats into the channel’s 6- to 8-foot depths.
When fishing with a scaled-down rig in bay and river waters, often I’ll use a combination of strip bait and a spearing, minnow or mullet, which proves effective.
SNEAKY PETE RIG EFFECTIVE FROM SURF
For fishing the surf, my favorite rig has popularly been called a Sneaky Pete Rig, since it’s built around a pair of hooks snelled to a single leader.
You can tie your own, beginning with a 3-foot long piece of fluorocarbon leader material. Snell a claw- style hook in 2/0 size to the end of the leader. Then snell another hook to the leader, separated from the initial hook by about 3 inches.
Now slip four small red or white beads onto the leader, followed by a small Colorado spinner or 2-inch soft-plastic squid. Tie the leader to a small three-way swivel.
Add a small connecting link to the eye of the swivel and snap on a 1- or 2-ounce dipsey or bank
-style sinker. Tie your line to the remaining eye of the swivel, and you’re all set to go.
The ideal bait to use with this rig is a strip of Berkley Gulp! or squid, sea robin belly or dogfish belly. Large spearing or sand eels work well, too.
Often I’ll add a 3-foot leader between the line and three-way swivel, and tie in a dropper loop onto which I tie a teaser. My favorite teasers are the Chris’s Fly By Night or the Allen Sternberg Clouser Minnow.
Both of these teasers closely imitate the myriad baitfish that frequent the Maryland-Delaware surf.
The key in using this rig is making lots of casts and walking lots of beach. Just cast out and retrieve slowly, occasionally twitching your rod tip to give the rig sliding along the bottom an enticing action.
Often my wife June and I will put on a pair of shorts or bathing suit, and walk a mile or more of beach, casting and retrieving every 5 or 10 feet.
There’s hardly a time when we don’t have some keeper flounder on the stringer as we work our way back, enjoying the warm water and sunshine as a bonus!
Find more about Mid-Atlantic fishing and hunting at MidAtlanticGameandFish.com.