Flatfish On The Bama Coast
September 28, 2010
The flounder: one of more popular and tasty fish found on our Gulf Coast. Here's where to find and how to catch them from Gulf Shores to Orange Beach. (July 2008)
Inshore guide Jeff Chambliss targets docks and marina slips to find the flounder around Orange Beach.
Photo by Phillip Gentry.
The jig hit the water just inside the rip created by the current washing across the rocks along the seawall that my fishing partner, Jeff Chambliss, and I were targeting. I left the bail on the spinning reel open as the jig rolled along with the current on its way back toward Jeff's boat, which he held parallel to the wall with his trolling motor. I flipped the bail closed and started taking up slack, beginning to feel the bait as it bumped across the sandy bottom next to the rocks.
The bite was signaled by a distinct thump -- nothing more. No line-stripping run like a summertime redfish, no slash-and-grab like a speckled trout: just that thump. And then everything seemed normal.
Except that my line had stopped moving.
Quickly glancing up at Chambliss, a veteran inshore guide from Orange Beach, I remembered his earlier instructions about waiting for the fish to start chewing -- and after at least 10 seconds, I felt it. Maybe "chewing" isn't the right word, but that's sure what it felt like.
The fish had grabbed my jig as if it were an injured mullet being flung along by the current. Once it had a firm grasp on its prey, it settled back to the bottom while its dinner expired. The joke was on it, however: Its dinner wasn't dead -- merely playing the part.
As the unseen fish began devouring his meal, I tightened up the slack on my medium-weight All Star spinning rod and then arched back to cross my quarry's eyeballs with a long, backward sweep of the rod. The creature at the other end of my line exploded into action as the point of jig's hook drove home.
Lying flat on the bottom, the flounder has the laws of physics in its favor. Its broad, flat body can create enough drag to sometimes give the fish enough force to wrap the line around the closest obstacle and break it. Steady pressure on the head, however, angles a flounder's body like a Frisbee thrown into the wind -- and up it comes. After a brief struggle, the flounder's path altered to a course that eventually led it to a frying pan.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Of all the different species of fish that call the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach home, none can outdo the flounder for conjuring up visions of tartar sauce, hush puppies and homemade coleslaw. Flounder can be found all along the Gulf Coast, but they're particularly fond of quite a few Alabama locations east of Mobile Bay.
The southern flounder is the species of flatfish most likely to be found in the Perdido Bay area. It can be caught practically year 'round, ranging from areas near the shores of Orange Beach all the way back into the Perdido River delta. Voracious feeders, southern flounder often stake out a good feeding area near a current rip or channel break and set up housekeeping.
Flounder often group together, not because of schooling instincts, but because areas that serve as bounteous feeding grounds will attract the fish in considerable numbers. In addition, these flounder are not subject to wide extremes of weather and temperature and thus bite readily during both the hottest and the coldest times of the year.
Southern flounder can grow as large as 10 pounds; the state record fish, caught near Mobile, weighed 13 pounds, 3 ounces. The average specimen runs around 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and measures in the 13- to 14-inch range, and a 5-pounder is considered a true "doormat."
Two to three times a year, depending on weather and currents, the stretch from Orange Beach to Gulf Shores gets runs of Gulf flounder. Somewhat smaller than southern flounder, these fish average around a pound or a pound and a half. When Gulf flounder invade the beaches, one productive spot can yield a large number of fish in short order. True to their name, Gulf flounder will be closer to open Gulf waters, and will group up on any productive structure along the beaches and inlets.
The minimum-size limit for flounder in Alabama waters is 12 inches. Currently, no daily creel limit applies for flounder.
ARTIFICIAL BAIT TACTICS
Inshore guide Jeff Chambliss' favorite method of catching Perdido Bay flounders is casting artificial baits to likely locations. The guide uses a medium to light action Pflueger spinning outfit rigged with a 1/4-ounce jighead. The reel is typically spooled with 10-pound-test braided line.
The braid has several advantages, the first being that sensitivity and low stretch are important factors for both detecting light bites and muscling a hook into a flounder's jaw. Another distinct plus is the toughness and resistance to abrasion afforded by braided line. Flounder prefer structure-rich environments, but that structure is usually full of stuff that can easily sever conventional monofilament line.
Chambliss' favorite trailer is hands down either a Berkley Gulp! shrimp or Gulp! pogy. Both come in either the 3- or the 4-inch variety and have the smell, feel and action of live baits -- important considerations, given the time that a flounder should be left to hold onto a bait before you set the hook.
Using the hand-controlled trolling motor on his 24-foot bay boat, Chambliss holds the boat in position near piers, bulkheads, and rock jetties and casts the bait upcurrent, letting it settle to the bottom before slowly working it back to the boat. "You're likely to get hung up a lot," he stated, "but that's where the flounder are. I always try to keep the bait near the bottom, because a flounder will only chase a bait so far, and some days they won't chase it at all -- you have to put it on his head."
Some of Chambliss' most productive spots are the marinas and boat docks that line Terry Cove and Wolf Creek. Try to put the bait near any piece of structure that has some type of current moving around it. Common targets are piers, riprap, old trees lying in the water and abandoned pilings.
Once the guide gets a bite or two from one area, he pulls up the trolling motor, anchors the boat, and casts into the promising area. "Depending on their mood," Chambliss explained, "I may anchor downcurrent and work the bait over the top of them if they are aggressive. Otherwise, I may anchor upcurrent and work the bait in their face if they won't come get it."
While flounder are avid feeders, they're not necessarily ag
gressive biters. A flounder's mouth is lined with small, needle-sharp teeth that they use to grab passing prey. Because of its sideways orientation, the flounder's jaws effectively open side to side, so it grabs the prey and then settles to the bottom, holding the meal in its teeth. Once the bait stops moving, the flounder rotates the meal in its mouth, working it around with those tiny teeth to get it lined up to swallow.
According to Chambliss, it's not uncommon to play a flounder all the way to the boat and then have the fish simply open its mouth and swim off. It's for this reason that the guide instructs his clients to give the fish a count of 10 before setting the hook -- and hard, to make sure of penetrating the fish's mouth.
Oddly, Chambliss believes that the ordeal of being hauled to the boat and then making a narrow escape doesn't seem to alarm flounder. Several times, he's identified a particular fish at the boat that got off, only to have the same fish bite again in the next couple of casts.
One of the primary reasons that Chambliss favors artificial baits over live is that the Gulp! shrimp or pogy jig will often draw strikes from trout, redfish and a number of other inshore species. To clients who want to target flounder solely he recommends live bait.
"The bait shops around Orange Beach and Gulf Shores sell a baitfish minnow that's called a 'bull minnow,'" the guide offered. "They are a couple of inches long, and reds and trout aren't particularly fond of them -- but the flounder eat them like popcorn."
Bull minnows are hardy fish, easy to keep alive in a bucket. Other live baits of choice are Gulf killifish and small finger mullet. The angler who doesn't want to buy bait can easily collect both of these latter baits by wielding a cast net in the shallow pockets around marshy areas.
One thing to note concerning live-bait fishing is that the axiom about big baits catching big fish readily applies to flounder. A flatfish will indeed hit a surprisingly large baitfish -- but that jumbo offering will also tend to make even more acute the problem of jerking the hook free before the flounder can manipulate the bait into a favorable position for the hookset.
The same locations that Chambliss targets with artificial baits also yield agreeable results for those fishing live bait. The guide ties a simple Carolina rig, using a sliding weight with a 12-inch leader and a 1/0 to 2/0 bronze hook, depending on the size bait used. "It's important to keep the bait on or near the bottom," he said, "so about a foot of leader is all I use." The weight selection will depend on location: heavier in strong current near the bridge and rocks at Perdido Pass, lighter in the less forceful current around boat docks.
Sometimes the flounder relate to channel drops near the pass; Chambliss then simply casts a 1-ounce rig out to drift with the current, making sure to maintain contact with the bottom. For fishing boat slips and docks he may lighten up to a half-ounce, cast his bait back under the structure and work the rig back with a drag-and-wait, drag-and-wait cadence. Again, when he feels a thump, he gives the fish a good 10 seconds before setting the hook.
FISHING FROM SHORE
Boating anglers are not the only ones who can get access to the flounder bite in the Gulf Shores area. Chambliss pointed out that the pier at the public boat ramp inside Fort Morgan State Historic Site is a great place for targeting Bama flatfish from the bank. Also, anglers walking up and down the beach along the riprap near the Ferry Dock at Fort Morgan catch some doormats right from the shore.
Another productive spot for July flounder is back to the east at the old Gulf State Park fishing pier that was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan. While the pier is gone, the pilings and foundations are still standing and are readily accessed from the beach. This is one of the local hotspots when the Gulf flounder make their run in July. Be aware, however, that the rubble is scheduled to be removed, so you should really check on conditions before making the trip out.
Another great location that anglers on foot can access is found along the Intracoastal Waterway canal linking Portage Creek at Orange Beach to Oyster Bay to the west of Gulf Shores. The stretch of roughly three miles running right along East Canal Drive between the two towns offers public access unless otherwise indicated. The rock-lined canal can yield some great flounder catches for the angler who finds a good current area running along the riprap.
Last but not least: Shorebound anglers will appreciate the beaches and jetties on either side of Perdido Pass. Gulf flounder are the most likely candidates for anglers plying these areas. The best locations have some type of structure, but certain times find Gulf flounder feeding on baitfish right in the surf. The best bet for this bite is to watch for shorebirds wheeling and feeding on baitfish near the shore. This occurs most often right at daylight or just before dark.