Our local expert selects five places along the Garden State's long coastline where you're likely to intercept a big flatfish or two right now! (August 2006)
LeeAnn Chiavarini of Brick holds up a nice summer flounder, which was caught on The Gambler out of Pt. Pleasant Beach.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Fluke, summer flounder, flatfish, doormats -- call 'em whatever you want. But definitely call 'em the fish species most sought after by the summertime Jersey angler. New Jersey's coastline is loaded with flatfish-friendly structures, culminating with tidal back creeks, artificial reef sites, shipwrecks, rocky inlets, and large, inviting bays. Jersey's a virtual housing authority, with a bit of everything to attract and hold fluke all season long. The key is to get inside the mind of the fluke, and then to find where they are.
Summer flounder run a migratory pattern that can help you locate them at any time during the year. Spawning occurs during the fall and winter, while the fish are moving offshore to reach their wintering grounds. Each female releases as many as 4,000,000 eggs on the way. Soon after, hatched larvae will begin to drift inshore to enter coastal and estuarine waters.
And their growth rates are phenomenal! During a fluke's first year, it may attain a length of between 9 and 12 inches. By the time it reaches 20 inches in its third year, it will most probably weigh more than 3 pounds. Once it passes the 25-inch mark, which is usually around the flatfish's fifth year, it begins to fill out to around 7 to 8 pounds. As it attains 30 inches at roughly 9 years of age, all bets are off. The 10-pound mark has been breached and its doormat status solidified.
New Jersey's state-record fluke is the one Walter Lubin hoisted in while fishing off of Cape May, way back in 1953. His fish was probably a summer flounder well into its teen years, but was no doubt a fluke of doormat proportions! And larger fluke do exist -- make no mistake about it.
Finding them is fairly easy if you know a bit of the fluke's biological mindset. Once waters start to warm up near 55 to 60 degrees, they tend to migrate back inshore from late April through June into the backchannels and inlets. By July, they are still sitting put in their haunts in the backwaters and inside bays and inlets, but begin to trickle out on the inshore humps and bumps. Come mid- to late summer, they tend to drift back out, from 2 to 8 miles off the beaches. Here in this range, they will hold to feed until late September and October, when they begin their migratory 90-mile push back out to their wintering grounds over the Continental Shelf.
Generally, Jersey summer flounder enthusiasts will find that the bigger specimens are sticking tight to ledges and edges. As the summer wears on, they will hold in deeper channels and around offshore structures such as rock beds and wreckage.
It's August now -- so where are the finest spots from north to south Jersey to poke around and bag some quality fish? Read on for five proven Jersey flatfish grounds to check out right now.
AMBROSE CHANNEL (GPS 40'31.25 / 73'59.41)
Situated just east of Romer Shoal in the shipping lanes of Raritan Bay, the Ambrose Channel cuts a deep gully that runs from 21 feet on its ledges down a slope to the 45-foot range and eventually, down to 70 feet in its belly. A good mark to let you know you're in the right area is the No. 8 buoy on the eastern side of the channel.
This deep channel attracts some of the largest fluke of the season to its ledges and trough. Ambrose is a bit hairy to fish at times, because you must be wary of the colossal supertankers that cannot -- and will not -- stray from their path. Always be aware of your drift surroundings. But the rewards of fishing Ambrose can be outstanding.
Channel is my go-to spot in the mid- to late summer. The largest fluke of the year usually come from this particular area at this particular time. You may not have the quantity (of fish) here, but the quality of fish definitely outweighs the quantity."
Kwolek's fishing rig consists of a running line of 50-pound Power Pro braid, threaded through a fish-finder sleeve tied with an 8-inch dropper off of the sleeve, to which a 6- to 12- ounce bank sinker is looped on. Then a 75-pound barrel swivel is tied on via a Palomar knot, with a 36-inch piece of 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader is tied on via improved clinch knot. A 4/0 Gamakatsu Bleeding Bait Octopus hook is snelled onto the end of this rig.
BARNEGAT LIGHT REEF
(GPS 39'45.30 / 74'01.50)
Located a mere 3.1 miles out from Barnegat Inlet, the Barnegat Light Reef exists as a fantastic low-profile artificial reef site containing .85 square miles of army tanks, reef ball units, assorted barges and smaller wrecks. Depths here range from 46 to 63 feet. Probably the hottest spot on this structure is the northwest section of the reef named the Tires, where hundreds of concrete tire units dot the ocean floor, offering literally tons of low-lying structure and hang-ups to drift over. Fluke love this type of cover, as it affords them the element of surprise.
Outgoing tides are best fished here, since the short distance from the mouth of Barnegat Inlet means that water rushing out of the bay brings all sorts of baitfish right past the reef itself. Your drifting techniques should allow for a run over the entire reef site, where fluke will be laying close to the structures alongside the tanks and debris.
Most anglers out for a day of drift- fishing for fluke try to start their drifts at the north end and gradually move south over the site. With a prevailing south wind in the afternoon and evening, early morning and noontime hours are your best times to get that special drift. For the most part, you'll cover ground ranging from 46 to 58 feet of water. The right recipe for success is to be feeling the bottom when you bounce between all the various patches of tire units, tanks and concrete rubble.
OLD GROUNDS (GPS 38'34.40/ 74'47.72)
Sitting roughly 18 miles south off Cape May, the Old Grounds lies in a shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean into Delaware Bay. The bottom structure here is very rocky, since in past centuries, ships would spill stone ballasts here to lighten their loads so as to safely enter the shallower waters of Delaware Bay. Over decades, that has built up a jumbled underwater terrain of rockpiles that fluke hang around, in order to ambush unsuspecting baitfish in the current of the channel.
Depths in this area range from 63 to 100 feet. One easy way to tell you're in the right spot is to stay near the yellow Delaware Bay (DB) buoy, where the fishing fleet tends to congregate anyway. The area around the buoy will range from 65 to
75 feet, but north and a tiny bit east of the area, the depth will sound to 90 feet and more.
The implementation of braided line is paramount to upping the odds in your favor, as the ultra-sensitivity and ability to cut through water will aid you in the deep-water conditions. And you better bring a healthy bunch of bank sinkers from 4 to 16 ounces, because it can get sticky with all the rocky structure you'll be drifting over.
(GPS 40'01.74 / 73'56.01)
The Manasquan Ridge is a solid mid- to late-summer staging spot for large fluke, as it lies roughly 6.3 miles from Manasquan Inlet and provides an interim point for migrating late-summer flounder. In essence, the spot resembles a tabletop, with water depth ranging from 48 on the top to 75 feet around the sides.
In the middle of the day, flatties will most often stick on top of the plateau. Then by afternoon, they will locate themselves on the downtide sides of the hills.
The wind-with-tide scenario is best here. You'll definitely want your drift baits to be flowing with the tide for maximum exposure to waiting flatfish. Many people will fish the ridge with large, undulating strip baits. These baits will be part of a fish-finder slide rig, baited with a whole 10-inch squid or strip bait on a sliding tandem hook rig. Trophy fluke will hang themselves on it.
The ridge not only serves up the quality doormats you're searching for, but it's also a fantastic spot to fill your cooler with 17- to 19-inch fish. Standard killie and squid-strip combo baits will help you put numbers of fish into the boat.
GREAT EGG REEF
(GPS 39'14.50 / 74'21.50)
The Great Egg Reef, 7.2 miles off the shores of Atlantic City, is a fantastic southern Jersey summer flounder hotspot. The reef encompasses about a one-mile square area of bottom. It is a bottom-fishing haven brimming with structure that lies between 42 and 75 feet deep. On the reef site, the most manifest debris is the conspicuous presence of large clusters of army tanks on the west and south sides. Plenty of tire piles, reef balls, and pipe sections also hug the bottom here.
The largest reef asset is the wreck of a 165-foot tanker, prominently placed nearly dead center on the reef site. The doldrums of July, when the humidity sticks like a wet blanket, is the best time to hit the Great Egg Reef for doormat fluke. Many anglers have discovered the potential to hang a doormat-sized fluke on this particular reef site. You'll see legions of drifters bouncing big 4- to 6-ounce bucktails here in August and September.
A lot of the older wrecks here have been deteriorated to low profiles over the bottom. But they still provide excellent feeding grounds for hungry summer flounder.
These five spots are great summer season haunts, but many others exist in, around and off the Jersey coast. Don't be afraid to look around and see what you can come up with. You may have the spots, but what kind of tactics do you need to ensure fluke on the dinner table for weeks to come?
"Hands down, for big-bay fishing, live baits slam doormats," Captain Kwolek states. "Around Jersey waters, peanut bunker or snapper bluefish make their presence known from mid-June through the summer months. Make no mistake, fluke follow the schools of baitfish."
Kwolek should know! One mid-June afternoon, as he fished Ambrose Channel in Raritan Bay on a hunch, snapper blues and 4-inch peanut bunker were thick in the bay's waters. Within an hour of drifting live snapper bluefish, Kwolek pulled aboard the Hook 'Em Up a formidable, almost unheard-of catch of three doormats that weighed 11.5, 10.5 and 10.2 pounds. Reread that statement, because it doesn't happen that often.
Live baits work insane magic when available, and beastly fluke will hone in on anything they can wrap their teeth around, regardless of its size.
On a ripping tide, hook your live bait under the mouth and through the upper lip to give it a natural appearance. But when the tide reaches two hours on either side of the end of the outgoing or the beginning of the incoming, live baits are best hooked just behind the dorsal fin. This allows a free-swimming motion in the stagnant water.
Large fluke are aggressive, but will expend the least amount of energy required to chase down a meal. Captains report that the stomach of a big fluke will often contain peanut bunker, bluefish, small sea bass, crabs, squid, mantis shrimp, small blackfish, and even juvenile fluke.
Different schools of thought permeate the playbooks of many of the greatest doormat anglers. But for ocean fishermen, one chunk of advice is constant across the board: Use big baits!
Doormat-hound Austin Perilli runs the charter Bucktail and swears that big baits bring colossal ocean flatties to boatside. "No doubt about it. Big strip baits are my only choice to tackle gigantic fluke -- and these baits have to be as fresh as you can get. I'll bring one rod with me specifically to catch sea robins, dogfish, herring, sundials or bluefish, so that I can get the freshest strip bait available. Absolutely nothing beats the swagger and undulation of that strip as it vibrates through the water. Doormats simply cannot control themselves."
Non-native baits such as whole smelt or salmon bellies are also dead-on offerings. Perilli cuts his strip bait in a 7- to 10-inch piece, with a 3/4- inch taper at the top, widening out to 1 inch through the middle and tapered to a point at the end. The hook is pierced through the tip of the strip bait, white side down, about a 1/4- inch down to allow for the most swagger and action.
"Flat-out, that strip has to be fluttering fiercely. And the one-hook setup will allow the strip to work its magic unhindered," said Capt. Perilli. But other captains employ a two-hook, or tandem rig. I've personally witnessed Perilli trick up an impressive catch of 5- to 8-pound fluke at the Manasquan Ridge using this technique.
The history of Jersey fluke management -- and for that matter, recreational management in general -- is a volatile one at that. Regulations usually change from year to year, depending on scientific data gathered by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). As things stand today, the commercial sector is allowed 60 percent of the catch, and the recreational sector 40 percent.
Commercial fishermen can keep 14-inch fish legally, whereas the minimum for recreational anglers is 16.5 inches. Many recreational anglers feel penalized for no solid reason, and must release literally thousands of tons of fish that the commercial fishermen can keep.
Each year, the regulations seem to become more stringent against recreational interests. It's not so much a recreational-versus-commercial issue as it is the NMFS's adopting fair and sensible scientific guidelines and regulations for both parties. As it stands today, the recreational regulations ca
ll for an eight-fish bag limit at a 16.5-inch minimum, with the season running from May 6 to October 9.
DIAL 'EM IN
Each year, you hear of some serious-sized flatties hitting the decks. Last year, a few 16-plus-pound fluke were taken in New Jersey, leaving the dream that someone may pull in a summer flounder big enough to break the state record, or even the world record! Each morning you wake up to bounce around for flatties, remember that today could be the day.
Check out these spots and utilize some of these tactics. If you do, you'll be on your way to experiencing some of New Jersey's finest fluke fishing!