October 04, 2010
Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey anglers know how great the flatfish action can be all along our states' coastlines. Here are place to consider right now. (August 2008)
By Milt Rosko
Who would have thought that the relaxing, contemplative pastime of summer flounder fishing would ever be transformed into a maze of regulations that defy understanding, let alone common sense?
Gone are the days when one could leisurely ply the waters from Maryland to New Jersey, enjoy the thrills of landing a handful of flatfish, whether from beach or boat -- and arrive home with the makings of a delicious dinner or two. State and federal state agencies that regulate coastal fisheries used what they term "science" to determine season duration, bag limits and size limits. The fishery has shown great growth in recent years, but that science reflects data collected 15 years ago.
The only difference is that recreational anglers are forced to kill increased numbers of summer flounder by releasing all fish under specific minimum-size limits.
In New Jersey alone, anglers must catch and release upwards of 15,334,500 summer flounder in order to retain the state's 766,350-pound quota. Of those released, mortality is estimated to be at least 10 percent -- 1,533,450 summer flounder will become food for crabs and dogfish.
The more fish you must release to catch a keeper, the more will die. Much the same statistics hold for Maryland and Delaware, where the regulations are still harsher.
In New York State, the numbers become more insane. Coincidentally, and reflective of the flawed system, commercial fishermen are able to retain 14-inch fluke, just as they've been doing for the past 15 years!
This comes about as a result of a quota being established and of scientists refusing to work "outside the box" in determining the regulations. As such, each state is being given extended seasons, a higher daily bag limit, and a size limit that targets the killing of all breeding-sized flounder -- the very fish that could help build up the population.
The easiest way to catch flounder is to employ a 3-foot-long leader with a 2/0 long-shank Carlisle or beak-style hook, with a leader tied to a three-way swivel, and a bank-style sinker sufficiently heavy to hold bottom.
One of your best baits is a 3-inch-long strip of squid, along with a killifish or minnow, or a single spearing threaded onto the hook.
Drift this rig over sandy ocean bottom near shore, or in the waters of Jersey's Raritan Bay, the Delaware Bay, or the Isle of Wright Bay or Indian River Bay, and you're likely to catch summer flounder until becoming arm-weary. I mention this because in combination, these rigs and places are the wrong way to go in today's regulatory crisis.
Summer flounder in the 3- to 10-pound class -- which will be the bulk of the size fluke you're able to keep -- are accustomed to feeding on big forage. Hence that old adage of "Big baits catch big fish," comes into play.
This not only means big baits, but also rigs big enough to accommodate them.
As the size limits have escalated the past couple of seasons, one favorite rig I've been using consists of either a chromed ball or torpedo-shaped jig, a leadhead bucktail skirted jig, a soft-plastic swim shad, or the newer style Butterfly, Sacrifice and Braid jigs, all in the 3- or 4-ounce sizes -- or even heavier, should water depth and current dictate.
I rig each of these lures with an assist hook, or stinger, which I attach to the bend of the J-style hook in the lure. I then slip a single 6- to 10-inch long strip bait on the lure's primary hook, and slip the stinger into the middle of the bait.
The bait can be a strip of squid, dogfish, salmon belly from the fish market, cunner, sea robin or any other firm-fleshed fish not covered by regulations. I've also used strips of Berkley Gulp! synthetic bait and enjoyed fine results.
SANDY HOOK CHANNEL & ARTIFICIAL REEF
The various shipping channels crisscrossing Raritan and Sandy Hook bays -- especially the Sandy Hook entrance channel, and the nearby Sandy Hook Artificial Reef -- have deep water, and an abundance of forage that holds big fluke. The reefs and broken, irregular bottom abound in crabs, squid, cunner, fingerling sea bass, porgies, squid and other forage.
Drifting the channel edges and reefs keeps you on your toes, since to keep from getting fouled on bottom structure, you've got to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom. That structure holds the forage and in turn, attracts the fluke.
Much the same holds true for the grounds around the Shrewsbury Rocks. Last August 17, that's where Monica Oswald landed a huge doormat fluke weighing 24.3 pounds and measuring 38 1/4 inches long!
She hooked the huge flatfish on a SPRO bucktail jig and strip of squid, rigged in a manner very similar to what I've recommended earlier.
AROUND THE LOBSTER & SEA BASS POT BUOYS
Along the length of the Jersey, Delaware and Maryland coasts, there are thousands of patches of rocky bottom or ridges where the water is substantially shallower than surrounding waters and where bait tends to congregate. Drifting across this bottom is highly productive.
I've known several topnotch flounder anglers who actually go forth before the season opens. Using their Global Positioning Systems, they enter every pot buoy that they find in the 30- to 70-foot depths. These buoys are set because either lobsters or sea bass are in residence over this bottom. You'll lose a few rigs on this type of bottom, but there will be big flatfish as dividends as well.
Make sure to watch for a pair of buoys, which mark either end of a set of traps resting on the bottom. Plan your drift to go on either side of where the pot lines are resting on the bottom. Flounder will often forage about on the bottom adjacent to the traps, and it'll take only a couple of drifts to tempt strikes from hungry flatties.
If a couple of drifts fail to bring strikes, just move on to the next set of GPS coordinates. By day's end, you'll likely have some heavyweight keepers in your cooler.
TACKANASSEE'S RED CHURCH
The rocky bottom off the red church in Tackanassee has long been known as a great hotspot for blackfish that love rocky bottom. Here, the mounds of rocks extend up from the bottom like miniature mountains.
This area is also a favorite fluke haunt, a
lbeit one where you're apt to lose a lot of rigs. The key is controlling your line. Always keep it perpendicular to the bottom, just twitching your rod tip to give some action to the jig and strip combo.
If you've been accustomed to just drifting small baits across sandy bottom, no doubt you've received just subtle strikes from small flounder.
Not so when you're jigging the rough rocky terrain. Here, summer flatfish fully 2 feet in length will wallop your jig or trailing strip bait with reckless abandon.
Toward this goal, make certain that all your gear is in order, with a moderately set drag. Should you be fortunate to hook a doormat -- generally defined as a fluke weighing 10 pounds or more -- it'll test your tackle to the limit. Any flaw will result in the loss of a beauty.
Believe me, the combination of rough bottom and heavyweight fluke isn't meant for 10-pound-test line.
HEN & CHICKEN SHOALS
The Hen and Chicken shoals, just southeast of Cape Henlopen, come to within 30 feet of the surface.
Surrounding these shoals are depths that plummet to 60 feet or more. On an ebbing tide, the flow of water from Delaware Bay sweeps across the shoal seaward to the black whistle buoy marking its seaward extremity.
Many types of baitfish congregate on the shoal, in turn attracting the bigger members of the summer flounder clan.
The nice part about fishing this shoal is that soft bottom prevails, although it gets a little bumpy when wind and tide collide. I've often felt the rough water enhanced the action of the lures. With the boat rising and falling in the swells, the jigs and strip baits are always moving like harried baitfish. There are times you'll have to move up to 4- or 5-ounce jigs to keep the current from lifting your bait off the bottom.
Fenwick Shoal extends up from the bottom, with surrounding depths of 60 feet. It's but one of several shoals located midway between Indian River and Ocean City inlets. These groupings of more than a dozen shoals all attract forage, and thus, the bigger members of the flatfish clan.
To reach these spots, you've got to make a longer run than those anglers who are content to drift the sandy beaches near shore. But the rewards of keepers will be worth the ride.
The area from Cape Henlopen to Ocean City also has a nominal number of small wrecks and artificial reefs that warrant your attention. Remember that flatfish don't frequent the waters above the rough bottom or wrecks, the way sea bass and porgies do. They will feed on the sandy bottom around the perimeter.
LITTLE & GREAT GULL BANKS
Run on an east-southeast course from Ocean City Inlet and first you'll reach Little Gull Bank, followed a short distance later by Great Gull Bank. As with the shoals to the north, these rise to within 30 feet of the surface, with surrounding water depths of 60 feet and more. A red and black can marks little Gull, while Great Gull has a red whistle buoy.
Time your drifts to start in the deeper water, and then up onto the shoal and off of it. Often the flounder will station themselves along the edges where there's an upwelling of current, along with crabs, small forage species and squid.
During August -- and until the summer flounder retreat to their winter quarters offshore -- many big flatfish will take up residence on the lumps that rise within 60 feet of the surface, with surrounding water at depths of 90 feet and more. There are literally dozens of these lumps located east of Ocean City Inlet. Some are large and easy to locate, but many are just small mountains extending up from the depths, but warrant the time to drift across them. These lumps have sizeable populations of cunner, sea bass and porgies, plus schools of small herring -- all of which are targeted by summer flounder.
Here, too, time your drifts and watch your fish finder to determine where the edges of the lumps are located. Allow the current or wind carry you across the productive water.
I always make it a point to vary my drifts. All too often, I've fished with anglers who start their drifts too far from the lump and continue too far past it as well -- which is a waste of time.
ISLE OF WIGHT SHOAL
A small but productive spot sitting by itself to the northeast of Ocean City Inlet is the Isle of Wight Shoal.
This structure has much the same characteristics as the shoals mentioned earlier and is marked by what is popularly called the IWS buoy, a red and black can.
Those shoals marked with buoys are easy to fish, since you have a marker from which to plot your drifts.
One of the keys to success with big summer flounder is covering as much choice bottom as possible during your day on the water.
During fluke season, my wife June and I fish several times per week. When we head to the offshore shoals, banks and lumps, we almost always know the days we'll be successful.
If it's a beautiful hot summer day with no wind, we're often doomed to failure, even if we opt to power-drift. But along the mid-Atlantic coast, a characteristic of hot and sunny summer mornings is that by noon, a brisk wind comes up from the southeast.
Early in the season, this wind has a tendency to tumble water temperatures a few degrees and turn the fluke off from feeding. As you get later into the season and the water temperatures stabilize in the low 70s, the development of the afternoon southeaster -- even the early stages of a northeaster is good -- gives you a drift that's often extremely fast.
This means that in order to keep your lure on the bottom, you'll sometimes have to move up to 6- or 8-ounce jigs while keeping your line nearly perpendicular -- especially if you're on the 60-foot lumps. With a strong wind, you'll cover more bottom. And summer flounder are much more aggressive, walloping your jigs or strip baits with a vengeance!
I'd like to offer a last reminder. When a big flounder wallops your jig, it's understandable for you to instinctively react to lift back and set the hook. But please, that's all you should do! I've seen so many big fluke lost by anglers who feel the weight of a heavy fish. They actually see line slipping from their drag and repeatedly strike the fish.
But believe me, once the fluke grabs the jig or strip bait, it's hooked. You need only maintain pressure on it as you work it to within range of the net. As you draw that doormat to the surface, reel it to within just a couple of feet of the surface, so it can't thrash around and rip free. Just 2 feet down offers a perfect target for whoever's handling the landing net.
Even by following to the lett
er what I've covered here, inevitably you'll catch many undersize fluke that must be returned to the water. Handle them with care, and avoid having them flop around on deck.
With the bait and jig hook sizes recommended, you shouldn't have any deep-hooked fish, and can release them relatively easily.
Remember, it's important that those throwbacks survive -- they'll be next season's keepers!