Anglers from Point Lookout to Crisfield, plus many other choice areas throughout our state's waters, are catching big summer flounder right now. Here's where you should try!
By Gary Diamond
"You should look just about anyplace you can find a sharp edge, someplace where the tidal flows are strong, and you should be able to catch lots of flounder. But catching a keeper is the real trick these days," said Captain Bruce Scheible, owner of Scheible's Fishing Center in Ridge, Maryland.
Scheible was obviously referring to the great increase in the minimum size limit for recreationally caught summer flounder, an increase in size that over a five-year period, went from 12 to 17 inches. Additionally, as size limits increased, bag limits decreased. Currently, Free State anglers may catch and keep up to eight flounder daily measuring 17 inches or larger. Ironically, commercial fishermen can catch and keep flounder measuring just 14 inches or larger. To add insult to injury, they have daily bag limits that range from 50 pounds per day in the confines of Chesapeake Bay to 5,000 pounds per day for commercial catches made along the coast.
Nearly all recreational and commercial fisheries are managed by quotas. The commercial harvest is measured after the fact. Essentially, commercial fishermen must register their catch upon landing. Those landings are then tallied at the end of the year or season, and appropriate catch restrictions are put in place the following year to achieve a specific catch during the upcoming season. This part of fisheries management is relatively straightforward.
The fallacy of this management tool is that it projects the recreational catch using a mathematical model based on interviews of a minuscule number of recreational anglers. The model then hypothesizes that none of the variables, such as number of anglers, fishing days, weather conditions, stock sizes, average fish sizes, and other parameters that go into the projected catch, are all quite accurate and will not change.
Last year, when the minimum size of 17 inches went into effect, recreational catches of summer flounder in Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast fell dramatically. Best guess estimate is that catches were off by at least 40 percent or more. However, no adjustment in minimum size or daily bag limit was made during the last management strategy meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) that would offset the recreational shortfall. This year's minimum size and bag limits are the same as last year's.
Frustrated by having to throw back most of the flounder they catch, Maryland's anglers opted to fish for other more abundant species such as bluefish, croaker and striped bass. Consequently, by late summer of 2002, only a handful of flounder enthusiasts were actively pursuing flatfish in Chesapeake Bay and behind Maryland's barrier islands.
That was another factor never taken into consideration by the ASMFC as they set the 2003 season's catch parameters. Hopefully, most of those 15- to 16-inch flounder released by recreational anglers last season will return this summer. If they make it through the gauntlet of gill and pound nets, trawls and purse seines, recreational catches should be fairly good from now until the end of October.
Keith Walters holds onto a hefty summer flounder, which he caught near the mouth of the Choptank River in Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Gary Diamond
MIDDLE BAY CHOPTANK RIVER AREA One of the secrets to catching larger flounder is using larger-than-normal baits; a tactic often used by columnist and book author Keith Walters. Walters primarily fishes the mouth of the Choptank River, located on the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore just south of the Bay Bridges at Sandy Point.
"We had a pretty good 2002 season, especially when the flounder first arrived near the mouth of the Choptank River, sometime in mid-June if I recall. Early on, we were averaging about 80 percent keeper-sized fish. We were able to do this for about three months straight, but by the end of the period, only one fish in 10 was a keeper. By the first week in September, keeper-sized flounder just disappeared. However, during the time when the flounder fishing was good, it was really good," said Walters.
"One of the reasons we were successful in catching keeper-sized fish was we were fishing a bit differently than most other people who were in the same area. Most everyone rigged up using medium-weight spinning outfits and 12- to 15-pound-test monofilament; their leaders were 2 to 3 feet long, sometimes with a drop-sinker right where the line meets the leader. Then at the end of their leader they would either use a plain hook, or sometimes they would resort to a hook rigged with beads and spinner- blades, mainly to add a little flash to their bait. For bait, they mainly used small to medium-sized live minnows, and some added a short strip of squid to sweeten the rig," he said.
"The problem with this kind of rig is that the current is so strong along the sharp dropoffs that you have to use a lot of weight and let out a lot of line in order to keep your bait on or near the bottom. Consequently, monofilament line, which has a stretch factor of 20 to 25 percent, makes it almost impossible to detect a strike, especially from the larger fish, which as you know, don't usually slam a bait hard."
Walters rigs up a little differently. He'll use conventional reels with 20-pound-test braided line that has the same diameter as 4-pound-test monofilament line. He'll also use a small, black snap swivel and use a dropper made of a three-way swivel with a solid connection to the sinker instead of a monofilament dropper. This arrangement doesn't tend to wrap around itself and become tangled. He uses about 3 feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material and a 1/0 to 3/0 hook, complete with a couple of beads.
If the water is really murky, he'll use a spinnerbait blade on the leader. Most of the time, however, a small in-line spinnerblade will do. That takes care of the rig. As for the bait, he uses the biggest minnows he can find.
Walters says he uses sinkers weighing up to 8 ounces so he is fishing directly beneath the boat's transom as he drifts over the sharp dropoffs. "The way I look at it, the least amount of line that's out, the better the odds of detecting the delicate strike of a big flounder. This also means that you will be able to get the fish to the boat much faster, thereby decreasing the odds that the fish will throw the hook before you can get it into the net. The net we use has a 36-inch gap, which is plenty big for flounder."
Walters caught flounder up to 6 pounds last summer while fishing near the mouth of the Choptank River. One of his favorite locations is just a few yards south of the green can buoy 9, which is situated one-quarter mile due so
uth of Black Walnut Point on the river's northern channel edge. The bottom quickly falls off from just 8 feet to a depth of 24 feet, all in a distance of less than 50 feet.
When the tide is ebbing from the Choptank, tidal flows in this location are extremely strong, and the adjacent sandbar where depths rise quickly to just 2 feet creates a turbulent back eddy. "Most of the dropoffs we fish range from 20 to 50 feet deep, which is where the fish tend to congregate through most of the summer. Early on the fish may be holding in relatively shallow water, but as the season progresses, flounder tend to migrate to deeper water before exiting the bay."
Walters also found large flounder lurking along the dropoff situated at the northern end of The Diamonds, which is clearly marked by green-colored buoy 7. Depths here range from 11 to 36 feet, and the hard sand bottom is quite difficult to anchor over; therefore, most anglers prefer to drift-fish this location, again using the largest minnows they can find. Minnows measuring up to 6 inches long can be extremely difficult to obtain, but they're worth the effort to find, since minnows of this size often garner the undivided attention of an exceptionally large flounder. Live snapper bluefish are ideal baits for big summer flounder.
FALSE CHANNEL Another favorite haunt of Walters' is False Channel. The southern end of this channel is marked by green buoy 3, which is situated about a half-mile south of Sharps Island Light. Sharps Island Light is easy to recognize because it leans precariously to the north, appearing somewhat like the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy. The shallow edge of this location is just 9 feet deep, but it quickly plummets to 47 feet deep in just a few hundred feet. Flatties to 7 pounds were taken from here last summer.
Walters says when large minnows are somewhat scarce, which is often the case in midsummer, some local anglers frequently catch small spots in minnow traps and use them in place of minnows. When both baits are scarce, he often switches over to using long strips of fresh squid and sandwiching a medium-sized minnow between them. "Another really productive bait is finger-length pieces of fresh, cut spot fillet. This is used in place of minnows. I believe that flounder can readily detect the odor of a fresh piece of fish from great distances. We've even used cut bluefish strips, and even strips of white perch."
Walters said every fishing trip, regardless of the targeted species, also includes a period of time that is spent drifting for flounder. "If we are fishing for striped bass, we will first take a look at the tides. If conditions are right for flounder, we will fish for them first and then switch to stripers. You always have to have a plan "B," or you're going to end up skunked. Skunked is not a good word when it comes to fishing."
STONE PILE Ken Lamb, owner of The Tackle Box, a well-known tackle shop in southern Maryland, spends much of the summer drifting large, live minnows along the sharp dropoffs located just west of Punch Island Bar. His favorite area is a one-mile stretch situated between buoys 74 and 76 along the Chesapeake's eastern channel edge. Tidal currents race through this area as falling waters flow over a sharp precipice that quickly falls from 10 to 150 feet. This is one of the deepest areas of the bay and because it's not close to anything, fishing pressure is relatively light.
Lamb uses rigs similar to those used by Keith Walters, and he, too, prefers using the largest minnows available. His favorite rig consists of a 4- to 5-inch minnow, sandwiched between two 6-inch squid strips. Most days, especially during mid and late summer, he returns to the launch ramp at Solomons with a limit of flatties ranging from 17 to 22 inches in length. He also catches fair numbers of big croaker and keeper-sized weakfish from the same location.
Lamb prefers fishing depths of 20 to 35 feet during July and early August, but as the season progresses, he moves to somewhat deeper waters, sometimes to depths of 45 to 55 feet or more. While he catches most of his fish late in the day, this is mainly due to the fact that it's the only time he can get away from his busy shop for a few hours. "I'm sure you can catch them most any time, just as long as you have sufficient tidal flows," said Lamb.
HONGA RIVER Captain Mike Murphy of Tide Runner Charters can often be found fishing the fertile waters south of Hooper Island Light, where most of his time is spent chasing schools of surface-feeding striped bass. However, on days when the winds are howling from the southwest, Mike takes refuge in the sheltered waters of the Honga River and targets a mix of striped bass, speckled sea trout and flounder. Murphy searches for his flatties in relatively shallow depths, often ranging just 4 to 8 feet.
"I find good numbers of keeper- sized fish on the shallow edges of sharp dropoffs near Bentley and Windmill points on days when the winds are blowing too hard to fish outside the river. Most of the time, they're taken while casting bucktails and trimmed chartreuse twistertails for speckled trout and rockfish. Obviously, no one is thinking about catching flounder in the shallows at this time of year, but more often than not, I can almost guarantee a few keepers, even on the nastiest days," said Murphy.
HOLLAND ISLAND FLATS On days when the winds are relatively calm, Murphy will run south to Holland Island Flats, a vast expanse of water situated between buoy 72 and Holland Island Bar. Depths here range 25 to 35 feet on average, and there is very little change in the bottom contour. However, for some unexplained reason, large numbers of exceptionally large summer flounder tend to congregate on the hard sand flats through most of the summer. While most anglers prefer using large, live minnows to attract the flatties here, anglers jigging close to the bottom for striped bass take fair numbers of keeper flounder.
CORNFIELD HARBOR When the wind's howling from the north or northwest, Captain Bruce Scheible will often take refuge from the elements and fish the highly productive waters of Cornfield Harbor. Located at the Potomac River's mouth at Point Lookout, this particular location consistently produces large numbers of flounder through the end of September and sometimes into mid-October.
The bottom structure here consists of sharp dropoffs with strong tidal flows. There is usually an abundance of baitfish at this location. Large schools of bay anchovies and small spots frequently congregate along the edge of a hook that is created by a quarter-mile-long sandbar extending due south from Point Lookout. "Where there's an abundance of baitfish, you're bound to find lots of flounder," said Scheible.
MIDDLE GROUNDS This expanse of structure extends for several miles along the bay's eastern channel edge. "A lot of people think that flounder tend to stay in the same location all the time, but that's usually not the case. There are lots of times when you'll find them schooled along a particular dropoff one day, then the next day they'll be a mile away. They seem to move around quite a bit, and I
've actually found them at the rockpiles just out from Point Lookout and tracked them for several miles during the course of a day," remarked Scheible.
"I find that with today's 17-inch minimum size limits, you have to use much larger baits in order to catch any number of keeper-sized fish. I use large strips of fresh-cut menhaden, long squid strips and when I can get them, fresh-cut strips of spot fillet. You want something that the small flounder will veer off from, but a keeper-sized fish will readily take.
"In August, I fish in about 40 feet of water, mainly between buoys 72 and 74, and we catch fair numbers of keeper flounder. There are also good numbers of flounder along the bay's western channel edge also, and most of the time, there's no one fishing there. It's one of those places that I usually make a drift or two at the end of the day to top off the cooler with a couple of big flounder."
MUD LEADS Scheible says he prefers locations where he can drift from hard-bottom structure to a soft-bottom area in a relatively short distance. "Wherever there is the most tidal flow, that's where we'll find the best flounder fishing. That's why the Mud Leads has always produced lots of flounder, especially along the edges where the bottom goes from hard sand to soft mud."
"I prefer using a light spinning outfit with a stiff action, something that I can easily detect a strike with. Big flounder just kind of suck on the bait, while the little ones will hit bait a lot harder. A lot of people have been using freshwater spinnerbaits for flounder and baiting them with live minnows or squid strips. These combinations have really been effective in luring the larger fish. Jigging spoons have also been a big hit with flounder fishermen lately, too, especially when they're sweetened with a squid strip or piece of cut bait."
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