From Toms River to Barnegat Bay and beyond, here are five places to test your skill on winter flounder this spring.
There’s an old saying that time and tide wait for no man. One might quite properly add that winter flounder wait for no one as well! Yes, when the waters begin to warm and creep above 40 degrees, winter flounder begin to stir, moving from their winter repast in the mud or sand of coastal bays and estuaries.
Over the last several seasons, winter flounder seem to have gotten much larger on average. Here's a big one taken from the protected waters of Barnegat Bay. Photo by Milt Rosko.
These tasty little flatfish have a preferred temperature range of 48 to 55 degrees, but if you wait until these temperatures are reached later in the spring, you may actually have missed the best fishing. Indeed, the biggest secret to catching winter flounder in the spring is to be prepared well in advance of ice-out time on the bays, with your boat in the water or trailered and ready to go. Another good way to know what’s going on is regular communication with your favorite party boat skipper.
My home is in Mantoloking, overlooking Barnegat Bay, so quite naturally my first fishing in spring is targeting winter flounder within range of our dock. As a result, my forays range to the Manasquan River up north, the Metedeconk River, the Mantoloking Bridge area of Barnegat Bay, then moving south to Toms River, the open bay off Waretown, and the renowned Myers Hole, which is virtually in the shadow of Barnegat Light.
The bay and river waters are ideal for small-boat anglers. My wife, June, and I regularly fish from our 17.5-foot bow rider, which is always bottom-painted and in the water early. I’ve also fished from some of the small party and charter boats that sail from Point Pleasant Beach to enjoy fine fishing. Both the party boat Miss Point Pleasant and charter boat Barvic are on the river daily in spring.
The single thing that has caused me some concern after having fished these waters for the 25 years, is that the size of the winter flounder has increased dramatically. Years ago, you seldom caught a flatfish weighing more than one-half pound; whereas for the past several seasons, fish under 1 pound are a rarity. There appears to be an imbalance, in that the tiny palm-sized fish that were nearly transparent are no longer present. I’d really like to see more small fish, as it would augur well for the future.
The key to maximize your enjoyment while targeting these flatfish is using light tackle. Not only is light tackle more enjoyable to use, but you’ll catch more fish, too. I prefer using a one-handed graphite popping rod measuring 5 feet long, with a levelwind casting reel spooled with 15-pound-test Spectra braided line. If spinning is your forte, use a one-handed outfit up to 6 feet long and you’ll do fine.
My favorite terminal rig includes a pair of snelled hooks, such as No. 8 or 9 Chestertown-, Kahle- or claw-style, with one’s leader attached to the other via a blood knot or dropper loop. When used with a tiny three-way swivel, the rig rests on the bottom where a flatfish can easily inhale the bait. For most of Barnegat Bay’s waters you’ll find a bank or dipsey sinker, ranging from a 1/2-ounce to 2 ounces, more than adequate.
Bloodworms and sandworms are favorite baits of flounder seekers. The key is presenting small rather than large baits. A 2- to 3-inch-long piece of worm is more than adequate. One of my favorite baits is the muscle tissue from a surf clam or mussel. The thin, ribbon-like muscle found along the edge of the shell is ideal. Just slip it on, running the hook through twice, and permit a couple of inches to hang freely, which enables a flounder to inhale it with ease.
Earlier this year, Ron Bala of Fisherman’s Supply persuaded me to try Fisherman’s Choice squid strips, which are cut to the size and shape of a worm and then colored red and given a scent of bunker. They produced just as effectively as sea worms.
The last important item to include with your gear before departing to the flounder grounds is a chum pot and supply of frozen clam chum. Most local tackle shops handle the frozen chum logs. The frozen chum log is inserted into the chum pot and lowered to the bottom once the fishing grounds are reached. As the chum thaws it oozes from the pot and is carried off with the current, attracting flatfish to your baited hook.
I’m partial to making my own chum, as I’ve done so for many years. I begin by shucking a couple of dozen surf clams and put them through an old-fashioned hand-operated meat grinder. I employ a grinder head that results in pieces sufficiently small that they will easily pass through the 1/4-inch wire mesh of my chum pot. I then add an equal amount of boiled white rice, and throw in a can of whole kernel corn for good measure. I mix this concoction together and freeze it in large paper cups that are just big enough to fit into the chum pot. I take along six or eight chum logs on each sortie, keeping them frozen in a cooler, as it’s important to have it rock hard when you put it into the chum pot, otherwise if it’s soft it will wash out too quickly.
Because the waterways where we do our flounder fishing are so widely separated, with the Manasquan River to the north and Myers Hole to the south, it’s best we discuss each of the following favorites individually.
If you’re berthed on Barnegat Bay, you’ll have to traverse the Bay Head Canal to reach the Manasquan River. The canal has a treacherous current and can get mighty rough and bouncy at times, so move through it cautiously, but always use enough throttle to maintain steerage.
The broad expanse of the Manasquan River has many fine flounder spots. Among my favorites is the deep water in front of the Crystal Point Marina, which is adjacent to the state Route 70 bridge, the channel edge just northeast of the canal’s mouth, and the flats between the channel and Clark’s Landing. Don’t forget the deep water along the channel edge on the north side of the river, between the railroad bridge and the inlet.
What you’re going to encounter at each of these spots is swift currents, as there are several feet difference between high and low water. This is where timing is important, as flounder tend not to feed when the current is strong, and even if you chum, it’s often a waste of time, as your chum is quickly washed from the chum pot. However, as the tide begins to slacken, usually an hour before and after slack water, the flounder will move out of the mud to actively search for food. Recognize th
at slack water occurs near the inlet earlier than way back at the SR 70 bridge, so you can often plan a strategy that allows you move from spot to spot, capitalizing on the optimum time of minimal current and maximum flatfish activity.
Rule 1 is to avoid the crowds. Often, there’ll be a party boat or two anchored along the channel edges and in other spots we’ll be discussing, and some boaters are absolutely shameless in that they anchor within a rod’s length of the packets. Give them some room, as there are plenty of other spots to fish.
Anchor in an area where you can anticipate your chum being carried by the current along the channel edges or even onto the flats that are of moderate depth. I like to use two anchors, one at the bow and one at the stern, as with a single anchor you’re just swinging too much. By double anchoring, you’re staying in one spot, with no movement, and your chum pot can be positioned directly beneath the boat where it will attract the flatfish directly to your waiting baits.
Dave Arbeitman of the Reel Seat Tackle Shop, located right on the river, monitors fishing activity daily and he welcomes calls from anglers. He’s a devotee of light tackle, small hooks and small baits, all of which will enhance your score.
The Metedeconk River is located at the north end of Barnegat Bay and is a much deeper river than the Manasquan, though it has less current flow, and less of a difference between high and low tides. The river’s soft, muddy bottom is favored by winter flounder. The Metedeconk receives substantially less fishing pressure than the Manasquan River or the popular Mantoloking Bridge area to the south.
One area to try is the 5- to 6-foot depth just west of Herring Island and the channel that leads toward Mantoloking Bridge. Here there’s nominal current and a broad expanse of very shallow flats west of Herring Island. This very shallow water warms quickly.
If this spot has a few boats, consider dropping anchor a little to the north, where a nice deep channel leads into Beaverdam Creek. Just avoid other boats so you can set up a chum line. By anchoring in either of these spots on an incoming tide, the current will carry your chum either up the river proper, or up the creek, drawing winter flounder to your baits.
Also worth noting is most of the winter flounder in the northern part of Barnegat Bay traverse the Bay Head Canal and then the Manasquan River to reach the ocean. This very swift water often produces fine action for anglers fishing from the bulkhead, but it’s strictly a slack-water proposition, where you get about a one-hour shot and it’s over. Choose either slack high or slack low, which usually occurs a couple of hours after the high and low tide times on the tide charts.
Between the Metedeconk River and the popular Mantoloking Bridge area are a couple of spots that I always give a try, especially on weekends where boat traffic gets heavy around the bridge. The channel between the Mantoloking shoreline and Herring Island is great as the tidal flow begins to slow, as is the hole located off Dale’s Point.
A prime location in the Mantoloking Bridge area is south of the bridge, adjacent to the channel, where deep water prevails. You’ve got more current here than throughout most of Barnegat Bay, as the narrowest part is where the bridge joins the mainland to the barrier island. When the area is crowded, I move south a little and to the west, where Swan Point extends to the east.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to avoid crowded areas. This general area around the bridge is usually fished by a couple of the Point Pleasant Beach party boats during the week and they make fine catches. But on the weekend, I’ve seen the big boats anchored and surrounded by 20 or more small boats. There’s so much chum being dispensed that the flounder quickly gorge on the ground clams and then just stop feeding, as they can’t eat any more! There’s plenty of bay area, so find yourself a quiet spot to set up and you’ll find the flatfish to be cooperative.
Toms River, located just to the south of the bridge joining the mainland with Seaside Heights, is of a size and depth comparable to the Metedeconk. Toms River has got a sizeable population of winter flounder that provide good action each spring.
The area off Island Heights is particularly productive, and don’t be surprised if you catch a couple of white perch on the worm-baited hooks that are meant for flounder.
I might note that the flounder throughout the bay often put on the feedbag after a couple of warm, sunny days. Usually the fishing is best when there’s little wind. Sometimes it blows hard for a couple of days and this gets the entire bay and its river roiled and murky. Give it a day or two to settle down, and then give it a try. A great source of current information on this area is available and updated daily on the www.bettyandnicks.com Web site. It is a site I monitor daily.
When the water is on the cold side, the flounder often are not as aggressive as when it warms up. Let me caution you that you’ll catch more flounder by carefully lifting your rod tip, as often the flatfish will lightly inhale the bait and you won’t even feel a strike. If, as you lift your rod tip, you feel the weight of a fish, or a gentle tug, resist the temptation to strike back. Just slowly begin reeling, and the fish will often bite down hard and be hooked.
Toward this end, there are two approaches you can use as you lower your rig to the bottom. On some days, a gentle bouncing of the sinker on the bottom seems to work best, as it raises a cloud of mud, which in turn attracts flounder to your bait. On other days, a dead-stick approach pays off best. June and I often fish with two rods, working one and dead-sticking the other until we find the combination that produces best.
Many anglers fish off the docks of the marina at Island Heights each spring, and they’re among the first to score on this broad expanse of water.
The small community of Waretown is located on Barnegat Bay’s western shore, directly opposite Barnegat Inlet, which is reached via Oyster Creek Channel. It’s a good starting point to head out into the broad expanse of the lower bay. There are literally miles of bay where the water ranges in depth from 6 to 9 feet, most of which is populated with winter flounder.
The bottom around channel markers 40 and 42 are popular locations, as are the waters adjacent to the BB and BI markers. Crowds are generally less of a problem in this area of the bay during early spring than is the case just to the north.
While anchoring is the rule when flounder fishing, on days when there is a flat calm and minimal wind, I’ve actually scored while drifting the same baits and rigs I employ when anchored. You don’t get many days like this, but a slow drift permits you to cover a lot of water and it’s especially effective once the flounder have left the mud and are feeding actively before returning to the ocean and heading offshore for the summer.
Located almost in the shadow of Old Barney, Myers Hole is located between Barnegat Light and the dike. Mostly surrounded by very shallow flats, the hole has depths that range to 11 feet. Its bottom is pure mud, and the flatfish caught from this area are popularly dubbed “blackbacks” due to their chameleon-like ability to take on the color of the bottom over which they reside.
This mud bottom is rich in forage. As you pull your anchor, you’ll notice huge globs of black, paste-like mud clinging to the flukes of your anchor. Take a few minutes and probe the mud and you’ll find it’s alive with a wide array of marine organisms, all of which winter flounder feed on. You’ll find a variety of sea worms, clam spores, grass shrimp, and lots of squirming, wiggly critters.
In conclusion, all of these spots, and all of these tips are really worthless unless you’re prepared to get out on those first sunny days of spring. The shallow waters will warm quickly, and bring the winter flounder out of the mud promptly. Make certain you’re ready for them this season. I know I will be!