Intercept Carolina's Fall Flounder

Intercept Carolina's Fall Flounder

Flatfish will be on the move this month out of North Carolina's sounds and backwaters and headed to the ocean as the weather cools off. Here's how to intercept them!

By Dan Kibler

For most flounder fishermen, September is a transition month along the North Carolina coast. The weather is finally starting to moderate, and fish are beginning to leave the places where they've lived from June through August. But they haven't gotten to the ocean, where most of them will take up residence during the colder months.

A lot of fishermen don't really like fishing that transition period, because they don't understand how, when and why the fish suddenly pull up stakes and show up miles away, a couple of days later.

Being able to follow their movements is as easy as 1-2-3, according to three fishermen who get paid to know when flounder are going to leave places, where they will show up next, and how to catch them.

Ken Dempsey of Hatteras, Rick Bennett of Wrightsville Beach and Chris Elliott of Gloucester are all veteran inshore guides who make up a lot of their autumn business taking anglers flounder fishing. To a man, they look forward to September, when fish begin to make their first real move toward cooler waters, and when they seem to be at their strongest and healthiest of the year.

"September is a good month; the flounder will be in the inlets around here and in Snow's Cut, and they'll be pretty thick," said Bennett, who operates RodMan Charters. "You want to fish the inlets on an incoming tide and the inshore structure on a falling tide."

Bennett (910-799-6120) sticks pretty much to those two patterns - fishing ledges around inlets as the tide rises and brings bait in from the ocean, and piers and docks along the Intracoastal Waterway and around the mouth of creeks from Carolina Beach north to the Figure 8 Island area. The big oceanward move for flounder usually doesn't get started until October for Bennett, who will be fishing Cape Fear water that's slightly warmer than where Elliott (Cape Lookout) and Dempsey (Cape Hatteras) call home.

"The way we target flounder is to anchor up or drift ledges around the inlets," Bennett said. "Usually, the ledges will be just off the channels. The flounder get on those places and wait for the prey to come by, because as the tide comes in, the bait comes in with it."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Bennett's favorite inlets are Carolina Beach and Masonboro, the two closest to his Wrightsville Beach home. Both inlets will be full of fish during the late summer and early fall periods; there isn't as much movement in his area because the flounder don't have extensive inshore sounds in which to live during the summer. They stay mainly up in the cooler waters of coastal creeks and rivers, a short swim to the ocean under most circumstances.

Typically, Bennett likes to anchor up just off a ledge, or on the shallow flat above it, casting live menhaden on a Carolina rig and either dragging them up or down the drop. If he's drifting with the current along a ledge, he'll try to keep his baits on the downward slope, since flounder will typically be facing in that direction - shallow and into the current - waiting for food to be swept past.

His favorite bait is a 4- to 6-inch menhaden, although he'll use mullet minnows in that size range if menhaden are not available.

Using spinning tackle, he fishes a 14- to 20-pound braided line on the reel, with an 18-inch leader of 20- to 25-pound-test monofilament and a size No. 2 Eagle Claw 042 (wide bend) hook, slipping it through the nose of the baitfish. He usually slides a 1-ounce egg sinker on the rig above the barrel swivel that separates the leader from the running line.

If the tide is running out, he abandons the inlets and heads for the Intracoastal Waterway. This time, he's looking for places where flounder can set up to intercept bait that's being pulled - by the tide - out of tidal creeks and cuts. Normally, he fishes a series of piers and docks around the mouth of creeks.

"You want docks and piers that are around moving water," Bennett said. "When the tide starts to drop out of creeks, you'll find that fish will be moving out of the creeks toward the inlets, and I start fishing where the first shelter is."

That first "shelter" is usually a boat dock or pier. Bennett said that the flounder will set up in the shady areas under the docks, often close to a pier piling, and wait for the current to sweep bait past its nose.

"You have to make an accurate cast to get the bait back to the fish, and it helps if you use some kind of super braided line" because the wooden posts and barnacles can be deadly to light monofilament.

When he's pitching baits underhanded around docks and piers, Bennett moves up to a 40-pound monofilament leader, but keeps the rest of his rig identical to the one he uses around inlets.

The only real difference in fishing docks is the way Bennett says fishermen must react to the light "tap-tap" of a flounder picking up the live bait.

"When you're fishing around the inlets, the fish bites and it's 'wait, wait, wait, wait, wait' before you set the hook," he said, alluding to a flounder's almost leisurely manner of taking a bait, scaling it, then sliding it back in its mouth where a hookset can be effective. "When you're fishing around structure like docks, you pretty much just set the hook when the flounder bites. They bite much more aggressively. I don't know why, but I'll hazard a guess. I think there's so much competition with other fish, that a flounder can't just fiddle around when it bites."

The flounder on Bennett's end of the coast are among the biggest, on the average, of any caught. He concentrates on fishing for flounder that are at least 16 inches long, often throwing back 14-inch keepers, and he gets plenty of 18- to 22-inch fish.

Chris Elliott (252-729-9925) spends most of his flounder-fishing time in Barden's Inlet, the tiny opening between the Shackleford Banks and Core Banks (Cape Lookout). It's a gateway to the ocean for flounder that spend the summer in the Core, Back and Pamlico sounds, but it will be late September and into October before the biggest migrations begin.

"In September, I'll fish Barden's Inlet and drift in front of the (Cape Lookout) lighthouse, trying to catch the start of the migration of fish leaving the sounds," said Elliott. "September is really a little more like summer than fall, but things do start changing. There are always a few early movers that time of year. The biggest migration will be on into October and early November, but S

eptember is definitely a transition month. And any inlet is a good place to target a species in the spring and fall when they come and go out of the ocean."

Elliott likes to drift along the edge of the channel through Barden's Inlet. The closest public boat landing is on Harker's Island, at least 10 miles away, and the distance cuts down on a lot of the boat traffic fishermen in the Morehead City area have to contend with.

"There is no (boat) traffic compared with other places," Elliott said. "You can get away from a lot of people; Barden's Inlet is where the hard-core fishermen go."

The deepest parts of the inlet's channel are usually in the 25-foot range, and much of the channel snakes through the inlet and actually into the "hook" of the cape, the Cape Lookout Bight.

Up until this spring, fishermen had to pay careful attention to their location, because inshore and ocean size minimums for flounder were different, and the line of demarcation between ocean and inshore waters was an invisible line plotted from a red marker buoy in the middle of the channel to the lighthouse. When the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries issued a proclamation lowering the "ocean" flounder limit to 14 inches - which matches the inshore size minimum - knowing exactly where you are matters only if you have a tremendous day on flounder. There is no daily creel limit inshore, and an eight-fish-per-day creel limit in the ocean.

"Most of the time, you're actually drifting in the hook, in front of the lighthouse," Elliott said. "There is a bar on both sides of the channel; the channel is about 25 or 30 feet deep, but I like to drift in 8 to 15 feet of water."

Elliott likes to fish an outgoing tide, which flushes fish out of the sound and positions flounder facing the inlet, where he can drift baits naturally toward them.

"I like to fish an outgoing tide, but as far as what stage they bite the best, I don't think it's specific," he said. "I think you can catch 'em on an incoming tide; I think the fish just turn 180 degrees as the tide turns and face the other way."

But there's so much more bait flushing out of the inlet that Elliott believes the falling-water bite is more attractive to fishermen looking to catch good numbers of flounder.

"The bigger fish are around Morehead, generally, but you don't get nearly as many bites there as you do at Barden's Inlet, and there isn't much competition from other boats," he said.

What Elliott really wants to see in September is a good, hard northeast wind. "It's just like every Down East pound netter will tell you - any hard northeast blow moves fish," he said. "September is when the first part of the move starts."

Elliott usually makes repeated drifts across different areas of the inlet, keying on places where he gets a bite or two. There's little question, he said, that flounder like to school up.

"You'll drift and drift and maybe get one fish on a spot, then go back and drift again and get one or two on that same spot," he said. "You're subject to catch some big fish, but you're not drifting along, thinking about catching a real giant. I'd say the fish average between 14 and 15 inches. My biggest fish drifting in the inlet have been between 6 and 7 pounds."

Like Bennett, Elliott uses a Carolina rig for most of his drifting. He'll use live menhaden or mullet minnows, and he looks for baitfish in the 3- to 4-inch range.

"For the size flounder you're going to catch, you want baitfish that size," he said. "Plus, in the fall, you'll get a lot of gray trout and some specks in the inlet. They're going to hang out in the deepest water, in the channels, so by using the smaller bait, you're still targeting flounder, but you're leaving your opportunities open for trout."

Elliott uses a No. 2 live-bait, Kahle-style Eagle Claw hook on an 18-inch leader, with a 1-ounce egg sinker threaded above a No. 5 barrel swivel. That's a standard Carolina rig, and it will keep the baitfish just off the bottom for most of the drift - in a perfect spot for a flounder to dart off the bottom and grab it.

Fishing out of the southern end of the Outer Banks, Ken Dempsey usually gets to fish the first big flounder move earlier than Elliott or Bennett, and it's often a pretty big move.

"Most years, fish will start to move after the first northeast blow in September, when the water temperature starts to drop," said Dempsey (252-986-2102. "Fish will start to move out of the Pamlico Sound, toward the inlets and the ocean. The more north (wind) you get, the more fish that will move.

"People find it hard to believe that the first northeast blow of the fall pushes a tremendous number of fish, but I know that pound netters back in the sound will go from getting 20 boxes (of flounder) to 200 after that blow."

Dempsey said that moving fish will be aggressive. He can plug for them along dropoffs in sloughs and channels using a leadhead jig and curlytail grub that's tipped with some kind of tiny morsel of fish, or he can target the same kind of areas with a Carolina rig - or drift main channels with one.

"You can catch fish a number of different ways," he said. "If I want to catch pure-T numbers, I'll use cut bait, but for big fish, live bait like big mullet minnows is hard to beat."

Dempsey said that flounder will move toward Hatteras and Ocracoke inlets and head for the ocean waters as the sound starts to cool off.

"They'll be in a mixture of sloughs all around Hatteras Inlet, but the closer you get to winter, the more you see fish in the main channels. They all start back in the sound, and they migrate toward the inlet when the weather starts to cool. And the longer you go, you'll see larger and larger numbers of fish.

"You typically can catch fish in all the little sand sloughs behind the inlets, but everything will be pretty close to the inlet. And sometimes, you can kill 'em at the inlets."

The "sand sloughs" that Dempsey fishes are just cuts in the shallow waters of the sound that are a few feet deeper than surrounding areas. The "sloop channel" near the Ocracoke-to-Hatteras ferry docks, the "boot" slough off the sloop channel and Barney's slough (between Hatteras and Hatteras Inlet) are fairly well-known flounder hangouts where fishermen can drift anywhere between 4 and 10 feet of water or cast to the dropoffs with jigs.

Normally, Dempsey said that he'll use a 3/8-ounce leadhead jig anytime he's fishing 6 feet or shallower, then move to a 1/2-ounce leadhead in deeper water. "I really think you will catch more fish if you tip that jig with some small piece of cut bait. You're just trying to give the fish something that will keep it hanging on there for a little while longer," he said. "But if you put too much on, it will ruin the action of the jig. I've gotten away with just using a little strip of

fish skin before."

A rig that really catches a lot of nice flounder in the fall is a standard double-bucktail speckled trout rig that's found in almost every coastal tackle shop. Dempsey said that he'll tip both bucktail jigs with tiny bait strips. "You can catch a lot of big flounder on that first 1-ounce bucktail," he said.

When he's drifting a slough or a big channel like the Hatteras-to-Ocracoke ferry channel, he'll use a 1-ounce egg sinker above a barrel swivel and 18-inch leader. At the business end, however, he's just about convinced that a small circle hook is just as effective as a standard Kahle-style, live-bait hook. "A lot of times when you're drifting, especially with kids, that circle hook will really work the best," he said. "At the end of the drift, you'll tell 'em, 'Pick it up,' and that's when they say, 'I've got him, Mr. Ken.' The fish sets the hook itself."

Unlike a lot of flounder fishermen, Dempsey doesn't like to dress up his terminal tackle with a lot of colorful plastic beads or spinner blades. He likes to stick with a "bare" strip bait or live mullet minnow, but admits, "There are times when if you don't have some kind of color in your rig, you don't get bit."

And in the fall, when Dempsey gets bit, he expects it to be quite a bite.

"You'll see your biggest fish of the year down here in September and October," he said. "Without a doubt, they'll be the biggest. You'll see nothing of the small fish that you've seen earlier in the year, all summer."

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