Head for rough bottom and rig for doormats this month. Here's where to find them off the New York-New Jersey coast in August. (August 2009)
"It's time to head to some rough bottom to get us a pool winner," beamed the late Capt. Frank Cline, whose party boat, Rambler, which sailed from Shark River on the central Jersey coast two decades ago, had been drifting over clear sand bottom along the beach and catching plenty of 1- to 2-pound fluke.
More recently and far to the east, I was fishing with Capt. Ed Beneducci aboard his Marlin IV out of Montauk. The inimitable skipper had just netted a genuine doormat -- a fluke that topped 10 pounds -- that I'd hooked just offshore of Gurney's, a restaurant on the South Shore.
The heavyweights obviously like rough bottom, because that's where the big forage may be found.
Two great skippers, two super party boats, fishing grounds more than 100 miles apart, one year ago, and yet the big fluke techniques, with respect to tackle, terminal rigging and baits were much the same. Most importantly was where to fish on the broad expanse of Atlantic onto which they sailed.
Rough bottom is the key.
Many years ago, before the era of regulations and mandatory size limits, recreational anglers were inclined to drift across sandy bottoms from the surf line out to 30-foot depths. On this kind of bottom, it was relatively easy to come up with a nice catch for the cooler. Not so today, where even when fishing over choice bottom, it's a challenge to place a couple of keeper-size fluke in the cooler.
Nautical charts, one of Long Island's South Shore and the other showing the New Jersey coast, cover my desk. The charts vividly display the natural bottom configuration along the coast. The ridges, rocky outcroppings, wrecks and shallow banks that extend up from the bottom like mountains hold promise.
While each of these configurations differs, the prime consideration is that they attract forage species, such as herring, sand eels and squid along with bottom feeders like cunner, fingerling seabass and porgies along with small crabs and lobsters, all of which are a dinnertime treat for legal-sized fluke.
These natural formations and wrecks are spread all along the coast of both states, but there are more than a dozen artificial reefs that are a little over a mile to several miles off the beach that offer exciting possibilities for big fluke. The reefs also hold huge quantities of forage, especially porgy and seabass fry, which provide many a meal for big fluke.
Fishing the bottom around the reefs for fluke will result in attrition in tackle when you're drifting. Generally, the boats that fish the reefs anchor up and bottom-fish for the larger seabass and porgies. But many a doormat nestles in the sand along the reef edges and on the adjoining sand bottom waiting for an unsuspecting meal to swim within range. By using your boat's electronic fish finder and paying attention to wind and current, you can plot a drift along the perimeter of the reef that should result in some action.
Sailing from Montauk and fishing east end waters, there are myriad natural bottom formations that lend themselves to scoring with big fluke.
Spots like Frisby, Montauk Shoal, New Ground and Rocky Hill all warrant some attention, as does Cartright, which is in somewhat deeper water. While it's a bit of a ride, when the easternmost grounds are crowded, move west and fish the 20- to 40-foot depths off Amagansett and East Hampton, which receive less fishing pressure.
Boats sailing from Shinnecock Inlet need only sail two miles to the 36- acre artificial reef, where keeper fluke are regularly taken. The same is true for the party and private boats sailing from Moriches Inlet, where a 14-acre artificial reef is just 2.4 miles south of the inlet.
Fire Island Inlet features a huge 744-acre artificial reef that is two miles from the Fire Island Lighthouse. The waters from the inlet to the west have a unique configuration of submerged peninsulas extending much like fingers along the bottom in a southeasterly direction. Often drifting the high bottom along the edges of the dropoff produces results.
There are a number of wrecks off the mouth of Jones Inlet, along with such spots as the Stone Pile and the Mussel Grounds. The Hempstead Town reef, which encompasses more than 700 acres of bottom some three-plus miles south of Jones Beach State Park, is a super spot.
A couple of miles south of Long Beach rests the Fishing Line reef, consisting of 115 acres, and another piece of bottom where anglers will be able to target keeper fluke with a reasonable chance of scoring. The same is true of Atlantic Beach reef, comprising more than 400 acres of choice bottom.
As boats come out of Rockaway Inlet and clear the Breezy Point jetty, there are myriad fishing hotspots, most notably the Rockaway reef, which is just less than two miles offshore. There's Scallop Ridge, the Tin Can Grounds, Mussel Bank and the edges of Ambrose Channel, which has heavy ship traffic coming and going.
JERSEY COAST HOTSPOTS
The Sandy Hook Peninsula extends northward as the northernmost landmass off the Jersey Coast, and there is the Sandy Hook Channel that comes within casting distance of the point of the hook. Sandy Hook appropriately has its own reef a little over a mile offshore, not far from the Sea Bright reef. This area has many choice spots, where there is a substantial tidal flow in the New York Bight, as waters and forage flow seaward from Lower New York Harbor and Raritan Bay.
The Cedars, Sea Bright Grounds, and the waters adjacent to the huge natural rock formation known as Shrewsbury Rocks regularly produce keeper fluke. The key to fishing this rock-studded bottom is working along the perimeter to avoid the rocks and work the adjacent sand where the fluke are most likely to be.
Some of Jersey's hottest big fluke water is south of the Shrewsbury Rocks, off Long Branch, Elberon and Asbury Park. The grounds off the Red Church in Tackanassee are perhaps the most consistent producer of big fluke in the state.
The Sea Girt reef is off the closed Sea Girt Inlet. Nearby are the famed Klondike Banks, a pair of banks that extend up from the bottom in 60 feet of water. This area is a congregating spot for forage, and it's remarkable how consistent the action is atop the bank as opposed to the deeper water surrounding it.
Another popular bank for keeper-sized fluke is Manasquan Ridge, with much the same configuration as the Klondike, rising well off the bottom in 60 feet of water.
The nearby Axel Carson reef admittedly will cost some terminal tackle if you're not careful to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom as you drift along.
The Barnegat Light reef is about three miles off the inlet, and to the north between Island Beach State Park and Seaside Heights, there are a number of fingers extending into 60 feet of water, where drifting along the edges can bring strikes from the heavier fluke.
While there are times that all three Barnegat ridges (the North, Middle and South) produce big fluke, they're located 15 miles from shore, and most feel it's too long a ride, which was especially true last summer with the high cost of fuel.
Just four miles off Little Egg Inlet rests Little Egg reef. But between the inlet and the reef is one of the biggest concentrations of inshore wrecks on the coast. Extending down toward Absecon Inlet in water ranging in depth from 20 to 60 feet are numerous wrecks. Some are vintage trawlers or small sailing craft of an earlier era, but the waters adjacent to these wrecks can regularly be depended upon to bring strikes from keeper fluke.
However, it must be said that south Jersey waters are notable for the minimal numbers of keeper-sized fluke they produce related to north Jersey waters, where, historically, the fluke have been larger.
Both the Ocean City and Wildwood reefs warrant attention, but anglers who ply the waters adjacent to another substantial number of wrecks that are between Sea Isle City and Wildwood can put fish in the cooler in the 30- to 60-foot depths.
Using a computer and the Internet, astute anglers may obtain a wealth of information by going to Google and entering NYS DEC Artificial Reef Program or NJ DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife Artificial Reef Program. There's a wealth of information on each site that may be used to ensure that you are hitting the right spots, either with a GPS or Loran.
Concentrate your fishing efforts on the areas just discussed and use circle hooks whenever possible. Your keeper ratio will increase, with the bonus being that fewer fluke will be wasted as a result of catch-and-release mortality.
KEEPER TIPS & TACTICS
While all of the locations identified above will have populations of fluke during the season, it's important to forego the basic techniques that may have provided good action in the past, and switch to a system that results in catching fewer throwbacks. You'll catch fewer fluke, but more will be keepers.
First and foremost is the adage that "big baits catch big fish." Over the last decade, as size limits have continued to rise, I've foregone the small 2- to 3-inch killies, spearing, sand eel or squid baits, along with the customary bank-style sinker that sends a rig to the bottom.
My basic rig now consists of tying a small barrel swivel to the end of my 40-pound-test braided line. The heavier line enables me to pull free of bottom snags that I regularly encounter on rough bottoms. Next comes a 3- to 4-foot-long piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material, to the end of which I tie a small duo-lock snap. Midway between swivel and snap I tie a dropper loop into the leader.
Onto another 3-foot-long piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material, I tie a surgeon's loop, which I slip onto the dropper loop. To the end of the leader, I add a pair of snelled 4/0 hooks, one before the other, about 4 inches apart. Finally, I snap a heavy lead bucktail jig to the duo-lock snap, its weight being sufficiently heavy to bounce bottom with the line perpendicular to the bottom as we drift along. Usually 4- to 7-ounce models work nicely. To the primary hook, I loop an Owner 3/0 or 5/0 Dancing Stinger hook.
So rigged, I'm ready to bait up and send the rig to the bottom, the bucktail jig having permanently replaced the lead bank sinker I'd used for years.
With respect to bait, I regularly employ strip baits cut from squid, sea robins or dogfish, with the strips cut to torpedo shape, 7 to 10 inches in length by three-quarters of an inch in width. Don't make the bait too wide, as in that way the hook can lie over flush with the bait and not be in a position to penetrate as a fluke inhales it.
The lead hook on the leader is placed through the head of the bait, and the second hook is placed in the center of the strip, where it acts as a stinger hook and ultimately hooks the majority of fluke that grab it.
Next, I take a shorter strip bait, about 5 to 8 inches long, and slip the primary hook of the jig through the head section of the strip and the Owner Dancing Stinger hook through the middle of the strip.
Ready to go, I permit the jig-and-strip combo and the high-hook strip bait to settle to the bottom, all the while making certain I'm using a jig of sufficient weight to keep my line perpendicular. In this way I can control the action of the jig, gently twitching my rod tip, causing the jig to swim up from the bottom, with the strip bait fluttering behind and above as the jig and bait settle back to the bottom.
By keeping the line perpendicular, it prevents the rig from getting hung on the bottom. If there is a swift drift and too light of a bucktail jig, you'll have to keep letting line out, and sooner or later it's going to become hung up on the bottom, with the line at an extreme angle, which makes it difficult to pull free. Fish the rig straight up and down, and a good firm pull will usually free it.
On occasions when I can obtain live bait, particularly 5- to 8-inch long snapper bluefish, or somewhat smaller peanut bunker, spots or croakers, I use a single hook instead of the two-hook rig I use with a strip bait. I place the 5/0 or 6/0 hook through the lips of the baitfish, which permits it to swim about enticingly, emitting distress signals, as I drift it along the bottom.
Once you're drifting across a piece of choice bottom, take care to avoid lifting back too smartly with a swing of your rod tip. Instead, just twitch the rod tip so both the jig and strip or live bait just move about enticingly. I usually hold my rod pointing upward at a 45-degree angle as I twitch it. Then when I feel a strike, which sometimes feels like I've just snagged bottom, I lower my rod tip, and as the line becomes taut, I gently begin reeling. It's then that the rod comes to life, and as the fluke turns to swim away, the hook is set. Avoid those jarring strikes typical of television bass anglers, as that usually pulls the bait or jig away from the fluke.
Where you fish for keeper fluke this summer will make a world of difference in the number of fluke you're able to retain for the dinner table. By fishing the spots identified here with the suggested lures and rigs, you'll not have to release huge numbers of undersized fish.