October 04, 2010
It's summertime and the time is right for fighting flounder. Here are the techniques you need to consistently land 'em.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
I was fishing close to the oysters, when my float quit drifting. I figured my rig was simply snagged on the bar.
I had not felt the telltale tap of a fish taking my bait. The coastal sea breeze had blown a slight bend of slack in my line. It did not bother me much, since a seatrout or spottail bass hits with enough authority to tighten the line and hook itself all in one instant.
This was no trout or spottail, but as it turned out, it was no snag, either: A flounder that had been hiding amongst the oysters waiting for unsuspecting prey to wander past had engulfed the bait and was methodically chewing on it. Flounder are notorious for taking their time about working a bait all the way into their mouths.
Many fishermen fail to recognize this, and consequently pull the bait right from the fish's mouth. In my case, this did not happen because when my float stopped, I paused in frustration. I made a sort of roll-my-eyes-to-the-sky gesture followed by a "dang it." I hated to give up the good boat position and disturb the location. But if I wanted to save my rig, I had to paddle over to it.
This pause as I lamented my predicament allowed the flounder to grab and position the bait in its mouth. When I tugged on my line one last time in an attempt, I thought, to free my rig, the hook was set, and I realized I had a fish.
Understanding how a flounder takes a bait is the first key to successfully fishing for them. Flounder are not run-and-gun predators like seatrout or bluefish. Only very rarely will they chase baits.
They are a hide-and-ambush eater with distinct characteristics that allow them to be effective at their game. Their flat bodies permit them to lie flush with the bottom. To keep one eye from always staring into the sand or mud, the eye migrates around the body as the fish grows from its larval to juvenile stage.
With both eyes looking up from a prone position, flounder are able to further blend into their surroundings by changing their body color to the color of the bottom. When an unsuspecting baitfish swims too near, the flounder rises up and snatches it, and then settles right back down in its lair to swallow the bait. And that's when anglers usually goof up.
"Flounder usually thump your bait, and then sit right back down with it," said Capt. O.C. Polk, a Charleston-area angler who fishes for flounder on offshore structures. "There's no hard tap, like other fish, and then a run. It feels like dead weight."
One of Polk's decades-long fishing partners, Zed White of Charleston's Whiteline Diving Company, agreed.
"A flounder doesn't go anywhere when he takes a bait. Nine out of 10 times he just sits right back down with it. The bigger fish seem to hit the bait harder, inhaling it, while the smaller flounder seem to hesitate and play with the bait more."
White described a story that further indicated how a flounder eats.
"A friend of mine and I were fishing one day when his finger mullet kept getting cut in half. Every time he'd bring it in he would say, 'A flounder got my bait again.' I kept telling him that it wasn't flounder but a bluefish.
"It is true that flounder have sharp teeth like a bluefish, but they don't slash at a bait like a bluefish, which is why a clean-cut bait is the sign of bluefish.
"Flounder get the whole bait. They have very large mouths. The next time we caught a flounder, I showed him how big a mouth they have. On an 8- or 9-pound flounder, a grown man can put his entire fist in the fish's mouth. Those sharp teeth help grab and hold the bait while the flounder repositions it. They don't cut a chunk out of the bait like other toothy fish."
So the key when fishing for flounder, no matter which technique you decide to use, is to give the fish some time to eat the bait before setting the hook.
Polk regularly practices his hook-setting skills on flounder found on offshore reefs and structure. These offshore spots are usually found within five miles of the beach. Flounder can be found offshore during the entire year, but they seem to be more common during the cooler months.
Once inshore waters begin to cool, flounder start to move closer to inlet mouths; many of them continue to move until they reach offshore waters. They will stay here throughout the winter, and most will start back toward inshore waters once they warm again in the spring. However, Polk has had dependable action right into May on offshore areas.
"A lot of people don't think about flounder being found offshore," he said. "This is probably because lots of other fish grab your bait before a flounder has a chance to get it. If you stay on the structure long enough and use the right type of bait, eventually you will get some flounder."
Offshore areas are magnets for a variety of fish species. Two of the sleek predators found in abundance offshore are bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
"When you drop a bait to the bottom, something usually grabs it in less than a minute. You are wasting your time, and money if you bought them, by using live shrimp offshore for flounder. Another fish will always get them before a flounder.
"I like to use finger mullet or mud minnows. Bluefish and Spanish will occasionally get these, too, but eventually they move off. Other fish found on the wrecks don't bother a mullet or minnow as much. Also, these baits are tougher."
One of Polk's tricks is to use slightly more weight than is needed to get the bait to the bottom, and through the layers of other hungry fish, quickly. Mullet and minnows are live baits that can manage being pulled by a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce piece of lead.
The weight is a slip-sinker rigged above a barrel swivel on 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament main line. Below the swivel, Polk employs a 15-inch leader of 20-pound monofilament line. A No. 3/0 or 4/0 straight-shank bronze hook completes the rig. All of this is fished on a medium-action 7- to 7 1/2-foot rod. Polk's personal preference is a baitcasting rod but admits a spinning rod works just as well.
There are many good artificial reefs up and down the coast that hold flounder. Working north to south, Paradise, Pawleys Island, Georgetown and Charleston Nearshore and Fish America reefs are potential spots
. Another idea is to purchase a commercially made map that shows other offshore features, and give these spots a try. These less-obvious areas might be better to fish during the normally crowded weekend days.
No matter which offshore spot you end up trying, your setup technique is vital.
"It is critical that you are able to anchor the boat correctly," Polk mentioned. "You can be at the best offshore flounder spot, but if your boat is not positioned correctly, you won't catch a thing.
"If you're new to this sort of fishing, it helps to mark the structure with a buoy. Determine the direction of the current, and don't forget about the wind drift as well, and anchor your boat upcurrent accordingly.
"You want to be able to cast or drop your bait right on the edge of the structure," Polk said. "Flounder will be found on the edge, not back in the structure. You gotta flirt with the structure," he added.
If your bait hasn't been thumped by something after a few minutes, move it slowly across the bottom. Remember, it is rare that flounder chase after a bait. But if he sees it coming toward him, he will wait right there and nab it when it passes near.
In addition to southern flounder, Polk said he also catches summer flounder on nearshore areas. He calls them "white-dot" flounder. Summer flounder feature well-defined dark spots that are fringed with a lighter color. Southern flounder have diffuse blotches that are not as readily conspicuous, especially in larger fish.
Summer flounder are uncommon inshore in South Carolina waters. The most common flatfish in the salt marsh is, by far, the southern flounder. One person who has literally spent a lifetime chasing flatties around Charleston is Zed White.
"I grew up on Sullivan's Island, and used to ride my bike all over the island to fishing spots," White recalled. "That was 40 years ago. I spent a lot of time fishing at Breach Inlet.
"I used to fish with a two-hook fish-finder rig, and I would mostly catch things like spots and whiting. There used to be this old guy that I'd always see fishing, and he asked me one day if I wanted to catch a good fish, something like a flounder. I said yes.
"He told me to bring my best rod to him, the one with a good drag. I wasn't paying attention to drag back then, but I took what I thought was the best one. He changed out my two-hook rig for a Carolina rig, and showed me how to fish for flounder. I've been fishing for them ever since."
White said there are a number of different combinations of factors and locations to find flounder, but two that he stressed were moving-water and shallow-water areas with slightly deeper water nearby.
"I catch flounder in a lot of different places," White stated. "Some times I can't see anything there, such as a piling, that would make a flounder be there, but they're there.
"Most of the flounder I catch are in water 3 to 6 feet deep. What I like to look for is an area with disturbed water. One of my buddies calls it 'troubled water.' It is a spot where the water is moving over or around something. There are ripples. Anything that disturbed the current would be the best way to describe it," White explained.
One example he pointed out would be a tiny feeder creek that has some oysters around the mouth.
"During the falling tide, as the water is being drained out of the creek, it will pull with it baitfish," White said. "The water coming out of the creek is disrupted as it hits the oysters, and eddies are formed. The flounder will wait in these areas to get the bait.
"The fish will be positioned either on the up or down side of where the water hits the oysters. If there are some breaks in the oyster bars, then the flounder might be in amongst the oysters. Don't think you need to head to deeper water once the tide is getting real low. The flounder can lie there in a foot of water," he added.
Oyster bars are scattered all through the salt marshes of South Carolina. White stated that even oyster bars that aren't associated with a creek can be good, too. For example, where you see an oyster bar poking out of the water, White suggested working a bait around the edge of it.
"Besides oysters, there are a host of other spots to find flounder," White stated. "Someone could spend an entire summer fishing Charleston Harbor, for example, and never fish all of the good spots. Any spots, such as rock groins, bridge pilings or pier pilings, will potentially hold flounder. You already know how many piers there are around the harbor, and this doesn't even include good places like Fort Sumter and the jetties."
White prefers to fish a bait on the bottom for flounder at these sort of locations. He uses a 6-foot, light-action rod with 20-pound braided line. He favors braided line because if he gets snagged he can usually pull loose without breaking the line by bending the hook. This way he avoids disrupting his fishing hole.
He normally uses a 10- to 12-inch 30-pound leader with a No. 2/0 or 3/0 hook rigged Carolina style with only enough weight, 1/8 or 1/4 ounce, to get the bait on the bottom. His favorite bait is a finger mullet, one about the length of your index finger.
"I'm not one of these people who drifts or trolls for flounder," White said. "I like to quietly anchor at a spot and work it."
How White works a spot is the key. He moves his bait slow.
"I move the bait with the rod and don't even worry about reeling. I point the rod to where the bait is and sweep the rod tip, forgetting about the reel the whole time. Once I've done a sweep, then I reel in the little bit of slack and sweep again.
"My bait will be on the bottom most of the time. If the area is too bumpy and the bait snags, then I'll put the bait under a float so it is suspended just off the bottom. If I have another person fishing with me, I work my bait on the bottom and put theirs under a float so all the scenarios are covered."
White remains adamant that no matter the area you fish you need moving water. The way he makes maximum use of the tide around Charleston Harbor is to begin fishing the outgoing tide farther up the harbor and move out toward the mouth with the falling water.
"By the time I get to the jetties it will be the last of the falling tide," he explained. "Once the tide goes slack, it doesn't stay slack for very long there like it does farther inside. I take a short break, and begin letting my bait move across the bottom along the rocks with the tide."
White said that wherever you find flounder, you'll find them there time and time again. He recounted a story where he was fishing at the concrete wall that is on the point where the Intracoastal Waterway dumps into the Harbor on the south end of Sullivan's Is
He and Polk had been catching a bunch of flounder where the tide wrapped around the wall and formed an eddy. Occasionally a fish would break off with the rig. Fishing this same spot a week or two later, they caught several flounder with their rigs still attached. They could identify the rigs by the way each of them tied their knots.
Flounder fishing inshore usually begins in earnest in May, sometimes a little earlier, and continues into November. No matter what time of year it is, you now have the tactics to take them inside or out.