Set your sights on deep water when hunting double-digit Dream Boat fluke this summer.
It may well have been 34 boats, but it sure looked like a lot more like 54 to me. We had caught our stripers under the cover of darkness and were on our way to check out another spot at the east corner of Robinsons Hole when I noticed much more traffic on this mid-week morning than the previous day. It was a bit early in the summer flounder season, and in the locations I hunted fluke I’d always found that many of the larger specimens moved through in deeper water during the first wave. I had been prospecting a few places, and the day before we hit the jackpot. On the very first drift, while I was still cutting bluefish strips for bait, two dead sticks simultaneously bent under the weight of a brace of aggressive fluke. Mike grabbed one rod while I unfastened the net. When we saw color the first summer flounder of the year were an identical pair of 20-inchers that had duped me into thinking they were much bigger. Looking around I realized we had the place to ourselves. I’d set up our first drift on the east edge of Lucas Shoal in Vineyard Sound with our only competition a New Bedford day boat dragger working near the Menemsha Inlet. We topped a cooler full of fluke from 18 to 23 inches.
Because of the crowds on that second day I decided to try a few deeper locations I had fished in the past, one of them the wreck of the John Dwight, a sunken rum runner Tim Coleman and I found many years ago and included it in our book, Fishable Wrecks and Rockpiles. To further frustrate me; on our way over toward the wreck, a boat with three excited anglers was waving us down to make an inquiry. “Where is Lucas Shoal, we heard some guys killed the fluke there yesterday?” So much for fishing alone.
Deep-water fluking requires a bit more preparation and finesse than fishing in shallow areas, but the rewards are well worth the effort. The Dwight is in 80 feet of water with nothing left but a sizable debris field created over the decades. The growth from this deterioration of the ship has made it a very impressive and productive location. The key when looking for areas to target big fluke need not be large or very obvious structure. A 10-pound slab can hide in a 2-foot slough or indentation as the tide runs over its concealed carcass with only its beady eyes protruding from its lair.
Some of the largest fluke I’ve caught came from this general area with the only problem being the number of other species that take up residence on this productive habitat. While big fluke can be caught on plain vanilla and gravel bottom, I prefer to direct my efforts on structure. Fishing the structure usually means having to deal with cunner (choggies), black sea bass and occasionally some bluefish that patrol the mid-water column. For that reason, I employ a jig-and-teaser combo with a strip of salted bluefish skin; even if the skin is ripped off, the big fluke will readily attack the jig or soft plastic squid teaser. You will rarely find small fluke in areas where bigger stripers and bluefish pursue larger quarry. If they dare enter this habitat they often become the prey.
On that fateful morning I had a bit of trouble locating the wreck, but as soon as we doubled-up on 2-pound choggies I knew we were close. The chogs were not discarded but put on ice for a dear old lady who made the most delicious fish chowder with a species some refer to as sea perch. Once we cleaned the pests out my partner landed a thick, 24-inch fluke, and when the tide went slack it became easier to stay over the debris field where I landed a 6- and an 8-pounder. We lost some gear, but we had the place to ourselves. However, when my marker buoy began to dip under the surface on the changing tide we pulled up stakes and headed home. I have stated that I would rather catch one 5-pound fluke fishing alone than 10 barely-legal fish drifting amid a fleet of boats, and that is the absolute truth.
My deep-water rigs consist of a 2-, 3- or 5-ounce Andrus lima bean jig set about 12 to 18 inches under a three-way swivel. The side ring supports the 24- to 30-inch Tsunami 5-inch squid fitted with a 4/0 or 6/0 Tru-Turn hook. I prefer 50-pound test leader material as it is strong and does not twist after a few fish, and in the event a big fluke swallows the rig whole you can land it before those needle-sharp teeth cut it in two. When fishing very sticky bottom I reluctantly omit the bottom jig and tie on 12-pound test mono with a dropper loop to deploy sinkers of the proper weight to get the scented squid tubes down into the strike zone. If I hang up then the sacrificial light break away line gives, saving the main rig.
My partiality for deep-water fluking was not a decisive choice; in fact it began as an accident. About 25 years ago I had a client’s boat out in the deeper water of Middle Ground in Vineyard Sound drifting eels for stripers. I was disappointed with the tiny size of our eels, which I had rigged to fish on a 3-way swivel. The clients were getting hits and setting up much too quickly when I asked to borrow one of the rods. After inspecting the eel, I saw the tell-tale tooth marks of small, sharp teeth much smaller than a bluefish, yet deep enough to make an impressive slice. I cut the tail off leaving about 5 inches of head and bleeding body and made a cast. After several turns of the reel I felt the bump-bump of a strike and dropped back. The fish took up the slack and I began to reel. Sure enough it wasn’t the powerful initial run of a striper but a deep, pulsing dive for the bottom. That fish put up a heck of an argument, and I was the only one aboard who wasn’t surprised when a hefty 24-inch fluke, and not a striper, was slipped into the big Frabill net.
I switched over to my 3-ounce, three-way fluke rigs and we began catching fluke from 22 inches up to a fat 8-pound, 28-incher. During that hectic half-hour around the bottom slack we caught five fluke and two stripers from 15 to 17 pounds.
I’ve always believed that fluke and stripers are where you find them, and quite often it is in much deeper water than most anglers choose to work. While I am working the 50- to 60-foot depths at the mouth of the Sakonnet River, the party boats from Point Judith and occasionally Montauk, NY are fishing the deeper waters of Rhode Island Sound a few miles further out. The fact that they are out there on a consistent basis indicates that they are putting their patrons over quality fish.
If you decide to fish for fluke in the depths leave the spinning gear at home. Yes, many anglers do employ spinning gear, but I believe that lightweight conventional outfits are vastly superior for line control, sensitivity and power. I’ve progressed from heavy conventional rods and reels to the lightest, powerful and most sensitive outfits I have ever put my hands on. My current deep-water fluke outfit consists of a Maxel Hybrid 25 reel filled with 30-pound test Yo-Zuri braid mounted on a Tsunami Acid wrap slow pitch rod. With my thumb on the spool I can easily control the drift, and one turn of the handle engages the reel. This outfit is not only capable of beating stripers or tog three times the size of your average fluke, but yellowfin up to 35 pounds.
About 15 years ago I made a few passes over a deep, boulder-strewn bottom with my tube and worm rigs and caught two big fluke up to 8 pounds. If you don’t set the hook and allow the fish to work his way up the worm to the hook you will catch many more flounder, tautog and jumbo scup, which unlike stripers do not strike the worm in the head but begin at the tail and work their way up to the hook. I enjoy casting and drifting for fluke in areas where you might find a daring bass fisherman trying to coax a striper out of the structure. These habitats have one thing in common. Big rocks and boulders on the bottom of smooth sand and gravel bottoms, the ideal place for a big fluke to ambush cunners and scup that frequent these areas. On some bright sunny days, I take a few minutes to catch some big cunners and then live line them off the squid teaser rig tied off about 18 inches over the jig.
One last suggestion about fishing deeper waters. Once the fish is hooked take your time and keep steady pressure on it, but avoid the practice of pumping and horsing the fish to the surface. This usually results in creating a large tear where the hook is, and on many occasions one head shake at the surface results in the loss of the fish. Never lift a fluke’s head out of the water, either. Have the net ready, preferably still and up against the hull and move the fish over to the net, which can then be lifted under the fish. Fluke are hardy, and unlike tautog and cod, a fluke hauled up from 75 to 80 feet of water will swim right back to the bottom when carefully released.