Having the tools to shift gears and vary your approach to the fluke game helps you catch more and bigger fluke over the course of a season.
Whether you call them fluke or summer flounder, these toothy flatfish remain the prime target of many inshore anglers from May to September, despite the rising popularity of porgies and sea bass whose numbers have soared in recent years. Unlike winter flounder, fluke are aggressive in their feeding habits and as a result respond to a wide range of techniques. For many years, the typical approach to fluke fishing in most of our region was to drift along with a sinker and hooks baited with combinations of killies, spearing and squid in your wake. We’ve come a long way in the last several decades, with numerous other baits now standard fluke fare, and many anglers even shunning bait for bucktails tipped with soft plastics and of course Gulp.
Despite the numerous options available when targeting fluke, many anglers get locked into using the same tactics trip after trip, often adopting the philosophy “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For example, there is no denying the effectiveness of employing light spinning tackle to deliver a bucktail tipped with Gulp, especially in shallow bays, harbors, inlets and Long Island Sound, but to limit yourself to just that one technique throughout the season, which many folks seem to be doing these days, may mean catching less or smaller fish under certain situations.
I’m a big advocate of light spinning tackle for most fluke fishing situations, since it allows the advantage of covering more water and keeping your offering moving, especially when dealing with poor drifting conditions or fishing during slack water periods. We’ve covered casting for fluke in great detail over the past few seasons, so I won’t dwell on all the reasons it is so effective, and alsowhy it is my favorite way to catch fluke, but there are times it is not the best way. In fact there is no one technique that works best all of the time.
That said, the consummate fluke angler should be skilled and equipped to fish light tackle and bucktails as part of his or her game. A light action 6- or 6-1/2-foot spinning rod and 2500 to 3000 size spinning reel spooled with 10-pound test braid will put you in the game. A selection of 3/8- or 1/2- to 1-1/2-ounce bucktails and plain leadheads, along with a selection of 4- and 5-inch Gulp swimming mullet, 6-inch sand eels, shrimp, grub or minnow in white, chartreuse or pink should cover most of the bases. You can also opt for a selection of plain leadheads in the same weight range to deliver your Gulp offerings. When selecting leadheads, I’ve found those with large, visible eyes tend to draw more strikes than those without. A nice aspect of this light tackle approach is that you will also score more than your share of sea bass, porgies and even stripers and weakfish on these offerings, if they are in the area. And, whatever your opinion of them, sea robins have a fondness for Gulp also.
Many big fluke have been caught on small bucktails tipped with Gulpor some type of bait, but before you give up drifting traditional baits like spearing, sand eels and squid, there are times, especially during the early part of the season when water temperatures are on the cooler side, that meat can out-fish artificials, including Gulp. There may even be times during the course of the season when those traditional baits may produce more or bigger fish, especially if you are not very well versed in the bucktailing game.
When it comes to bait, there are a slew of other options that can make a difference in your fluke score. Using baits like smelt, sold in some tackle shops and in the frozen fish section of many supermarkets, will often attract bigger fluke. The fillets from small bluefish (my favorite), mackerel or bunker can be deadly when big fluke are in the neighborhood, and will also eliminate, or greatly reduce bites from undersize fluke and sea robins, giving you a better shot at bringing home a limit of keepers or maybe even that double digit doormat. Whole squid, and large strip baits from sea robins or the belly strips from legal size fluke fall into the same category.
While I’ve presented baits like bluefish fillets served up on 2- and 3-ounce bucktails with a light spinning outfit, a better approach for most baitfishing situations where casting is not involved is to opt for a medium/light to medium action baitcasting outfit spooled with 20-pound test braid. Keeping your line on the lighter side combined with the fine diameter of braid allowsyou to keep sinker or bucktail weights to a minimum and enables you to feel the lightest pickup as a fluke mouths your bait. This is especially important when fishing in water depths ranging from 30 to 70 feet.
The best way to present these larger baits is with a tandem hook rig. There are a number of commercially made rigs availablein tackle shops, some featuring a sliding upper hook that allows you to adjust the spacing of the hooks on longer baits. You can also make up your own by snelling two hooks on a length of leader material using a sliding snell for the upper hook, or two fixed snells approximately 3 inches apart. These larger baits can also be served up on bucktails. Here again I would advise tandem hooks. There are some ready-made bucktails with tandem hooks on the market, but you can easily add a trailing, or stinger hook to your bucktail by tying onto the back end of the eye of the bucktail. Abrasion resistant fluorocarbon of 40-pound test is good insurance against the sharp teeth of a big fluke, while some fluke sharpies favor a short length of piano wire to connect their trailing hook.
The key to presenting any of these baits, including smaller baits like spearing or squid strips, is to make sure the bait lays straight along the hook. Tandem hooks on fillets or large strip baits help ensure the baits stay straight and keep from spinning. And while we’re on the subject, the same can be said for fishing any soft plastics or Gulp. Make sure when you slide them up the shank of the hook that they sit parallel to the shank and there is no curl to them.
Fishing with live baits is another approach that too few anglers take advantage of, and are rarely prepared for. If you own your own boat, most of today’s boats that are designed with fishing in mind are outfitted with some sort of onboard baitwell. Some are too small to hold a sufficient amount of large live baits like adult bunker, but most can hold an adequate supply of smaller baits like snappers, peanut bunker or spots. All three make excellent fluke baits and will draw better than average size flatties. Rigging is simple. A drail followed by a 3- to 4-foot leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon finished off with a 3/0 light wire hook, or a 4/0 short shank live bait hook, will do the trick.Keep the drail as light as needed to stay on the bottom with a minimum of scope.
If you are a victim of doing the “same old” every time you leave the dock headed for the fluke grounds, or even when you board a party boat for that matter, think about getting out of that rut and be prepared to diversify your tactics based on the area or conditions you encounter that day. It means having a couple of different outfits as discussed here, and a well-equipped “fluke tackle bag” with the terminal gear required to allow you to switch your approach as the situation warrants. Think about acquiring a few live baits like snappers or purchasing a few spot for the livewell before heading out.Party boat anglers can tote a small portable, battery powered live bait bucket and put away some snappers before departing the dock. During August and September, finding snappers is rarely a problem, and catching them is still fun no matter how oldyou are. If you can throw a cast net and can locate some peanut bunker, add them to your livewell. Picking up a few fresh bunker or even frozen mackerel from your local tackle shop ensures you have some good fillets for strip baits to increase your odds of connecting with some keepers, given the large minimum size limits we fish under these days.
Be alert to opportunity when you are out on the water. Maybe it’s encountering a school of bunker on the fishing grounds, or small bluefish working under birds. In either case, these are excellent opportunities to acquire some prime baits. Be sure that “fluke bag” we spoke about contains some bunker snaggers, some small metals like 007s to toss at cocktail blues, and a few small spoons for snappers. By late August and early September, schools of snappers begin moving out of the creeks and canals and gathering for their move out of the bays and harbors. It is not uncommon to find large schools being worked over by clouds of gulls and terns, making them easy targets for a quick supply of live bait.
No pitcher worth his salt can get away with just a fastball. Being able to throw a good slider, curve and changeup is what makes a good pitcher. Those anglers who can adjust their approach to a wide range of conditions, vary their techniques, and take advantage of the different opportunities available on the fluke grounds, invariably wind up on top when it comes to the filleting table.