May 2 Kickoff: Hunting Skinny Water Flatties - The Fisherman

May 2 Kickoff: Hunting Skinny Water Flatties

author
The author with a good-sized back bay jumbo.

One of the earliest starts in recent Jersey history sends fluke fishermen westward! 

After a cold and dreary winter, spring has finally sprung! The estuary is warming as the days get longer and the “circle of life” begins again.

Those mudflats are warming in the sun’s rays and the microorganisms, worms and clams have awakened from their winter nap.  Baitfish have reappeared and everyone it seems is coming to the party. The largest inshore fluke of the year normally comes very early in the season.

But fishing in the back can be quite a bit different than inlet or reef fishing; much easier in many ways. The fun is in the simplicity of it, but to excel at it is another story entirely. Most boats catch fish on most days, but your attention to detail will improve the quantity and quality of your fish.

The small tin boats, rentals and pontoons, all drift in the same spots as the large center consoles do, so all are welcome in our safe in our protected backwaters. This is the safest way for a parent to take a young family fishing in salt water. Equipment need not be elaborate, but a couple tricks in rigging will keep those poles bent enough to keep everyone excited.

family
Back bay fluking at the Jersey Shore is and has always been a family affair, as the author (shown here with daughter Tara) can attest.

Outback Strategies

The bottom contour in our salty rivers and back bays are a giant maze of channels, holes, sand flats, and sedge islands with an almost exclusively sand bottom. These channels twist and turn in every direction, and finding the ideal conditions becomes your quest, especially if you want to be consistently successful at catching larger than average fluke. It should be as simple as applying some local knowledge of your area with tidal flow, wind speed and direction. These conditions will change throughout the day as the ebb tide slows and it starts to flood. This period of slack water will normally find the wind being more powerful than the tide, so your drift will change. With wind against the tide, you will often be at a standstill covering very little bottom and catching very few fluke.

Fluke are always feeding into the current; baitfish are being pushed by this current.  Imagine the water flows from a sand flat into a deeper channel. The fluke will stack up where the shallow water drops off. They lie in wait for the current to bring them their meal. Position your boat close to the edge so you can cast a bait into the shallow and have it drift off into the channel. This concept of drift positioning is what will take you to the next level. Finding a small pocket of fish and quickly repeating the drift is key. If we get two or three fish quickly, I will drift maybe 100 feet and I’ll be right back on that spot.

The perfect inshore drift is when the wind is across the tide. The tide is pushing you down the channel while the wind is pushing you across the channel.  This lets you cover large areas of bottom looking for fish. Depending on the current flow, the fish may all be holding on one side of the channel, or maybe they’re in the center. Find the bites; get on top of them and beat the heck out of them!

rigs
The author likes to bait up with 4- or 5-inch Gulp shrimp in early season fluking trip in the back bay.

Local Intel

You can’t change the wind direction, but you can change the tide!  Let’s look at Great Egg Inlet for example; during the incoming tide behind Longport, the tide flows toward the north. At the same time on the other side of the inlet this same tide is flowing toward the south. So, if you need to swap tidal flow to help your drifting conditions, spend more time on the water and learn your area!

Making an excellent presentation will help to up your catch dramatically. Most of the time we are in water between 10 and 30 feet deep. Your presentation may become more horizontal as it is not up and down. Make it swim, not drag!  So, when drifting along as your rig scopes out away from you, that weight that you want bouncing on the bottom is literally dragging across the bottom. Why does this matter? A baited jighead is meant to “swim” just off the bottom. Very near and touching occasionally is great but dragging is easily corrected.

I normally fish a light spinning rod in the rod holder cast about 20 feet from the stern. In my hand I’ll be fishing a light conventional rod. Both rigged with similar rigs. A small jighead on the bottom with a 7/0 Owner Ballyhoo hook on a dropper loop 18 inches above the jig. For me 20-pound fluorocarbon does the trick. I bait up with 4- or 5-inch Gulp shrimp or grubs, but I’ll often tip my jigs with strips from a sea robin or that first over 18-inch fish of the day.

smaller-boats
In addition to the backwaters many smaller boats may be working the inlets for fluke to start the season, especially during the weekdays when boat traffic is not as heavy. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

The unique part of my rig comes from adjusting the weight of the jig. I will switch between 1/4-, 3/8- and 1/2-ounce on the long line. It will drift nicely near the bottom while in the rod holder. The rod in my hand is normally a 3/4-ounce jighead that I work constantly. This rig stays vertical almost beneath me while the other is covering water further back.

Always have a plan for the upcoming tide. For example, maybe we are drifting a channel during the outgoing tide; but as that tide is starting to slow almost to a stop, you’ll find me carefully working a deep hole. Wind is the only thing moving us now, so we can spend some time in this big fish zone bouncing a jig straight off the bottom. Use the wind to push you across this hole until you’ve worked all sides and the center.

NJ REGULATIONS IN ‘22
As approved by the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council on April 7, New Jersey’s summer flounder regulations for 2022 will feature a three fish bag with two fish from 17 to 17.99 inches and one fish at 18 inches or over. The season opens on Monday, May 2 and will run through Tuesday, September 27.

Another great slack tide spot is next to a bridge. The base of the pilings is normally covered with rocks under a bridge. These rocks quickly transition back to sand when moving away from the bridge.  This is a great slack tide spot to bounce a large ball jig looking for a jumbo! Just like we do on the reefs later in the summer, this technique is very position oriented. It takes some effort to stay in the zone but pays big when it does.

When you’re running the boat, help yourself! Luck will only get you so far. If it is larger fluke that you seek, work hard, and pay attention to the details! The shallow water and controlled drift will let you dial in on your rigs and the spots you fish during different conditions.

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