Long Island’s ocean waters have a reputation for producing double-digit doormats during the ninth month.
With summer on the wane, savvy fluke diehards know it’s time to get serious since the last shot at putting a few outsize flatties in the box is fast approaching. The switch from summer solstice to the autumnal equinox begins the migration and departure of the summer flatties, and anglers working the ocean waters anywhere from New York Bight to Block Island Sound have an opportunity to intercept some fluke with truly big shoulders. In order to make this happen, there are a few things you need to know before you depart your home inlet.
During the autumnal equinox, the sun is at its minimum declination because it is positioned directly above the equator. This seasonal changeover leads to the cooling of ocean temperatures and triggers the migration of fluke from inshore waters to deeper ocean waters where they will spend the winter months. In the meantime, provided there are no major hurricanes or severe northeasters that cross our region, ocean fluking during September undoubtedly produces some of the most productive fishing of the season.
September can be one of the nicest months of the year to be on the water. On the flip side, it can be one of the most treacherous and hazardous if tropical depressions find their way up the coast, including those that remain offshore of us. We usually have at least several days before feeling the effects of any serious storm that begins to work its way up the East Coast, and though conditions may be mild and the sun shining, these low-pressure systems can cause large swells from hundreds of miles away that make traversing South Shore inlets extremely hazardous. Thoroughly check the marine forecast and long range forecasts that might indicate the formation of a tropical depression out in the Atlantic, even though it might be hundreds of miles away.
The Fluke Trail
For those who may only have a day or two to fish over the course of a week, you are probably wondering “where do I start?” There are many artificial reefs within easy range of all the inlets along the South Shore, and they are as good as any a place to start. That said, a good bottom recorder is paramount to locating structure and schools of baitfish. A GPS will certainly come in handy to mark any productive pieces of bottom that you may run into. At the reefs, some anglers will make the mistake of drifting over the reef’s main structure, which results in a lot of lost tackle. The most successful approach to fishing the reefs is to determine the direction of the drift and fish along the sandy fringes or the outer edges of the reef. Even then you will lose some terminal tackle but it is the cost of doing business.
Beyond The Reefs
Fortunately, there are many stopovers beyond the reefs big fluke pass on their way offshore. The key is baitfish. Find the baitfish near or on the bottom and there is a good chance of finding fluke. Break lines and drop-offs are often great places to find bait at just about any depth. On the average however, concentrate your efforts between 65 and 80 feet of water. Another option is locating and fishing areas where the ocean bottom has been dredged to put sand back on eroding beaches. Such areas are found along the South Shore where fossilized bottom provides countless depressions that draw in marine life. Not only do these holes attract big fluke, they also hold big sea bass and porgies during the fall season. While the Shinnecock reef is the easternmost of the artificial reefs along the Island’s south side, anglers working between Shinnecock and Montauk will find many areas of natural structure in the form of rocky terrain or broken bottom that becomes more abundant the further east you travel. Some of the easier areas to locate and mark on many navigation maps include the Panther Wreck, Frisbee Grounds, Cartwright Grounds, Rocky Hill, the Radar Tower off Amagansett and the North Grounds just east of Montauk Point. These are just a few of the countless areas that serve as stopovers for big fall fluke. If in your travels you find areas with lobster pot buoys exposed, try drifting around them since lobstermen place their traps in rocky bottom areas that also draw big fluke.
Working The Drift
Drifting is an essential piece of the equation to successful fluke fishing. A drift of 1 to 1-1/2 knots is ideal in the deep water since this speed keeps the fluke aggressively chasing down your bait while minimizing the activities of undesirables such as skates and dogfish. A drift slower than a half knot often results in a burdensome pick of skates, which can make for a frustrating trip. One way to resolve that problem is by power drifting. Kicking the engine in and out of gear and keeping the boat at 1 to 1-1/2 knots eases the skate activity.
A drift much over 2 knots may be too fast, requiring additional weight to hold bottom and will result in a lot of short strikes, particularly in water deeper than 60 feet. A sea anchor is the solution to slow the drift down and allow your rig to stay on the bottom to give the fluke a shot at the bait. Try to avoid days when wind against tide conditions eat up most of the trip as these conditions often result in a tough pick. I know it’s a tough call but if you have the option, take advantage of it.
Tackling A Doormat
Baitcasting and conventional outfits in the 20-pound class are best suited for this late season ocean fluking. You’ll appreciate a combo light enough not to cause fatigue from working the outfit all day, yet strong enough to handle a big fluke in deep water. An outfit I rely on to handle the job is a 7-foot KastKing PE-C701MF baitcaster joined with an Ecooda Tiro 50 Caster EX reel loaded with 30-pound KastKing braid. The outfit is light and well suited for most jigging and sinker bouncing applications to 8 ounces. You can check out this outfit at eposeidon.com.
At the terminal end, an 8- to 10-foot shock leader, preferably fluorocarbon of 30- or 40-pound test should be tied to the main line via an albright knot. The very reliable improved clinch knot completes the terminal end if you decide to use a jig or a 3-way swivel for plain Jane rigs.
Choose Your Ammo
Fluke rigs can be as simple as a plain hook and sinker, or rigs and jigs with all the bells and whistles, which can sometimes do a fine job of spooking big fluke. Not surprisingly, many double-digit flatties are taken on just a plain hook and sinker baited with a spearing and a strip of squid. And though most of us veteran fluke hunters are aware of the fact, there’s something about jigs that certainly helps spice up the game. Whether it be bucktails, fluke balls, lead-heads or diamond jigs, these tactics supply an added appeal and dimension to fluke fishing that keeps many anglers coming back for more.
Bucktails have brought a good share of big fluke to the net for me over the years as have ball jigs. Depending on conditions, they range from 2 to 8 ounces. Should I require more weight, I’ll either toss the sea anchor over or call it a day, because as I noted earlier, too fast a drift usually results in short bites and poor results.
When using bucktails under normal drifting conditions, I will slip a 3/8-ounce Spro prime bucktail approximately 2 feet up the 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and work it inside of a dropper loop. At the end of the leader, I will use a larger Spro bucktail or a Tsunami ball jig as the trailer via an improved clinch knot, with the size depending on water depth and the speed of the drift. On the small bucktail I add a 3-inch Gulp swimming mullet and a 6-inch swimming mullet Gulp on the larger jig. I think the scent of the Gulp is more relevant than the color, however, it can be a factor. Nuclear chicken and new penny are what I would suggest. As for the bucktail colors, glow, white, spearing blue and crazy chartreuse seem to be the most consistent.
Give ‘em Meat
If you prefer to use real meat on the jigs, the old standby of spearing and squid strips will produce. However, with the abundance of chub mackerel and sea robins just about anywhere you float above the fluke grounds, strip them down and give them a shot. Freshly stripped down sea robin or mackerel to about 4 inches works great on small bucktails, while a 7- or 8-inch strip of meat is hard to beat on the bottom jig. If available, you can add fresh bluefish or dogfish strips to the menu as well.
The older these big fluke get, the wiser they become, and just like us humans, the older they get, the less aggressive they become. Therefore, be patient. Never take the bait away from a fluke if you miss it on the first bite. The biggest mistake many anglers make is taking major league swings, and then reeling up to see if any bait remains. This is a no-no. Instead, keep the bait down there for at least a minute or two. Big fluke will follow bait a long time before committing to it. Therefore, give them a chance.
Lastly, I would like to mention that the past two fall seasons I spent time experimenting and found that 3- or 4-ounce diamond jigs tipped with a 6-inch Gulp jigged tight to the bottom convinced a handful of jumbo fluke and sea bass to commit to the diamonds. I found that the hammer-finish jig produced better than the smooth nickel-finish jigs. I also found that the Limerick hook attached to the jig was getting snagged on the leader, so I replaced the hook with a super sharp Gamakatsu 5/0 siwash hook and have had no problems with snagging the leader. Make sure to use the siwash with the open eye to make replacing a breeze.
Most fishermen I know enjoy fishing for fluke and harbor dreams of catching a true doormat. If we can avoid major storms, history should once again repeat itself as it does every September. The window of opportunity is short, but rest assured there are some monster flatties waiting in the waters off the South Shore. And if you are a subscriber, there’s a 23-foot Miami Steiger Craft up for grabs if you do score that Dream Boat doormat.