Reef Fluke Madness: Finding Structural Success - The Fisherman

Reef Fluke Madness: Finding Structural Success

You may lose a few rigs, but there’s more than just trouble when fluking the rubble.

Learn to work that ocean structure
Learn to work that ocean structure and you could be rewarded this month with a full bag limit of fluke and black sea bass on the same drift line.

It was late July, and the reef site had been firing for the last few weeks on keeper flatties.  As I slowed the vessel’s engine to neutral and my clients prepared for our first drift, we dropped on some low-lying rubble with the assistance of my Minn Kota trolling motor.  This same rubble had been a top producer over the last 10 years during this particular time of the season, consistently producing fluke to over 9 pounds.  Five hours later and we had close to our four-man limit of keepers with the biggest weighing a little over 8 pounds.

Without the cooperation of fisheries management, state agencies, and a host of fishing clubs — fishing outings like this one would not be possible.  New Jersey’s artificial reef system has helped to provide some 25 square miles of additional productive bottom structure.  With the state regulations at 18 inches, anglers need to target bigger fish to put a decent cooler together.  The structure of our local reef sites provide the ideal habitat for these hungry summer flounder.

As long as boat fishermen understand how to effectively work structures, anglers can cash in on quality doormats.

The Reef Evolution

Over 20 years ago, a combination of efforts by fishing clubs, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and its Division of Fish and Wildlife facilitated the deployment of 14 artificial reef sites along the coast of New Jersey.  There are numerous accolades to be given out, but a huge acknowledgement to retired NJ Fish & Wildlife biologist Bill Figley for his work on “our” reef program.

The reef sites vary widely in terms of depth and types of “hard substrate” that is resting on the bottom.  The substrate creates a natural habitat for mussels, barnacles, and other marine life that attaches to the structures.  Crustaceans, shrimp, nematodes, and mollusks will take up residence.  Over time these areas, produce highly productive micro-reef ecosystems for a host of different organisms from baitfish to gamefish to humans.  Obviously, our big “three” (fluke, sea bass, tautog) are some of the most economically important to New Jersey recreational, charter boats, and headboats.  But our coveted, sought after flatfish has the biggest economic impact for our state’s coffers as its season occurs during the summer months when Jersey Shore vacationing is the highest.

Finding Structural Success Finding Structural Success
On the left side Humminbird image is a barge, the second image on right being a tug, both pieces deployed as fish habitat along New Jersey’s artificial reef complex.

Fluke or summer flounder inhabit the benthic (bottom) areas of our coastal marine environment.  Fluke absolutely love these man-created structures as they provide: security, offer prime feeding or ambush areas, and create turbulent environments that hinder baitfish propulsion.  Summer flounder will feed on a variety of prey like juvenile sea bass, blackfish, crabs, squid, sea robins, shrimp, and the like.  Fluke are ambush predators and will orient themselves in positions that face the current, and is this is why drift fishing is so effective as they are used to seeing moving prey.

There are many different structures that have been deployed on our artificial reef sites, which include (but are not limited to) reef balls, rock piles, railroad cars, tire units, ships, barges, tankers, tugs, schooners, steel cables, freighters, and assorted other decommissioned commercial vessels all cleaned and stripped of machinery and fluid for Coast Guard Inspection.  Recently the state has also began deploying decommissioned caisson gates along the coast that are heavy-gauge steel units used in their former lives as a barrier to dam off the open end of a dry dock.

All of these structures have unique sonar signatures, substrate profiles, and drifting strategies; understanding the pieces at the reef sites can help you become a better angler.

Lay of the Land

Whether you have a trolling motor or power-drift, fluency and proficiency with your vessel’s electronics becomes pivotal in working the structure by either technique.  Anglers who operate their own boats should have a plan when working different structures within a reef site based on the species that are being targeted.  When drifting the reef sites for fluke, increasing the gain on the sonar will help it pick up subtle underwater structures.  In addition, savvy anglers understand the time-delay involved from the machine reading the bottom to where it actually is.  The new high definition and CHIRP sonar technologies provide incredibly clear and detailed images of the bottom structure.

Different bottom substrates will attract different species of gamefish and will show different images on the sonar.  Broken rubble, rock piles, concrete, reef balls and even tanks will show as smaller anomalies off the bottom only protruding up to a few feet.  These low-lying pieces are excellent spots to bag bigger sized flatties.  Fluke will be lying in the patches of sand between each piece of substrate as they feed on nearby baitfish that are attracted to these areas for safety and potential feeding opportunities.

Higher profiled structures like tankers or tugboats are much more visible with some extending up to 40 feet off the bottom.  These structures tend to hold increased concentrations of black sea bass and tautog as compared to fluke.  Tautog are very fond of any “holed” structures, such as steel-based vessels or barges as the holes offer ideal nighttime resting spots.  On these higher snags, fluke situate themselves on both sides of the structure as they are prime areas for baitfish concentrations that are forced into positions based on the benthic currents.

The fight
Slower drifts and near vertical jigging is the best way to put keepers in the box, and effectively work an area,” the author said of fishing the reefs, wrecks and rock piles.

Train cars are an additional place to find big fluke waiting for a meal as they could be positioned on either of the sides or the top of the cars.  Anglers working the vertical jig should be ready for the bite as they drift towards the cars.  Fluke tend to be positioned close to the edges of the cars as they create pockets of baitfish holding turbulence.  By reading the sonar and following the contouring of the structure, anglers should crank the reel to bring the lure on top or above the car as these are additional areas where divers have located big fluke.  This practice will reduce the amount of snags and lost gear.

As the sonar shows a drop in structure, anglers should slowly drop the lure to the backside of the train car where more bites can occur.  Sometimes the wind and the drift do not cooperate being that they are going in the same direction (drift too fast) or in opposite directions (drift too slow).  When these situations occur, power drifting with the main engine or employing some type of trolling motor technology will help you catch more fish.

Strategic Placement

A common strategy employed by most successful fluke anglers is to slow the drift over areas that have feeding keepers as this keeps the lure in the strike zone longer and allows for near-perfect vertical jigging.  A lure or bucktail presented on a 0-degree angle vertically (straight up and down) from the surface will maximize: presentation, jigging effectiveness, and increase the amount of hookups.  As the drift increases, a lure will swing out past a 45-degree angle from the vessel, which wiill dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the lure or bucktail.  The increased angle will reduce the presentation of the lure and reduce the feel for anglers.

There are several ways to combat this: using a sea anchor, by power drifting, or through use of a trolling motor.  A sea anchor is the cheapest, but least effective at slowing the drift as basically a parachute like device is deployed in the water and tethered to one of the cleats.  The floating sea anchor will slow the drift down by creating additional drag on the boat.  The technique is ineffective when wind and current are in opposing directions.

Power drifting is another popular technique employed for a variety a species and even in the backwaters as anglers bump the motor “in and out” of gear to produce the desired drift.  This can be very effective in slowing the drift down over a “hot zone”.  But one of its limitations is that someone always has to be at the wheel and throttles to keep the drift; there is also an increased chance of lines being wrapped in the engaged propeller.

Trolling motors, which are somewhat new to the Mid-Atlantic Bight and increasing in popularity, provide an alternative means to keep the boat over a hot area, slow the drift, or for creating more favorable drift conditions.  The advantage to using a trolling motor over power drifting is the precision and remote-operation capabilities, and increased quietness in shallow-water operations.


While the qualified and experienced staffers working for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and its Bureau of Marine Fisheries are ultimately responsible for site selection and deployment of reef materials, much of the funding for purchasing and cleaning these vessels comes from local fishing club and individual angler donations; matching grants from the federal Sport Fish Restoration program managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also contribute to the efforts via the federal sport fish tax on fishing gear and boat fuel.

In the NY/NJ/DE region, much of the monies for deployments are sponsored by The Sportfishing Fund, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity based in New Jersey and originally established in 1988 for the purpose of building and supporting reef sites.  For information about The Sportfishing Fund and how you or your fishing club can donate to future reef deployments visit or call 973-216-6216.

Overall, reef funding provides far more than habitat for our marine species, but also a sizeable stake in the state’s revenues – i.e., tax revenue from the state by means of tackle sales, lodging accommodations, highway tolls/fares, food/beverage/ice sales, fuel sales, slip fees/rentals, and the like.  Hopefully, our state legislatures are reading this as reefs are not a “one and done” venture, but need continual replenishing as structures degrade and coastal storms can sand over structures.  It is vitally important that we keep our reefs productive by periodically adding new structures to them.

For example, anyone who fishes Barnegat Light Reef or Little Egg Reef knows that these are needing some TLC as a lot of the benthic substrates have been completely sanded over from Superstorm Sandy.  In the past year, the Junior Mate program of the Beach Haven Charter Association has spearheaded a movement for the deployment of new structures to the Little Egg Reef this season; hopefully will this “movement” will continue to the other 13 reef sites.

The importance of the artificial reefs to New Jersey’s saltwater angling industry cannot be understated as so many anglers rely on their presence and fish-attracting qualities.  By employing the right fluke drift tactics for each type of structure, anglers can harvest the fruits of these bottom structures.

Remember, slower drifts and near vertical jigging is the best way to put keepers in the box, and effectively work an area.  Trolling motors and power drifting are much better alternatives to straight drifting or drifting with a sea-anchor.  As with any type of activity, the more practice that is done, the more comfortable and effective you will become fishing the reefs.


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