How summer flounder use different methods to seek, find and destroy prey.
“I have a bite,” my son Alex proudly proclaimed. He was right; I could see the steady bend in the rod as the fluke swam off with his bait in its mouth. Seconds later his frustrated body language telegraphed his next comment before he ever muttered it. “It got off!”
“Open the bail and let line out,” I quickly instructed. It wasn’t the cleanest or quickest dropback I’ve ever seen, but upon flipping of the bail, the 11-year-old allowed the live minnow to stop moving at the speed of the boat drift. “Okay, now close the bail, tighten up and gently lift the rod tip,” I said almost whispering in an effort to gain maximum attention to detail.
“He’s back,” Alex eagerly barked before driving the hook home with a shaky, yet forceful thrust skyward. Once the quality fluke was in the net, he went to great lengths to describe how it all went down. “Dad, the fluke grabbed and let go and then he finally ate it after I let the minnow fall back, but why didn’t he eat it completely the first time?”
Alex was pondering what so many experienced anglers question when fluke are noncommittal. And there has been plenty of time for that kind of analysis as fluke filter into the back bays, sounds, estuaries and salty rivers in the latter stages of April into early May. By the time your own season opener rolls around, there should already be an abundance of fish ready and waiting to see baits for the first time in 2021.
May Days Fluking
These first few weeks are truly the best for fishermen to enjoy the skinny scene, often miles back in and away from the inlets, often splintering into a medley of channels, creeks and mud flats. At the outset of fluke season, the top of the tide and most of the ebb are best for action. Falling water that has had to time to be heated by the sun tends to be a couple degrees warmer because it is not fresh from the cold ocean like the flood tide. Rather, the ebbing tide has spent hours slowly absorbing the sun in the shallows which helps it warm. That can stimulate sluggish fluke into taking Berkley Gulp! Alive baits such as the swimming mullet, grub, paddle tail, shrimp and pogy amongst others.
Snap jigging with light braid in the 10- to 20-pound class works best. I prefer Berkley X9 due to its razor-thin diameter which allows me to use lighter jigs, bucktails or sinkers for my offerings. Speaking of other offerings, minnows are the granddaddy of live baits in the early months. Anglers can catch their own in the marshes or purchase them by the pint in coastal tackle shops.
Come June, I find fish in the backwaters are biting best two hours before and two hours after high tide. Toward the tail end of month, those summer flounder that didn’t migrate into the estuary systems but instead remained on the structure offshore will show some feeding activity for anglers. And not every area throughout the region will see the ocean bite develop in late June. Where I run charters in New Jersey for example, this early summer phenomenon tends to favor the waters north of Barnegat Light and those offshore of Cape May (which is why I trailer my 21-foot Contender).
As we move into July we’ll find more and more fish become active on the reefs, wrecks and deepwater structure, where they’ll also be joined by fluke slowly migrating out of the back bays and sounds. August of course is a robust fluke month offshore, and although fish remain in the bays, the ocean bite is at its best during the dog days of summer. Minus successive tropical events, the bite should hold strong well into September. I find that 5- and 6-inch Gulp! grubs are the go-to bait for ocean anglers and one would be hard-pressed to find any serious bay or ocean fluke anglers without a full arsenal of these, and other Gulp! options at the ready. Runner-up choices include whole and stripped squid, fluke belly ribbons, and an array of other meaty morsels.
Times Are Changing
In recent decades, innovation in underwater cameras has resulted in unprecedented leaps in product quality and affordability. They are more compact and technologically advanced, and best of all affordable. There are even cellphones that can go underwater to record footage or images. What does this mean? No longer does it require professional footage to observe fish – in this case fluke.
Aggressive and highly-adept fishermen are pushing the envelope in their underwater video footage of summer flounder. YouTube channels and social media platforms remain motivators for many amateur videographers that not only post raw footage, but edit, narrate and splice their work into entertaining and informative watches. Some anglers dive and record fluke moving around backwaters and ocean structure, but many more are now sending their cameras to the bottom while tethered to their fishing line or even long, custom poles. This has opened the door to understanding fluke attack behavior more than ever before.
Once thought entirely as an ambush feeder that simply waits in the sand and mud, it is now widely observable that they are far more than that. Yes, fluke use their camouflage to blend in with the bottom. A fluke’s pigmentation, and their ocelli appear mottled when the fish is stationed on a shell bed. Ocelli are the circular spots on a fluke that have a distinct border. When summer flounder lay in the sand, they can take on a tan or gray look to them. Those that are seen or caught on mud bottom, take on a dark brown coloration. Further exhibiting a fluke’s ability to change shades to blend, place a fish in your live well and let it swim in there for a couple hours. By the time you look, it will have lightened its hue considerably.
In addition, summer flounder can use their fins to cover themselves with sand and broken shells in order give themselves full cover. Only their unique, probing eyes remain visible as they watch for predators and prey. The hidden nature allows fluke to attack any bait that unknowingly stumbles their way. Grass shrimp, baby crabs, muscles and small fish are just a handful of items on the menu if they get too close. Conversely, their chameleon stealth allows them to hide from predators such as striped bass, sharks and other voracious fish hunting on the bottom.
Sometimes fluke are even their own worst enemy! When boated, larger fluke regularly choke up baby fluke from 2 to 4 inches, showing that a hungry summer flounder is adept at capturing other camouflaged prey. Aerial assaults from ospreys require shallow water fluke to blend. Underwater footage shows how fluke actively swim from location to location before settling down to stalk food and hide from enemies.
Probably the most intriguing wrinkle based on new age video footage is that of the fluke chasing presentations from anglers. The cameras demonstrate how the summer flounder swim along with the bait, truly analyzing it in many instances. Summer flounder often follow and observe presentations for a long time and over a wide expanse of underwater real estate. In these instances, they do not simply swim up and pulverize the offering. They inspect the opportunity before either biting or deciding not to bite. It’s as if they are higher order thinkers. Often, they grasp hold, let go, and then grab the bait again (think of my son Alex above). This sometimes occurs multiple times while picky fluke actually decide whether they want to eat the bait.
Furthermore, fluke will stalk a bait from a variety of angles. Fluke viewing the bait from the side will launch into predator mode, however, they will often swim above, below or on the sides of the bait. They can easily swim just as fast as the boat’s drift speed and at different heights off the bottom. At times, summer flounder will rest on the sea floor after pursuing, before mounting another charge at the presentation. Moreover, there are times when as many as three or four fluke will stalk a bait at the same time, just gliding along without always biting!
Knowledge Is Power
So fluke have a better ability to make determinations on what to eat than we ever thought before. If the situation calls for ambush, they can match their background and lie in wait. In the event they need to chase down their food, they have sneaky-fast speed that could be considered underrated in the fish world. A fluke’s ability to live on bare bottom or structure, or in the shallows to the deepest depths truly demonstrates their knack for long-term survival.
Anglers that understand a fish’s striking behavior can increase their hook-up percentage. For example, anglers that participate in not-stop jigging will have a better chance of fluke taking synthetic bait selections on jigs. The fact is, a fluke might be swimming right behind the bait, but need the extra stimulation of the active jigging to coax a strike. Likewise, if a fluke is dropping a synthetic bait and “picking it up” over and over, it is best to continue jigging. I’ve observed some of the best Berkley Gulp! anglers actually increase the jig rate after the bait has been dropped. This often works to entice a stalking fluke to totally commit, allowing the fishermen to thrust the rod upward for the set. This kind of Gulp! fishing for fluke is immensely effective and addicting.
There are other times where anglers are best to drop back a synthetic bait for three or four Mississippi’s, before lifting the rod to see if the fluke inhaled the bait. If there is no weight, then anglers should snap jig at a frenetic pace once again since there is a good chance the fluke is right there observing and deciding (we know this from the underwater footage). Fluke will definitely strike a Gulp that’s not being worked, although anglers that put in the effort to jig will catch many more fish in the long run.
Live bait is the same, but different. Fluke will follow the bait around before latching on. If the flatfish lets go, a live bait on a rig is better off being dropped back to give the fish a chance to gobble it down. Snap jigging is left out of the equation with the live bait since that kind of intense motion could actually shorten the life of a minnow, peanut bunker, baby bluefish or spot. After a live bait drop back, anglers should lift the rod to see if the summer flounder once again ate the bait. It’s really neat when the drift speed is below .6 mph, and a sizeable fluke that didn’t commit changes its mind and pulverizes the bait.
Anglers can detect a “nervous bait” as it darts around in distress before whomp. The rod tip shutters and goes still, as the question “Is this a doormat?” races through the mind even before the hook set.