How do you catch a fish that has a mouth that’s sideways and swims like no other fish?
I have fished for flounder all my life – at least as far back as I am able to remember! They aren’t that difficult to catch, but it does take a bit of skill and some methods that may be different from catching other fish. The flounder’s mouth is sideways—he bites sideways, he swims sideways. Therefore, it makes sense to have a hook sideways to fit the flounder’s mouth–when he bites, he’s caught.
Flounder are bottom fish – they live on the bottom; they feed on the bottom; and, they swim close to the bottom. So it stands to reason that if you plan to fish for them, your bait better be close to or on the bottom!
But before we toss a bait out, we need to know a little about these flat fish. Where do they live, and where can I find them?
There are two basic species of flounder caught along the east coast of the United States – the summer flounder and the southern flounder. Summer flounder are found from Nova Scotia south to Florida. The more common name in the northeastern states is a fluke. Southern flounder are found from North Carolina all the way around Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. They are sometimes confused in the areas where both of them live, because their living and feeding habits are identical. For our purposes, let’s just say that flounder can be found along the coastal states from Maine to Texas.
All flounder have a migratory route that they make twice a year. In the fall summer flounder will migrate out of the estuaries, creeks, and inlets that have been home all summer and move to near-shore reefs and wrecks. Breeding takes place there during the winter months, and in the spring the migration takes them back inshore where the females lay their eggs. For winter flounder, the cycle is reversed. They live offshore and migrate inshore during the winter months to spawn. These habits make targeting flounder a predictable effort.
Whether they are migrating or between trips, all flounder have the same thing driving their behavior. They have to eat! So their habitat will be in a location that has food. And that food is primarily baitfish. Whether menhaden shad, glass minnows, mud minnows, small mullet, or shrimp, where the bait is, the fish will be also.
Flounder are what we call ambush feeders. This ambush feeding tactic is an important one to remember. Flounder almost always ambush their prey. Summer flounder are sometimes called chameleons of the sea for their ability to change color to match the surrounding bottom structure. Hiding on the bottom in a place that food is more likely to appear is what flounders are all about. Knowing this gives you an advantage. But, to plan to fish these locations, you need to know where they are!
Inshore, I like to locate flounder by locating the bait in a creek mouth. In the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) I run from creek mouth to creek mouth looking for bait. Feeder creeks and run-outs that allow water to exit a mud flat are ideal locations. I will quietly idle up to a creek mouth, shut the engine down, and just watch the water for a few minutes. I look for activity. I look for baitfish moving around the mouth of the creek.
Not every creek will have baitfish on any given day, and even creek mouths that have baitfish in them will not have them all the time. So choosing a creek mouth may take a little searching.
Why am I looking for a creek mouth? Good question! On an outgoing tide, water is coming out of that creek into either a larger creek or into the ICW or inlet. If that creek has baitfish in it, those baitfish will be coming out with the current. Any flounder in the area will position itself at the mouth of the creek, usually facing the current. It settles in, hides itself, and waits to ambush a meal coming out of the creek.
Oyster rakes or bars are also good locations to find flounder. The live oyster bar contains an incredible amount of sea life – from small crustaceans to plant life. Baitfish feed on this sea life, and flounder, in turn, will be feeding on the baitfish.
Water – specifically tidal current – makes its way around an oyster bar and tends to form an eddy on the down current end. Flounder will invariably position themselves on the bottom under that eddy and await a meal coming over or along the edge of the oyster bar.
Did you ever watch a current of water going by a piling or post in the water? You can see the small eddy that forms on the back side of the pole. The larger the pole or piling is, the bigger the eddy will be. Just like over the oyster bars, baitfish will be directed by the current around that pole and into the eddy. And, just like that oyster bar, flounder will be lying right behind that pole on the bottom, waiting on a meal.
Learn the habits of flounder and you can be ready to catch them! Wherever you plan to look for them, the fishing methods is almost the same. The idea is to put the bait, whether natural or artificial, in a place that the flounder will see it. You can drift a live bait with the current just off the bottom so that it makes its way past where the flounder will be. You can place a live bait on the bottom and move it through that same area. And you can take an artificial bait – close to the bottom – and imitate a live bait. The common thread here is to get the bait into and around that eddy or creek mouth and keep it close to the bottom as it moves through the area – what we call the strike zone.
For artificial lures, a lure that will provide an almost immediate hook-up is preferred. Long, plastic baits with smaller hooks will miss most fish. That’s because a flounder will tend to grab the bait and hold it for a moment. He may even swim with it for a few feet. Then he pops his mouth to get the whole bait inside. Only after that can you set the hook, and knowing when that happens is a guessing game at best. The hook design on the Flounder Fanatic™ changes all of this. When he bites, he is caught!
Other artificial baits are available. Small crank baits with treble hooks will work, but keeping them in the strike zone for any period of time is difficult. My preference is a jig head that allows me to use a shorter grub and that has a larger than average hook.
I like to use a four inch trailer on that jig. It could be a grub or a swim tail, but it needs to be no longer than that three inches. The fish has to be able to get the hook in his mouth when he first strikes the lure. The flounder’s mouth is sideways, his mouth opens and closes sideways; therefore, it makes sense to have a hook that is sideways—when he bites, he is caught. As for a color, many will work. My preference, because it seems to always work, is the white. My preferred rod is a STAR Rod #PG8161SM.
So, the bottom line in flounder fishing is this: Be in the right place – that’s where the flounder are – with the right bait, fishing it the right way. It’s sort of a fishing version of the butler, with a kitchen knife, in the parlor!