While a common mantra for catching flounder — “fish near the bottom, stupid” — is mostly true, being tuned in to exceptions and nuances increases the odds of bagging big flatties.
No one’s better at doing just that than top fishing guides. I asked 10 such pros, based from Maine to Texas, with mega rod-and-reel flattie savvy, to share their winning ways of locating and latching on to flounder.
Guide: Capt. Barry Gibson
Contact: 207-633-5929, saltwatermaine.com
Region: Booth Bay Harbor
Species: Winter flounder (known as “blackbacks” locally)
With 46 years of guiding experience, Gibson knows where to point his 28-foot Whitewater during the hot flounder months of July through September. “Area tides don’t make a lot of difference,” says Gibson. “Flounder like moving water around coves, estuaries and inlets that present fairly deep centers and shallow fringes. A sand or gravel bottom is ideal, but they’ll also feed over mud and grassy areas as well as mussel beds and creeks that empty into deeper water.
Gibson’s Top Tips
• Go Zobo: Fish a Zobo rig developed by Pete Santini, a tackle-shop owner in Everett, Massachusetts. It’s essentially a high-low rig with hooks and 2- or 3-ounce sinkers painted orange or yellow for more visual appeal.
• Seduce with Sandworms: The best bait is a 3-inch section of a live sandworm. To make the worms less slippery, put them in a plastic container half filled with corn meal.
• Move It: Blackbacks feed more by sight than scent; try moving the bait a few inches at a time.
Guide: Capt. Jason Colby
Contact: 617-755-3740, littlesister1.com
Region: Boston Harbor and Quincy Bay
Species: Winter flounder
Catches of winter flounder weighing 3 pounds or more often reward anglers fishing with Jason Colby, a licensed guide for 35 years. He fishes up to six anglers aboard his 26-foot open-console Goldline with a 300 hp Yamaha. He says the best months for winter flounder are May, June and July, and August to September for summer flounder, aka fluke. (Colby says summer flounder are encountered more often during August and September past Cape Cod.) Colby prefers no wind, but a light breeze with the tide works fine. “Generally, I drift over smooth bottom and anchor where there’s structure,” he says.
Colby’s top tips:
• Drop Down: Flounder tend to gather on the deeper side of a ledge, especially on a falling tide, around creek mouths that feed into larger bodies of water. Sometimes flounder follow baits to an anchored boat, so periodically drop straight down.
• A Puff of Mud: When chumming in a current over mud or sand, bounce your rig on the bottom: Lift it 2 inches, and drop it suddenly. That creates a particulate puff each time the sinker hits, and blackbacks hustle over.
• Clam Up: Colby’s consistent success often relies on a two-hook tandem rig with one leader a little longer than the other. Put a clam on the shorter hook and a worm on the longer one — more flounder will go for the worm, but the clam is likely to attract the big boys.
New Jersey Flounder
Guide: Capt. Scott Newhall
Contact: 608-385-3729, timeoutfishingcharters.com
Region: Southern New Jersey
Species: Summer flounder
“Summer flounder start arriving around the coast in this area in April and during all of May,” says Newhall. “Then they head into the back bay before reaching the continental shelf for the winter.” A 10-year veteran in the guiding biz, Newhall fishes a 21-foot Contender. “In the back bay, you want two hours before and after high tide, since you often get cleaner water then,” Newhall says. “Light winds add to the bite, and I run a drift speed of half to 1 mile per hour.”
Newhall’s top tips
• Gulp! Over Gulp!: Go with a single-hook bucktail tipped with a Berkley Gulp!. Ten inches above that, thread a bare Gulp! onto a hook — all colors seem to work well. Vary the retrieve from a long stroke to rapid fire.
• Lots of Liveys: Effective live baits include minnows, peanut menhaden (pogies or bunker), baby bluefish, striped killifish or mullet, fished on a bare hook.
• Structure on Sand: For ocean fishing, stay tight to structure where the debris or metal meets the sand. If you get a bite and the flounder drops the bait, immediately set it back.
North Carolina Flounder
Guide: Capt. Jeff Onley
Contact: 252-333-6524, albemarlefishingcharters.com
Region: Albemarle Sound
Species: Southern and summer flounder
Jeff Onley, who guides from a 17-foot Polar Kraft, says the best flounder months in his neck of the woods are May to September, when winds come from the southwest to clear up water and push tides higher.
“I prefer braided 6-pound line, up to 12-pound around structure when bigger flounder or stripers are in the mix,” says Onley.
Onley’s top tips
• Deploy a Dropper: A dropper rig using a rounded weight and, above it, a hook tied to the line or leader, helps avoid break-offs around structure.
• Best Baits and Lures: The best live baits for flounder are croaker or mullet. For strip baits, he likes bluefish, squid or the belly of a gray trout or croaker. When fishing artificials, his go-to list includes Berkley Gulp!, swimming mullets and spinnerbaits, such as the Strike King Redfish Magic.
• Creek-Mouth Wisdom: Target mouths of creeks on the ebb tide and, on the incoming, deeper water over drop-offs and around structure with live baits.
Guide: Capt. Tim Cutting
Contact: 912-230-1814, fishthegeorgiacoast.com
Region: St. Simons Island to northeast Florida
Species: Southern flounder
A guide since 1990, Tim Cutting bags flounder year-round from his 20-foot Scout, but does best from June to late fall. “I’m not that big a believer in tidal influence,” says Cutting. “Flounder like clean, salty water and structure near an inlet. They gravitate to wherever the ocean feeds into marshes, jetties, docks and riprap.” Cutting utilizes his trolling motor frequently to cover water. He prefers a Carolina rig with soft plastics, using a sinker as light as possible above the swivel and a short 6- to 15-inch leader to limit bait movement where the bottom is snaggy.
Cutting’s top tips:
• Skip the Shrimp: Flounder seldom pass up live croakers, finger mullet, pinfish or menhaden. Junk fish, such as hardhead cats, tend to get to shrimp in this area before flounder do. Soft plastics, such as Berkley Gulp!s, do well along with spinnerbaits.
• Fewer Fails with a Kahle: Use a Kahle hook for more dependable hook-sets. On live bait, wait five to 15 seconds before a hard hook-set.
• Think Clearly: When water runs fast, it can become turbid, so concentrate on areas where the bottom isn’t silty. If you can’t see the bottom of your trolling motor, move.
Florida, East Coast Flounder
Guide: Capt. Alan Sherman
Contact: 786-436-2064, getemsportfishing.com
Region: South Florida
Species: Gulf and summer flounder
A Miami Beach head boat skipper for 20 years, Capt. Alan Sherman, who runs a 22-foot Pathfinder, knows a thing or two about flounder. “We usually come upon flounder while fishing for other species,” says Sherman, adding that the more frequently encountered summer flounder run 4 to 6 pounds but Gulf flounder are smaller. Late fall through winter, in sandy areas, near rocky bottoms, yields the best flatfish catches. Sherman likes moving water.
Sherman’s top tips
• Supersize Shrimp: In the colder months of winter, fish shrimp, which tend to run large, or else use pilchards hooked through the nose.
• Fish Finger Channels: Target finger channels. Tie the running line via swivel to a 30-pound monofilament leader with a 1/0 short-shank hook, and go with a ¼- to 1-ounce egg sinker, depending on current strength.
• Feel for the Fall: Bounce red or chartreuse jig heads with Gulp! along the bottom. Strikes usually occur as the lure falls.
Florida, West Coast Flounder
Guide: Capt. Paul Hajash
Contact: 727-251-2623, flyfishingflorida.com
Region: Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg
Species: Gulf and southern flounder
Capt. Paul Hajash (pronounced hash), who has been guiding since 1999, fishes a 201 Pro Guide Backcountry. “Flounder seem to migrate offshore during winter to spawn in deeper water, and come back when water is between 68 and 78 degrees during spring and fall,” Hajash says. Flounder — especially the bigger doormats — feed more by sight than smell, he adds. “Accordingly, they can see better in clearer water, where they lie hidden until something swims over their heads.”
Hajash’s top tips
• Guide’s Hot Spot: Good areas include the mitigation reefs that run from Sound Key south to St. Petersburg. Flounder congregate in sandy areas in 10- to 15-foot depths just off those reefs.
• Soak a Sardine: Live sardines with a 1/0 to 3/0 hook, fished with just enough split shot to get them to the bottom, are hard to beat. Nearly as good are tiger minnows, chubs and small pinfish. Mullet strips or small pinfish on a lead-head jig also work.
• Cast Up-Current: In Clearwater Pass when the tide is moving in or out, cast up-current and let your bait drift slowly or bump it along the bottom. Oyster bars anywhere often hold promise.
Guide: Capt. Troy Nash
Contact: 337-412-5950, southlouisianaredfishing.com
Region: South Louisiana
Species: Southern and Gulf flounder
Nash, who’s guided for 26 years, employs a 22-foot Ranger Bay. “Our best flounder fishing starts in October and November as they migrate into the Gulf to spawn,” he says. “We fish a lot of artificials, such as ⅛- or ¼-ounce wiggle jigs tipped with shrimp.” Nash prefers spin gear with a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and, if using bait, a 3/0 Owner hook with a shrimp threaded onto it. He adds a small split shot, then bumps the rig along the bottom of bayous and outflows. “You can catch large numbers of flounder in Vermillion Bay and around Marsh Island in the Russell Sage Wildlife Refuge,” he says.
Nash’s top tips
• Go to the Gators: Look for alligator trails where they enter and exit the water; these create holes where flounder like to nestle. Other points of water flowing in and out of the marshes are good too.
• Follow Slack Tide: Fish the end of high tide, when water starts to slacken, as long as water clarity is decent, then follow the slack tide to the next spot and on and on.
• Flounder on Fly: Fly patterns take plenty of flounder, particularly small poppers, Seaducers and lavender bendbacks. Put a lead wire on the flies to get them below the surface so flounder feel and see the push of water.
Texas, North Coast Flounder
Guide: Capt. Mike Losoya
Contact: 409-939-2311, getbentgalveston.com
Species: Southern flounder
Now in his sixth year of guiding, Capt. Mike Losoya fishes a 16-footer in marshes and a 23-footer in open bays. “Around here, we find a decent amount of flounder year-round, but the best runs occur in the marshes from October to November,” says Losoya. He searches for green water that’s neither stained nor crystal clear. Wind doesn’t seem to affect flounder, but he does look for mixed bottoms, “such as sand and mud together with shells around drop-offs in depths from 2 to 20 feet, with the 5-foot range most productive.”
Losoya’s top tips
• Better with a Baitcaster: Learn to throw a baitcasting rig to maximize precision with just a touch of your thumb to hit the points and run-offs.
• Texas Choice: Live shrimp, mullet, pinfish and croakers work well for those not adept at casting lures, but you should have good action with Berkley Gulp!s, MirrOlure’s Lil Johns and the Texas favorite, Corky lures.
• Cover Ground Looking Down: Use your sonar to look for irregularities in the bottom, such as small holes and rocks. Fish eddies in currents. Cover lots of water because flounder will be scattered in potholes as well as open areas.
Texas, South Coast Flounder
Guide: Capt. Bill Sheka Jr.
Contact: 361-991-7191, billsheka.com
Region: Laguna Madre and Baffin Bay
Species: Southern flounder
Few guides can match Capt. Bill Sheka’s prominence as one of the most famous fishing personalities in Texas. Now retired, Sheka plied the waters in a 21-foot Kenner and similar boats for 35 years. “We had good flounder runs in 2016, and prospects look excellent this year,” Sheka says, noting that tighter regulations have helped. “Fishing is best from October to December, when water temperatures fall below 72 degrees, because that seems to get flounder to stop moving,” says Sheka. “Drop-offs are the big key in shallow grass beds, as are points during a push of current.”
Sheka’s top tips
• Pop a Cork: A live shrimp under a popping cork can work magic if popped hard where grass bottom gives way to a channel.
• Twitch Versus Hop: Don’t hop baits along the bottom — they tend to snag too much in these waters. Instead, work your offering with small twitches.
• Cast Master: Precision casting will result in more catches — a difference of only 5 feet from where a guide says to cast can mean the difference between success and a big zero.
Types of Flounder
• (Paralichthys albigutta) range from North Carolina to Texas. This is a left-eyed flounder, meaning both eyes are always on the left side. Males typically reach no more than 14 inches; after their first year of life, they remain offshore. Females can grow to 18 inches.
• IGFA all-tackle record: 7 pounds, 2 ounces, from Bogue Sound, North Carolina, in 2011.
- (Paralichthys dentatus) often referred to as fluke, are a left-eyed species, abundant from Massachusetts to North Carolina. They can reach 26 pounds and live as long as 20 years.
• IGFA all-tackle record: 22 pounds, 7 ounces, from Montauk, New York, in 1975.
- (Paralichthys lethostigma) range from North Carolina to Texas and south into Mexican waters (minus much of South Florida). Also a left-eyed species, females reach 28 inches in length and males up to 14 inches. As with Gulf flounder, males head offshore after a year.
• IGFA all-tackle record: 20 pounds, 9 ounces, from Nassau Sound, Florida, in 1983.
• (Pleuronectes americanus) range from Maine to Georgia. Often nicknamed blackbacks or lemon sole, these right-eyed flounders seldom exceed 23 inches and
• IGFA all-tackle record: 7 pounds, from Fire Island, New York, in 1986.
About the Author
Doug Kelly is a freelance outdoor and travel writer. He’s the author of two books: Florida’s Fishing Legends and Pioneers (2011, University Press of Florida) and Alaska’s Greatest Outdoor Legends (2016, University of Alaska Press), both first-place winners of the Southeast Outdoor Press Association’s Best Book Award.