If you don’t live in the Northeast, you’ve probably never fished for winter flounder. There are two major types of flounder that inhabit our waters, summer flounder, also known as fluke, and winter flounder, usually referred to as flounder.
Fluke get most of the press while the winter flounder is often treated as a step-child. Flounder were once very abundant, but due to their popularity as table fare and warming waters, the flounder fishery has dropped off considerably.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great flounder fisheries. In recent years, the flounder population has noticeably rebounded, especially from south of Boston to points north, and this has been good news for kayak fishermen. Flounder are probably the most accessible saltwater fish for those of us who live north of Cape Cod. They are typically found close to shore or up in bays and estuaries. Their favorite haunts are often protected areas, often with some protection from the wind and waves.
The name winter flounder is a misnomer; they aren’t easily caught during the winter and spring and summer are the best seasons to catch them. May marks the beginning of the flounder season. As soon as the water temperatures start to hit 50 degrees, flounder become much more active. Peak season is mid-May through June, and the bite noticeably slows as the water warms, but they are available and willing to bite all season long especially if you focus on areas with cooler water.
Flounder tactics revolve around bait; while aggressive feeders, they don’t hit lures too often. Top baits are sea worms and clams and you can often tell what they are feeding on by what they spit up when you bring them into the yak! Some anglers believe that the biggest fish prefer clams. Try both clams and sea worms to see what you prefer to use. Sea worms stay on the hook very well and are easier to present to the fish than a gob of clam.
One of the joys of flounder fishing is its simplicity; it doesn’t require complicated rigging or tactics to get on the fish and you don’t need any special gear other than flounder hooks. Classic flounder hooks come already snelled and are a small hook with a long shank. The long shank comes in handy when the fish gulp your baits and take the hook deep, which is fairly often. These unique hooks are used because flounder have very small mouths; they are very different than the standard flat fish that are caught in most of the US because they primarily feed on seed clams and worms.
The standard flounder rig consists of two hooks rigged either high/low or on a spreader bar. I prefer to use a single hook rig in the kayak. I find that there are fewer tangles and the rig is very easy to tie. Since I usually fish flounder after a morning of striper fishing, my rigs are set up to make a quick and easy change. I tie my flounder rigs to connect loop to loop with my leader, so all I have to do is tie a loop at the end of my leader and slip on the flounder rig. To make this rig, I take a 24-inch strand of 20-pound mono and tie a surgeon’s loop on both ends and one in the middle. Once I have tied the loops, I make the loop to loop connection to my leader and then I loop the sinker on in the middle and the snelled hook on the end.
The rig takes less than a minute to tie and they are easy to replace should you lose a rig in the rocks. Flounder aren’t especially line shy and certainly aren’t tackle busters, but 20-pound line is good for dealing with snags.
Your choice of sinker will be based on the fishing conditions; wind and current will dictate sinker size. I recommend using the size weight that gives you the most sensitivity. Too light a sinker and it is hard to tend bottom, too heavy a sinker and you won’t feel the light bites. In less than 20 feet of water I use either 1 or 2 ounces. Strong winds or currents will make me jump up to the 2 ounce weight, but with the tackle I use, the 1 ounce gives me the most sensitivity.
You don’t need to have specialized rods and reels. I usually use my light striper gear or freshwater gear. A 7-foot rod rated for up to 2 ounces is a good choice and most of us already have a rod like that in our arsenal. I prefer a baitcasting reel because you are in closer contact with the line, but spinning tackle works great for this type of fishing as well. My favorite rig for flounder is a 7-foot custom spiral-wrapped Lamiglas rod rated for one-quarter to 1 ounce paired with a Shimano Curado 200 with 20-pound braid. The light rod and braid enhance the sensitivity and gives the ability to feel to the lightest taps.
The kayak is a great fishing platform for flounder because there are two basic strategies that are easily applied in the kayak: anchoring and drifting. I almost never anchor. Flounder fishing is pretty uncomplicated and drifting is usually the easiest tactic to use.
Anchoring and chumming is a time tested tactic for flounder. Just anchor up in a likely spot and drop a line or two over the side. Bait in the water, plus a little chum will draw the fish in. You can use a chum pot or a mesh bag to get your chum down; when the current is running, you will need help keeping your chum near the boat. Chumming definitely improves the bite, but most days it is pretty easy to limit out without using any chum. Once at anchor, keep your bait moving, bounce the sinker on the bottom to stir things up. Flounder respond well to movement. It doesn’t hurt to deadstick a second rod, but keep your eye on it to make sure the crabs don’t pick it clean.
Drifting is my favorite way to fish flounder; it is easy and it allows you to cover plenty of water. I never use chum when drifting, instead I let the wind or current bring me to the fish. As I drift, I raise and lower my sinker into the bottom. The goal is to stir things up and keep your bait out of any weeds and rocks. A slow lift and drop is all that is needed. When you feel a tap, drop back for a second or two, then set the hook by lifting. You don’t need a powerful hookset and if the fish isn’t there, you can slack the line up and give them a chance to come back to the bait.
When the drift is fast or when I’m fishing around rocks and weeds, I switch to power drifting. Power drifting is when you use your Hobie MirageDrive to slow the drift or work around structure. Flounder like to hang in the mud around rocky areas; keeping your boat above these areas can put you on a fast bite. Power drifting is a great way to cover water on slow days. I pedal around at about 1 mph and try to cover as many spots as I can. When I find a fish, I will usually circle the area as flounder often school up along a bottom break or current line.
Flounder are a pretty easy fish to find. They like to hang out on mudflats and in muddy areas near weeds and rocks. Think about spots where you would find sea worms, shrimp, or clams and you are in flounder territory. Early in the season, the fish move into shallow bays and get active as the sun warms the water. As the season progresses, flounder move deeper to stay in cooler water. When looking for deeper water fish, find the edges of the mudflats that you fished earlier in the season.
One of the great things about flounder is that they aren’t necessarily an early morning fish. They tend to bite best when the current is moving, so the mid-tide bite in the middle of the day can be very good. If you are looking for a fish that you can target by fishing banker’s hours, flounder are for you!
Flounder are also one of the best eating fish in our waters. The nice white fillets are especially popular deep fried, but can be prepared in a variety of ways.
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