The sun had just cracked the horizon of Ludlam Bay, in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, and I stood poised to cast from the deck of Capt. Al Crudele’s skiff, Bayhound. We were on a late spring weakfish trip, biding our time in early May, as the official opening of fluke season was still one day away. An outgoing tide drifted us through windy sod-bank-lined channels, and we bounced bucktails in hopes of happening into a few tide-runner-class weakfish. I made a cast, splashing the bucktail just off the channel edge of the flat, and the bump-bump-bump of the bucktail on the bay bottom stopped with a jolt as the rod bent over and drag started peeling. There were no textbook thrashing head shakes of a paper-mouthed weakfish, just intermittent fist-pounding surges of something big with shoulders.
“Play ‘em easy! They’ve got weak mouths!” barked Crudele, but I knew this wasn’t a weakfish. I couldn’t play this one gingerly, and tightened the drag down one more crank and lifted when the leviathan surfaced big, flat and brown. Crudele readied the net for a swift scoop. Fluke. Trophy fluke. A 9.2-pound near-doormat, one of the largest I’d ever caught — and in only five feet of water! Forget it — this was now a fluke trip.
Shallow-bay angling for fluke, aka summer flounder, in Jersey is nothing short of extraordinary, and the past few years have seen double-digit catches on a daily basis. “Flukettes” from 8 to 16 inches are caught with Vegas betting-line consistency, but larger specimens of 2 to 10 pounds lurk in most every stretch of back channel. The flatfish make their move inshore from the wintering grounds of the deep continental-shelf flats sometime in mid- to late March, when they infiltrate coastal backwaters to spawn. From mid-April to early June, early season flatfish look for water from 63 to 70 degrees, and late spring fish move into the skinny waters of shallow tidal estuary spits, mudflats and channel edges, seeking the heat of the sun in the chilly spring waters. That’s precisely where anglers should target fluke through late May. Three to six feet of depth allows plenty of sunlight to reach the darker bottoms of black marsh mud and dark sands that, in turn, heat up the surrounding water faster and draw fluke. Tide does have an effect, as fluke are at their most aggressive in lower water. “Early season fluking should revolve mostly around the outgoing tide,” says Crudele. “That warm water comes off the flats as it flows out, whereas incoming tides, the colder ocean water, shut the bite down.”
In late June through September, when water temperatures begin to rise into the low to mid-70s, flatties begin to station themselves deeper in the channel bottoms and lower on the channel edges. Channels such as Oyster Creek and Double Creek in Barnegat Bay, Paddy’s Hole near Ludlam Bay, and Broad Creek in Absecon Bay dip dramatically from flats to six to 20 feet, and the rushing tides turn the channels into virtual food funnels as fluke hunker down to pounce on morsels of bait that wash by. Full-moon and new-moon tides put fluke on the feed big-time, as the rising currents create a buffet line by washing fiddler crabs, copepods, sea worms and fish fry off the tops of the sod banks. Back channels are baitfish superhighways, and fluke know it.
Contrary to popular belief, fluke are not sedentary bottom-feeding scavengers but aggressive camouflaged predators that rely on ambush tactics to chase down meals. Fluke have a particular disdain for bucktails, in the sense that they hit the jigs with the heartless aggression of a childhood bully. A fluttering bucktail mimics a crippled baitfish, and the lighter the bucktail, the more realistically the doppelganger swims through the water. The key to a perfect presentation is using the lightest weight that still holds bottom. In general, 3/8- to ½-ounce sizes are well-balanced back-bay weights. Lance a strip or rubber bait on a bucktail, and you’ve got a combination that even the most finicky of fluke cannot ignore. Even lighter shad darts have found some acclaim from back-bay pros, like Capt. Dave DeGennaro of the Hi Flier. “Small eighth- to quarter-ounce shad darts tipped with one or two whole spearing or Gulp! New Penny shrimp are dynamite for sand-flat flounder,” says DeGennaro. “For back-bay jigging, drop one to the bottom, let out a few more feet for scope and give it an aggressive sweeping jig from the surface of the water to the top of your head. The upstroke should be sharp enough to be your hook-set.”
Light-tackle gear is paramount for deftly cast bucktails to achieve maximum effectiveness and lifelike illusion. Techniques for bucktailing in the strike zone include drifts that start on the flats on one side of the channel, drop over the edge, cross the channel and swing onto the flat on the other side. The longer you stay in the channel, the better you’ll do. If you are bailing flatties on a certain drift, be sure to line up the same drift and run the same route, as fluke tend to stack up in packs and run in gangs as angler baits dive-bomb the schools. Tide also is a factor when bucktailing. DeGennaro explains: “In Barnegat Bay we catch them on both tides, with water moving hard on the incoming or outgoing, and with significant decrease in action on slack tides. We fish the three- to five-foot-deep flats east of Oyster Creek Channel and also where Oyster Creek and Double Creek channels collide near the Barnegat Inlet, where the depth drops from eight to 20 feet and creates a swirling, disorienting environment for baitfish.”
Strip Baits and Live-Lining
“Live bait works best.” That mantra was printed on the back of the metal BB split-shot cases of my old man’s youth, and it still rings true. It’s tough to say that live baits and strip baits outfish bucktails; it’s a toss up. Strip baits can be cut from bluefish, hickory shad, squid or even fluke bellies, depending on the current laws. Strip size is determined by seasonal forage, and early season doormats won’t jump on 12-inch-plus baits in the chilly waters. The largest strips, 4 to 5 inches in length and a quarter-inch wide, match the hatch of spearing, bay anchovies and juvenile spawn in the skinny waters. During summer you can bring out the big baits, with strips up to 10 inches and expect to hang a back-bay doormat. Preparation is key with strip baits, as they should be well-manicured and tapered to move smoothly through the water without spinning. A fish-finder rig allows the natural flutter of a strip bait to sound its siren call. Current is needed to effectively work the strip bait. Live baits are also sweet treats for fluke. On the same fish-finder rig, hook a snapper bluefish, live spot or killie though the lips so it drifts naturally.
Back-channel-bay fluking during spring and summer is the real deal, as the quantity and quality of fish available in Jersey’s coastal bays are mind-boggling. And in case you’re wondering about that preseason 9.2-pound fluke I caught a day too early, that trophy went right back in the water, along with all the other 2- to 4-pounders we caught in the Jersey back channels that day. We went home with an empty cooler. The next day, however, was a different story.
New Jersey Fluke
An old salt once said to me,”Any color will work as long as it’s white,” and that remains true when choosing bucktails.A bucktail with any combination of white with yellow, chartreuse, olive or pink, or simply straight white, will be the top dog in attracting fluke.
Rods: 612-foot medium- to fast-action spinning or conventional rods, like the Shimano VST66MH orSt. Croix TIS66MHF.
Reels: Shimano Sustain 4000, Abu Garcia 6500 C3.
Lines: 20-pound braided running line or 14-pound monofilament.
Lures: Bucktails from 14- to 34-ounce tipped with Fin-S Fish, Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad or Swimming Mullet, or a strip bait of squid, bluefish or two whole spearing. Teasers tied above the bucktail should be white 2/0 to 3/0 bucktails with Mylar flash. Strip baits of bluefish, squid, spearing or sand eels on a fish-finder slide rig with a leader of 30-inch 25-pound fluorocarbon, on a size 2/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
Jersey’s 128-mile coastline is saturated inland with low-lying back flats and bays that provide estuarine environments for fluke. Winding back channels carved through marsh and sod create baitfish superhighways when the tides get rolling, and bait spills out toward the inlets. The shallow bays comprising these back channels and surrounding flats set the stage for fluke to hole up and sit on the edges, on the flats or in the channel itself in wait for prey to scoot by.
What: Summer flounder, aka fluke, in the 2- to 10-pound range.
When: New Jersey’s season runs May 29 to Sept. 6; 18-inch minimum size, six-fish bag limit.
Where: Shallow bay channels and flats of Barnegat Bay, Great Bay, Ludlam Bay, Absecon Bay.
Capt. Al Crudele
Capt. Dave DeGennaro
Capt. Dave Showell
Absecon Bay Sportsman