Finesse Those Flounder!

There’s no substitute for catching and, in some cases, winning! I’ve participated in my friend Pete Santini’s annual Boston Harbor Zobo Flounder Fishing Derby five times and have had the good fortune to place each time and outright win twice. Far from an exercise in chest-pounding, the point of this story is to examine what the distinguishing factors are which hopefully will enable you to catch more flounder and just maybe cull out the biggest blackbacks of the bunch!

Wind With Tide = Drift

Overwhelmingly, I’ve had an edge fishing aboard my friend Captain Jason Colby’s Little Sister! I swear the skipper can smell flounder from a nautical mile. Two factors he focuses on are chumming and drifting with the tide.

Paying attention to the wind and tide is important for setting a good drift, because drifting usually translates to catching! If you set about to drift aimlessly, you’ll accomplish little more than wasting your time and wasting terminal tackle.

When the current cooks, flounder lurk downtide of tide-deflecting structure waiting to pounce on most anything they can squeeze into their mouths, like krill, shrimp, worms, small squid, and occasionally small fish.

The author gives his bait the BioEdge and sandworm or bloodworm potion advantage for tournament winning flatties!

The author gives his bait the BioEdge and sandworm or bloodworm potion advantage for tournament winning flatties!

In this way, blackbacks behave similarly to stripers preferring to hunker down and let the current do the work for them. The striper comparison forks, however, when it comes to weather conditions: flounder prefer it sunny, while big bass sharpies know that nastier tends to translate to better fishing.

Covering more water due to drifting usually results in more and potentially bigger flounder. If you have at your disposal the enviable wind with tide combination, then it would be a sin not to drift. Obviously, when targeting a fish that lies belly to the bottom, you have to keep your offering on the bottom. Some historic harbor spots are more ideal than others for drifting because they are composed of muck/mud and the depth changes are gradual. Perry and Portuguese coves off Peddocks Island, Rainsford Island, Hospital Shoals, Sculpin Ledge and Deer Island flats fit the drifting qualifications to a T.

Some of the biggest flounder that swim in the harbor live in a more varied habitat. In fact, if you find you are getting pestered by bergalls, skates, crabs, harbor pollock, and, yes, even stripers, don’t fret. The diversity of prey that attracts those species attracts the biggest flounder!

If you don’t have ideal conditions to drift or are not comfortable about your trajectory, then your best chance is to chum. In fact, chumming is often the best option when you are targeting minefields of structure that hold flounder but are so fraught with snags they would be a disaster to drop a line into. One hint where some of these spots are is the presence of lobster pots. Few know the bottom as intimately as experienced lobster fishermen. And it is just that sort of “live bottom” – full of mussel beds, bubbleweed and ledge amidst patches of soft substrate, which are magnets to flounder.

Chumming down-tide of such structure will pull flounder from places that are impossible to fish without snagging. Obey the KISS rule when it comes to chum – keep it simple stupid! – give them a heavy dose of one of the things they prefer to eat, namely clams! Empty a tub full of clams into an onion or orange sack, tether a window sash weight to the receptacle, lower it to the bottom, and voila – you have the perfect chum slick. Don’t be dissuaded by on-line chum concoctions, some of which read as if they were developed at a French culinary school.

5-pound, 9-ounce monster flounder

The biggest flounder in the bunch, such as the author’s 5-pound, 9-ounce monster pictured here, usually prefer a clam over a seaworm.

According to Captain Colby the chum-in-a-sack dispenser enlists the services of an unexpected ally when chumming, namely crabs! Those little buggers stick their claws through the mesh, tearing the clams to pieces an inadvertently spreading the come-hither scent. When aboard the Little Sister, you’ll often see the entire spectrum of resident crab species clinging to the chum sack when the skipper pulls it aboard to reload.

It’s All About Tthe Details

Considering that I remember an era when most fished with little more than a hand-line and flounder spreader, when I look at some of the terminal gear monstrosities I fish with now, I can’t help but laugh. But, in the world of the winter flounder, the little things can make a huge difference. It’s been a lot easier experimenting with tackle tweaks while aboard the Little Sister since I know there are usually flounder below the boat. First up I’m a fan of Pete Santini’s Zobo rig, which features a top and bottom hook with a sliding weight fish finder between the two. Most days, even aboard Captain Colby’s boat, use a rig with two hooks on the bottom. However, the top and bottom hook placement was always the preferred presentation even during the halcyon days of the 60s and 70s, when the harbor bottoms seemed tiled with them.

modified Zobo rig

The wide gap Mustad Hooks of the modified Zobo rig hook and hold while the sliding sinker allows the flounder to mouth the bait without feeling the weight. Click photo to enlarge

miss keeper fish with that hook and once that Ultra Point barb gains purchase the fish almost never come unglued! Increasingly the harbor is growing diverse with tautog, black sea bass and apparently more stripers than in years. Hook any of those fish on a puny hook and they’ll bend them into a pretzel. And, then there’s the conservation advantage. Flounder are notorious for fatally inhaling the hook—this almost never happens with the wide gap Mustad. If you’re shy about such a big hook than downsize to size 2.

One of the reasons I increase the size of the hook is that I prefer putting a bigger piece of bait out there. While sea worms will catch more flounder, biggies prefer a clump of clam. The geometry of the wide gap along with the 1/0 size allows the angler to wind a bigger piece of clam on the hook. And, don’t just stick on any part of the clam—it’s the soft, slimy, “colorful” sections that are most effective. For better security on the hook, get in the habit of impaling the clam and wrapping it around the shank repeatedly so that it stays put.

There are other tweaks which often make a difference. Flounder have excellent eyesight and are curious by nature. I lean heavily on the “bling” factor, painting all my sinkers bright yellow and placing glow and yellow beads ahead of the hooks. I also never leave the dock without BioEdge bloodworm or sandworm potions. This stuff gives me an edge no matter what I’m fishing for! During this year’s derby, I initially was the only one applying it, but boy did that change—soon we were passing the bottle around like a bunch of moonshiners!

Technique And Gear Matter

One of the most rewarding aspects of flounder fishing is “finessing” an interested flounder. Simply leaving your bait on the bottom is a feckless effort. I rapidly lift and pound the bottom with the sinker about 5 times and then let the bait rest for about 10 seconds. When I feel a bite, I drop the rod tip, let the rig do its thing, and then slowly but firmly lift up on the rod to see if that flounder is there. A big, aggressive flounder will simply inhale the bait, requiring no subtlety from the angler, but a reluctant fish often requires a deft touch to dispatch it. I see other anglers channeling their inner Jimmy Houston with exaggerated hook sets looking as if they are designed to turn the flattie inside out! While that may look impressive, it’s overkill for flounder.

With a wicked sharp hook, there’s no need for such gymnastics – the hook will slice through with little fanfare. You don’t need fancy gear for flounder fishing but a sensitive outfit clearly matters. My reel of choice is a Shimano Calcutta 400 that I use in countless other fishing capacities, and it is paired with a Shimano Inshore Terramar rod rated for line between 10- and 17-pound test. Topped off with 20-pound Power Pro, this versatile inshore combo is perfect for bouncing the bottom with 2- to 4-ounce sinkers and transferring the lightest tap to the angler.

While maybe not as numerous as the glorified decades of the 60s and 70s, the flounder are far bigger than they used to be. And, even better is that this season local harbors seem to be holding more flatties than in recent years. So, invite the family, top off the cooler with goodies and spend a fun day on the water flounder fishing. Just make sure you leave some room in that cooler for the “guest of honor”!

  1. Fishin Fool

    Excellent tips!!! Thank you for sharing your insights. I will certainly utilize some of these tactics in future trips. I have always fished for Black-backs in more of a passive fashion with little success.

  2. Bill Wienecke

    Going out on my 20 Grady for first time to fish out of Point Judith mid July…fished Norwalk back in 70’s and 80’s…thank you for tips!


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