Shipwreck Doormats

Fishing snaggy structure is essential to filling your fluke limit with the largest specimens.

Shipwreck Doormats

Fishing snaggy structure is essential to filling your fluke limit with the largest specimens.

With the ever-increasing size limits for fluke, learning the locations and techniques to capture the largest specimens has become of paramount importance for putting keepers in the box. Fishing structure is essential since the chance of capturing large fluke on sandy, no-relief bottoms is haphazard at best.

Finding The Wrecks

Many chartplotter chips are preloaded with wrecks and snags. Like many of the sources I will mention, they may not be entirely accurate and might require a grid search to locate the major bulk of the structure. Keep in mind that some of the wrecks are not single pieces, but instead are portions broken up by the original demise of the vessel or split by the ravages of coastal storms. These can be scattered over hundreds of yards.

New Jersey’s artificial reef sites are available free online and provide detailed outlays of the various wrecks, tanks, subway cars, and rock and concrete deployments. Over time, the structures sink into the sand and their benthic relief deteriorates as the years go by. An example is the heavy army tanks—some are still providing good relief, while others have sunk well into the sand. Many large wrecks become more productive as pieces of the superstructure break off and join the debris field adjacent to the main wreck. Also, some of the “lighter” structures such as subway cars will shift during storms and may relocate hundreds of feet from their original locations!

Paying attention to your chartplotter while fishing and moving from spot to spot is of utmost importance for discovering new pieces to fish on.
Paying attention to your chartplotter while fishing and moving from spot to spot is of utmost importance for discovering new pieces to fish on.

Wreck locations are also noted on laminated charts sold online, at tackle stores, and at fishing shows. Some of your closest friends may be kind enough to share “numbers” for wrecks they fish as well.

Paying attention to your chartplotter while fishing and moving from spot to spot is of utmost importance for discovering new pieces to fish on. Several years ago, I found a very small, barely visible debris field from an old wreck that produced nearly 50 keeper-sized fluke in one year alone.

When moving about, it is wise to be on the lookout for flags deployed by commercial fishermen. These flags mark good structure that could be concrete pipe or other lost material, old wrecks, or coral beds. I’ve caught many limits of fluke from these areas, which are often unrecorded and not found on many charts.

For those not inclined to fish offshore, good structure can be found inside the inlets as well. Many vessels have sunk in our backwaters and bays, some of which have published numbers, and some are known only to those who have found them. Keep in mind that sodbanks and jetties are good structure as well, and many of the factors related to wreck-fishing applies to these areas.

Rigging For Wrecks

Many anglers believe they need heavy gear to fish wrecks to avoid breaking off their rigs on these snaggy structures. In fact, I’ve found the opposite to be most productive.

Big baits will cull out smaller fluke.
Big baits will cull out smaller fluke.

Braided line is a must when fishing structure because its thin diameter and reduced water resistance enables more straight up-and-down fishing than monofilament. The lighter the braid, the easier it is to fish since it cuts through the water better, reducing the pull on the line from the current and wind-driven boat movement. Braid of 10- to 15-pound test is more than adequate to catch large fluke and has enough strength to free a rig stuck on structure. Many anglers like to add a piece of mono or fluorocarbon to help reduce abrasion from the structures drifted over. I use a 6-foot length of 20- to 30-pound test for this purpose.

When fishing structure, dragging rigs are the most prone to snagging, and drifting through a wreck field while dead-sticking a rod is a recipe for a lost rig or even a rod pulled overboard.

Bucktailing is my preferred method, and time has proven that smaller ones usually capture larger fluke because an angler can more easily mimic the bait profile and motion. By using lighter braid, one can fish with lighter bucktails than would otherwise be possible.

Tackle, whether spinning or conventional, should lean toward the light side to match the thin braid and lighter bucktails. The rod should be a graphite composite with a stiff enough makeup to allow the angler to dance the bucktails effectively above the relief field below. Rods that are too parabolic tend to drop the rigs into the structure, causing them to be snagged. They are also ineffective at lifting the fluke out of the nooks and crannies of the structure where they tend to take up residence. Many anglers have a hard time envisioning the use of a 1- to 2-ounce bucktail in 90 to 100 feet of water with a rod and reel that looks better suited for freshwater, but this armament can easily be used on days with proper conditions. However, it’s smart to have a second, slightly more robust setup available for windier days requiring stiffer tackle.

A bucktail works best when danced above the bottom. The same jig totally loses its effectiveness—and paint—when it is dragged through the sand or scraped on sharp wreck pieces. A full tackle box can be quickly emptied by dragging rigs through debris fields, resulting in lost fishing time as well as a lot of unnecessary added expense.

Instead, use the bucktail to occasionally find the bottom, but not drag over it. The ideal height to fish off the bottom may vary from 1 to 5 feet, depending on the height of the structure being fished. The correct distance off the bottom is one that only occasionally results in a lost rig, but is low enough to draw strikes from the ambushing fluke. These fish are capable of striking a rig several feet off the bottom – lying flat on the bottom with its eyes looking up make it a perfect creature for this type of attack. It’s a good idea to periodically touch the bottom with your rig to locate it, but then quickly reel or lift it up a few feet so you can work it in the most productive zone.

Bucktails are often more effective around wrecks than standard fluke rigs.
Bucktails are often more effective around wrecks than standard fluke rigs.

A Wreck Is Not a Wreck

It is important that the captain visualizes the wreck he is fishing over. When a vessel is first sunk, it is indeed a single structure sitting on the bottom, either upright or on its side. Over time, the structure will start, through a process called subsidence, to sink into the sand beneath. It will also gradually break into pieces, some large, such as an entire wheelhouse breaking off, and some small, such as pieces of its superstructure. Each of these pieces serve as a sanctuary for bait systems to form and as ideal hunting habitat for some very large fluke.

Over time, an experienced captain will learn the profile of the wrecks he likes to fish, each wreck having a different picture, with different portions of that wreck field holding more fish than others. Features such as the orientation of the wreck, the portions with the highest relief, the portions with the most snags, and the portions that have produced the most fish in past ventures are all important pieces of knowledge.

In fact, often the best fishing is not on the main piece of the wreck at all, but instead upon the scattered pieces lying on the ocean floor. While fluke can be found sitting on top of the large wreck pieces, the majority will reside near the pieces lying on the ocean floor. This sand-wreck interface creates the best environment for the small crabs and baitfish we commonly see in the stomachs of captured fluke.

I am a very technical wreck-fisherman and tend to think of a wreck field as a piece of anatomy that needs to be dissected. A wreck is best fished by spending as much time as possible on the most productive areas. This means short and repeated drifts made over a single piece of the wreck or a portion of its debris field. This is not a sit-back-and-drink-a-beer type of fishing, but instead an intense fishing experience with lots of action!

As mentioned, different portions of a wreck can be more productive than others, and to add another complication, different portions of a wreck can be more productive on some days than others—even varying during the same day. Fluke orient and position themselves within a wreck field depending on the current flow, tide, bait presence, and localized visibility.

The best way to fish a wreck and find its most productive zones is to fish all aspects of it. This can be accomplished by making a drift on each side of the wreck. For example, if the drift is a north-south one, make several drifts on the east side of the wreck, followed by drifts on the west side. You can then start a drift ahead of the wreck, ask anglers to reel up when above the main portion, then drop down as the boat moves back to the wreck field and continues the drift.

A slow, controlled drift around structure will put more fluke in the net.
A slow, controlled drift around structure will put more fluke in the net.

If fishing smaller pieces, say a single subway car, anglers can usually bounce their rigs right over the structure. By watching the depthfinder, the captain can instruct his anglers to lift their rod tips as they approach, jig their bucktails right on top of the car where a fish may reside, and drop down just adjacent to the down-current side of the car where the largest fluke often take up residence. Occasionally an angler may even be lucky enough to drop his bucktail in a subway car door, capture a fluke, and bring it out of the wreck and into the net!

The boat must be moving slowly over the wreck field. The speed should be slow enough so the anglers are fishing as straight up and down as possible, and slow enough to so they can feel their rigs hitting higher relief portions of the wreck. This speed is always less than 1 knot, and usually in the range of 0.3 to 0.7 knots. On days with little wind, the boat can be allowed to drift freely through the structured area. On other days, “backtrolling” will be needed to slow down the drift. Some captains use drift socks, but this technique is burdensome and time-consuming for short drifts, and is not recommended unless longer drifts are in order.

Keep in mind that the concentration of debris and fluke will increase as you get closer to the wreck. I typically make the first drift approximately 20 feet from the wreck, moving closer if that drift produces no fish, sometimes getting within a few feet, or even inches, of the wreck. With experience, a captain can learn how to use the fishfinder in conjunction with the chartplotter to accomplish this degree of accuracy.

Considering Conditions

In areas of significant current, particularly during full and new moon periods, fluke like to orient themselves downstream of the structure, lying in wait and hunting out of the swift currents. The fish may change their location on a wreck based on the direction of the tide or wind-driven current. The anatomy of that wreck field can make one tide more productive than the other, so it’s worth fishing the down-current side of a wreck on both tides before ruling it out.

On some days, water temperature can drop quite dramatically, sometimes more than 10 degrees following an upwelling from a persistently blowing south or southwest wind. These water temperature drops can temporarily shut down fluke feeding in any area until the waters warm. Sometimes, fishing adjacent to large steel wrecks can still be productive under these conditions since the metal retains and dissipates the heat. Wrecks farther out are less subject to these upwellings then the wrecks within 10 miles of the shoreline.

Bottom visibility can vary from day to day, and may completely shut off a bite on a wreck laden with big fluke. Fluke are bottom feeders and need decent water clarity to hunt. The clarity of the surface water is not always predictive of the clarity beneath the thermocline, particularly on the bottom. If you’re catching plenty of sea bass but few fluke, it is usually because the bottom is stirred up, making feeding difficult for fluke, but not as difficult for sea bass because they can feed higher in the water column. Returning to fish the same wreck another day, perhaps under different conditions, can result in a completely different fishing experience. Over time, experienced captains learn which winds provide good water visibility in different areas.

As the season progresses, the amount of fluke on a wreck will vary as well. The nearshore wrecks will load up with fluke in May and early June because the fish have moved in from offshore. By midsummer, they are joined by fluke that had migrated to the backwaters and bays and are now moving back out. Toward the end of the fluke season, the concentration of fish on inshore wrecks may start to diminish as fluke begin to migrate offshore. In September, the offshore wrecks can be most productive since they experience less pressure and are on the migratory path of the outbound fluke.

Wreck-fishing is an exciting, action-filled, and challenging way to fish for fluke. It is also one of the fastest ways to catching that double-digit doormat you will brag about for the rest of your life!

11 on “Shipwreck Doormats

  1. Col. Musty

    Great article on fluke, I have caught several big fluke this way and I smoke them. I enjoy smoke flavor.

  2. The Impending Disaster

    A very informative article. I think the timiming is correct as to when the flounder are inshore and when they move out to wrecks.

  3. Joe Scafidi aka RodFather

    Another great read Captain. Harv. Always look forward to your insight and experience.

  4. Bill Haass

    Great article, I installed my new sonar chart plotter and can’t wait to give it a shot .

  5. Bob Langelius, Sr.

    Good stuff!! Clear and logical. shows a real insight borne of significant time on the “wrecks” offshore.
    Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Rich Bauser

    I don’t mean to be critical but you should have used pictures of larger fluke. By today’s standards the fish in your article are barely keepers.

    1. Col. Musty

      Those are nice fluke yo should try a positive outlook you will feel better.

      1. Rich Bauser, you sound just like my wife, well done, you made me chuckle. Have a nice day.

        I don’t mean to be critical but you should have used pictures of larger fluke. By today’s standards the fish in your article are barely keepers.

    2. Capt Harv

      Unfortunately the pictures I sent (of much larger fish) got misplaced and weren’t used with the article.

  7. Scott T.

    Great read Harv…gets me ready for summer and losing rigs on this darned rail cars! Totally worth it when you bring up that big one though!!

  8. Steven K Costalas

    Very nice review. Obviously everyone wants to fish on the wreck. I always felt hovering above structure is the best bite. Thanks!

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