Spring Fluke Fishing in Smithtown Bay

Start your fluke season at this hotspot on Long Island's North Shore.

Every fluke fan understands that fluke swarm inshore in May, providing our first, and perhaps best, shot at a doormat during the spring fluke fishing season. This is certainly the case in Smithtown Bay, where fluke aficionados wait for a day with light winds to ply the waters before the big fish are picked over. There are clusters of party boats and the local mosquito fleet all gathering over key structure, hoping to cash in on the bounty of big schools of fluke. Obviously, the fluke haven’t gathered for a vacation; rather they’ve gathered for the feast, drawn into the bay by massive schools of bait.

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Smithtown Bay

Smithtown Bay is actually a giant cove, bounded on the west by Eaton’s Neck and on the east by Crane’s Neck. Fluke are abundant here in spring and summer because the sandy flats are perfect habitats for sand eels. In turn, the sand eels attract squid, porgy, herring, and bottom dwellers, which represent the big food that doormat fluke love to munch. Beyond the sandy flats, there’s a drop-off that slopes downward from 25 feet to more than 50, and then meanders across the bay about three-quarters of a mile off the beach. The bottom on the drop-off is hard and gravelly with scattered shellbeds. Several species of crab, lobsters, and mantis shrimp make their homes on the drop-off, and it’s this region that is key to this story.

Though some anglers find the current fluke regulations restrictive, they have brought about the most consistent fluke fishing, both for size and numbers, that I’ve known—and I’ve been fluking since the 1950s—so the tight regulations are paying off. Furthermore, there are waters in the northeast, such as Smithtown Bay, that in past decades never saw this many big fluke! 

Fluke pushing the double-digit mark feed on sand eels, crabs and more in the warm waters of Smithtown Bay each spring.

In fact, fluke fishing was so bad in the 1970s that the New York Ocean Science Lab at Montauk received grants to study the possibility of spawning fluke in hatcheries to supplement the population. Of course, they had little success because fluke spawn in deep water on the continental shelf, and the lab was unable to consistently duplicate the conditions needed for spawning success.

The Early Bird…

My neighbor and friend Kevin Meyer, along with his friend Peter Gold, inquired several years ago about getting into some good spring fluke fishing during the month of May, but the obstacles and necessities of life always seemed to get in the way of an early trip. Although we ventured out several times in July, this was long after most of the big fish had either been harvested or left the bay. We caught plenty, but only shorts. It was fun, but the urge to tangle with some big ones continued to motivate us. 

Somehow, we couldn’t manage to match up weather, tides, responsibilities, and schedules to get out in May during those years, but 2015 would be different. We set up a couple of trips early in the season, but coastal storm after coastal storm rumbled through the area and stymied the trips. Then, we caught a break and the stars aligned. The three of us were free, the weather was calm, the season was still early, and the boat was ready.

We left the Nissequogue River State Park marina mid-morning to catch the incoming tide under a deep blue sky with comfortable temperatures and light breezes—all offering hope to three anglers who, through no particular acumen of their own, had fallen into perfect fluke fishing conditions. Of course, exiting the river at low tide is an adventure since it seems to be perpetually shoaled in, but we managed to navigate it in good shape. I prefer to fish the flats to the west of the river on the flood tide and the east flats on the ebb, so we headed west on this occasion. I positioned the boat in 15 feet of water for our first drift and we soon were getting bites and landing short fluke. We made three drifts, but only caught fluke from 16 inches to just under 18 inches. They were fun on light tackle, but not what we had in mind. I began to think of alternative spots since I knew big fluke were in the bay.

One option that made sense was to work the drop-off zone between Sunken Meadow and Callahan’s Beach. We pushed out to the slope and, as I prefer to do, cruised around a bit while focusing on the fishfinder for telltale clouds of sand eels. Crestfallen since I saw no bait schools on the machine, I didn’t share this information with my companions. I knew that Kevin and Peter were counting on me to find the fluke, but without bait schools, I was worried. Still, we had made a substantial move to get to this spot.

“Hey, we’re here,” I said, “so let’s make a drift or two and see what happens.” I began the drift in 32 feet of water, knowing that the light breeze would push us into 45 feet of water, right down the slope. We hadn’t bounced our bucktails tipped with Gulp more than a few times when each of us had a hit. Joe was first to hook up.

Tackle for Spring Fluke Fishing

For me, the days of dragging a sinker and a long leader with a strip of fish, squid, sand eel or spearing are over. I’ve been using bucktails for fluke since the 1970s. Back then, my friend Rocco and I would drift across a bar just outside Porpoise Channel in Smithtown Bay, bouncing bucktails tipped with squid. We didn’t catch much because fluking wasn’t very good then, but the technique was a lot more fun than dragging lead.

Why do I prefer bucktailing? First, the fish fight harder since they don’t have to contend with a 3- to 6-ounce sinker pulling them down while the angler tries to pull them up. Second, fluke often hit a bucktail harder than bait dragged along behind a sinker. Third, I’m convinced that I catch more big fluke with bucktails than with the standard long leader setup. Lastly, bucktails allow me to use light tackle with light line.

spring fluke fishing
You’ll enjoy better fights from fluke by using light tackle and bucktail jigs.

Fluke aren’t the best fighters in our waters, but big ones make a fuss, so I try to strike a balance in my tackle between light enough for the fish to fight, but sturdy enough so I can muscle a doormat to the boat. For spring fluke fishing in particular, I prefer 6- to 7-foot baitcasting rods and small baitcasting reels spooled with a 20-pound-test braided line like PowerPro Super Slick V2. Water drag on the drift is minimal because of the braid’s thin diameter, and this limits the scope that can be the bane of a fluke angler when the drift is fast. Also, presuming the angler ties a good knot, knot strength in braided line is superb, and it has very little stretch that allows for solid hooksets and the ability to detect even the lightest hits.

PowerPro Super 8 Slick v2
A braided line, like PowerPro’s Super 8 Slick V2, has a thin diameter and low-stretch quality, which keeps line scope to a minimum and allows for swift, secure hooksets.

Choosing The Right Bucktail

In addition to the right tackle and good boat handling, one of the keys to successful bucktailing is selecting the correct size for the conditions. Bucktail size is determined by depth and the speed of the drift. Be careful with the speed of the drift because there is a point when it becomes very difficult to present the lure properly no matter how big the bucktail is or how well the captain manages drift speed. Although it is possible to catch some fluke under these conditions, it is so frustrating that I prefer to pack it in for the day and try again when conditions improve.

spring fluke fishing
Peter Gold stuck this doormat on a bucktail tipped with a 5-inch Berkley Gulp Sand Eel.

Always use the lightest bucktail you can—3/4- and 1-ounce bucktails are best, but in deep water, such as off the South Side of Montauk, I’ve used jigs as heavy as 6 ounces. In Smithtown Bay, I’ll use bucktails up to 2 ounces. On our trip, we used 1- and 1½-ounce bucktails tipped with Berkley Gulp Sand Eels. I prefer white bucktails because white shows up well no matter how deep the fluke are holding. I use glow-colored bucktails for the same reason.

When sand eels are in thick on the north shore, the 4- and 5-inch Berkley Gulp Sand Eels do a fine job of matching the size, color and profile of the real thing.

Spring Fluke Fishing Technique

Many fluke fans over-work the bucktail; that is, they jig too violently. To understand why short wiggles work better, understand how fluke feed. Although they rely heavily on scent when they are close and ready to strike, they are very visual at a distance. So, they rise up on their fins and watch for movement. When they spot movement or a puff of sand they shoot over to the spot. Once near the bait, they use scent to zero-in on the prey. If the bucktail sprints a foot or more toward the surface, the fluke sometimes loses interest and doesn’t follow the movement. If, on the other hand, the bucktail wiggles, hops, and jiggles along the bottom, the fluke not only spots it, but also tracks it. 

Equal Opportunity Feeders

Fluke are aggressive predators and will eat anything they can fit in their mouths. In spring in Smithtown Bay, most of the natural forage is composed of sand eels and squid, but other food items sometimes steal the show. Our first spring fluke fishing trip was no exception. 

Although we caught large fish almost immediately, I scratched my head because there was no bait showing on the screen. That was my mistake, though, because there was bait on the slope—but not sand eels. This was no time to complain about a blank screen as long as we were catching fluke.

The first hint about what the fish were actually eating came when I spotted their distended bellies. Sand eels and squid don’t make bellies bulge in several irregular directions, but then a 5-pound fluke hit the deck and spit up its last meal—a 6-inch mantis shrimp. I should have figured it out sooner, but now the bulb lit brightly in my head. It was the full moon period, the mantis shrimp were out of their burrows and crawling along the bottom, and our bucktailing technique was a perfect match for the mantis shrimp scurrying about.

Several doormats spit up 6-inch mantis shrimp, which explained why the fishing was so good despite the fact that we saw now bait schools on the fishfinder.

Our experience was not unique. Big fluke like big food. Over the decades, I’ve caught doormats that spit up foot-long squid, 6-inch porgies, mullet, snappers, flounder, and baby weakfish. In Smithtown Bay in May and early June anglers seeking doormats should work the drop off, the rock piles, the edges of wrecks and reefs, and shell beds as well the sandy flats. Be it stripers or fluke, I’ve had some fantastic trips when predators were feeding on big mantis shrimp, and so can you.

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