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As an inshore kayak angler, to me, few fish have the allure of the summer flounder. Known as fluke in the Northeast, these bottom-dwelling flatfish are widely recognizable simply as flounder by the majority of East Coast anglers. Although state fisheries regulations vary widely in size and bag limits, flounder represent a realistic opportunity for kayak anglers to consistently put a bend in their rod and bring home an excellent dinner in the process. Still, kayak anglers need to be savvy about their techniques. Unlike our powerboating friends, our limitations are well defined by the physicality of our sport. This article is intended to provide information that you can use to narrow the odds and put yourself on flounder within paddling distance of shore.
I chase flounder from Ocean Kayak Trident series kayaks. Pictured here is a typical summer flounder taken in Narragansett Bay.
Kayak fishing in Southern New England is great…. when it isn’t snowing. In part due to our short, cyclical season, the first step in my flounder fishing routine does not involve flounder at all. Instead, I begin every year during the early spring – well before the season opener – locating runs of bait flounder feed on. Locating bait serves two purposes: (1) it provides intelligence on where flounder may first arrive; and (2) it provides an uninterrupted opportunity to cheaply source a local supply of bait. In the Northeast, the arrival of squid first foreshadows the flounder run. I spend a significant portion of pre-season time fishing for squid by night on well-lit docks. Not only do I catch a good supply of squid for bait, I also see plenty of other local hatches as they occur, including baitfish. Squid are best caught on small shrimp-style jigs fished off dropper loops tied from a light 6-10lb leader.
Anglers do not need to spend endless amounts of time searching for signs of catchable numbers of squid. The telltale ink trails of squid are clearly visible on local piers as early as mid to late April.
The most notable run of flounder forage in the Northeast occurs well into the season, but the outcome can be so spectacular it is worth pointing out. Juvenile herring tend to appear in large shoals in saltwater bays by early July. Flounder will follow these shoals in shallow and gorge themselves fat. The duration of herring runs appear reliant on calm conditions and clear water. The leeward sides of windbreaks tend to hold these baitfish the longest. Coincidentally, these are also the easiest areas to fish from a kayak. During 2016, I fished over shoals of herring that lingered in a cove for a straight month with spectacular results.
On the other hand, the local 2017 herring run was over in a single week due to unfavorable weather conditions. 2018 was decent but did not rival 2016! Fishing shoals of herring is the best-case scenario for a crafty flounder angler who successfully matches the hatch. Please follow your local fisheries regulations carefully before using herring as bait. Some species of herring are strictly regulated!
These herring were pushed onto the beach by hungry schools of predatory fish, including flounder.
Aside from the physical demands of kayak fishing, managing terminal tackle and presentation from a kayak may be one of the most challenging aspects of the sport. This challenge is seemingly multiplied when ground fishing. Due to their simplicity and versatility, however, bucktail jigs have become my lure of choice for almost all ground fishing. By design, their weighted head and hook in a single package eliminates the need for extra weights, leaders, and hooks anglers typically associate with ground fishing. I fish bucktail jigs in the ½-4 ounce range depending on water depth, current and wind. As a general rule, bucktail jigs need to be heavy enough to fish vertically beneath your kayak without causing your line to scope out with the current. A good rule of thumb is to use bucktails that are 1 ounce for every 15-20 feet of water depth. I bounce my bucktails directly off the bottom in a predictable cadence interrupted occasionally by a sporadic twitch. I always use trailers off my bucktails – whether it is bait I caught earlier in the season or a scented soft plastic. Although very successful anglers have popularized using a dropper loop and bait above their bucktail jigs, I prefer to use bucktail jigs alone in the kayak. I have found it easier to fish, and much easier to land fish in a net using just a bucktail jig, alone. Although some bucktail jig and bait combinations may appear too large, it has been my experience flounders’ eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, and they will strike very large presentations.
Although I prefer to tie my own bucktail jigs, a variety of manufactures product high-quality jigs that are capable of catching flounder right out of the box. When selecting bucktail jigs for flounder, I prefer thin wire hooks for fluke compared to thickly gauged hooks designed for gamefish like striped bass.
I begin fishing for flounder when the season opens along steep inshore slopes in approximately 50-85 feet of water. Identifying inshore locations with significant depths in much of the Northeast may be challenging, however, having the right kayak and electronics is extremely helpful. I paddle Ocean Kayak Trident series kayaks rigged with Humminbird Helix fishfinders. It has been my experience these kayaks can take me into, and safely out of, gnarly conditions while the sonar/GPS combos allow me to focus my fishing efforts more precisely over productive grounds. I have had the best success targeting small structures (i.e.rocks and ledges) on these steep slopes during the early season. GPS is also essential for tracking drift speed. Ideally, a drift should be 1-3 MPH. Once fish are located, a quick waypoint saved in the GPS will allow for shorter, easier, and more productive drifts.
This 24” flounder took a 4-ounce bucktail jig and scented soft plastic combination fished in approximately 80 feet of water. As you can see from the fish finder, I was in over 100 feet of water by the time I got a picture off.
By the time summer rolls around, bait is plentiful, the water is warmer, the winds are calmer, and flounder can be found in shallow water. This is the time of year where flounder can be enjoyed for their sporty fight on light tackle. In the summer, I fish for flounder in 15-30 feet of water using ½-1 ½ ounce bucktail jigs on inshore spinning outfits. I use my electronics to identify many of the same structures I previously mentioned in deep water. Shallower slopes, ledges, and rocks will all hold flounder on their sandy peripheries. Surprisingly, convenient launching locations may also represent excellent but often overlooked flounder fishing locations. The contours of marinas, channels, and piers naturally hold keeper-sized flounder during this time of year.
Another keeper flounder taken by a bucktail jig and scented soft plastic combo.
One of the best aspects about kayak fishing for summer flounder around structure with the ubiquitous bucktail jig is that you have the opportunity to catch almost anything that swims. One of my favorite fish to catch and cook is the black sea bass. The black sea bass isn’t a bass at all, but rather a northern species of grouper. As our southern angler friends will tell you, almost all grouper are hard fighting, good-eating fish. Their fan-like fins make the black sea bass one of the best fighting groundfish Northeast anglers can target in inshore waters. They will also readily take any offering that is intended for a flounder but may orient a little tighter to structure.
This big black sea bass took an offering intended for flounder.
Another challenging aspect of kayak fishing is keeping your catch fresh after a long day on the water. Thankfully, companies including Ocean Kayak and Old Town have developed solutions that seamlessly integrate coolers into popular fishing kayak designs. Both Ocean Kayak and Old Town have kayak models designed to accept their coolers inside of the tankwell. I tend to load my tankwell with extra gear, so I opt to keep a soft cooler lashed to the bow of my kayak. After I land a keeper, I quickly bleed it out on a stringer, then get the fish on ice, immediately. Many anglers elect to keep fish on their stringers all day. I would advise against this, however, as I have found the quality of the filets may quickly deteriorate on a warm summer day. Furthermore, you never know who else may be looking for a quick and easy meal!
Flounder fishing can be quite rewarding, as keeper-sized flounder have a good yield of tasty filets. These fillets were from a successful morning of flounder fishing in the Northeast.
For more information on inshore kayak fishing for flounder, be sure to check out the articles, reports, and blog content on the Facebook group Ocean State Kayak Fishing, and be sure to follow me on Instagram @saucey_fish.