Flatfish are widely recognized commercially and recreationally for their flaky meat and mild taste.
Southeastern flounder anglers once traditionally used the same stationary techniques to fish. The approach involved a strong anchor, bucket of minnows, a comfortable seat and a frosty beverage.
However, South Carolina's shallow-water flounder chasers "broke the mold" at some point in time and incorporated a more active approach. Trolling and/or drifting for flounder now are endemic to fisherman in S.C. waters. The technique for flounder by far provides greater success than anchored in a fixed position.
Why? Probably because trolling better fits the habitat niche of flounders - and it's probably more fun for anglers.
Flatfish fans discovered trolling allowed them to cover more ground and reach more fish. The technique likely was discovered by mistake when an anchor rope gave way and sent a couple of fishermen down a channel or out an inlet with fishing lines in tow. When they finally got stopped, somebody discovered a flounder had nailed one of the cigar minnows that'd been accidentally pulled and skipped across the bottom during their moving violation of the fishing standard.
Rock and Troll
Whoever started trolling definitely discovered the most efficient method for catching flounder by hook and line.
Trolling and drifting methods better match the fish's style. Flounder aren't voracious mobile predators like bluefish but are effective ambush feeders. They don't have the speed and agility of a trout or mackerel but are just as effective in taking prey by remaining stationary and hidden on the bottom. Their natural camouflage and tendency to cove themselves with sand allows them to lie unnoticed along the bottom, waiting for an unsuspecting shrimp or fish to enter their strike zone. A flounder will ambush and inhale in one swift motion before settling again to the bottom and awaiting its next victim.
Flounders generally spread out across an area of likely bottom and generally don't feed in tight schools but frequent the same habitat types scattered over a fairly wide area.
They feed in areas where an abundant food source is available, including near structure and changes in bottom relief where baitfish, shrimp, and other crustaceans congregate.
Areas with structure are great places to catch flounder, but not the only places. The surf zone, creek mouths, flats near banks and edges of channels provide excellent opportunities for flounder anglers. Areas with an undulating bottom provide ample ambush points for flounder; similarly, such places offer baitfish hideouts in structure and places to rest out of strong tidal currents.
That's probably why the concrete "reef balls" that are so popular for offshore angling clubs to buy and place at bottom structure areas often are called "flounder motels."
Any feature that corrals or funnels bait in relatively shallow to deep water sets ideal dinner-table conditions for flatfish. Trolling allows anglers the ability to cover more bottom and to locate hungry fish. Anglers often will notice when they troll or drift, they'll get strikes when they pass above one particular stretch of bottom.
Trolling is most effective in areas with sandy or muddy bottoms where the flounder can cover themselves with sand or hide in a depression and change color to match the habitat. This chameleon-like ability is the explanation for flounder caught at sandy areas often appearing lighter in color than those caught off muddy bottoms.
Regions with abundant oyster beds and other structures often result in hang-ups and frustrated anglers.
But flounder, in fact, have difficulties hiding where they can't lie flush with the bottom. However, regions void of hang-ups adjacent to structure where baits congregate are excellent candidates for trolling.
Irregular marsh edges positioned throughout an estuary in current near deep water create eddies and ambush positions for flounders. Although they can be caught in 30 feet of water (where the flounder motels usually are placed), flounders also will be found in 4 inches of water, depending upon bottom conditions and available forage.
Generally, flounder will position themselves or aim their body towards the direction of incoming bait - basically they face the current. But sometimes baitfish travel against current and other times travel with current.
Anglers should take note that trolling usually is most effective when baits are pulled in the same direction as live bait naturally travels. In some areas, baits should be pulled against the current and others regions should pull the baits with the current.
Most outboard motors, even at idle snail speed, are almost too fast for an effective troll. Just as with offshore king fishing, live-bait trolling requires an extremely slow pace. This slower pace keeps baits alive and near the strike zone.
Trolling brakes were developed for the offshore anglers to slow bait movement to a low speed. They are sturdy plates that swing in the path of the thrusting propeller, deflecting the propulsion of water from the motor and slowing a boat's speed. They manually can be toggled in and out of position to change from trolling to running speeds.
Captain Mike McDonald of Gul-R-Boy Charters in Georgetown specializes in inshore flounder fishing, especially during the early spring season.
He utilizes a simple and cheap method to slow his troll. His technique involves 5-gallon buckets tied to a heavy rope attached to the bow of his boat. The buckets fill with water and create sufficient drag to slow his fishing platform to a satisfactory speed. Usually one bucket is sufficient for McDonald's purposes, but some boat/motor combinations will require an additional bucket attached to the opposite side of the boat.
Some inshore flounder anglers use electric trolling motors instead of their outboard motors. Electric trolling motors fixed to the bow or the stern work well, but some are attached to the shaft of the lower unit or specialized dual units are attached to the trim tabs.
Basically, there are three ways to troll for flounder - with the current, against the current and a combination of the two.
These methods can produce positive results when the right conditions exist. Based on the wind, tide, and boat characteristics, trolling can be accomplished with little use of the outboard motor - if trolling with the current.
Some fishermen utilize trolling motors mounted on either the bow or stern to control the drift and to steer the boat through channels during a controlled drift. Depending on which method you use, the amount of weight will need to be adjusted between the two methods to keep baits at or near the bottom.
There is a constant debate among the inshore guys to which method - against or with the current - is more productive.
McDonald's proven method is always against the tide, especially on the falling tide.
"While drifting with the tide will produce some fish, you'll pass over a lot of fish you will catch trolling against the tide," he said. "You should be trolling at a speed that'll just let you make headway against the tide.
"The boat going the slowest against the tide will catch the most flounder, period," he said.
Baits, Lures and Rigs
Since flounder mostly feed on small fish and shrimp, natural bait, artificial lures or a combination of the two should be fished along the bottom or near the bottom. Flounder primarily are sight feeders. Their two eyes, positioned beside each on the same side of their bodies, other allow them enhanced vision, including depth perception.
When using artificial lures, an assortment of colors and lures should fill a flatfish angler's tackle box. Depending upon water clarity, water depth, inclination of the sun, cloud cover, different colors will be more visible or appealing than others.
An old favorite flounder rig includes a spinner that will add a bit of flash and many anglers believe improves strike probabilities, especially in murky or cloudy water. A little bit of flash, they believe, helps presentation and may trigger a strike, whether using artificial lures, natural baits or a combination of the two.
McDonald said he prefers live bait, especially finger mullet and mud minnows.
He attaches his live bait to drop shot rigs early in the season and Carolina rigs during the rest of the season.
The drop shot rig fishes better than the Carolina rig through early-season "slime grass." Native, submerged aquatic vegetation that McDonald called "slime grass" is a real problem, but his drop shot rig keeps baits from becoming entangled.
His drop-shot rig consists of a 1-ounce tear-drop sinker tied to the end of his reel's monofilament with a Eagle Claw style 84 all-purpose hook attached to a 6-inch loop that extends 18 to 22 inches away from the lead sinker.
The weight of the lead sinker should be just enough to keep the bait near the bottom at the current speed of the troll. So a faster current might require a larger tear-drop lead weight.
McDonald stressed matching the hook size to the size of the bait. The bait needs to be able to swim freely, but a larger hook is more conducive to successful hook sets. The bigger the bait, the larger the hook should be.
Capt. Rich Harris of Reel Deal Charters at Charleston specializes in flounder as well as sheepshead, redfish, and speckled trout.
He also prefers live bait rigged Carolina style, especially with finger mullet, but he also has great success trolling jigs with grubs attached - against the current, of course.
"While everyone strictly fishes shallow water, I'll fish deep water (20 to 30 feet), trolling near structure with great success, especially at low tide," he said. "I love rocks and docks.
"At Charleston we have an abundance of old oyster and barnacle-laden docks that hold big flounder." Harris said. "My philosophy is big baits catch big fish."
Harris said he likes to use large live baits in the 5- to 6-inch range.
Play the Tides
Captain Pete Mercuro of Extreme Fishing Charters of Pawley's Island regularly fishes for flounder, usually drifting with the current. But he also trolls against the current with spinners.
Mercuro is a light-tackle and fly-fishing expert who prides himself because of his extreme fishing style that uses unorthodox flounder fishing techniques, including fly fishing and trolling spinners.
He said he trolls spinners against the current to produce multiple hookups. Mercuro said he believes setting the hook is just as important - if not more important - than getting the fish to strike.
Mercuro claims to have caught the largest known flounder by a S.C. angler using a fly rod with 10-pound tippet. Mercuro said he didn't realize he'd landed an IGFA world-record flounder for 6-pound tippet. The flatfish ended up on the dinner table, and his catch wasn't certified.
Flounder are one of the first-sought gamefish of the year for Palmetto State inshore anglers. As the water begins to warm from a long winter and baitfish begin to show up in skinny water, flounder aren't far behind.
The smaller inlets not tied directly to a large river system usually warm first during the early spring. Such places include Tubb's Inlet, Pawley's Island, Hog Inlet, Murrell's Inlet, North Inlet and Dewee's Inlet.
"The fish start moving into Pawley's Island in late March and into North Inlet during mid-April," McDonald said. "The larger river inlets will even be more behind.
"The water starts to warm up in these inlets at different times because of the water depth, the flow of current and how much fresh water is coming down the rivers.
"The larger flounder move in when the water temperature reaches the mid to upper 70s."
McDonald said he likes to start trolling for flounders when the water temperature reaches the mid-to-high 60s. That temperature usually first occurs during March. The fishing progressively gets better as water temperatures reach 80 degrees.
Harris said he likes water temperatures to be between 68 and 80 degrees, with near 80 degrees being the most effective for deep-water trolling. Generally, water temperatures don't reach 75 to 80 degrees at the S.C. coast until June.
May through July are the premier months to catch flounder trolling at the S.C. coast.
Another debate among flounder fishermen revolves around tides - some anglers like incoming tides while others said they catch more fish during outgoing tidal periods.
One thing's certain; that argument isn't likely to be settled anytime soon.
Flounder will feed when food is available and is in ambush range. As tides ebb and flow around structures and at inlets, baits are concentrated at areas adjacent to ambush locations chosen by flounder. Usually that's enough to start them biting.
While some tides and more specific stages of the tide may be more conducive for catching flounder by unveiling fishing locations to fisherman, flounder can be caught throughout the all cycles of the tide.
"Don't limit yourself to fishing one type of tide," Harris said. "Flounder can be caught with success on all tides but you have to change tactics. Also, don't be afraid to move around to different locations and habitats."
"Have patience (with trolling), and it'll pay off," McDonald said.
Whether discovered by mistake or copied from king mackerel anglers, trolling for flounders provides better success than stationary methods at most southeastern coastal regions with the right bottom structure to permit the practice.
Trolling for flounders can be a fun and effective way to fish, but it takes practice to become successful. Anglers will cover more ground and present more baits to more flatfish than being anchored to one shoreline spot.
Learn to do it right, and it'll ensure some tasty fillets for the frying pan.