Flounder fishing with a hook and line is fun, but gigging them at night can be awesome. Night gigging provides a unique perspective of saltwater creeks and waterways.
With powerful beams of lights directed at the water, nocturnal fishermen can see a myriad of sea life in the shallows. Blue crabs, shrimp, redfish, sheepshead and assorted species of forage-sized fish are abundant this time of year.
But of particular interest to many of these night prowlers are doormat-size flounder. These fish thrive as ambush predators and settle on the bottom in mere inches of water, waiting to chow down on unsuspecting prey.
Fattened by a summer of hearty foraging, fall flounders are fat and frisky. And there are a number of flounder fishermen who employ gigging as a primary technique to load the freezer with these great-tasting fish.
Mike Cox of Awendaw is certainly one of the best giggers at the S.C. coast. Cox, who has been gigging flounder most of his adult life, adapted and refined his techniques to take advantage of this opportunity.
Cox acknowledged flounder gigging is an oft-overlooked method of catching fish for saltwater lovers. It's an extremely effective way to load up on some of the best-tasting seafood in the water, and it's inexpensive fun.
Flounder, he said, most often during early fall are shallow-water feeders, especially at night. During the nocturnal hours, these fish move very shallow near the water's edge, often in mere inches, and settle on the bottom to ambush their forage as it swims by.
Simply described by Cox, flounder gigging requires hunters to rig lights on their boats so they can see the bottom in front and at each side. They employ a long-poled gig to push the boat, gigging flounder when they spot them.
Perhaps this explanation is a bit oversimplified, Cox said, but the process isn't really difficult.
Cox employs a big generator to run his two powerful 500-watt lights on his boat. Rigged and ready, he effectively can cover a wide area of shallow bottom in front of and at each side of his boat. However a high-profile rig such as Cox's isn't essential to flounder gigging success, especially when first getting started.
"When I first began flounder gigging, I worked the Folly River area near Charleston," Cox said. "That's still a great place to gig, even though it's gotten much more popular with other flounder giggers now.
"Back then, I had a much-simpler rig, and it was very inexpensive. This method will still work great for outdoorsmen getting into gigging for the first time.
"I simply used a couple of big marine batteries and a series of three 100-watt, 12-volt lights as my light sources. I put the lights in a metal reflector to help direct the beam onto the water. With this simple rig, I was able to gig a lot of flounder, usually getting limits from the waters in and around the Folly River.
"I'll admit the quiet offered by the battery-operated lights was nice. But the lights just weren't bright enough to take full advantage of the flounder gigging opportunities. As my interest and passion for the sport grew, I realized I was missing some of the larger flounder that were on the marginal edge of the lights from these smallish bulbs."
Cox said while some people may think gigging is beyond their means in terms of equipment or knowledge, that's not true. A simple rig and attention to detail will enable almost anyone to be successful, even novices. With a little training, a person can become highly effective at gigging flounder.
Other than the lights, the only other required gear is the gig. Cox makes his own gig poles, and he said giggers may buy a gig head at most coastal tackle shops.
Get a 10- or 12-foot wooden or aluminum pole to attach a gig, and an angler is in business. Commercial gigging poles designed for this sport are more expensive but are made of almost indestructible fiberglass.
Cox said he does just fine with his homemade wooden rigs. The key, he said, is to work the right areas.
Cox prefers a shell bank littered with open areas of sand or hard bottom. Sandy bottoms are always potentially good, and the areas at the mouths of small tidal creeks can be prime.
"The small points of shells that form in these creek junctions are ideal ambush points for flounder at night," he said. "That's why they'll move into these places to forage.
"Also, shell pods that rise up in the middle of small creeks are hot spots as well. I'll pole completely around these places, taking my time to find the fish.
"Often you'll find several fish at a small, localized area, the action gets fast paced at times. When you can stick the gig in one flounder and count a half-dozen more in the beam of light, you're in business."
Cox said September and October are great months for gigging. However, he prefers the dark phases of the moon.
"On the moonless nights, it seems I usually see more fish," Cox said. "But you can gig flounder successfully during any moon phase."
Cox said the last half of the dropping tide and first half of the rising tide are prime times for gigging.
"You've got to have the water out of the grass to be effective," he said. "This is the key component you must plan your trip around."
For Cox, a low tide at around midnight is ideal. That way, it'll be dark before the water drains out of the grass and still dark a few hours later when the tides turns, rises and finally gets back into the grass.
"On a dropping tide, the fish will move occasionally to deeper water as the water drops," Cox said. "But they are still often found in mere inches of depth.
"As the tide turns as the water rises, they'll frequently move up to shallower water to be in position to ambush their forage. Right after they make this move, they are much easier to see. After they settle in, they seem to adapt to the surroundings and can be difficult to see, kind of a natural camouflage.
"I don't look for the entire fish at first. I scan the water ahead of me, getting a pattern of the underwater bottom, and look for something different. Sometimes it's simply the spots on the founder that give them away.
"When I see something out of the typical bottom pattern, I'll then look for the form of the fish. It's usually very easy to spot when you do this.
"Some nights the dropping tides seems to be best. Other nights the rising is more productive. Because of the time a low tide may occur, you may only be able to gig only the rising or falling tide. But you can still gig a limit of flounder in that two- or three-hour period."
Another expert along the S.C. coast is professional guide Captain John Lowder of Florence. Lowder primarily gigs at the Georgetown area and operates one of the few flounder-gigging guides services in the state.
As a licensed saltwater fishing captain, he specializes in taking folks flounder gigging and can almost assure good action and a bunch of great fillets for the frying pan or broiler.
Lowder began gigging flounder more than 20 years ago and immediately fell in love with the sport.
"In addition to being fun and a great way to beat the summer heat by fishing at night, you get to enjoy the bounty of the natural resources at our coast," Lowder said. "Over those 20 years, I made changes and modifications to my system and equipment and now have it refined pretty well."
Lowder, who began full-time work as a flounder-gigging guide 2 1/2 years ago, does his homework to discover where fish are located. By going out at night regularly, he usually starts right where he stopped his previous trip.
For anglers who don't go that often, they may experience slow period at first when determining the pattern for a given night.
"One factor that's required is clear water you've got to be able to clearly see the bottom as you pole along," Lowder said. "Muddy water is a flounder gigger's nightmare.
"When I run into muddy water, I'll quickly change positions. There are a number of things that can cause the water to muddy. If it's just a boat going by washing waves on the mud flats, you can move to another bank and gig and then return to that area a little later. As the tide changes, the water will clear unless boats keep motoring by."
While there are a lot of similarities between Cox and Lowder's techniques, they also have different setups that flounder giggers can employ successfully.
"The keys to gigging success are simple but crucial," Lowder said. "First, you must have a good lighting system. I use two 175-watt metal halide lights powered by a portable generator. Each light generates 14,000 lumens of light. This can be compared to two 100-watt, 120-volt lights that produce 1,750 lumens of light.
"In the case of flounder gigging, more light is better, much better. It allows you to see the bottom more clearly and further out. I have also rigged my lights so they're submersible, different than what most gigger's do, and I think it helps me see the fish better."
Lowder looks for flounder at sand, mud or mixed sand and shell bottoms.
"The fish will literally get into inches of water, and they will generally face into the current," he said. "If it's deep enough for me to float my 16-foot aluminum boat, it's deep enough to gig a flounder.
"I key my efforts on seeing fish, of course, but if I see numerous fresh flounder beds, simply imprints in the sand or bottom that have the form of a flounder, I'll work and study the area hard. I know fish have been there within a recent tide.
"Having forage in the area is another key factor. Flounder won't be there unless they have something to eat."
Lowder also said anglers should gig flounders in the head because that's the fish's only real skeletal structure. It's also the best place to hold a fish on a gig while lifting it out of the water.
"When gigging a fish, don't rush," he said. "Stop the boat with the gig pole and place the gig right over the fish and stick it. If you lunge at the fish, you'll often miss them.
"Unless you touch them, they likely will stay right there while you position the boat.
"It often surprises my clients the fish aren't real spooky, as long as they don't touch them with the gig or get directly over them with the boat."
On Lowder's trips, he allows clients to do the gigging. If they want to learn how to gig, he'll help them learn how to pole the boat and get the full experience.
"But if they just want to just stick fish, that's fine with me too," he said.
Cox and Lowder employ another technique to cover territory quickly. Lowder uses an electric motor positioned at the rear of his boat. He controls it with a foot-controlled motor and can cover a lot of territory quickly while scanning for flounder.
When he begins seeing flounder or recent flounder beds, he'll slow down and look more closely and allow his clients to pole along at a slower pace to ensure his clients don't miss any huge flounder.
Cox takes it one step further by employing the use of his outboard motor. He discovered that by tilting the motor up to run in shallow water, he can slowly move along waterways and spot flounder with his bright lights.
"I use this technique to help get into areas where flounder are concentrated," he said. "They do seem to bunch up in certain areas on different nights.
"When normally productive areas have few fish, I'll run the big motor and scan for fish, until I start seeing them consistently. Then, I'll use the poling method to cover the area effectively. However, when I spot a flounder while I'm running the big motor, even if I glide by it before I can stop the boat, I can usually come back and gig that flounder.
"Typically, despite being in shallow water, these fish will hold tight."
The size limit for flounder is 12 inches minimum length and the creel limit is 20 fish per person per day. All that's required to gig flounder is a saltwater license, but anglers who charter a trip with Lowder don't need a license. They're covered under his captain's license.
One way to learn how to be successful at flounder gigging is to book a trip with Lowder (843-206-7633). That's the best way to learn from a pro and most likely get a big cooler of big fish.