But broad-minded fishermen are broadening their flatfishing horizons as they discover the inland waters of Little River, which hugs the North Carolina state line at South Carolina's northeastern corner.
Little River and the waters within its zone of influence are turbocharged with baitfish because of the inflow and outflow of water through Little River Inlet. The baitfish supply feeds the river's growing reputation for producing superior numbers of big flounder.
Capt. Chris Gill, 44, has been fishing Little River - along with the rest of the inland coastal waters near North Myrtle Beach - for seven years. He goes about his low-key business of catching all species of inshore gamefish from his 21-foot Key Largo center console.
Gill, who runs Captain Chris Inshore Charters, became so successful that he decided two years ago to set out his welcome mat for clients who want to catch doormat-sized flounder.
"I fish for all species of fish," Gill said, "but a lot of people want to target flounder because they want to take something home that's good to eat. We catch lots of flounder while we're fishing for red drum and speckled trout. But if you want to specifically try to catch flounder, you have to use different techniques than for other fish."
Gill sneaks along the small feeder creeks off of Little River and Dunn Sound when he wants to target redfish. He anchors near an oyster bed and casts a ¼-ounce jig with a scent-impregnated shrimp-imitation trailer. He catches most of his red drum from sandbars and mud bars near the hard structure and, along with redfish, he catches impressive numbers of flounder. He said casting a jig or live-bait rig right on top of any of the oyster bed results in too many hang-ups and cut-offs.
"I've been amazed by the way a Berkley Gulp! shrimp catches flounder right along with the red drum," he said. "I like the new penny color, because it seems to work the best.
"I try to be as quiet as possible when I'm drum-fishing, because drum are spooky. Make too much noise - like banging the anchor around or dropping things on the deck - and red drum will swim away.
"But a flounder is definitely not spooky. You can run all the red drum away from a fishing spot by not approaching cautiously. But the flounder will stay right there. So if you accidentally spook some redfish and see them streak away, it doesn't necessary mean you should not make a few casts in that area."
Gill casts his jig near the oyster beds and catches whatever fish are there and biting. Then, he drifts to the next spot, using live-bait rigs to hook flounder. He may use the outboard motor to keep the boat's drift centered in the creek where he wants his baits to bump the bottom. But to help in keeping the boat on the correct course, he also plans his trips so the wind and current will be taking the boat where he wants it to go.
"There are so many small creeks, you can usually find one with the exact conditions you want," he said. "I use the outboard motor mainly to steer the boat by bumping it in and out of gear."
When he's drifting for flounder, Gill ties a variation of the tried-and-true Carolina rig. Instead of threading an egg sinker onto the line above the swivel to which the leader is tied, he runs the line through a teardrop sinker with a wire swivel.
"The swivel sinker doesn't get hung up as bad as an egg sinker," he said. "I put a red plastic bead between the sinker and the swivel to keep the sinker from sliding down the leader. I use a 30-pound test swivel and about 14 inches of fluorocarbon leader. I tie a No. 2 Kahle hook to the leader and usually fish it with a mud minnow."
Gill catches mud minnows in the marshes in a minnow trap - a wire mesh tube with a funnel-shaped opening at each end. A small hole in the center of each funnel allows minnows to enter, but they can't find their way out. He baits his traps with dry cat food or with canned tuna packed in olive oil, but he doesn't waste time catching his bait before each trip. He catches mud minnows ahead of time and keeps them alive in a couple of aquariums at his house.
"A mud minnow is a tough bait," he said. "You hook him through the lower lip and out the upper lip, and he'll stay alive for a long time, even while he's bouncing around on the bottom. Flounder love mud minnows, and they're easy to catch and keep alive. You can put them in a livewell and keep them all day. The mud minnows you don't use, you can take back home and put them back in the aquarium. That makes them a great bait for anyone to use."
Gill keeps his boat drifting parallel to the bank and checks his GPS to keep his drift at the correct speed: about one-half mile per hour. Each creek has different water depths, which necessitates switching out sinkers. In creeks less than 10 feet deep, he uses a ½-ounce sinker. In creeks deeper than 10 feet, he uses a ¾-ounce sinker. The idea is to use just enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom. He uses spinning rods because they are easiest type of rigs for most anglers to use.
"I have my clients hold their rods," he said. "A flounder bite can be just a pull on the line or a hard tap. If you hold the rod, you can feel it. I know the difference between an oyster shell or crab and a flounder bite. But the most difficult thing for most people to do is let the fish take the bait long enough once they think the feel a bite.
"People who haven't done it before want to jerk the rod and set the hook as soon as they feel the strike. But I get them to wait and let the fish swallow the hook, counting slowly to at least three before they lift the rod."
If a fisherman sets the hook too soon, Gill said the bait is pulled out of the flounder's mouth. Premature hooksets leave tell-tale marks on the sides of the mud minnow. Showing those tooth marks to his clients usually teaches them enough that they don't miss the next fish.
But getting the hook set into a flounder's mouth is no guarantee of catching the fish. Playing the flatfish correctly is he flip side of success.
"After you set the hook and feel the fish when you're using a minnow rig, you need to reel in the fish using a steady retrieve," Gill said. "You can't go yanking the rod or trying to re-set the hook. Too much jerking will tear the hook out of the flounder's mouth. You also don't want to reel in the fish too fast. Sometimes, a flounder won't realize he's hooked until he's right beside the boat, and all you have to do is slip the net under him.
"You have to keep the line tight, but you don't want the rod tip way over your head. If the flounder comes to the surface, holding the rod tip high can tear out the hook. The best thing to do is keep the rod low, between your waist and the water, and lead the fish to the net."
One look at Gill's landing net gives away his optimism. He uses a black nylon-mesh net with a 30-inch hoop diameter. While most fishermen think flounder lurking way back in the backwaters are usually small, Gill often catches flounder weighing as much as seven or eight pounds.
He usually takes two to four clients fishing at a time and fishes with one rod per man. The average catch is eight to 10 flounder per trip, but on a really good day, a pair of anglers may take home as many as 15 flatfish.
While the creeks and channels of Little River are excellent place to fish natural structure, the area offers plenty of man-made structure that also attracts big flounder. Gill fishes at docks, jetties and seawalls, or any other hard structure he can find.
"I fish at the docks near the mouth of the river, along the Little River waterfront," he said. "The casino boats anchor there, and the shrimp boats cull their catches as they get near the docks. The charterboat fishermen and recreational anglers are always cleaning fish, so there's always ready-made chum to attract big flounder.
"You should never pass up a chance to fish a dock where there is fish-cleaning activity, because flounder are going to be there."
Docks along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway also hold plenty of big flounder. Gill fishes boat docks from Little River all the way to Calabash in North Carolina. When he fishes the ICW, he looks for docks with certain features.
"Not every dock holds flounder," he said. "The main thing I look for is a dock located near a small feeder creek. Bait swims out of the creeks and (past) the docks during falling tide, so I prefer to fish the falling tide no matter where I'm fishing. When the baitfish are up in the grass, flounder can't get to them as easily as they can when the water falls out. Flounder follow the baitfish as they leave the grass, and that makes fishing creek mouths a good bet. If a creek is near a dock, the dock provides hard structure where flounder can hide, waiting for baitfish to swim by.
When fishing a dock, Gill positions his boat, then lowers an anchor. He casts Carolina rigs and jigs to the pilings and beneath the decks. Flounder lurk in the shadows, so he makes sure he presents baits and lures far back in the pilings. He catches speckled trout and red drum right along with flounder.
The Little River Inlet jetties are also excellent places to catch flounder. Gill said they represented some of the best flounder structure in the area.
"You can fish the jetties on any tide," he said. "I prefer drifting over anchoring when I'm fishing the jetties, and I catch some really nice fish there."
Flounder are usually located at the edges of the rocks, so knowing how the boat is going to drift depending on the wind and current is vital to success. If the boat gets too close to the rocks, the rig will hang and break off. But if the bait is too far away from the jetties, flounder are less likely to see it.
"The more experience you have, the more likely you are going to catch flounder," Gill said. "The inlet is one of the best places to fish, but you have to pay attention to all the conditions. On weekends, there are lots of boats, and the wind can blow you toward or away from the jetties. On busy days or windy days, you're better off fishing back in the creeks, away from the crowds and out of the wind. No matter what the conditions are, you usually find an ideal place to fish top catch a flounder at Little River."