Murrells Inlet, nestled within the heart of the Waccamaw Neck, first became well-known for the successful cultivation of rice within its marshes through the 19th and into the early 20th centuries.
As a commodity and catalyst, rice quickly brought a flood of wealth into the region, with vacation cottages suddenly peppering the landscape. As more people moved into the area, other businesses began to thrive, especially restaurants. Famous Lowcountry cuisine was favored by locals and travelers alike.
The spread of that cuisine boosted the importance of the inlet’s unique, rich fishery to fuel the menus of the thriving restaurants. While only remnants of the rice plantations exist today, Murrells Inlet continues to be known for its sinful cuisine and fabulous inshore fishing.
While the fall spot run helped put Murrells Inlet on the map, the excellent flounder fishing boosts the area’s popularity as an angling destination. The numerous tidal creeks, broad oyster/spartina flats and nutrient-rich waters of the “inlet” support numerous juvenile marine species, an ideal setup for an ambush feeder laying motionless on the estuarine floor.
Even though flounder are not considered voracious predators like bluefish and king mackerel, they are very effective predators. They rely on the ambush, just as the colonists fought the British in 1775. Natural camouflage allows flounder to lie stationary in seclusion in just a few inches of water, waiting for an unsuspecting shrimp or fish to make its last, fatal move.
The darkness of night throughout those coastal estuaries has little effect on the water temperature or the dazzling sun during the peak of summer. Just as people head for shelter during a storm, flounder and other gamefish hunt for refuge from the sweltering heat.
While flounder generally are spread throughout the estuaries the rest of the year, their living quarters are compressed by August’s heat. Finding the right recipe of water depth, bottom composition, and current will send flags to the mast quickly.
“Flounder look for cool water during the summer, and they might be in deeper areas or areas with mostly sandy bottoms,” said Capt. Jonathan Stevens of Reel Broke Charters, who cut his teeth in Murrells Inlet’s super-salty water chasing flounder as a kid. “Sandy bottoms cool quicker than mucky bottoms and hold more fish in summer.
“Flounder fishing just gets easier during the heat of summer, but stay away from mucky bottoms. Look for creek mouths with deep cuts and other areas with sandy bottoms.”
As summer’s heat peaks, Stevens likes to run and gun. He’ll drop anchor, fan-cast an area for 20 or 25 minutes, then move if the fish are not cooperating. He’ll keep moving until a place produces results. Good summer spots for Stevens offer non-stop action when a bite is on.
“Although fish can still be scattered somewhat during summer, good holding areas will have fish stacked up, ready to eat, producing a quick flurry of aggressive bites and fish to the boat,” Stevens said.
Murrells Inlet is relatively small compared to the Georgetown or Charleston areas, but the abundance of tidal creeks and oyster flats host a myriad of baitfish and a thriving flounder population. Just as the hot water discourages flounder, baitfish quickly become affected as well, seeking out cooler areas for refuge.
“It’s all about the food source almost any time of year, and August is no different. Flounder congregate in areas with pods of bait. Find the bait within cooler waters, and the flounder will be there,” he said.
Finding good holding areas for flounder is a great starting point to a cooler full of flatties, but fish will not always eat — even when presented with a plump, juicy mud minnow on the dinner plate. Never forget that flounder are ambush feeders — their coloration and pancake shape suggesting their feeding behavior.
“Bait presentation is key here. You will get many more bites when the baits are presented in their natural form or with the current,” Stevens said.
Not only are flounder ambush feeders, but they are inherently lazy and will always face the current, waiting for a easy meal to swim within their strike zone. Minnows, shrimp and other small fish are not strong enough to battle the current for very long and have adapted to naturally swim with the flow of water, in either the falling or rising tidal sequences.
“Successful flounder fishing requires a substantial current,” Stevens said. “Slack tides are good times to take a break or to move to areas with adequate moving water.”
Flounder count on swift, directional current to bring meals within reach. While they stack up in deeper holes and cuts in the flat backwaters, some flounder — especially trophy-sized fish — will maneuver and position themselves in areas where the bottom composition changes, even if there is little depth relief.
“Flounder will find transitional areas in moderate current to tuck into, just as the bait attempts to before becoming dinner for a big flattie,” says Capt. Kerry Gehman of Tailfinz Charters.
Gehman chases all inshore species, but when he’s after prized Murrells Inlet flounder, he specifically targets areas where the bottom changes from shells to sand or mud. He will will move along a depth change, casting upcurrent and working his baits down the break. He’ll fish these breaks and will come back later and fish the breaks again.
“Flounder are opportunistic feeders and will move around and reposition themselves along the transition areas to ambush passing bait,” Gehman said.
A flounder’s morphology allows it to slightly bury itself in these areas. Areas with an undulating bottom provide ample ambush points for the flounder and areas of relief in which prey can hide.
Even though flounder are opportunistic feeders, they prefer shrimp and small fish, especially mud minnows and small mullet minnows — which are common within their summer hangouts. According to Stevens, “the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish” is not the case for catching big flounder or big numbers of flounder in Murrells Inlet.
Stevens and Gehman prefer smaller baits, usually no more than three or four inches long. Flounder will process the smaller baits more quickly than larger baits, increasing the chances of a solid hookup.
Stevens studied several captive flounder in his saltwater aquarium for months, observing their feeding techniques.
“Flounder have a unique way of killing and eating their prey,” he said. “Flounder will bite the minnow towards the end of body, hold it until it’s immobile, then release it and swallow it head first.”
Flounder can be found throughout inshore and nearshore areas, including creek channels, backwaters, jetties, and reefs. Deep-water areas and sandy bottoms cool faster during the summer and are good places to target flounder. Stevens recommends targeting the mouth of creeks — Mulatto and Webb are two of his favorites — and the bend adjacent to the public fishing pier, especially on falling tides. The jetties and nearshore reefs — Pawley’s, 10-Mile and 3-Mile reef — are prime flounder locations.