Doormat Daze

At reefs, flounders may be in the sloughs between the structure or at some of the little ledges near them. Many will be right up against the reefs, according to local guides.

Want to catch big flounders offshore at reefs or at inshore structures this month? Try the waters of the Crystal Coast.

Like swallows to Capistrano, flounder return to the Cape Lookout area every year. Sometime in mid-May, a few fish begin showing up near reefs and wrecks a few miles off the beach.

A week or so later, they’re carpeting the bottom of the ocean in big numbers. And just as suddenly, they’re in Beaufort Inlet and Barden’s Inlet and in all places inside the Bogue Sound, Back Sound, Core Sound and the waterways that connect them.

And oh, does that make Chris Elliott and Dave Dietzler happy.

Elliott operates Crystal Coast Charters, and Dietzler runs Cape Lookout Charters. Both spend countless days during the summer putting their clients on flounder and understand the importance of keeping up with the movements of flatfish after they really show up in good numbers near Memorial Day.

“There’ll be a bunch of flounder inshore and right off the beach, where you catch ’em depends on how you like to fish and how big your boat is,” said Dietzler. “The reefs and ledges and wrecks that are 3 or 4 miles off the beach are definitely places where you can pick up flounder, and they’re within striking distance of anybody with a small center-console boat. Or you can fish inside after they get there.”

Elliott usually is thrilled when the flounder first arrive because it’s a fish he targets during a majority of his trips from June at least through August. He fishes for them in just about every different area they inhabit, and he loves catching them any way he can.

“They always show up in the ocean first, a few days to a week before they show up inshore — I’d say from the end of May into early June,” said Elliott (252-808-7067). “Then, they show up around the reefs and the rock jetties. And finally, they come inside. Once they’re here, they’ll stay around until November, when the water starts to cool down.”

For years, flounders have been spending the winters in the deep, warm waters of the Gulf stream, spawning, then returning to the beaches in the spring as the inshore waters warm up into the high 60s and low 70s. Not too many fishermen really think of flounders as schooling fish, but they are, and when they move into an area, they move in in tremendous numbers.

The first places where Dietzler and Elliott search for them in mid- to late-May are inshore reefs and wrecks. Out of Beaufort Inlet, a handful of bottom structures fit the bill perfectly — in 50 to 60 feet of water, with uneven bottoms, hard bottoms, bottoms that hold ship wrecks and discarded boats, planes, barges, railroad cars and huge chunks of concrete rubble.

The “Trawler” and “Barge” wrecks are about 7 and 10 miles off Beaufort Inlet, respectively. A.R. 315 (Atlantic Beach Reef) and A.R. 320 (Clifton Moss Reef), 4 and 7 miles west/southwest of the inlet, also hold some of the first flounder to arrive off Cape Lookout. A third reef, A.R. 285 (Summerlin Reef) is about 4 miles southeast of the Cape Lookout slough buoy on the east side of the shoals.

“Flounder are like a lot of other species — Spanish mackerel, cobia, king mackerel,” said Dietzler (252-240-2850). “They come in from the ocean, and you catch them first out on the reefs and wrecks. The first fish, the first big fish, and the most fish early in the season, will be caught on the reefs and wrecks.

“When you fish out there, you really need to have your depth-finder and GPS units dialed in. They’ll dramatically help you.

“Like other species of fish that school, you’ll catch (flounder) in different areas. On the reefs, they may be laying up in the sloughs between the junk that’s out there, or some of the little ledges around them. A lot of them will be laying right up against the reef.”

Dietzler and Elliott like to make slow, controlled drifts close to the different bits of junk that make up the reefs. At A.R. 315, that includes a 440-foot Liberty ship, a fishing boat, a Coast Guard launch, a trawler, two barges, a fishing boat, two aircraft, a tug boat, reef balls and concrete rubble.

Spread across a wide area, different portions of the reefs can provide dozens of different places where fishermen who position their boats upcurrent can drift to the edge of the rubble or wrecks, pick up and make another drift.

“I like to drift right to the edge of the reef; they have great piles of it all over, and there are a lot of fish around them,” Elliott said. “I try to drift right up to the biggest part of the junk, as close as I can get, without drifting over it. There’s too much junk that you can get hung up on.”

Dietzler said the key to getting a good drift around the reefs or other wrecks is to be able to fish almost vertically, keeping his bait in contact with the bottom.

“You have to control your drift,” he said. “If it’s not too windy, you can use a trolling motor. It’s an up-and-down game. If you drift up over the reef, your line gets up on it; you can’t have your line out at a 35-degree angle.”

The great thing about fishing for flounder on the reefs and wrecks is that you’ll catch flounder — and other fish.

“Just by putting a live finger mullet out behind the boat, and not even paying much attention to it, you can catch kings or a 5-pound Spanish mackerel,” Dietzler said. “There are a lot of different kinds of fish out there.”

The standard flounder rig for most applications is a Carolina rig, with an egg sinker threaded onto the line, a barrel swivel tied on below it, and a leader with a live-bait hook tied to the other end.

Live baits are almost always the choices for Dietzler and Elliott — and most other flounder guides. Mud minnows, finger mullet, small menhaden, pinfish, croakers and spots will be used as available.

Fishing close to the reefs and wrecks, Dietzler likes to shorten the leader to around a foot so he can keep his bait right on the bottom.

Flounders will stay at the reefs and wrecks for much of the summer and fall. But great numbers of them move even closer to the shoreline — and into the inlets and sounds. That move puts Elliott and Dietzler into different situations and areas — but basically using many of the same tactics.

Elliott said flounders will move from the wrecks and reefs to the rock jetties at Fort Macon and Cape Lookout, but he doesn’t spend much time looking for them there. At Fort Macon, he said, the sides have been silted in and are too shallow. The extreme end of the jetty, Elliott said, has some deep water close by and can be good for a couple of fish every day, especially during a falling tide.

Elliott spends many of his summer days in Barden’s Inlet, a small passageway that winds from the back sound around the eastern end of Shackleford Banks, back to the west through the Cape Lookout “hook” and into the ocean. The inlet is full of flounder, and it’s a perfect set-up for fishermen, a blueprint of depth changes, current and tide changes.

“The channel at Barden’s Inlet shifts a lot — with every storm — but the current flowing through it is so hard that it carves a steep edge on the channel,” Elliott said. “Flounder fishing is all about edge, structure, where the bottom changes composition, where it drops off. Fish will be around some kind of break or edge, whether they’re bass, crappie and flounder. They don’t want a flat, slick bottom.”

Elliott likes to drift the edges of the channel as it winds out of Barden’s Inlet, inside the “hook.” He can drift small sections of the channel, either across it or, if the wind allows, he can drift with the channel, right along the drop.

“I like about 12 to 14 feet of water; that’s a good depth,” he said. “If you fish right in the channel, the current can run so fast that it gets hard to fish.

“There’s a flat in front of the (Cape Lookout) lighthouse that’s 9- to 12-feet deep, a real good place to drift, and anywhere that’s got a hard bottom, maybe shell composition, they can be good places to drift.

“You really need to get tuned into your weight. You can feel it dragging across shells, then soft sand, then maybe shells again. You can feel that, and the fish will usually be laying right on the edge of those changes.”

Elliott also targets the channel buoys but only when the tide is dead slack — high or low.

“The buoys are anchored to concrete blocks on the bottom that weigh about 500 pounds each, and the flounder will get on them when the water isn’t moving,” he said. “Probably my biggest flounder at Barden’s Inlet was a 5- of 6-pounder that I caught off one of those concrete blocks on a dead slack tide.”

When flounders move inside, into the turning basin at Beaufort Inlet, into deep holes in the sound, the game changes.

“Flounder are like any schooling fish,” Dietzler said. “The only problem is, they’re not busting bait on the surface to let you know where they are. They’re a fish that you’ve got to work hard to find. It’s not unusual to hop, skip and jump between 10 different spots in just a little bit of time looking for them. If you want to catch flounder, you’ve got to find ’em.

“Inside the inlet, you’ve got to look for little drops and hard, shelly bottoms, pilings in deep water, any kind of little structure of 2- or 3-foot drops. You have to have something for flounder to lie around.

“They’ll get on anything they can get behind, out of the current, where they can pick off baitfish the current sweeps past them.”

Elliott said there are literally “four-and-a-half million places in the Turning Basin where you can catch flounder. What makes the Morehead City area so good is that there is so much man-made structure — the bridges, reefs, rock jetties — everything that holds fish.”

Dietzler said the concrete pilings that support high-rise bridges between Morehead City and Atlantic Beach and Morehead City and Beaufort will hold fish.

He likes to search for fish hiding behind downcurrent pilings, waiting for baitfish to be swept past them.

“Off the beach, the tide doesn’t matter, but inshore, the best water to fish is moving toward high tide — the last two hours before high tide and the first two hours of the falling tide,” he said. “Probably, your bigger fish — no, the biggest fish — come around bridge pilings.”

He and Elliott also agreed the deep water at the State Port at Morehead City can be incredible flounder water.

Elliott loves to fish that area during high slack tide because when the current is running, it’s so strong it’ll keep you hung up in the junk that lines the edges of the port.

“You think about the years and years of crap falling off the side of the port,” Dietzler said, agreeing. “All of it sinks to the bottom and creates perfect structure. And flounder hang out right next to it. You fish a short leader, a big bait and fish it right on the bottom for bigger fish.”

“Your bigger fish always come off your more stationary, harder structure,” Elliott said. “The numbers of fish are probably better if you’re drifting, but the size won’t be as good.”

The adage “big bait, big fish” holds true for flounders. Dietzler and Elliott fish roughly the same tackle, rigs and bait.

“I fish a 7-foot, All-Star rod and a Pfleuger reel; you can fish spinning or baitcasting — whatever you prefer,” Elliott said. “I fish a Carolina rig with an egg sinker, a barrel swivel and about 18 to 24 inches of 25-pound Eagle Claw Lazer Line tied to’ a No. 1 or 1/0 No. 42 Eagle Claw (live-bait) hook.

“I mostly use mud minnows because finger mullet don’t really get plentiful until late June or July, and they’re usually so small in June they’re not that good.”

Dietzler fishes 30-pound Ande mono on his rods and reels, and he’ll tie in a dropper loop and attach a flat, bank sinker, leaving the proper amount of “leader” to tie to a 4/0 Kahle-style wide-bend hook. The 4/0 hook is necessary because he likes to use big baits: big finger mullets, small bluefish, pinfish or even spots. The dropper loop and bank sinker, he said, can cut down on the number of rigs he loses, because the bank sinker doesn’t get hung up as much as an egg sinker.

The bigger bait, however, may cause Dietzler to be a little more patient when setting the hook on a flounder. He admits a fisherman who feels the “thump” of a flounder inhaling a live bait needs to wait a while — to let the fish scale the bait, then slide it down its throat — before setting the hook. With a big bait, he might have to wait a few seconds longer.

“How long do you wait?” Dietzler asked, remembering one particular trip. “I had this 70-year-old man one time — his son was taking him fishing with me. And he said when a flounder bit, he’d take two or three good drags on a cigarette before he set the hook. And you know, he caught a lot more fish than his son.

“I figure you should wait 30 or 40 seconds to make sure the fish really gets it.”

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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