Contrary to popular belief, fluke are not sedentary bottom-feeding scavengers but aggressive camouflaged predators that rely on ambush tactics to chase down meals. Fluke have a particular disdain for bucktails, in the sense that they hit the jigs with the heartless aggression of a childhood bully. A fluttering bucktail mimics a crippled baitfish, and the lighter the bucktail, the more realistically the doppelganger swims through the water. The key to a perfect presentation is using the lightest weight that still holds bottom. In general, 3/8- to ½-ounce sizes are well-balanced back-bay weights. Lance a strip or rubber bait on a bucktail, and you've got a combination that even the most finicky of fluke cannot ignore. Even lighter shad darts have found some acclaim from back-bay pros, like Capt. Dave DeGennaro of the Hi Flier. "Small eighth- to quarter-ounce shad darts tipped with one or two whole spearing or Gulp! New Penny shrimp are dynamite for sand-flat flounder," says DeGennaro. "For back-bay jigging, drop one to the bottom, let out a few more feet for scope and give it an aggressive sweeping jig from the surface of the water to the top of your head. The upstroke should be sharp enough to be your hook-set."
Light-tackle gear is paramount for deftly cast bucktails to achieve maximum effectiveness and lifelike illusion. Techniques for bucktailing in the strike zone include drifts that start on the flats on one side of the channel, drop over the edge, cross the channel and swing onto the flat on the other side. The longer you stay in the channel, the better you'll do. If you are bailing flatties on a certain drift, be sure to line up the same drift and run the same route, as fluke tend to stack up in packs and run in gangs as angler baits dive-bomb the schools. Tide also is a factor when bucktailing. DeGennaro explains: "In Barnegat Bay we catch them on both tides, with water moving hard on the incoming or outgoing, and with significant decrease in action on slack tides. We fish the three- to five-foot-deep flats east of Oyster Creek Channel and also where Oyster Creek and Double Creek channels collide near the Barnegat Inlet, where the depth drops from eight to 20 feet and creates a swirling, disorienting environment for baitfish."
Strip Baits and Live-Lining
"Live bait works best." That mantra was printed on the back of the metal BB split-shot cases of my old man's youth, and it still rings true. It's tough to say that live baits and strip baits outfish bucktails; it's a toss up. Strip baits can be cut from bluefish, hickory shad, squid or even fluke bellies, depending on the current laws. Strip size is determined by seasonal forage, and early season doormats won't jump on 12-inch-plus baits in the chilly waters. The largest strips, 4 to 5 inches in length and a quarter-inch wide, match the hatch of spearing, bay anchovies and juvenile spawn in the skinny waters. During summer you can bring out the big baits, with strips up to 10 inches and expect to hang a back-bay doormat. Preparation is key with strip baits, as they should be well-manicured and tapered to move smoothly through the water without spinning. A fish-finder rig allows the natural flutter of a strip bait to sound its siren call. Current is needed to effectively work the strip bait. Live baits are also sweet treats for fluke. On the same fish-finder rig, hook a snapper bluefish, live spot or killie though the lips so it drifts naturally.
Back-channel-bay fluking during spring and summer is the real deal, as the quantity and quality of fish available in Jersey's coastal bays are mind-boggling. And in case you're wondering about that preseason 9.2-pound fluke I caught a day too early, that trophy went right back in the water, along with all the other 2- to 4-pounders we caught in the Jersey back channels that day. We went home with an empty cooler. The next day, however, was a different story.