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April 13, 2011

New Jersey Fluke

Shallow bay flats and back channels produce serious-caliber fluke fishing.

The sun had just cracked the horizon of Ludlam Bay, in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, and I stood poised to cast from the deck of Capt. Al Crudele's skiff, Bayhound. We were on a late spring weakfish trip, biding our time in early May, as the official opening of fluke season was still one day away. An outgoing tide drifted us through windy sod-bank-lined channels, and we bounced bucktails in hopes of happening into a few tide-runner-class weakfish. I made a cast, splashing the bucktail just off the channel edge of the flat, and the bump-bump-bump of the bucktail on the bay bottom stopped with a jolt as the rod bent over and drag started peeling. There were no textbook thrashing head shakes of a paper-mouthed weakfish, just intermittent fist-pounding surges of something big with shoulders.

"Play 'em easy! They've got weak mouths!" barked Crudele, but I knew this wasn't a weakfish. I couldn't play this one gingerly, and tightened the drag down one more crank and lifted when the leviathan surfaced big, flat and brown. Crudele readied the net for a swift scoop. Fluke. Trophy fluke. A 9.2-pound near-doormat, one of the largest I'd ever caught - and in only five feet of water! Forget it - this was now a fluke trip.

Hallowed Shallows
Shallow-bay angling for fluke, aka summer flounder, in Jersey is nothing short of extraordinary, and the past few years have seen double-digit catches on a daily basis. "Flukettes" from 8 to 16 inches are caught with Vegas betting-line consistency, but larger specimens of 2 to 10 pounds lurk in most every stretch of back channel. The flatfish make their move inshore from the wintering grounds of the deep continental-shelf flats sometime in mid- to late March, when they infiltrate coastal backwaters to spawn. From mid-April to early June, early season flatfish look for water from 63 to 70 degrees, and late spring fish move into the skinny waters of shallow tidal estuary spits, mudflats and channel edges, seeking the heat of the sun in the chilly spring waters. That's precisely where anglers should target fluke through late May. Three to six feet of depth allows plenty of sunlight to reach the darker bottoms of black marsh mud and dark sands that, in turn, heat up the surrounding water faster and draw fluke. Tide does have an effect, as fluke are at their most aggressive in lower water. "Early season fluking should revolve mostly around the outgoing tide," says Crudele. "That warm water comes off the flats as it flows out, whereas incoming tides, the colder ocean water, shut the bite down."

Going Deep
In late June through September, when water temperatures begin to rise into the low to mid-70s, flatties begin to station themselves deeper in the channel bottoms and lower on the channel edges. Channels such as Oyster Creek and Double Creek in Barnegat Bay, Paddy's Hole near Ludlam Bay, and Broad Creek in Absecon Bay dip dramatically from flats to six to 20 feet, and the rushing tides turn the channels into virtual food funnels as fluke hunker down to pounce on morsels of bait that wash by. Full-moon and new-moon tides put fluke on the feed big-time, as the rising currents create a buffet line by washing fiddler crabs, copepods, sea worms and fish fry off the tops of the sod banks. Back channels are baitfish superhighways, and fluke know it.