Fly Fishing for Fluke

Want to have more fun this summer? Try fly fishing for summer flounder and other flatfish using a fly rod. Here's everything you need to know.
fluke on fly
Though it’s not usually as productive as dragging bait, fly fishing for fluke is an excellent way to spend a summer day. Joe Albanese

Fly anglers in the Northeast are limited in their options once summer sets in. The striped bass that we hold so dear tend to vacate the shallows once water temperatures reach 72 degrees Fahrenheit or so. If anglers are lucky, they will have weakfish to pass the warmer days with, but they typically can’t be relied on. And bluefish are unsung heroes, salvaging many a tide with their aggressive nature. But there’s one target many fly rodders overlook: summer flounder.

Summer flounder, better known as fluke, can be found in the skinny water all summer long. These dorsally-compressed ambush predators are actually quite voracious, lying in wait in the slightest of depressions to pounce on anything resembling food. I’ve even caught them in the surf as my kid was jumping waves a few feet away.

Many fly anglers have caught fluke by chance, but few actively pursue them. This is a mistake, as they provide excellent sport through the dog days of summer. Boating, wading, and kayak anglers can all get in on the action. Here’s what you need to know to catch them on the long rod.

Tackle Selection

summer flounder in stripping basket
You probably already have the tackle you need to catch summer flounder on the fly. Joe Albanese

If you already fly fish the salt, odds are pretty good that you have the right fly rod and reel to target fluke. Though they are surprisingly strong swimmers, just about any fly rod 6-weight and up will have enough backbone to pull them off the bottom. Rod selection is more about handling the heavy lines potentially needed to reach fluke.

To catch fluke, you’ll need to get your fly within a foot or two of the bottom. This can be accomplished with floating or intermediate lines in water 3 feet or less if current is light. Slightly deeper, and you’ll want a sink-tip. When water hits 6 feet or greater, full sink lines come into play. Use as heavy a line as needed to stay on the bottom; the weight will increase as current and depth increases. I have used lines with a sink rate as fast as 7 seconds per inch before, though this typically isn’t needed.

Heavy lines are best used with a heavy rod, so consider an 8-weight the minimum if you’re fishing in water 6 feet or deeper. Pair this with a few spare spools loaded with intermediate, sink-tip, and full-sinking line with a sink rate of anywhere from 4 to 6 inches per second to cover all the bases. But if you are going to probe water as deep as 15 feet, you’ll need the heaviest full-sinker that a 10-weight can handle.

You don’t need a beefy drag to stop a fluke, so just about any reel will do. I have a few Pflueger Medalists loaded with heavy lines to dredge bottom, and those ancient drag systems do just fine. But you’re probably better served with any of the purpose-built saltwater models on the market these days; the sealed-drags stand up to a marine environment better.

I’ll probably offend some tackle manufacturers with this one, but I often don’t bother with tapered leaders. I usually just run a straight trace of 10 to 20-pound fluorocarbon off my line; the powerful casts turn the flies over just fine and you don’t need a dry fly-worthy presentation in these scenarios. Plus, the flat line lets you cut back length to compensate for water depth and the sink rate of your fly line without a series of knots.

Fly Selection

squid flies for fluke
Squid patterns are sure-fire fluke flies. Joe Albanese

You can never go wrong by selecting flies that match the dominant forage species, but I’ve found it’s more important to ensure the fly was in the strike zone. Fluke love sand eels, rain bait, and the like, so flies like Clouser Minnows or Jiggies are usually effective. Squid are another favorite, and I’ve had plenty of luck throwing squid patterns even when they aren’t around. When fluke on larger baits, such as juvenile bunker, patterns such as Deceivers or Cowen’s Magnum Baitfish work well.

Finding Fluke on the Fly

fluke in salt marsh
Tidal estuaries are prime locations to catch fluke on a fly rod. Joe Albanese

Fluke occupy a wide variety of habitats, from sandy flats to muddy creeks and everything in between. They lie undetected on the down tide side of the smallest of humps, easily holding in the resultant current break and gobbling up any morsel unfortunate enough to be swept over head. Here’s the habitats to look for, and how to fish them.

Though you might not have thought about them this way, fluke often stack up in many of the same places that you would find striped bass or bluefish, and employ a lot of the same feeding strategies. In a marsh or estuary system, fluke often orient themselves with the mouths of narrow creeks or drains on a dropping tide and help themselves to the buffet floating above. To capitalize in these scenarios, cast up into the creek and let the tide bounce your fly back toward you. Retrieve in short strips, keeping the fly just off the bottom.

Wider tidal creeks and rivers are great places to hunt for fly rod fluke. You’ll also want to target these on the outgoing tide if possible; but if the water is deep enough, sometimes fluke will ride the current in. Use the current to your advantage no matter which way it is flowing, casting up current and letting the flow work your fly back past you. Look for lips and depressions and concentrate on those.

Shallow flats are tailor-made for fly rodders. While you’re best suited looking for steep gradients when fishing deeper waters, you can focus on much subtler depth changes on skinny bars and flats. Because they are so thin, fluke can hide in the tiniest depressions—stuff too small to be noted on a depth finder and difficult to see by eye even in crystal clear waters. Flats such as these won’t have water rapidly sweeping over them except at the very peak tide stages, so fluke won’t be concentrated as they would be near a pinch point like a creek mouth. Instead, they will likely be spread out over the relatively featureless sand or mud bottom and you’ll have to do some casting to connect. Toss your fly out ahead of you in a fan pattern, hopping it back to you slowly.

Beachfronts are another great place to look for fluke. Here, they will often hold in the trough, just at the water’s edge. Offshore bars hold fluke both alongside and on top, so work these thoroughly. Changes of depth of a foot are a big deal on sand beaches, and you can pull a couple of fish off of the smallest depression. Thoroughly work any cuts you find. Cover as much ground as possible by walking, casting in a fan motion around you as you go.

Jetties are a great place to encounter all sorts of gamefish. For fluke, target the groins where the rocks meet the sand. You’re better off standing on the beach and casting toward the jetty, as the sharp rocks can do a number on lines if you’re not careful. And note that you’ll probably need fairly heavy line, as the currents here can be stiff.

You can fish deeper water for fluke with a fly rod, but past a certain depth you’re just attempting to dredge bottom with a sinking line. A better approach is to look for shallow flats adjacent to deeper water, where fluke will pop up for a quick bite. One of my favorite spots is a 6-foot deep flat just off the edge of a much deeper channel. I find fish here on just about every stage of the tide, but they seem to be most active at slack.

Boat Handling

Garmin Force Kraken bow mounted trolling motor
Bow-mounted trolling motors can be valuable tools to slow the speed of your drift and keep your fly in the strike zone. Courtesy Garmin

When fly fishing, you can’t just add lead to stay on bottom like you would with conventional tackle. You must do your best to keep drifts under 1 knot or the current will force the thicker fly line upward. The days when wind and tide go against each other, typically a tough scenario, are a boon to fly fishers. On days your boat is moving too fast, use a drift sock, or even better, a trolling motor, to keep speeds down.

To ensure your fly makes it to the strike zone, cast up current from the direction of your drift, giving the line plenty of time to settle before you reach what you expect to be productive ground. Depending on the speed of your drift, you might not need to actively retrieving the line. Instead, you will just move the rod tip to impart some action to the fly.

You often can’t rely on your electronics to find the subtle pieces of structure that you’ll be targeting, so you’ll want to note the most productive stretches. Mark waypoints or take land ranges so you can repeat these drifts later. You’ll probably need to reposition the boat frequently to keep action consistent.

Get Out There

big fly rod fluke
The author caught an 28-inch fluke on an 8-weight fly rod when he was 18. Joe Albanese

If you already fly fish the salt, you probably have everything you need to chase fluke with the long wand. So pursue a familiar species in a new way this summer, and add some more fun to your inshore adventures. Most of the fluke you’ll encounter will be shorts, but the possibility for keepers—and trophies—exists.

Odds are good a fly rodder will never encounter a specimen as large as the 22-pound, 7-ounce summer flounder caught by Captain Charles Nappi off the coast of Montauk in 1975 that stands as the IGFA All Tackle World record. But the 12-pound tippet fly tackle record is a much more reasonable 8 pounds, 4 ounces, taken off Cape May in 2008 by Chris Goldmark.

I caught a fluke of similar dimensions when I was 18, probing a creek mouth with a Clouser minnow on the dropping tide. Record books weren’t on my mind at the time, but I’ve been kicking myself for not having it officially weighed ever since.