Wrecked on Flounder

Doormats are caught each summer from inshore waters, but the really big boys hide out at reefs and wrecks.

Craig Holt

June 26, 2007 at 2:24 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Although big flounder are caught each year at other areas, the most consistently-producing spots are southeastern coastal inshore and offshore areas.
Photo courtesy MIKE HOFFMAN
Although big flounder are caught each year at other areas, the most consistently-producing spots are southeastern coastal inshore and offshore areas.
Like hard-core party-goers who make a night of it by jumping from bar to bar, North Carolina saltwater anglers have options when it comes to getting their fill of big flounders each summer.

But just as some watering holes seem to feature the best action, the same is true of doormat hot spots; some places are better than others. You can fish for flounders at docks, piers, creeks, sounds, rivers, in the surf or at offshore reefs. What’s even better, at the end of a trip, you’re more likely to have the makings of a fine lunch or dinner rather than a hangover and empty wallet.

So what’s the cover charge to fill a summer cooler with doormats?

“Pogies,” said Mike Hoffman of Corona Daze Charters of Wilmington (910- 686-3868, captainmike@coronadazecharters.com). “You need pogies about 6- or 7-inches long. Then you have to go off the hill and find a spot that’s not been hammered.”

Actually, getting baitfish or picking the right lure isn’t the first step. Figuring out which salty saloon holds the most trophy flounders is the No. 1 problem to be solved.

But given that, during summer where does a hook-and-line angler go to have the best chance of catching a flatfish that hasn’t been hit on the head by a hundred chunks of 1-ounce lead and escaped trawls or thousands of yards of pound and gill nets?

Guides such as Hoffman — and there are plenty at the N.C. coast who grew up in the area and know the best spots — believe fishing off the beach affords the best chance to land a doormat. Inshore doormats are caught, there’s no doubt. But the big boys are exceedingly rare because so many people are trying to catch them.

Now it’s true that in the past some of the biggest fish were caught at sounds, estuarine rivers and tidal creeks. But those are the same places likely to have had some nylon mesh stretched across them during the year.

But there’s almost no ocean trawling for flounder south of Cape Hatteras. And that’s where you’re most likely to hook up with a fish that’ll stretch your scales toward that magical 10-pound mark — places where netters, like a biker gang, haven’t invaded your favorite pub, wrecked the joint and made off with the prettiest girls.

The number-one inshore spot at the N.C. coast is a stretch of canal about one-quarter-mile long between the Cape Fear River and ICW at Carolina Beach. It’s called Snow’s Cut and connects Myrtle Sound with the river.

Netters can’t work that water because there are too many snags on the bottom and the current usually is too swift. But fishing times for recreational anglers is short, only good about two hours on each side of high and low tides — and there’s lots of world-rocking boat traffic.

The nearby river is a good spot, especially at the lower end of the Cape Fear near Southport, where numerous docks at the western side and broken structure on the bottom afford plenty of hiding places for flatfish. Only a limited amount of trawling occurs in the lower Cape Fear each year, nothing like that which occurs at Core and Pamlico sounds to the north.

But if one really wants to pursue big summer flounder, nothing beats offshore structure a few miles from the beach, especially those with “reef balls,” the man-made concrete semi-circles with holes in them that Jimmy Price of Southport, N.C.’s flounder king emeritus, has called “flounder motels.”

“My biggest flounder weighed 12 pounds 2 ounces,” Hoffman said. “It was a reef flounder. And I’ve caught a bunch of reef flounder in that range, near 10 pounds, along with my clients.

“On the other hand, the biggest inshore flounder I ever caught weighed about 5 pounds.”

Nearly every serious hook-and-line flatfish angler and “week-enders” at the southeastern coast know about the best offshore spots such as the Yaupon and Tom McGlammery reefs. Price regularly pulls whopping doormats from those bottoms near Southport and Oak Island, including a 17-pounder a few years ago.

However, Hoffman likes taking his clients a little farther north at spots off the beach from Carolina and Wrightsville beaches. They’re closer to his home, and he’s had good success there.

Some of the well-known reefs off Pleasure Island include AR 376 (the 10-Mile Boxcars), which is 9.9 nautical miles from the Masonboro Inlet sea buoy; AR 370, the Meares Harris reef (also called the Liberty Ship), which is 3.5 miles from the Masonboro buoy; the Phillip Wolfe Reef (AR 378, 2.6 miles from the Carolina Beach Inlet sea buoy and 40-feet deep); the Dredge Wreck (AR 382, 10.7 miles from the Carolina Beach Inlet buoy in 58 feet of water); and AR 372 (the 5-Mile Boxcars), approximately 5 miles from the Masonboro buoy.

Each has flounder motels scattered on the bottom. But they’re community holes that get hit hard. Like most flounder anglers and guides who are successful, Hoffman would rather fish uncrowded spots he knows hold big fish.

“I’ve got some other places I found when the king (mackerel) fishing was slow and we had some nice-size pogies,” he said.

Hoffman, who has been a full-time guide for three years since ending his career as a plumber (“best move I ever made.”), rarely ventures out of Masonboro Inlet because his best spots are farther north. He primarily uses shallow Rich’s Inlet, an entrance to the Atlantic Ocean that’s never been on the state’s list for regular dredging (but was dredged in 2005 to add sand for a beach renourishment project at the north end of Figure 8 Island).

“It’s got a winding channel that’s usually about 6-feet deep, if you know where to go,” Hoffman said. “It saves me a lot of time and fuel to go out this inlet. You just have to be careful.”

Not only that, but the Intracoastal Waterway behind the island is marked by creeks on its western side that are filled with baitfish. Hoffman prefers a couple of creeks because they always produce good-size pogies for his flounder or king mackerel trips.

“You can come in here in the summer and see schools of huge pogies (menhaden),” Hoffman said as we cruised slowly westward at one of the creeks last July and watched schools of 10- to 12-inch-long baitfish skitter away from our wake. “They’re actually too big for flounder, but they’re great for kings.

“For a half-day flounder trip, I’ll try to catch at least eight dozen from 6- to 7- inches long, what I call ‘medium-size’ pogies.”

Once he’s corralled enough baitfish with his cast net, Hoffman heads east out of Rich’s Inlet.

“I’ve got several ‘drops’ I like to fish,” he said.

By “drops,” Hoffman meant ledges, places where the sandy ocean bottom suddenly changes in increments of 6 to 7 feet.

“It might be ’cause baitfish are attracted to those places,” he said. “I just know if you can find a change in the bottom, and you see baitfish on your depth-finder, you’re going to find flounder.”

Hoffman said he also fished two spots few other flounder anglers know — a pair of sunken ships in 60 to 65 feet of water.

“The first one is a 200-foot-long tug(boat) and the second is a tug that’s broken into two pieces,” he said.

The key to successful deep-water flounder fishing is to take note of the wind and tide direction, drop anchor, then pay out enough line so the boat is about 20 or 30 yards from a fishing target — a reef ledge or wreck.

“You’ve got to fish the edges of the wrecks,” he said. “You don’t want to drop your baits right on top of a wreck.

“First off, these fish are hiding in the sand next to the wrecks, not in the wreck itself. You want to slowly move your baits in the sand across or near the fish. They’ll shoot up and grab it. Second, you don’t want to put your rig on all that metal; you’ll be cut off before you know it. Besides that, the flounder are gonna try to take you into a door, port hole, the hold ... anything they can find to cut you off.”

However, Hoffman said sometimes, instead of anchoring, he drifts baitfish next to a wreck.

“I think flounder get scattered out on the (ocean) bottom near wrecks like that,” he said. “Drifting lets you cover more territory. If you get several bites at the same place, you can anchor up and fish that place. But usually you’ll do just as good if you just keep drifting and fishing.”

Flounder seem to move in “waves” near wrecks, Hoffman said. Some days the ocean bottom will be covered with flatfish; other days a particular reef or wreck won’t seem to have any fish. He said water temperature and the presence of baitfish are probably what makes flounder show up at a given area or seemingly disappear. He said 86 degrees is the optimum summer water temperature for nearshore flounder.

“August is the best month,” Hoffman said. “That’s when the water temperature is prime. Every August I’m completely booked (with customers who want to catch flounders),” he said. “But I like to spend time with my son, so I usually only book only three days per week. I usually take off Wednesdays and Fridays.”

When the water temperature is right, baitfish are present and if Hoffman has found a ledge, reef or wreck that holds flounder, the action can be surprisingly fast, even though the fishing technique — drop-shotting — is slow.

“My best day I had a party of anglers that caught 25 flounder,” he said. “And it didn’t take long to do it.”

Anglers are restricted to eight ocean flounder per trip, with the minimum size of each fish 14 1/2 inches total length.

Hoffman’s boat is stocked with 7-foot-long Shimano rods fitted with Berkley 17-pound-test Big Game monofilament. Bait-casting reels work as well, but he likes Shimano Sedona spinning reels.

“They’re not that expensive (about $50) and can be replaced easily,” he said. “(Equipment) goes bad fast in saltwater.”

Because the bottom’s so dicey where flounder like to hide at wrecks, Hoffman adopted a bass-fishing technique to save his rigs.

“I tie about 6 inches of 8- to 10-pound test leader to the main line with a swivel, then I tie on a 2-0 wide-gap hook at the swivel,” he said.

Then he ties another 18 inches of leader and attaches it to a 1-ounce lead weight (usually a bank sinker) that will bounce off the bottom.

“It’s actually just a drop-shot bass-fishing rig,” Hoffman said. “It keeps your bait(fish) off the bottom, and you don’t hang up as much. The bank sinker also doesn’t get hung up as easy out here as a Carolina-rig barrel sinker or a pyramid sinker.”

When a flounder takes a bait at a reef, the angler’s reaction must be unlike inshore fishing techniques. Normally when fishing inshore waters, anglers give a flounder as much as a minute to turn the bait headfirst and swallow it before they set the hook.

“But (in the ocean), you’ve got to set the hook as soon as you feel him nail it,” Hoffman said. “Then you gotta turn his head. You’ve got to try to get his head turned toward the surfac) because if you don’t, he’ll go straight for a reef ball or a hole (in a wreck). The barnacles, metal, rock or other stuff down there will cut your line like it’s sewing thread.”

One of his favorite reefs is the Billy Murrell (AR 364), which is 44-feet from the surface and 6.2 nautical miles from Masonboro Inlet. But competition from divers often puts it off limits.

“When the divers come out (to the Billy Murrell), they’ll spear groupers, spadefish and flounders,” he said. “So that pretty much puts an end to fishing that day.”

However, when that happens, Hoffman simply pulls his anchor or ends his drift and heads to another watering hole.

Tar Heel anglers can reef hop and get wrecked on flounder without getting into much trouble.

And the rewards are a lot more pleasant than a DUI or waking up next to someone you don’t recognize.




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