A friend once told me about a flounder spot beneath one of the bridges to St. George Island. It’s one of those places that gets a lot of use because of the drive-up access and a wide, comfortable seawall. Visitors seem to find their way there most likely because that’s where they saw somebody else fishing.
My friend likes to show up there two hours into an incoming tide with a dozen or so chub minnows, as he calls them–the local moniker for striped killifish–a spinning rod, a hook, and a 1-ounce slip sinker.
He politely asks permission to squeeze in between those already there. “They’re usually fishing with something like a whole squid,” he explains, “or a shrimp that’s been frozen and thawed back into mush. And they’re always casting as far as they can away from the wall and the bridge.”
My friend follows the same routine each time. He hooks on a minnow, drops it only a couple feet off the seawall, waits a couple minutes, then to the amazement of everyone, pulls up a flounder.
Then he does it again.
“It’s usually between the third and fourth flounder that someone breaks down and asks where they can get some of those minnows,” he says. In the way of most anglers, my friend ends up giving away the rest of his bait.
I decided to give his spot a try. I cast netted a few chub minnows from a nearby sandbar, and moved into position beneath the bridge. We dropped baits into the water, and in a few minutes my wife pulled up the biggest flounder I’ve ever seen. It worked over and over–chub minnow down, flounder up.
Over the three years I’ve fished there, I’ve always taken at least a couple flounder each time. It’s the surest thing I’ve ever found in fishing. Admittedly, I don’t light the grill before I go, but I don’t bother to thaw out any hamburger either.
Then a couple of months ago I heard that same friend telling someone else about his “hot flounder spot beneath the bridge.” And as I stood there ready to jump in with my own testimonials, I suddenly realized he was talking about a different place. For two years I had been fishing at the end of the wrong bridge!
There are two bridges over to St. George Island, connected by a causeway. I had been fishing the south end of the north bridge, rather than the south end of the south bridge.
That says something about this fishing–find the right conditions for flounder in Apalachicola Bay–sandy bottom, shade, current and structure–and chances are good the flounder will find it also. And if you catch at least one flounder in such a spot, you can figure that another one will be along soon to take its place. I think they sometimes wait in line for their turn to occupy an ambush site.
If you can find a couple of these spots, you can salvage many a slow day of fishing, and still have something for the plate if that’s your intention, and it should be. Let’s face it, although they fight pretty good sometimes, so would a garbage can lid. Nobody fishes for flounder for sport any more than they fish for tarpon for food.
And it’s unlikely anyone will ever pay a flats guide to pole them over some good flounder habitat. Unless you’re using a bow and arrow, you’ll probably never hear the whispered words, “Flounder at two o’clock, 35 feet.”
But what these odd-looking creatures lack in fighting spirit they make up for on the dinner table.
Even that’s hard to believe from their looks. Flat, drab green, and with both of their eyes on one side of their head. Throw in that single mohawk-punk-rocker fin that runs around their body, and you have a creature some people don’t even want to touch.
Despite their goofy appearance, flounder are in fact excellent predators. They don’t waste time grubbing around in the mud like redfish, or slashing through schools of baitfish like a mackerel, nor do they roam the grassflats like a seatrout hoping to stumble upon an unsuspecting pinfish or shrimp.
Instead, like a good turkey hunter, they rely on patience and camouflage to close the distance between them and their prey. Once the target comes within range they strike, rising from the bottom with eye-blink speed, and a tenacious attitude; they clamp sharp teeth on the surprised baitfish and hang on like a junkyard dog.
You might say it’s a minimalist approach to feeding that exerts the least amount of effort for the maximum return. And that in turn dictates the way they should be fished for–basic and simple, the right bait at the right place and right time. They’ll do the rest.
There are over 200 species of flounder worldwide, but only two species are typically caught in the northern Gulf, the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) and the Gulf flounder (Paralichthys albigutta). The Gulf flounder, which is the smaller of the two, reaches 15 inches. It’s distinguished by three ocelli, eye-like spots, in a triangle pattern, two toward the front and one toward the back. Although a Gulf flounder may have other ocelli they always have those specific three.
The southern flounder, which is one of the species that reaches doormat size, has no eye spots. Their dark side is blotchy and often has a scattering of white dots. They can reach 30 inches.
Both species are left-eyed flatfish, meaning they have both of their eyes on their left side. Both are also white on the bottom and muddy brown to olive on the top depending upon the color of the bottom they’ve been lying on.
Before I started fishing in Apalachicola Bay, a flounder landed during a fishing trip was merely a pleasant surprise on a slow day, and a nuisance on a day when more exciting prey were biting. But after “they” decided “we” needed to eat more omega-3 containing fish, targeting flounder once in a while became an inexpensive way to healthy-up our diet.
Fortunately, Apalachicola Bay seems to grow flounder like weeds in an unkempt garden. You pluck one out and another one grows up in its place. In fact, the flounder were once so important commercially that local fish houses refused to buy from shrimpers that dragged in the bay because of the flounder by-kill. They needed the flounder to get through the summer months when shrimping was slow.
Of course those days of self-imposed conservation are long gone. And it’s now not unusual to see 50 shrimpers dragging in the bay at one time. But the flatties have hung on, and although no longer plentiful enough to support much of a commercial fishery, they do provide some excellent recreational fishing.
From late spring through early fall, ambushing flounder
can be found on sandy or muddy bottoms around the edges of oyster bars, sand reefs, bays, creek mouths, and along shorelines. They also have a tendency to show up in the vicinity of docks and bridges. Tidal rips around creeks and river mouths, along seawalls, and at the ends of long oyster bars are ideal places for flounder to set up their ambush. They also like to settle in depressions or dropoffs near moving water, and during low tide.
The combination of a sandy bottom, a strong current, and food is what draws them to Bob Sikes Cut. Not only do they like the broad sweeps of sand created by the tidal flow, they have a nearly constant current to bring them food. I’ve seen them lined up all the way around Little St. George Island into the bay. The biggest flounder taken at the Cut are usually caught with live bait on the bottom immediately next to the rocks on the outside of the jetties.
As the inshore waters warm in the late spring, flounder begin to show up around the St. George Island causeway and bridges. Veteran flounder fishers like to walk the long seawall casting a lure ahead of them along the length of the wall, or slowly dragging a live bait a couple feet out from the base of the wall. The flounder will often be lying immediately next to the wall, apparently taking advantage of any shade there is.
Another great flounder spot is the sandbar at the western end of Pelican Reef. The flounder move up and down the bar with the tide, and are most active when the current is at its peak.
We’ve also caught countless flounder around the abandoned boat docks protruding into the bay on the inside of Little St. George Island. We found this approach looking for redfish one slow summer day. Our plan was to slip up on each dock, take a long cast with a spoon or jig, and see how many redfish we could catch. On dock after dock, the first cast was nailed by a flounder lying in the shade of whatever planks were left on the old structures.
Perhaps the oddest thing about these evolutionary masterpieces is they are born with eyes in normal places (for fish), one on each side of their head. But as they mature, one eye actually migrates to the other side, providing a distinct advantage to a fish that earns its living by lying on the bottom while scanning the water above for an unsuspecting dinner to swim by.
What’s this got to do with catching flounder? Not much, except to understand that they are visually oriented toward their prey. If you put something within sight that looks and acts alive and edible, they’ll go after it.
Since they spot their prey visually, water clarity is important. You can expect to catch few flounder when the water is muddy or stained. Since the bay water is generally clearer during a rising tide, that should be an important consideration. Flounder also tend to move closer to the shoreline during high tide, especially in the tidal creeks when the baitfish move up into the grass for protection.
Chub minnows, or more specifically, striped killifish, are by far the best flounder bait available, with live mullet running a close second. The minnows are easy to find and catch with a small mesh cast net as they swim back and forth in small schools along the edge of about any sandy or muddy shoreline. Chub minnows also hold up well in a Flow-Troll bait keeper, or just in a bucket with a few inches of water.
Use a plain, straight-shanked hook (No. 1, 1/0, or 2/0) with 12 to 18 inches of leader and a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce slip-sinker above the swivel, more if the current is strong. A heavy monofilament leader will pay off since flounder like to lie near oyster bars and bridge pilings, and they have a decent set of teeth.
A small spoon with a worm, pork rind, or bait-strip trailer is a good substitute for live bait. Sinking MirrOlures fished slowly on the bottom will attract a flounder’s attention, as will a long, split-tailed grub. Stubby plastic grubs can be spruced up by adding a 6-inch bait strip to the hook. Bait strips can be made from pinfish, mullet, or squid, and should always be split to create a fluttering action when fished slowly.
And don’t forget to take a cooler with a little ice in it to keep your dinner cool until you get home.