November 01, 2008
A well-guarded secret, but don't let those big cannons scare you away.
Historic Fort Clinch on Cumberland Sound never saw a military battle, but this month there'll be some pretty good fish fights nearby.
Flounder fishing is the area's claim to angling fame. The fort is uniquely positioned at a gathering point for flounder migrating from tidal bays, marshes and rivers to oceanic nearshore hard bottom.
Perched at the northeastern tip of the Florida state line, Fort Clinch was constructed in the 19th century and is well-preserved today as a state park. Visitors find a variety of fishing opportunities, including a half-mile-long fishing pier. Fishing is also very popular at the fort's small jetty rocks where a shallow flat gives way to a deep channel. Surf fishing catches include whiting, bluefish, redfish, seatrout and more.
Surf and small-boat fishermen who understand the feeding habits of Fort Clinch flounder have scored with fish of record-size proportions. Southern flounder catches here have approached the 20-pound mark, with many catches weighing in excess of 10 pounds. The world-record southern flounder was caught nearby in Nassau Sound by Larenza Mungin December 23, 1983 and weighed 20 pounds, 9 ounces.
Flounder are a rare catch for fishermen targeting redfish and seatrout. Special techniques are called for to consistently catch them. Fishermen will also need to understand the tides and acquire a feel for the flounder's slow bite and unique feeding habits. These fish can be tough to pattern, even tougher to land, some days.
Heading into the peak autumn flounder season, I'm reminded of an eventful trip last fall with Florida Sportsman founder Karl Wickstrom. We launched my 22-foot bay boat at Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina. After purchasing a couple dozen bull minnows at the Bait House, we motored out of Egans Creek and began slow-jigging along an oyster-strewn shoreline. I netted a live minnow from the baitwell and barbed it with a 1/4-ounce jighead. Karl threaded a scented soft-plastic shrimp onto his jig. Moments later, Karl swooped a 3-pound flounder into the boat with his rod.
“Think I'll stick with the plastic shrimp,” he said.
On my second cast, I felt that distinctive thud that flounder transmit when eating a jig-and-minnow combination. I waited patiently for the fish to take the minnow deep into its mouth before reeling in the slack line and setting the hook.
At the right moment, I drove the hook into a good fish that turned out to be a 10-pound redfish. The fish put up a respectable fight and was soon revived and released.
It was the last of the falling tide, perfect timing for flounder fishing. In a few hours we landed one nice redfish and a half-dozen flounder.
As the tide turned and began flooding the flat, Karl cast toward a deep slough and connected with a fish that put up a much bigger fight. A flounder that looked 6 pounds, easy, came grudgingly to the surface. At that moment, I regretted not bringing the wide-mouth landing net that I usually carry (that morning our original target had been reds and trout). Big flounder are notorious for shaking hooks at boatside—and wouldn't you know it, as I grasped the line in one hand and the fish in the other, the jig lost its grip and the flounder escaped.
Next time, that fish won't be so lucky, I swore to myself. The good news, I told Karl, is that we'll have a shot at another fish like that this year.
Flounder fishing is excellent throughout Cumberland Sound, a sprawling waterway near the mouth of the St. Marys River. Some of the best fishing is from the mouth of Egans Creek north to the Fort Clinch little jetties. A shallow flat runs out from the shoreline some 50 feet, then drops into a deep channel.
“Flounder are attracted to a muddy, sandy bottom,” says Fernandina Beach angler Tommy Burbank. “That makes it easy for flounder to dig in and hide where they can easily capture their dinner.”
Tommy's fishing roots go deep in Cumberland Sound, all the way to 1915 when his grandfather, William Hunter Burbank, made the first shrimp-boat nets at his Fernandina Beach net shop. Tommy's father, William Burbank Sr., continued the family net-making business at Fernandina Beach, which Tommy and two brothers, Billy and Johnny Burbank, worked in as well. Billy's son, Hunter, is a fourth generation Burbank fisherman.
“I flounder fish almost every evening when my work is done,” Tommy Burbank said. “The old Nassau fertilizer dock offers some of the best flounder fishing that I know of, particularly during the last of the falling and the first of the incoming tides. However the entire shoreline running from Egans Creek and including the Fort Clinch little jetties offers ideal habitat. Old sailing ships used to discard their ballast rocks along this very same shoreline when taking on new cargo for the Old World. There are also scattered oyster beds and coquina shell along the mud-and-sand bottom, which also makes for good flounder habitat.”
Burbank explained his strategy.
“I prefer fishing from a small boat and casting live bullhead minnows up under the dock,” he said, “but I often fish right off the dock as well. Once I have caught one or more flounder, I can expect to catch several more. Good numbers of flounder school in the nearby deep channel and when a flounder is caught, or has captured dinner, more flounder are waiting to move in and feed on the shallow bottom structure under the dock. You might say there is a waiting line, just like a restaurant that is fully occupied.”
Tommy has a special flounder technique that involves a double hook livebait rig.
He begins by sliding a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce bullet worm weight onto 10- or 12-pound-test fishing line. Next, he ties on a 50-pound-test three-way swivel. To one eye of the swivel, he adds a 6-inch section of 20-pound fluorocarbon shock leader; to the other, a 10-inch section of the same leader material. Both leaders end in No. 1 Kahle-style hooks. Live bullhead minnows are then barbed through the bottom of the mouth and out through the top of the head. Burbank casts the double minnow setup under the dock and gives special attention to the r
“I like to drag the live minnows slowly along the bottom, pausing occasionally for a few seconds,” he explained. “That's so the flounder that are buried up will have a chance to see the baits. I never fish dead on the bottom; you need to keep moving and drag baits over the fish to get their attention.”
When a flounder strikes, Tommy says don't be in a big hurry to set the hook.
“I like to wait for a slow count of 10 before reeling in my slack fishing line and setting the hook,” he said. “Once the flounder has captured the bait, it will kill it with its sharp teeth, then move the bait back into its mouth. This is when you should set the hook.”
Carl Middleton is a Fort Clinch park officer and an excellent flounder fisherman. Middleton has probably caught more trophy-size flounder from Fort Clinch than most fishermen. Several years ago I personally saw a 15-pound southern flounder that he had caught.
Middleton's flounder tactics begin during the high, falling tide and at a small Egans Creek feeder stream. Anchored at the mouth of a feeder, Middleton waits for a school of finger mullet to swim from the creek and out into the main tidal creek. When the moment is right, he tosses a 6-foot net over the school and places them in his baitwell.
After a short run to the Fort Clinch little jetty rocks, Middleton anchors his small boat between the jetties and fishes a live finger mullet slowly along the rough bottom. Middleton employs spinning tackle and a typical fishfinder setup—a sliding sinker similar to Burbank's, but with a single hook and live finger mullet instead of bullhead minnows.
Middleton, like Burbank, prefers the last of the falling and the first of the incoming tides.
As in many fishing situations, the presence of baitfish is always a good indicator of flounder.
“If I had to choose a time of year for catching both good numbers and big flounder,” said Burbank, “it would have to be fall. A huge mullet run takes place in the rivers, inlets and beaches, particularly at the mouth of Egans Creek and at Fort Clinch, too.”
Visiting Fort Clinch
Fort Clinch has been in the Florida state park system since 1935. It's a superbly preserved 19th century fort. No battles actually took place at Fort Clinch, but it was occupied in both the Civil and Spanish-American wars. Today, daily tours and reenactments take place there. The park offers a full camping facility, a 6-mile hiking and bicycle trail, a half-mile-long fishing pier and, as noted, great surf fishing.The historic downtown of Fernandina Beach is only a mile from the park entrance, where a full-service marina, restaurants, shopping, fishing, sailing and sightseeing charters are all available. For information, visit www.floridastateparks.org/fortclinch.
Flatties Round Florida
Although Larenza Mungin claimed the state record flounder for North Florida in 1983, inlets and passes on both coasts host fall flounder as they stage for their winter offshore spawning rituals. Flounder fishing techniques are near universal—live or artificial baits bounced slowly on the bottom will take southern and gulf flatties at any of these well-known flounder venues:
-- Sebastian Inlet
-- Apalachicola Bay/St. George Island
-- Fort Pierce Inlet, South Jetty
-- Pensacola Pass
-- Matanzas Inlet