Flounder are bound to land on any fisherman’s catch list at one point or another. Once they do that means it is time to study and learn everything you can about them. That’s just what this guide is for. Here you will learn all about the species dubbed “flounder”, when and where to catch them, how to fish for them, and more. With a little preparation and practice, you’ll be able to catch Flounder easily and, armed with the right tips, you might even outfish your friends.
The term “flounder” doesn’t actually describe a single species of fish. Instead, it is used generally to describe a collection of saltwater species that are in the suborder Pleuronectoidei. Along the Western Atlantic you might find Gulf Flounder or Winter Flounder while in the North Pacific you’ll find the related Halibut or Olive Flounder. There are several species in these waters and they each look a little different and behave a little differently but, they are all flounder.
The things that make a flounder a flounder are its distinct flatfish body shape and its demersal, or bottom-feeding, behavior. Depending on the species, you’ll find both of the fish’s eyes on either its left or right side, whichever side faces up as they lay on the bottom. Interestingly enough when they are born they have normal eyes with one on each side but, as they age, the eyes migrate to one side giving them their uniquely odd adult appearance.
If you were to spot one of these adults in its natural habitat you’d probably just barely spot the eyes sticking up from the seafloor as the rest of its body remained camouflaged. Flounder are masters of hide and seek. They just need a soft muddy bottom to bury themselves into and then, when their prey swims by, they ambush them.
Small fish, spawning fish, crustaceans, and polychaetes make up most of their diet. Well-fed flounder can typically grow to around 24 inches or so in length with a width that is about half of that. There are of course larger flounder out there to be found. You just have to know when and where to look and have a little bit of luck on your side.
How to Find a Flounder
You can fish for flounder all year round but there are certain times of the year when you will have a better catch. This special time is known as the “flounder run” and it occurs around late fall through the winter when the flounder travel downstream towards the inlets as they gather to head offshore and spawn. If you are in one of the more seasonal parts of the country you can look for this congregational movement shortly after the first major cold front of the fall. That cold is a trigger that sends them running for the seas.
Winter is flounder mating season so that period in late fall just beforehand is when they will all be leaving their inshore hiding spots and heading for the sea. This means that fishing in late winter will offer a more sparse flounder fishing experience. You can look around the inlets or a little further out to sea and try your luck there.
In the Spring and Summer months you will find the flounder in coastal bays, estuaries, and lagoons. As the masters of disguise that they are flounders like to bury themselves in mud and dirt close to wherever baitfish might be found. This means structures like dock pilings and bridges are excellent locations to look. Oyster reefs and sandbars also offer perfect environments for flounder to hide.
When the Summer months are particularly hot flounder are going to try to avoid the heat while following the baitfish that do the same. This means they will be in shallower waters in the morning and down deeper as the day progresses. In all seasons flounder will sit where food is likely to pass by them. This means they are likely to be found on the edges of structures and drop offs when the opportunity presents itself.
Stick to the Flounder Tracks
Flounder is surprisingly easy to track down once you know what you are looking for. Because flounder like to hide in the sand or mud they actually leave a distinct trail behind whenever they move along the bottom. These very visible flounder tracks, as they are known, are a sure sign that you are on to a location ripe with flounder.
To find these tracks it is best to walk or swim in clear waters at low tide and explore. If you go near sandbars, structures, reefs, and any of the other spots that flounder like to hide you are bound to find these tracks. Then, all you need to do is wait for the tide to come back in and bring the flounder with it.
Walking the water in search of flounder tracks also helps you to understand the terrain overall. However you go about it, you should always take the time to explore the water you plan to fish in. When possible it is great to actually walk through the environment to help you memorize things by sight and touch. Other times you can use a depth finder to your advantage. The result of your work should reveal all the structures, ledges, and tracks that indicate exactly where flounder like to be.
Flounder Catching Bait & Tackle
Light and sensitive is the name of the game when it comes to landing a flounder. Running a 10-12 pound test fluorocarbon line with a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader off a light to medium reel is the way to go. Use this on a light and sensitive rod, with at least a medium action, and you’ll be set.
This light and sensitive approach is necessary because of the way flounder feed. Unlike other fish that might just swallow your bait whole and hook themselves in an instant, flounder will ambush the bait with a partial bite. On your end, with a sensitive enough rod, this might feel like a little nudge or tap. Once you feel that, just wait a few seconds and then set the hook. If everything goes right you will have a flounder on your line.
There is more nuance to how you can present your bait and entice a flounder of course so we will cover that in the next section. When considering bait and tackle one of the biggest hangups is whether to use spinning tackle or baitcasting tackle. For many anglers, this is just a matter of preference and experience. The usual progression begins with an introductory spincaster followed by more versatile spinning tackle and then eventually working with baitcasting gear.
The spinning tackle is easier to manage than baitcasting and offers excellent drag to tire the fish quickly. Baitcasting, on the other hand, offers up greater precision and casting distance so you can cover more ground. That precision really comes in handy so you can target points and ledges with accuracy. Being able to drop your bait or lure within striking distance of the flounder is key.
Baitcasting tackle also offers some good leverage in case you need to fight a particularly large flounder. Flounders aren’t notoriously tough fighters but you might have to put in some work to wrench one out from a structure. Some anglers prefer medium action tackle like what you would use for bass fishing. This seems to balance the power and sensitivity needed.
However you put your rod, reel, and line together, remember to keep it light and sensitive enough to feel the flounder on the other end. Sure, fishing like this in the inlets in late fall might cause you to miss some larger fish but if it’s flounder you want then it’s flounder you’ll have to prepare for.
Baits & Lures
When you are fishing for flounder you can consider using both live bait and artificial lures. Which one you choose will have to be based on preference and availability. As a general rule, live bait is almost always best because there is no better way to entice a fish into biting your hook than using the actual food they love to eat.
For flounder, in almost every scenario, mud minnows work best. As their name implies these little guys like muddy bottoms around oyster reefs and boat ramps. That also just happens to be where flounder like to hang out. Through cast netting and trapping you can grab some mud minnows for yourself although most bait shops probably have them on hand.
If you don’t have mudminnows on hand or, as sometimes happens, the flounder don’t seem to be going for them then you should try the next best thing. That is, other local baitfish. It is always best to ask an experienced local flounder fisherman or someone at a local bait and tackle shop what they recommend. Flounder thrive on bottom sand and mud dwelling baitfish and other creatures so that should be your focus.
Anglers have also had great success with finger mullet, shrimp, croakers, and pinfish among others. Some of these baits will land you other fish too though so be forewarned. When you are fishing along the bottom with shrimp, for example, you’ll probably snag a few catfish along the way depending upon where you are.
Hooking Live Bait
If you are new to fishing you may have only fished with lures so far so fishing with live bait might seem intimidating. For more experienced fishermen this is par for the course. The general rule is that you hook big bait through the lips and smaller bait through the eye. This is really just a matter of practicality because you need to hook the fish in a way that it won’t pull off the hook while still being able to move naturally in the water.
While fishing for flounder try experimenting with different styles of hooking live bait. Shrimp, for example, can be hooked from just about every angle allowing you to play with different presentations of the bait. Baitfish should usually be hooked through the eye but you can also try hooking through the back, tail, or belly. You want to look for thick sections of cartilage that will help hold the hook in place.
A Choice of Lures
Flounder can be picky eaters sometimes. It will surprise you. You might come back to a fishing spot where they were biting mud minnows left and right last season and this year they can’t get enough soft plastic. That’s why it pays to have a selection of live baits as well as artificial lures. Artificial lures can be really nice to use actually because of their reusability. All the bottom fishing you’ll be doing in pursuit of flounder can really tear up live bait which means you sometimes have to use a lot of it.
For flounder, any weighted lure that mimics a baitfish or shrimp will work just fine. A variety of grub tailed jigs or simply a jig head with a fake shrimp on the hook can work just fine. You’ll need to experiment with size and color until you find what the fish are biting. Remember to keep visibility and line of sight in mind when trying to target flounder. Their two upward-facing eyes will be scanning the waters from wherever they are hiding.
Fishing for flounder is fairly simple. You just need to keep in mind that you will have to go to the flounder before the flounder will come to you. Flounder are ambush predators waiting in hiding so it’s only when prey, or your baited hook, comes floating by their line of sight that they move to attack. If you keep this in mind then the rest of what you need to do becomes easier.
First, you need to make sure you are actually reaching the bottom of whatever water you are in. Add enough weight to your lure so that you can feel the bottom after the cast. Once you can cast deep enough you then just need to slowly cover the area until you get a bite. That is of course assuming that you have done your due diligence and found a good spot. Somewhere with a muddy or sandy bottom, a nice ledge maybe, something nestled against a structure, and hopefully visible flounder tracks.
Fishing from a boat is usually the best way to get flounder. This way you can let your bait sink to the bottom then let your boat gently drift and drag it along. You can also simulate this with a nice slow retrieve. Your goal is to cast past the flounder and then have your lure or bait come drifting past them. When done right the flounder will take action and go in for a bite.
If your rod and fishing line are sensitive enough then you should feel the initial hit. Don’t start reeling right away though. Since flounder are buried in hiding they don’t always get a secure bite on their prey at first so it can take them a few seconds to really dig in and secure themselves on your hook. It’s best to give it a five-second count after the initial nudge before reeling them in.
A Best Kept Secret
One of the best-kept secrets of successful flounder fishermen is that they remember to check under the boat. It is easy to get caught up in casting and retrieving but you’ll be surprised how many flounder you can catch within less than a rod’s length of the boat. What happens is that sometimes the flounder follows the bait back on the retrieve without actually catching it and then they settle just below you as you bring the hook up.
This flounder gold mine develops right under your nose and you don’t even realize it. To take advantage of this just drop your line over the side of your boat a few times and work the bait up and down and side to side. If there is a flounder down there it will eventually bite.
Flounder fishing is a good time and, if you’re so inclined, makes for a great dinner too. These fish offer a good technical challenge in terms of presenting the bait but won’t leave you hunting them down all evening. As long as you have a good location at the right time of year you should get some bites. This guide will get you started and as you continue you’ll find more tricks and techniques that only add to the fun. Good luck and good fishing!
Flounder are masters of disguise, you have to see it to believe it. This is why positioning your bait in the right location is so important, you won’t always see the flounder but they will see you.