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NY, NJ, CT, RI Edition
March 10, 2009
Volume 20 � Number 3


Kick-Off 2009 With Barnegat Bay's Winter Flounder
by Capt. Kent Madsen

A nice mess of Barnegat Bay flounder.

For Northeast anglers, it has been a long, cold winter. Freezing temperatures and gusty winds – not to mention closed seasons and the scarcity of some traditional winter sport fish - have kept most of us indoors. Our fishing plans have been pushed to the backburner. But with March here already, it's time to move ‘em to the front and turn up the heat. Barring any last-minute changes, New Jersey's winter flounder season opens on March 23rd, and Barnegat Bay's population of these tasty flatfish is as healthy as you'll find anywhere in the Garden State.

Don't misunderstand. When I was a boy, Barnegat Bay was literally paved with flounder. In clear water, we would watch dozens of them flutter across the bottom competing for our baits. It took little effort to catch all we wanted. Now the bay's flounder stocks have declined drastically, as they have throughout the Northeast. It's my understanding that commercial interests account for 95 percent of flounder landings. Draggers scoop up the fish before they enter the inlets. Worse, fyke nets are set all over our bays and rivers, killing untold numbers of flounder before they can spawn. Regulation of fyke nets is lax – almost non-existent, in fact. To address these problems, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has tightened restrictions on recreational anglers, instituting 12-inch size and 10-fish bag limits and shortening the season to roughly seven weeks. Still, there are flounder to be caught, and in my non-scientific opinion, the average size of the remaining fish has actually increased. You just have to be savvy and give yourself every possible advantage in order to put those flatties in the box. That means learning when and where to fish, the peculiarities of each location, how to draw flounder to your boat, and how to motivate them to bite.


Before you worry about specific fishing spots, it's important to see the big picture. From late October through December, flounder leave their offshore haunts and move into coastal estuaries to spawn. They travel well inland - often into brackish water – where they spend the winter. As the temperature rises and spawning concludes, the flounder gradually migrate eastward, eventually returning to their deepwater homes along the edge of the Continental Shelf. What does this mean to the angler? Well, early in the season – say late March and the first week of April – expect to find fish in the western and northernmost areas of the bay and up the tidal creeks. As April progresses, look for them along the channels that lead seaward. By May, most flounder will be in fairly deep "staging areas" close to Barnegat Inlet. Of course, an unusually mild winter could put them a week or more ahead of schedule.

The author displays a nice fat flattie from Barnegat Bay's Double Creek Channel.

OK, I know what you're thinking. References to west, north, channels, and staging areas are pretty general in nature, so let's try to narrow things down a little more. Regardless of where they are along their spring migration route, winter flounder prefer certain types of habitat. As a rule, they like muddy bottom. That's not to say you'll never find them on sand or shell bottom, but fishing over mud will greatly improve the odds. Flounder commonly gather in deep spots (in Barnegat Bay, "deep" means 7 to 12 feet), venturing into the shallows to feed as the midday sun warms the water. Maximize your time over productive bottom. Early and late in the day, fish channel edges or holes and troughs close to mudflats. If you decide to fish the flats themselves, do it when the sun is highest. Note that flounder are attracted to mussel beds. Because they hide in the mud waiting for currents to bring forth bits of boat- or storm-damaged mussel, you're more likely to find flounder around the perimeter of the beds than directly on them. Flounder also forage around clam beds, nipping off razor and "piss" clam siphons which protrude from the mud. If you discover an area where clams are abundant, give it a try.

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Well-worn tools of the trade: chum pots, a mussel rake and a shrimp net.

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