Selecting the Best Bait for Flounder Fishing
As a full-time Alabama professional Gulf Coast and Mobile Bay fishing guide I have the opportunity to help fishermen connect with a number of different inshore and offshore fish every week. I’ve found that one of the most popular and sought-after fish is the flounder and I am often asked, “what is the best bait for winter flounder fishing?” While it isn’t as sexy as some other fish, they fight hard and are certainly up on the top of “tasty dinner” meter.
In addition to helping fishermen catch flounder for sport and table, I’ve been heavily involved in catching, tagging and releasing flounder for the Flounder Tagging project run by the University of South Alabama Marine Sciences research program.
The bottom line is that we go out and catch flounder, record all the data about where, when, the weather and water conditions and how we caught them. The goal of the tagging program is to learn more about their migratory patterns, daily existence, health of the population in order to ensure that the Alabama flounder resource is responsibly managed.
Whether it is Panama City, Destin, Pensacola, Orange Beach or any stretch of the Gulf Coast (or even the Atlantic for that matter) along with the major bays, all these areas will have a migration of flounder this fall.
One of the biggest questions I’m asked as a guide is what is the best live bait for flounder. My tongue in cheek answer is “whatever they are biting”.
While you can catch flounder on a number of different natural baits, when you are posed with the question, “what is the best bait for winter flounder fishing,” the answer is finger mullet.
Based on my tagging experience, probably 70% of all of the flounder that we caught and tagged were caught on finger mullet. We spent between 1-2 hours a day searching for and catching finger mullet for our tagging studies.
Before I get into where to catch finger mullet, you need to have the right size net and know how to throw it.
My normal “go to” net is an eight-footer with about 1.2-1.3 pounds of lead per foot and I prefer a 3/8-inch mesh but you could go down to a ¼ inch mesh if you are looking for smaller baitfish. I use the 3/8 inch because I believe that 4-6-inch finger mullet are the best bait for flounder and, just like speckled trout, there isn’t a bait too big to present to these fish.
When we catch fish for tagging, unfortunately, some are gut hooked so we do a gut content analysis and I’ve found a 4-5-inch baitfish in the stomach of a 14-15-inch flounder. It was kind of unreal.
I like the bigger baitfish because flounder have little eyes and, especially when you are fishing in off-color water, the bigger bait profile increases the opportunity for it to be seen and jumped on.
Catching baitfish isn’t that hard but the challenge is finding them. To start, remember that they like structure so you can start around rocks. They also congregate in tidal rivers and pools, feeder creeks, marsh grass areas and even boat ramps.
When you are out on the water make notes as to spots that look promising and make collecting bait an integral part of your fishing day, whether it be early or late.
As an additional note, it is a lot easier spotting and catching finger mullet in high light conditions so make sure you have a good pair of polarized sunglasses.
Once you catch your finger mullet (or whatever baitfish you want to utilize) you need to keep them alive and frisky in your live well and I have a few tricks that may help you.
First off, put some ice in Ziploc bags to cool the water down a bit. You would be surprised how much heat your pump generates. Secondly, mullet like current and bubbles.
I set my live wells up with a recirculating pump. That means I keep the same water in my livewell most of the day and recirculate with a pump and spray head to keep it oxygenated. I have an air pump with bubbles to add to the amount of oxygen being added to the live well. With finger mullet I like to keep the spray head directed in one direction to create a small current to keep the mullet swimming in the live well. For my recirculating pump I like a minimum of an 800 GPH pump and a Flow-Rite spray head.
When it comes to the best live bait for winter flounder, far and away, I use the standard Carolina rig with a couple small wrinkles.
I use a 10-14-inch 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, with a half-ounce or less egg weight and a size #1 or #2 SSW Owner live bait hook, depending on the size of the finger mullet. Smaller mullet that are 3 to 4 inches go with a #1 and larger go with a #2 hook.
In terms of hooking the mullet, while I use a lip hook setup for most fish, for mullet I hook them right at the back dorsal fin just in front of the tail. That allows the mullet to swim 1-2 feet at 360 degrees from the sinker. To retrieve, turn the handle 1-3 handle turn for every 30 seconds to one minute. It’s slow but you cover a lot of water.
The cool thing is that you can tell when you have gotten the attention of a flounder and are going to get a bite because the finger mullet just starts going nuts on the rod tip. When the bite comes it is an unmistakable thump. Wait a few seconds before setting the hook sharply.
Deciding on whether to fish live bait or artificial lures kind of depends on what type of structure you are fishing, whether it is rocks, oyster shell or maybe a steep sandy ledge. It also is a bit of “try it and see” challenge to see which type of presentation is the most effective.
When I’m fishing rocks, I definitely prefer to fish a jig over a Carolina rig and one of the main reasons is I won’t get hung up as often.
Now keep in mind that if you don’t get hung up when you are fishing rocks and tying on new hooks, sinkers, swivels and sinkers, you aren’t fishing where the fish are. Having said that I think that you can get “unhung” more often with a jig than you can with a Carolina rig.
I exclusively fish a 3/8-ounce Hogie jig head but you can step it down a little bit if you want to, but I like the 3/i size just because I feel the bottom well with that weight in most fishing situations.
I also prefer a jig when fishing areas that are real steep. Flounders love real steep banks where it goes from about three feet of water down to around 20 feet quickly.
It’s kind of like looking up at a steep bank and a jig allows you to fish it from the top down or the bottom up and still have control and feel the jig on the bottom.
For flounder I always like to get up on the shallow side and cast out to the deep side and work your bait up and have found that to be much more effective than going from shallow to deep. I also keep my “hops” very short, probably coming off the bottom only four or five inches.
I call that action “ticking” and I just raise my rod tip enough to move the jib a foot or so and allow it to come up and then fall down and make a slight disturbance in the mud or sand and since flounder have a lateral line they can sense that.
As far as best bait for winter flounder fishing, in terms of color, I really like the bright colors Pearl white, chartreuse, pink, electric chicken, colors of that nature seem to work really well, especially those plastics with curly tails.
Since with those little tiny eyes who knows how much they can actually see and they are just sitting down there waiting for something to swim by. I think that the more you can do to make your bait stand out better the more fish you will catch.
I’ve had good luck fishing with Fishbites Fight Club Curly Tails. While it sounds gaudy, I’ve also done well with using the Fishbites Fight Club curly tail grub along with the Fishbite’s Bob’s Your Uncle substitute pork rind freshwater bait. You’ve got these two little curly tails going and it almost looks like a spinnerbait.
While I think color and action are key factors in the best bait for winter flounder fishing, scent is important and FishBites offers some options and it is best for you to experiment and see which works best for your situation. Even scent on plastics can make a difference. I’ve used jigs with a strip of a mullet, croaker, shrimp or other fish just to embellish the bait.
Flounder have hard and boney mouths and are notorious for shaking their heads and throwing the hook. Pause for 2-3 seconds to make sure the fish has the bait and then set the hook.