Guide Time – Breaking out the Options
There are any number of reasons to take your fall flounder fishing out in the ocean, but on our day with Capt. Justin Ragsdale of Breakday Charters out of Atlantic Beach, the recent heavy rains of Hurricane Joaquin were reason alone to head out Beaufort Inlet in search of something other than brown water.
Though he picks up clients from a number of spots in the Morehead/Atlantic Beach area, Justin met Joshua Alexander and me at Sea Gate Marina, just a few country blocks from his home. After outfitting the boat with ice and gas (and warming a homemade breakfast burrito in the marina microwave), we made a foggy right turn out of the marina on to Core Creek, navigated our way past Core Creek Lodge and the Jarrett Bay Marine Industrial Park, and then joined the Newport River briefly before crossing into Bogue Sound.
Though we were armed with a boatload of bucktails, as Justin has been making his own bucktails under the name Breakday Bucktails for the past six years, our morning goal before heading offshore was to fill up the livewell with some live bait. He’s a big believer in bucktails, both fishing for flounder inshore and offshore, but he also likes options.
The prior days of ridiculously heavy rainwater already had most of the mullet flushed out, so after a few empty looks around the turning basin we decided on a riprap rock wall near a marsh bank. Justin made a couple more throws than he would have preferred, and then we were headed out to AR-315 (at four miles to the southwest one of the closest reefs in this area) with 70+ hard-earned mullet to see what the water quality and conditions were like off the beach.
“We may have to go further offshore,” Justin explained to me as we left behind the Coast Guard Station and entered the Atlantic Ocean via the small boat channel by the Fort Macon rock jetty, “to find better water, but I like the idea of trying spots closer first.”
AR-315 is a 400-foot liberty ship that has a plane, a tugboat, and a sportfisherman as sea floor neighbors. There’s even some debris from the old Atlantic Beach Bridge and some concrete pipes and reef balls, all of which covers a lot of area and provides a varied habitat, conditions Justin likes for flounder fishing.
The tea-colored water present that morning had Justin a little pessimistic, but the reef was worth at least a couple of quick drifts. Perhaps even worse than the color of the water, though, was the current working against the wind.
“When you have a tide or a current against wind, it’s hard to get the drift right,” Justin noted as he tried to get the boat to take a good line over some structure he likes to about 300 yards away from the buoy. “You may end up drifting against the current because the wind is stronger than the current, and then you’re presenting your baits opposite to what the flounder are expecting to see.”
Justin and Joshua dropped down bucktails, and though I love fishing bucktails, too, out in the ocean, for variety’s sake I decided to opt for a live mullet.
The bucktails landed a handful of small sea bass, and the live mullet found a couple of undersized flounder in addition to the small sea bass; however, with both the drift not right and the results not there, Justin quickly made the call to head out the addition 8 miles to AR-330 to get further away from the inlet runoff and hopefully find an improved current/wind relationship.
Once at AR-330, a quick glance at Justin’s electronics shows how much he likes using waypoints to record productive bottom and places where he’s landed fish before, as the screen shines with so many points I wonder where we will start.
“Drifting is key,” Justin tells us as he seems to be wondering himself where to begin, “and you don’t want to be drifting too fast. It’s always better to keep your drift below one knot. Don’t just deal with bad current. That motor’s on the back of your boat for a reason. Put that stern into the current and use that motor to slow you down.”
On our first drift the results have already improved. The bucktails and mullet are still landing sea bass and small flounder, but now at least the sea bass are sometimes keeper-sized.
Justin, in addition to noting that drift speed is important to success because among other factors it has a lot to do with the angle of your line, further explains, “The more vertical you can keep your lines, the better you’re going to present, the better you’ll be at feeling the bite, and the better at setting the hook.”
Justin even offers a specific 30-degrees as the angle your line shouldn’t exceed on a drift.
I look around and all three of our lines are within Justin’s 30-degree preference. My line, the one with live bait, is the only one that ever breaks the 30-degree mark, and that’s only after I get a bite (or think I get a bite) and flip open the bail to let line out.
My live bait continues to do better than the bucktails at finding flounder in addition to sea bass, but Justin keeps himself and Joshua armed with bucktails.
“I catch just as many fish on bucktails as I do on live bait,” Justin shares as he makes one last check of his electronics before starting a new drift a little to the west of our first. “It really just depends on the aggression of the fish that day.”
He suggests to Joshua to vary the jigging action, sometimes going with a drag and a hop and then sometimes trying a more aggressive bouncing action where the bucktail only momentarily hits the ocean floor. The idea is simple enough: since the fish aren’t being assertive, try a variety of techniques until we find out what (hopefully) will make the bite turn on.
I like feedback, too, so after he coaches Joshua a little more on bucktails, I ask him about his thoughts on live bait fishing for flounder.
The live bait rig he prefers is the standard Carolina rig, and he prefers using 1.5 to 2.5 ounces. If you need more weight, then the current is too heavy and the fish normally won’t be biting well anyway, and less weight is usually not enough for typical conditions in the ocean. Then after the barrel swivel he likes tying on two feet of a 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader with a kahle hook at the end.
We continue picking at the fish, finding a couple on every drift, but the results—no quality flounder—aren’t ultimately what Justin is looking for. He decides it’s time to head back to AR-315 to see if the conditions have improved.
“I like the flood tide. I like it when things stop moving for a moment,” he tells us as we hop on plane for the short run, also noting that we will be hitting AR-315 at the height of day’s high tide.
Our drift line back at AR-315, Justin notices immediately, is improved. Both the current and wind have slowed down, and we have the preferred vertical presentation and direction that we were lacking in the morning.
Justin suggests to Joshua to go with live bait, recognizing that though the tide and drift are improved, the water quality still isn’t that clear.
“With dirty, stained water, the fish are going to have a hard time seeing that bucktail,” Justin tells him while handing him a rod with a Carolina rig. “They’re not going to see it or be able to react fast enough to it. That live bait’s always going to be giving off vibrations that will attract the fish even in that dirty water. I’m thinking this is one of those days where you have to put the bucktail right down on top of their head.”
Almost as soon as all three of us get a bait in the water, Justin announces he’s negotiating a flounder bite. He waits only a few seconds before lifting up on the rod with a hearty hook set. The rod bends over and stays bent, and with a smile Justin announces that his fish isn’t fighting like a sea bass. Soon he’s netting a Southern flounder of about two pounds, the biggest flattie we’ve seen all day.
“Southern flounder are more likely to be in the junk,” he explains. “Gulf and Summer are more likely to be laying on the outside and the edges of the debris. The slack tide is a good time for Southern flounder because the slack tide allows those fish to come out of the structure a little bit. They hunt some, and subsequently are more exposed to getting your bait.”
Justin drops down, quickly hooks and brings up another flounder, and now Joshua and I are getting anxious. We both believe we’re getting bites, but neither of us are able to set the hook. Justin sees we are open to advice. “On the day when the flounder are smashing the bait, we’re all catching them,” he tells us. “On the day where they’re not aggressive, when they’re grabbing that tail, you might lose three fish before you figure out that you have to let them chew for 30 seconds or 10 seconds or chew for however long they need that day to swallow the bait.”
I count to 10 seconds on my next “bite,” then 30 seconds on another bite, and though each time I think I’m negotiating with a flounder, when I try to set the hook, the right kind of resistance just isn’t there.
Justin, meanwhile, is in a flurry of action.
“You can typically pick away at flounder throughout the day but there’s always going to be these certain windows of activity,” he says with a smile as his rod tip announces he’s hooked up to what would be his third legal flounder in about 10 minutes.
Justin, who clearly loves to teach and share his fishing knowledge with whomever is on the boat, suggests to keep our rods no higher than 9:00. “If you keep that rod below a 9:00 position,” he instructs, “then that means you still have a good 45 degrees left to use on your hook set.”
“And flounder are big time head shakers,” he continues. “If you don’t stay tight on the line, if you give them any slack, then they’re going to throw the hook, especially with a bucktail because that two ounces of lead on the end of it gives them leverage to shake against.”
“Once I firmly have hooked up with a flounder, my goal is to get back to 9:00 or below. The rod is being the shock absorber, and the reel is bringing the fish up to the boat. I don’t want to ‘pump’ the rod. Pumping the rod provides more opportunity for the fish to shake the hook.”
Minutes later his fourth keeper swims into the landing net.
Though we continue working the same area for several more drifts, the bite, just as suddenly as it started, turns off. Now Justin, like Joshua and myself, can’t seem to buy a bite.
In one of the No Wake zones on the way back to Sea Gate Marina, Justin replies to my question about why people should buy his bucktails instead of mass production bucktails available in most of the tackle shops, “The finish. The color. Hand-tied. They’re chip proof because I use vinyl paint. They aren’t indestructible, but they will last longer than other production bucktails.”
I tell him I like the basic white bucktail, and he agrees, mostly, “White is a good color, but my ‘peppermint patty’ color (green chartreuse with a pearl coating) has really proven to catch for me, and I’m a big believer in ultraviolet finishes, finishes that reflect ultraviolet down deep. Flounder have been shown to respond to UV light, and they typically strike the head of my bucktails.”
If you’d like to go flounder fishing with a guy that not only works hard to put you on fish but also freely shares the flounder fishing knowledge he’s gathered as a lifelong fisherman, then give Capt. Justin Ragsdale of Breakday Charters a call or go on his website for more information (see ad copy on facing page).
He runs both a 22’ Tidewater bay boat and a 23’ Dusky center console, so he can offer just about any type of inshore/nearshore fishing in the Atlantic Beach area.
And if you, too, like options when you go flounder fishing, then I suggest you pick up a few Breakday Bucktails. You can contact Justin directly, or they’re available locally in the Atlantic Beach area at Freeman’s Bait & Tackle.