Winter flounder fishing

Jan 21, 2006 by

The association between big winter flounder and the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall is a strong one, built up over the years on reports of fish averaging 3lbs and, on occasions, topping 5lbs. Many believe that it’s the areas southern exposure to milder winters keeping the shore crabs peeling that keeps the flounder fishing standard so high. This certainly is a factor, but there is another area that gets an equally good run which gets no publicity and sees very few anglers targeting flounder. It’s also argued that the fish are smaller, though evidence suggests this may not be the case. Where is this flatfish mecca?

Wales! Look at the map of the principality and from north to south you’ll see a coastline frequently interrupted by estuaries of differing sizes. These are full of fat winter flounder that rarely see a hook.

In North Wales, the Dee Estuary at Mostyn gives consistent catches but the fish rarely top a genuine 2lbs, though overall numbers taken can be excellent with upto a dozen fish per rod. Likewise the Conway Estuary at Deganwy which can give equal numbers of fish, but with a better chance of a 2lb plus specimen. However, neither of these estuaries could be classed as the top marks.

The Mid Wales coast of Cardigan Bay has no less than four major estuaries flooding into the sea along a 60 mile length as the crow flies. Working north to south these are the Traeth Bach at Porthmadog, Mawddach Estuary at Barmouth, Dovey Estuary at Aberdovey and the Teifi Estuary at Cardigan.

Not to be outdone, South Wales also has it’s winter fisheries inside the Tywi and Loughor between Carmarthen and Swansea.

All these estuaries have a makeup incorporating muddy creeks and saltmarshes, giving onto clean sandy gullies leading into the main channel. Crabs are common along the weed filled edges, with rag and lugworm resident in the mud and sand, cockles in the sand banks, and extensive mussel beds both in the mid tide level and below the low water line. Food is not a problem.

These are the estuaries to concentrate on if it’s both quantity and quality you seek, without the need to fish shoulder to shoulder with like minded anglers. Also, your single bait has more chance of being picked up by a big fish than when having to compete with scores of others.

It’s the early winter floods that start to make the flounder work back down the estuaries from their summer feeding in the headwaters towards the deeper main channels adjacent to the sea. It is not the melting snow from high moors and mountains that sparks this off as so many past books and written works have suggested. This migration is gradual, beginning in October, accelerating in November and December, peaking in January and falling away to nothing during February and March.

Though the acidic high level rain washing down into the estuary moves the flounder on, they do not feed well during such spate conditions. It’s when the flood waters have passed through and a fresh sea tide has revitalized the estuarine waters that the flounder once more eat.

If it’s simply numbers of fish you’re after, then fish in October, November and early December. This is when the bulk of fish are feeding up around the mouth of the estuary and are concentrated in tight groups inside the deeper channels. By mid December the quantity has gone.

From Christmas through until mid to late February is when the biggest fish come. The Traeth Bach has seen rod caught fish to 3 lbs, the Mawddach 3 lbers, a 7lb fish in excess of the British record was netted at the Dovey mouth during 1989. The Teifi, Tywi and Loughor also hold 3lb plus flats. All these are post Christmas fish. More angling pressure at this time when the more attractive cod elsewhere take precedence would yield bigger fish still.

Tides and their size do have a bearing on catches, but not to such a degree as on other species. Flounder in the autumn and winter tend to feed best on the low water and early flood of a spring tide. This is because the heavy concentration of freshwater is diluted quicker with the strong tidal push. Neap tides and weaker currents keep the dilution factor delayed and it’s the middle flood period before fish really start to bite.

The bigger post Christmas fish adopt a different behaviour pattern. They feed best during the last two hours of the ebbing tide and the first two hours of a new flood, but in clear water. Fewer big fish over 2lbs are taken when the water is dirty and full of suspended sediment. Also these bigger fish are not necessarily taken from the deeper channels. Often they sit in the mouths of shallower side creeks in only a foot of water, half buried, sunning themselves. They are less easy to catch though, when living in the creeks.

Daylight against darkness is an arguable point. Daylight definitely gives the greater number of fish, but the size is down. Dawn is poor, but dusk, this being the last two hours of daylight for our purposes, gives a high chance of a 2lb plus specimen, especially if the tide falls exactly low as the light starts to fail.

Flounder do not like dead calm conditions with a glassy estuary and a clear sky that will inevitably lead to frost. Clear skies, yes! But a ruffling breeze to take the clarity off the waters surface gives them the confidence to move. Without it, they sit tight camouflaged by the sand over their backs.

This can be noted by dour periods of sport that suddenly come alive as a light breeze off the sea comes with the flooding tide and puts small wavelets on the estuaries surface.

Surprisingly, fresh falling rain after a dry period of frosts can put both the smaller and bigger fish very much on the feed. But only if the rain coming into the estuary is light. Once a downpour or prolonged bout of rain occurs and makes it’s presence felt down towards the mouth, then catches again decrease.

These winter fish will stay in the deeper main channels and in the mouths of the main tidal creeks that feed from the shallow saltmarshes. This helps protect them from the dramatic climate changes of air and water temperature that can occur at this time. This applies to the pre Christmas period.

The post Christmas spell sees fish only in the parent channel of the estuary with a direct link to the open sea. In all cases pick out the deeper holes and gutters, work baits along the bottom edges of sandbanks, and around eddies that cause a build up of waterborne debris and food.

We’ve already mentioned mussel beds. Unlike the spring and summer fish the winter flounder work only along the edges of the beds and not over the top of the shellfish. They’re looking for vulnerable broken mussels mugged by the storms.

A classic mark for bigger fish is the lower edges of rocks where the sand starts, especially if the water is deep, over ten feet. A generalization is that sandy marks fish better than muddy bottoms.

Winter flounder are not as greedy as those easy to catch spring fish fresh from the rigors of spawning. They are more choosy, bite less vigorously, and take time swallowing the bait which has to be smaller than the spring and early summer baits.

Crab does continue to peel in North and Mid Wales through November and in South Wales almost until Christmas, but then disappears. If you can get it, use the crab! This is the best bait for the slightly coloured water. Use just enough to fill the shank of a Mustad Limerick 1/0 or Mustad Viking in the same size. When this section has been bound on with thin elastic thread used sparingly add a peeled claw over the point and barb as a disguise, but keeping the point clear. Some anglers fish bigger baits on 2/0′s and 3/0′s but it makes no difference to the size of the fish hooked.

Lugworm is the other coloured water bait. Fish a single worm slid over the hook shank and up the line a little tail first. Keep the head section with all it’s scent and juice near to the hooks point. Lug tends to fish better for the smaller fish anyway and is not a first choice bait.

King rag is reliable as the first fish are coming down the estuary with the first autumnal floods. Deep into winter and it catches fewer fish. To present it, break a couple of sections of the body and slide them up the hook, adding a little length of tail to the point to move in the tide. Fishes best as waters have cleared.

White rag is not a good winter bait for flounders. It takes too many smaller flounder and attracts the unwanted school bass that still remain around the estuary bars. However, it can be good as a tipping to lug when fish are finicky. Mustad Aberdeen blue hooks are a better hook pattern when using worm, though for more strength try a Kamasan in sizes upto 1/0.

One of the best and most under rated baits is mussel. This is especially so and surprise when used close to mussel banks after storms. Fish it on size 1/0 hooks using a single mussel with a little thread for security.

Cockle can be taken with gusto at all times, though does fish best in clear water tight in to the waters edge in fading light. You’ll need three or four slid round the shank and bend of the hook. A single cockle also proves a much better tipping than anything else used in conjunction with lug, king rag, and mussel.

Lastly, and this will surprise a few, don’t neglect mackerel strip. A surprising number of big flounder have and will be caught on mackerel. Cut the strips about 2ins long and half an inch wide leaving plenty of scent holding flesh on the skin. Wrap the bait around the shank with the flesh on the inside with thread. This slows down the release of scent and gives the bait a longer fishing time for the lethargic flounder to find it. Aberdeen hook patterns are best for this.

Light tackle used in summer, such as spinning rods and 6 to 8lb line, is not always suitable for this winter period. Weed in the water after storms, and the need to get a bait out into the deeper holes, tends to need a more powerful rod and heavier lead. Light bass rods throwing 2-4ozs are a better choice used in conjunction with a small multiplier or fixed spool reel and line between 10 and 15lbs, depending on the type of ground you’re fishing.

Try to keep these as simple as possible. This is not a fish that needs state of the art match rigs to be caught. A simple single hook flowing trace rig with a hook length about 18″ long is a consistent fish taker. Mount the hook length close behind the lead to keep the bait close to the seabed. This rig is the best choice for the bigger 2lb plus flatties.

When the water is coloured with limited visibility, revert to a two hook rig with short 9″ snoods. The close proximity of two baits with their added scent trail puts more fish in the bag. Space the hook snoods equally between the lead and the main top trace swivel.

Hook lengths should be made from 15lb line. Going heavier does not mean you’ll not catch fish, but certainly the finer lines do get more hook ups than the heavier diameters.

Providing you’ve picked out a good spot that holds flounder, then simply static ledgering will get some fish, but flounder do like a moving bait and the bag will be doubled if you work with the tide letting the bait roll into all the gutters and holes that harbour the flounder.

Use the lighter leads between 2 and 3ozs that will go with the tide, but don’t do this from a static position yourself. Having cast out, walk with the tide, keeping pace with it. You’ll realise that the line stays directly out from you and does not swing inshore. Bites from a flounder hitting a moving bait are far more aggressive than when taking a static one. When they “pounce” keep the bait moving a little and they’ll hook themselves.

Flounder cannot be classed as fighting fish, but even on the bass rod they can twist and turn in the tide, and have a habit of pushing their bodies against the sand and increasing their weight on the rod tip and hook hold. A fun fish rather than a sport fish.

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