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Flounder season is upon us, and reports are starting to come in about the flatfish being caught in all the usual spots. At the same time, speckled trout and redfish are staging their usually early-summer early-morning runs.
One of the most common methods to target these fish is with live minnows. Different anglers, however, prefer to use different minnows, while some folks just use whatever is available. There are benefits to each of the different types of baitfish commonly utilized by flounder and trout anglers.
Mud minnows are probably the most commonly used flounder bait because of their wide availability. Mud minnows are actually a variety of different species of fish, known as killifish or mummichogs. Different kinds of mud minnows are found in fresh, brackish and saltwater. There are plain brown types and striped and spangled types. Some folks, including me, say the striped kind are the best for fishing, though they all work.
You can catch mud minnows in your cast net as well as buy them at the store. Mud minnows are plentiful in tidal creeks, where they usually stay very close to the shoreline in shallow water seeking natural protection against the many predators, like those flounder and specks, that eat them. In studies by marine biologists, mud minnows usually make up a significant part of the diet of flounder, trout and smaller red drum.
The best rigs for mud minnows present them at the bottom, where they naturally reside, and where game fish are on the prowl for them. You want to use enough weight to get your bait to the bottom, but as little as you can get away with since you want the minnow to swim around naturally.
Usually in inshore waters an ounce or less of weight will do it, although in the surf and under strong tidal conditions you might have to go with a heavier sinker. A fishfinder rig, which lets the minnow swim freely and allows you to feel what is going on at the end of your line, is perfect for fishing like this.
Those drifting or trolling in a boat, however, usually use a rig with a fixed sinker and not a sliding setup. Don’t use wire rigs and don’t worry about those floats and spinners, you don’t need them.
Kahle-style flounder hooks are commonly used with mud minnows, although some folks have gone to circle hooks. You should hook a mud minnow through the lips, unless you are still-fishing from a structure like a pier. Then the minnow is very active if hooked through the back just behind the dorsal fin.
One big benefit to mud minnows is they will live in freshwater, even overnight. That is why these minnows are available to saltwater folks at the stores—the tackle shops don’t have to use a saltwater tank to hold them.
A different minnow that is widely used for flounder, trout and red drum is the finger mullet. Finger mullet are a bit more flashy on the hook than mud minnows, but mullet lack the ability to live in freshwater, so you have to cast net them. They are, however, one of the most targeted baitfish by local predators.
Finger mullet have three natural defenses against larger fish. One is a small prickly fin you might feel when holding them (it doesn’t hurt). Another is the fact that they run together in huge schools. The last is their well-known ability to jump out of the water. Even big mullet (which can weigh quite a few pounds) jump high out the water. Hence, you almost always know when mullet are around.
Even though you have to catch them, mullet are my favorite baitfish, and if they are available I will use them instead of mud minnows. Cast netting them is easier than netting mud minnows, because you can usually see mullet schools swimming along and occasionally jumping. At times the waterway and creeks are full of them—this is true in the summer but especially in the fall, when they are everywhere.
Mullet go absolutely crazy on your rig, since they live their lives knowing everything out there wants to eat them. They are a great live bait. They also make a terrific cut bait in the larger sizes, perfect for surf fishing for red drum and bluefish.
Some of the biggest speckled trout I have ever caught I hooked while surf fishing for red drum with fresh cut mullet. Studies show that as they get bigger, specks (and their cousins, the gray trout) eat a little less shrimp and more and more fish. Mullet are high on their diet.
The other good baitfish for flounder and trout are pogies, which are actually menhaden. Pogies have lots of different names wherever they occur—stuff like bunker and shiners and all kinds of different tags (but it’s all the same fish).
Large menhaden are targets in some areas to commercial fishermen, who catch huge quantities of the oily fish to process them into oil and animal feeds. This has been justifiably controversial in our area before, since menhaden boats can virtually wipe out local populations, leading to a decline in large species like king mackerel that pursue them.
As far as inshore fishing goes, small pogies are used for flounder, trout and redfish. Unfortunately, pogies cannot live in freshwater and actually don’t survive for long in any kind of water for long. They are among the most delicate of baitfish and die quickly on the hook. I don’t use them much, but some people swear they are the best bait for flounder and puppy drum.
If you use pogies, you need to add a little action to the bait, since they don’t do the frenetic swimming of mud minnows and finger mullet and will likely be dead after a few minutes of fishing. Large pogies, like mullet, are great cut up for surf fishing. They are a very oily fish (the reason commercial boats target them for oils and animal feeds) and when cut up can attract predators from some distance. They are also a top choice for chumming due to the oily slick they create.
You can also use almost any other small minnow as an effective baitfish. One of my favorites is little pinfish, which are a great bait for big flounder and trout (don’t tell anyone—shhhhh). Mud minnows, however, will probably always be the most popular because you can buy them and not everyone uses a cast net.
Whatever baitfish you are sending out there, remember to try to use the lightest sinker you can get away with and still get the bait to the feeding zone. I find 4- and 5-ounce sinkers all the time on the shores of the waterway and wonder what those folks are thinking. The main reason to use live bait is so the baitfish swims around frantically to attract attention.
Even using cut bait you want to be able to feel the strike, something that is hard to do with a huge weight at the end of your line. Plus, a little movement with the current is a good thing.
Flounder fishing should be decent all through the summer. A lot of people will be drifting the inlets, but even in a boat I like to anchor up and cast, adding my own very slow movement to the bait. The areas around bridges, docks and creek mouths are best for this.
However you fish and whatever minnow you choose, remember when flounder fishing to go slow and give the fish time to see to take the bait. Usually for trout, redfish and blues, you’ll know if there’s a hit. The fish are out there now, and live bait is one of the most tried-and-true ways to fill up a cooler on a hot day.