Capt. Ronnie Daniels spotted the track from 20 feet away, and noticed it faced south. He picked up the trail from there and within minutes was an arm’s length from his prey.
With a quick downward thrust it was game over.
Daniels, who runs Fisher-Man Guide Service (http://msfisherman.com) based in Long Beach, has been stalking and gigging flounder for over 25 years.
He starts looking for flounder in mid-March, but the action doesn’t heat up until late April and will stay hot until November.
"The No. 1 and biggest key in floundering is wind," Daniels explained. "If you can’t see them, you can’t stick them.
"If you’re floundering on the beach, any southerly wind of 5 knots or more will make it difficult to flounder with a pan light because you get so much glare off any little ripple coming off the light above the water. If you’re using an underwater light, depending on the type of bottom that you’re floundering on and the tide range, you could flounder in winds 10 to 15 knots, possibly."
Marshy areas along the beach tend to have a lot of silt on the bottom, so any disturbance is going to stir it up and make it murky. So if the wind kicks up look, for areas that feature a sandy bottom.
Daniels prefers to flounder at one of the coast’s barrier islands because protected water can usually be found based on wind direction. If the wind is out of the south, calm water can be found on the north side of the island; If the wind is out of the north, he’ll look for clean water on the south side of the island.
There is an exception Daniels explained.
"If we’ve had a north wind all day or most of the day and I get ready to go floundering and now the wind swings around out of the south, both sides of the island are muddy and murky, and it’s not doable," he said.
Tide plays a part in Daniels’ game plan, but less-than-desirable tide ranges will not stop him from going. His mentor, Vernon Byrd, taught him to be on the beach at low tide just as it starts coming in.
"Vernon’s theory when he was teaching me," Daniels explained, "was that we were floundering off the beach so the big terrain features were bars. He felt like flounder didn’t feel like they were going to get trapped inside the bar on a rising tide — that’s why the flounder run in on an incoming tide.
"If you’ve got them when the tide is coming in, then they’re working their way in with the bait getting up in the shallows so they can ambush bait, which is ultimately what they’re there to do."
Floundering on a high tide or even a falling tide is possible and can be productive. Adjust your game plan accordingly by looking for areas that will not trigger the flounder’s instinct to move out to deeper water as the tide drops.
"I’ve stuck a ton of flounder on a falling tide," Daniels said. "Especially if you have high water and are on or next to a grassy area where you have bait in the grass.
"It’s just like fishing for redfish or anything else — water is falling out, (and) it’s pulling the bait out. I’ve seen hundreds of them with their noses poking up in the grass just waiting on a minnow or shrimp to come out of the grass."
Flounder move into the shallow for one reason: to feed. That’s why once Daniels has chosen a location based on wind and tide he starts looking for bait.
No bait — no flounder.
"If I get out of the boat and walk 400 or 500 yards and I’m not seeing any beds and I’m not seeing any bait, I’m going back to the boat and going to a different spot," he said. "Like trout fishing, if you’ve got bait there you’re going to have a higher concentration of fish."
Daniels leaves Long Beach Harbor 30 minutes before dark to allow time to motor in and set up where he plans to start. Once the boat is anchored, he’ll get the gear ready and wait until it is completely dark.
Complete darkness will keep you from casting a shadow and spooking the flounder. If you happen to be floundering on a night with a full moon, always keep the moon in your face so as to not cast a shadow.
Once it’s completely dark, Daniels hops out of the boat and works his way to the beach. If he is floundering with someone, he’ll put them close to the beach and he’ll work to their outside in deeper water.
If Daniels is floundering with multiple people, they’ll go in opposite directions when leaving the boat. It’s a good practice to spread out so there isn’t as much commotion in the water and more ground can be covered.
When Daniels splits his party up he gives each person a two-way radio.
"One of the extra things I carry — a two-way radio — comes in really handy," he said. "You can keep in contact (and) find out if the other people are seeing anything, which helps me make a judgment call on whether to stay in the area or move.
"There’s also the safety factor."
Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where flatfish are hanging out.
"We’re not going to be walking a straight line; we’ll zigzag back and forth to vary our depth to find where they’re at," Daniels said. "If the fish I stick is in mid-shin water, then I’ll zero in on that depth because a lot of times they’ll all be at that same depth.
"Once we start getting onto the fish we may come a little closer together."
As flounder move in from deeper water, they stop every 20 to 30 feet. When a flounder stops, it flutters its fins and buries up to camouflage itself to ambush prey. When a flounder moves on, it leaves behind in imprint of its body, or a track.
When Daniels spots a track he notes the direction the flounder is headed and works his way slowly in that direction.
"In clear water on a good night I’ve followed a track and spotted flounder 25 feet out in front of me," Daniels said. "He just swam up there, and he’s a big dark spot on the bottom."
When a flounder is spotted, Daniels eases up on him — smooth and slow but fast enough so the flounder doesn’t have time to follow its instinct and move.
The guide said to be careful not to stomp or splash because that will spook the flounder.
"When you spot a flounder," explained Daniels, "get there as quickly as you can and still stay quiet. Ease up and get close enough to where you can accurately hit him with your gig. What this means is to be within arm’s reach. You don’t want to try to stick a flounder at an angle: You want to go straight down through him — go straight down, straight through, right behind the gills."
It’s also important to remember that the sticking of a flounder isn’t the end of the game.
"Once you’ve stuck the fish, hold your gig firm against the bottom to keep him from flopping as much as possible," Daniels said. "Your average-size flounder, 12 to 16 inches, isn’t going to be much of a task at all. A lot of times they won’t even flop, but don’t let them fool you with that: As soon as you think they’re not going to move they come alive and start flopping everywhere."
All that’s left to do is string the flounder, which is all about technique.
"To pick up the flounder, drop your light in the water and get a good, firm hold on the gig," Daniels said. "Reach down underneath (the fish) and slide the gig in between your middle fingers on the prongs of the gig, push up against it, flip it over and stick the base of the gig down in the sand.
"Keep a firm hand on top of the flounder, pushing down; get your hand around him to kind of paralyze him, use your other hand to get your stringer and run it though his mouth and then just flip him over onto the stringer."
Bigger flats, of course, require a different tactic, however.
"On a big fish — 3 pounds and up — put one foot on his tail to hold him down and string the fish right on the bottom," the veteran guide said. "A 3-pound flounder can generate a lot of force when he’s flopping and you’re trying to flip him over on the gig.
"String him on the bottom or there’s a good chance you’ll lose him."
Once on the stringer Daniels recommended sliding the flounder as far down the stringer as possible to prevent the flopping from stirring up the water around you. On a calm night, any mud that is stirred up will end up surrounding you and making other flounder difficult to see.
July is one of the hottest months of the year and a time most people want to sit in the shade and drink lemonade. Instead, grab your gear and hit a star-lit beach for flounder.
Not only is it a great way to beat the heat but you’ll end up with tasty fish for the table.