You draw some odd looks when you are standing in ankle deep water against the blocky Ocean City skyline holding a fly rod, especially when standing 20 yards away from the seemingly endless parade of jiggers and minnow dunkers drifting by in center consoles and pontoon boats. The comments can be even more amusing, almost always tinged with extreme curiosity and surprise. The fact that you have a kayak tethered to your waist, drifting 10 feet away with the tide, makes the spectacle a bit more bemusing to most. But when the line goes tight, and the ultra responsive March Brown eight weight curves toward a feisty summer flounder, the effort it took to get to that sandbar suddenly becomes worthwhile.
While most who ply the back bays of Assateague and Ocean City in the traditional manner (by boat) try very hard, sometimes unsuccessfully, to avoid the numerous shallow bars that lie just beneath the water, those same sandbars provide the perfect vantage point from which to present a fly to the droves of flatties feeding in the deeper channels. Thanks to the magic of Google Earth, locating those bars prior to launching becomes almost too simple, and a fairly strong kayaker can cover a good chunk of water in a day of paddling.
On a recent Friday I convinced Maryland Angler Network founder Mike Thron that it would be in his best interest to put aside the responsibilities of daily life and join me for an afternoon excursion on Assawoman Bay. “I’m feeling lucky,” I told him, “the weather is supposed to be perfect and we can time it so we will be fishing the top of the outgoing tide. And I’m feeling lucky. Did I mention that?” I also needed a cameraman and/or subject to help document one of these adventures. As all of my trips have been solo so far, my only photographs are less than impressive – a nondescript fishtail partially obscured by an unknown blur, a blank patch of water, a flounder arching through the air as it leaps from my hand, etc. Without flinching, Mike agreed to join me, and by three o’clock we were on the water paddling north on a slack high tide.
The concept of casting a fly to a fish that spends most of it’s life plastered to the sand and muck of the bottom came up in a conversation with a fellow obsessive fishing friend a couple of years ago. I had recently uncovered a love for fly fishing buried beneath years of stodgy denial, and was ready to expand my range with the long rod. When my friend said he had heard of folks who were out there in the back bays of the Delmarva eastern shore catching flounder on fly rods my imagination went into overdrive. Soon I started searching fishing forums and actually found that a minuscule population of flat fish fly anglers posted tales and photos of big flounder. I was hooked. A month later I had a secondhand sit-on-top kayak rigged for fishing adventures.
Within three months, I had learned why Assawoman Bay isn’t rife with kayakers casting chartreuse streamers. As nearly 75 percent of the water is too shallow for the boating crowd, the deeper channels that crisscross the water tend to be filled with crafts of all sizes, some casually drifting with the tide and others moving at high speed to their preferred bayside or offshore hot spot. The plethora of boat traffic makes human powered travel slightly nerve racking, if not a bit dangerous. Crossing the heavily traveled channels running north and south becomes less of an experience of relaxation and solitude and more of an exercise in survival, requiring precise timing and ample upper body strength to prevent harming the bow of a passing cabin cruiser. Then there are the tides and persistent wind, which often work against each other to make dropping a nearly weightless fly in the desired location and drifting with the desired action a slightly challenging undertaking. Throw in the murky water that makes gauging depth a bit challenging (I once hopped out of my kayak into neck deep water thinking I was on a shoal), and the dearth of launch sites for kayaks (which makes for some long hauls and sketchy launches), and kayak fly fishing becomes more of an adventure.
Summer Flounder (Paralichthyis dentatus) is a warm water fish, moving into the relatively shallow bays in spring and residing there through summer. While they have a layman’s reputation as a dopey bottom feeder, in actuality they are voracious carnivores with a large mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. They are opportunistic feeders, and will go after mantis shrimp, calico crabs, spot, minnows, and whatever else they can find. During the summer it is not uncommon to find a couple of eight inch mantis shrimp in the belly of a 20-inch keeper. So it makes perfect sense that a fly, presented properly, could attract these flat feeders.
Before I go any farther, I must say that I do not proclaim to be an expert on any aspect of this fishery. I have been at it for just over a year (planning to keep at it for many more), and I am certain that volumes of articles could be written with what I don’t know about catching flounder on a fly rod. But one thing I am whole-heartedly sure of is that having a big flat flounder on the end of an eight weight on a warm summer morning is about as fun as it gets, and my latest trip out with Mike proved to be the most fruitful yet. So I must be doing something right.
We made it to my now favorite spot just as the tide started to change and secured our vessels in the shallow water. The family clamming on the bar and the few boats fishing nearby didn’t take much interest in us until we waded to the edge of the bar and began wildly waving eight-foot long rods back and forth. The occasional glances turned to stares and that familiar feeling of standing in front of the class began to wash over me. Within two minutes, the stares changed from curiosity to amazement as Mike’s rod doubled over with a violent tug. The game was on. He was fishing an eight weight fast action Mike fly pole, and the curve of the rod left no doubt that a very large fish was attached to his fly. Visions of a 20 plus inch flounder swirled through my head. Ten feet out, the beast revealed itself as a chopper blue and, with the thrash of the head, cut the line. The commotion was infectious, though, and that lucky feeling I had when we set out was reinforced and I was sure that we had an afternoon of catching ahead of us.
The key is to get the fly down into the feeding zone of the flounder. Because they lie in wait camouflaged against the bottom for prey to swim or scuttle by, a fairly fast sinking line in desirable.
Most of my success has been on the falling tide, when the current is fast. A heavy Clousers in olive and white and a purple and white streamer tied by fellow angler and insatiable tier Steve Logan have been the flies of choice so far, though I am by no means finished experimenting. The technique that has worked best so far is to cast upstream (into the current) and allow the fly to sink for a good five count, then strip it back across and against the current. Almost always, the flounder will hit between strips, and the fight is on.
By the time the sinking sun sent us paddling back to the car, I had landed five flounder, the largest of which measured 16 inches. Mike had considerably less luck, with the excitement of the bluefish being the only action of the day. He did, however, prove to be quick with the camera, so I finally had believable documentation of my tales of flat fish caught on the fly. As we strapped the kayaks onto the car in the falling light I was already plotting my next trip to my favorite bar (sand, that is).
Targeted Species: Flounder, although bluefish and croaker are sometimes caught. Location: Assawoman Bay When: Late spring through fall
The Intrepid Angler Tackle Bag:
Fly rod; my favorite is a March Brown Legacy Series 8wt travel rod and Ross Rhythm reel loaded with fast sinking fly line and a six to eight foot, eight pound leader.
Fish the last part of the incoming and the outgoing tides, preferably in the early morning. Avoid holidays (Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day), when inexperienced and intoxicated boaters are out in full force.
Bring your own kayak – there are scant few places to rent.
Rinse all of your gear, especially your reel, with clean cool fresh water immediately after fishing. Salt water ruins equipment quickly.