After five minutes crisscrossing an area of broken bottom south of Newport, Rhode Island, satisfied that he has a sufficient preliminary lay of the land, Capt. Russ Benn adjusts the throttles and rounds up for our first drift. He stares intently at the sounder, glances quickly at the plotter, then makes a note in a faded green binder, an antique logbook with notes about this immediate plot of bottom.
I’m guessing he hasn’t checked this place in years. I know better than to let expectations soar, but some vestige of my inner 12-year-old is about to jump out of my skin. I exit the wheelhouse quickly, descend the ladder and march to my spot in the port bow. I lift my baited rig for one last inspection.
This morning’s fluke hunt is an impromptu crew trip, a shot in the arm for morale on deck but, more to the point, a scouting mission that should give our fearless leader a rough idea how the fluke season is progressing — what is where, what has already bypassed us, what will likely be coming over the next week or two.
About 45 minutes earlier, as we steamed eastward from Point Judith, Rhode Island, Carl, our mercurial, gin-blossomed 80-something galley guy, had made the rounds, collecting the customary dollar from each of us — Capt. Benn; our second captain, Richie Romano; my fellow mates, Benny, Don and Jas; one of our most fluke-obsessed regulars, Diane; and me — eight in total, counting Carl, for a whopping pot of $8. Of course, if you didn’t know that, you’d guess we’d all put up our season’s earnings. Given what we as a crew represent in terms of tomfoolery, ball-busting and shenanigans, it was unnervingly quiet in the cabin on the way here, nothing but sounds of rig-tying industry, bulk swivels dispensed, bulk hooks shaken free, leader springing off spools, the opening of a hundred Ziploc bags containing top-secret teasers, skirts, beads, spinner blades and jigs.
Rig in hand, the first thing I check is that both hooks still have points — pranks can get vicious around here. I then confirm that the dual strip baits are hanging absolutely straight. (Sometimes the rear “stinger” hook, if placed too far back toward the bait’s “tail,” will cause the whole thing to bunch up and, once deployed, spin, rendering the bait worthless.) Satisfied that everything should pass muster with sharp-eyed fluke, I drop the rod tip and await the captain’s go-ahead.
Looking down the rail, I note that everyone else is making final preparations. Benny has laid out a rag with two extra rigs on the bench seat behind him. Donny has one small bait tub resting inside a larger bucket with ice, a wet rag covering the top. Carl is muttering as he shakes droplets of ketchup and one sodden sugar packet out of the bottom of his beer can. Jas, to my right, giggles like a 10-year-old as he asks Carl why he likes ketchup in his beer.
“OK,” comes the familiar voice over the loud hailer. “Let ’em go. And make sure you let me know what’s going on down there.”
I ease my thumb pressure on the spool, and my rig plummets out of sight into the blue-green June water, bound for the ground floor some 70 to 80 feet below. Pay attention, stupid, I mutter, closing my eyes and directing all sensory capacity toward my rod hand.
My rig contacts the seabed with a thump. I clamp my thumb down on the still-open spool of my mutant Penn conventional, a reel I assembled from the best parts salvaged from a half-dozen of my grandfather’s nearly identical 1960s Surfmasters. I lift the rod as I free-spool the line, using the boat’s down-drift progress to get the bait out and away from me, then brake the spool and raise the rod slightly to drag the lead across the bottom. Sorting through my mental archive of known textures, I gather we’re sliding over a patch of sand. I repeat the procedure, doling out several yards of line, stopping it, feeling for bottom, and so on, until I’ve got a decent angle on my rig.
Pay attention, stupid, I mutter again as I snap my rod downward and visualize my near-foot-long combo squid/fluke-belly strip darting forward in a motion resembling the swimming action of a live squid. We’re moving along at a good clip, probably just under a knot over ground, and I gather from a sharper “clanking” sensation transmitted up the line that we’ve crossed a transition to harder bottom, probably gravel. I continue to work the bait with a series of jerks on the 7-foot Loomis stick, then drop the bait back, free-spooling a few feet of line, just enough to keep the rig on the ground.
The idea is to juggle a few basic mandates when you target bigger fluke: maintain constant contact with your rig and the bottom, keep your bait moving (via rod action) and use dead bait to imitate live prey. Ideally, you want to use the sinker as a remote sensor to gather whatever detail you can about the terrain below.
You’ll struggle with this simple procedure until you can start to translate all the sensory input you harvest into an approximate visual of what’s happening below the waves. And even then, once you’ve gotten a handle on the bottom, you’ll need to account for the fluke: where they congregate; what they eat; when, how and where they zero in on, stalk, attack, kill and consume prey; what a big fluke does when it strikes and misses. The trick isn’t just knowing behaviors, but also knowing what each behavior feels like.
Some years ago, my friend Mike Laptew, a noted underwater filmmaker, shared with me a brief sequence he’d captured of a small choggie’s last moments on the planet. In it, a fluke — camouflaged perfectly in the sediment, where it lies in ambush — spots its victim, which swims along overhead with the current. With minimal commotion, the big slab turns and pursues the clueless rock-dweller using lanes of open bottom, seabed vegetation and flat rocks for cover as it stalks its meal, stealthy as a shadow a body-length below and a couple of feet behind.
After what feels like five minutes, although I doubt the chase lasts more than 45 seconds, the big summer flounder tenses almost imperceptibly and detonates in a puff of silt, closes the distance, snatches the cunner with needle teeth, banks slightly to one side and glides another four or five feet before settling back down in the boulder-strewn murk. The hunter pauses and, with one quick snap of its jaws, downs its prey in a maelstrom of brine, scales and teeth.
For an entire afternoon, I sat in my office, eyes boring a hole in my computer screen, one hand on the mouse, restarting that revelatory film. I watched that choggie die 75 times. Then I watched it 60 more times. It wasn’t until later that I felt the full impact of that clip: With the visual more or less tattooed in my skull, I had an aid I could use to translate what my rod relayed from the bottom.
I’m starting to worry that I’ve got too much line out. The flatter the angle of the line away from the boat, the greater the distance between rod tip and rig, the greater the bow in the line and, accordingly, the harder it becomes to detect a bite or notice when the rig picks up weeds. I’m just about to rip the rig in for a routine inspection and restart my drift when the bait stops and a sharp tap shoots from my hyper-vigilant fingers and into my brain.
I ease my thumb off the spool, dumping line as I drop the rod tip and begin a slow count to five-one-thousand. Often fluke will strike once to stun, use their needle teeth to hang on, then engulf the bait a bit at a time. At four-one-thousand, I flip the reel into gear and at five, I crank the line tight and snap the rod skyward in one fluid motion. The rod assumes a deep bend, and for several seconds the fish thumps and bucks. Then I feel the bait pull free.
“Oooooffffffff,” comes over the loud hailer. Capt. Benn might catch one out of 10 of my textbook hook sets, but I don’t think he’s ever missed a pitiful misfire.
Yeah. Tipped him over, I mutter. I hear a “booooo” from the right and a “you s-u-c-k” from the left. At least I know Benny and Jas are paying attention.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten pretty good at buying myself second chances. As soon as my rod goes slack, I crank furiously — about 10 turns of the handle — snap the rod twice, then pause, raising the rod tip slightly, feeling for bottom or any unnatural weight. Feeling neither, I drop the rig back in free-spool until it ticks gravel, then twitch the bait and lift with utmost care, ready to drop more line.
The second attack is instantaneous and ferocious, nothing like the first tap-and-chew. This time the fish snatches the bait on the move, runs off with five or six feet of line, then stops. I pause for a second, wait for a tap that tells me she’s begun horsing the bait down, then set once, hard. The rod loads and stays bent. I check the drag, ease it off a hair, dialing the chrome star back while I maintain even pressure on my fish.
Having witnessed many times Benn’s frustration over failing to communicate what’s happening on deck when we’re scouting, I let out a thunderous fish on! and chuckle as Old Carl, safely into the day’s second 12-pack of Busch, flinches and nearly drops his rod.
“Good job, there, Scooter.” The hailer drips sarcasm as I start to baby my first candidate toward home. Often fluke get a boost from their large, flat surface area — the suction it creates with bottom — then lose oomph rapidly once you’ve broken suction. For a moment, my heart sinks — this fish is losing weight fast. But as I’m preparing to yank the little fish up on plane and rip it in to avoid the heckling I know to expect when I “Hollywood” a foot-long flatfish in, the fluke cops an attitude and digs back to street level. I gain line steadily despite the apparent weight as the angle of my line steepens toward 90 degrees. It’s when I’ve got the fish straight up and down that the standoff begins in earnest.
Careful to avoid the rod-pumping or jostling modeled by largemouth bass pros on television, whose antics have cost fluking neophytes plenty of fish, I lean gently on what I’m pretty sure is a solid fluke. I gain line six inches at a time as the braid cuts tight circles in the surface. A minute later, the knot linking braid running line to fluorocarbon top shot breaks the surface, ticks through my rod’s 10 composite guide-liners and appears on the spool. Gettin’ close, here, I mumble.
“Oh, why, did you actually want a net for that little thing?” asks Benny, my fellow mate and immediate neighbor at the rail, cracking an evil grin.
Yeah, I respond absently, that’d be …
“Get it yourself,” he interrupts. Laughter erupts from both directions.
This is a crew trip. I should be thankful that no one has pantsed me while I’m preoccupied.
I suggest that Benny engage in courtship with several species of barnyard animals. As he racks his rod, backs off his drag and grabs the long-handled net, he replies that he’d love to if he weren’t worried about the consequences of having relations with my relatives.
My fluke corkscrews into view. Benny stabs the net opening into the water just ahead of the fish, and I guide it in head-first. He spins the net hoop inboard and lifts the fish hand-over-hand until it clears the rail.
Go @#$%! yourself, I hiss, then smile. He grabs the net bag and ejects the big fluke at my knees. A stray tooth punctures the skin on the instep of my sandaled right foot.
As he turns and prepares to return the net to its holder, I side-step toward his rod, reach down, click his reel into free-spool, then grab the line off his rod-tip and give it a sharp yank. Coils jump off his spool and crisscross while the working end of his line digs in, creating a horrific backlash. I hurry toward the stern with my fish — no giant but solid, maybe 6 pounds. I hear the first volley of foul language behind me as I round the port quarter to deposit the fish in the slush box.
Benny has just finished picking out the nest on his spool when I return to my post carrying a different rig and a small tub containing top-secret baits. As I snip the old rig off at the barrel swivel, Cappy announces that he wants to take a little ride, check out an area about 20 minutes east. A second after the hailer returns to silence, Benny bellows, “fish on!”
A few minutes later, with an audience of seven crowded around him at the rail, Benny hauls a fish of his own into view.
Nice one, I say as I slip the net under it. That was textbook, Benny — backlash your reel, walk away, catch a fish. Good thing you weren’t holding your rod.
It’s a nice fish, might have a pound or two on the one I landed. As the twin diesels rumble underfoot and we lurch forward, I escort my friend to the stern and lift the heavy cooler lid while he deposits his doormat — now the mark to beat — into the icy brine.
Carl chimes in. “You better give that fish a goddamn breathalyzer.”
“Benny got that?” asks Jas, poking his head around the corner, “Poor thing must’ve been on suicide watch.”
Our immediate mission is one example of what makes Capt. Russ Benn one of the area’s top fluke specialists — that and probably 40 years targeting them. Scouting, he has noted countless times, helps him keep tabs on the big-picture distribution of fluke that move into our inshore waters from late spring through early fall. Whereas some species, such as striped bass, will take up residence around certain bottom features under certain semipredictable conditions and on a reliable timeline, fluke — the bigger ones that regulations force Benn to target — seldom return to the same areas year after year.
But most of the doormat specialists I’ve consulted agree that within a given season, places that yield jumbo fluke once tend to gather more big fish in the days or weeks that follow, presumably because certain types of submerged real estate provide feeding advantages.
There’s something about fluke — the way they defy human attempts to pattern their behavior. Other times, it’s the angle of your drift, relative to some piece of real estate. Sometimes it’s all about the bait — kind, size, where it’s concentrated — that leads to big fluke. Sometimes it’s a certain range of water temperature, a specific window in one tide or a mix of conditions that foretells successful drifting. A subtle difference in rigging or bait preparation, or a slight adjustment in the way the whole thing is presented, often will have one guy bailing fish while his neighbor whiffs.
Naturally, there’s a knack to catching better fluke steadily. For me, it was the sudden revelation that I needed to pay attention, not in the pedestrian sense of those words but on a more meditative level. It’s surprisingly difficult to maintain the necessary degree of focus to fight not only the endless tide of outward distractions, but also the hypnotic effect of bobbing silently down-current while your sinker keeps time. Then there’s the bigger-picture challenge of predicting and tracking fluke movements into, out of and within a given area.
A sharp drop in engine rpm snaps us out of a collective thousand-yard stare. Benn begins his usual taking-a-look maneuvers, roughing out the general area, working out the lay of the fixed gear — gillnets or lobster trawls — and rock piles. After another 10 minutes, he gives us a quick update. “You’re more than likely gonna lose some gear in here,” he says. “Might want to get a couple extra rigs ready — you know the drill. Might not be much here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some nice stuff.”
It’s a known commodity in the hunt for doormat fluke that it’s the willingness to wander off the beaten path that determines your odds of sticking something huge. It occurs to me, surveying attendance on deck, that our collective obsession with double-digit slabs reflects in large part the enthusiasm that radiates from the wheelhouse. It’s true in every fishery that you’ll get back only as much as you invest, not just the physical energy but also the creative energy, the genuine curiosity and your own willingness to ward off complacency when you have success.
Benn is right about losing gear here. In the course of one drop, we send seven rigs to the bottom and hang seven rigs up — probably on some old gillnet or maybe part of an otter trawl that a dragger hung up on a rock pile and parted off. We can all lift our rigs a couple yards off the seabed, but they won’t budge beyond that.
“Let’s get outta here,” says Benn. I imagine him writing a note in one of his logs, shaking his head in disgust.
When many hear the word “scouting,” they immediately link it to the sexier side of prospecting — wreck hunting, the search for lost treasure, fortunes made by lucky salvage divers. On the contrary, you’ll pay for the occasional breakthrough trips with plenty of others you’ll remember for their tedium. As it turns out, today’s exercise is heading that way, the tide losing steam, the wind coming on, the fluke clamming up in an apparent hunger strike.
One of fluking’s big draws is the range of bottom structure and makeup that can support substantial slabs. A fluke’s pigmentation can rapidly change to mimic its surroundings, creating perfect camouflage from both prey and predators. So you can learn quite a bit about the bottom you’re fishing from the color of the fluke it yields. I’ve caught jumbos of every conceivable shade, from light beige to dark gray and even black, and with all manner of spot patterns, color schemes and configurations. When you compare a very dark fluke with sparse white splotches to a dark, sandy bottom scattered with shell bits, you get excited about nature’s unexpected precision.
It’s not about color for me — it’s more the idea that there might be huge fluke down there. I’ve pulled big fluke up from the damnedest places. I pried a freakish, jet-black slab — fat and deep but compact, lengthwise — from a plot of open seabed tucked inside what must be a bridge-rubble mountain range. The place only works on a flood tide, and the drift’s a quick run — maybe three minutes from setup to pick-up — unless you want to liquidate a rig surplus. Another place is an estuary mouth whose ebbing current has worn a channel the shape of a samurai sword. It is tiled with little fish into mid-July, then usually collects jumbos through early August. It fishes well, thanks to a two-hour lag caused by the narrow inlet, when the tide out front has gone slack. Neither spot is known for fluke production, but scouting revealed them both as prime spots to stick doormats under otherwise challenging conditions. I’d have discovered neither if I waited to spot another soul fluking in these areas.
There are enough places out there to feed a lifetime of curiosity in the scouting department, and there’s an endless array of technical and technological particulars to learn and fine-tune. If you have the inclination, the imagination and you don’t mind eating world-class fish, fluke have enough intrigue to keep you humble well beyond your life expectancy.