Fish Early, Fish Often: May’s Monster Fluke

by Zach Harvey

The month of May is a sleeper in Rhode Island fluke fishing, mainly since it’s the second or third week of the month most years before anyone anywhere in our waters—Little Compton to Watch Hill, Block Island to mid-Narragansett Bay—catches much of anything, slab-wise. For a number of reasons, not least that few folks have splashed their boats by May 15, the fluke fishery doesn’t get a whole lot of pressure early on. One problem is that one week’s time can make a world of difference in the quality of the fishing, and if you’re out looking even a few days too soon, you could well get the idea that there’s nothing doing. A skunking on the first mission is enough to convince some anglers the real action is still a couple weeks off—even though the fish could move up on to that real estate a day or two later.

For my own money, I count the month of May, any point from the third week onward, as one of the best times to stick a slab of true substance, one of those models that sets your knees knocking together as you work it out of the depths in 8-foot circles, suddenly not so sure the mottled brown shape cork-screwing into focus will fit inside the landing-net frame. I’ve seen, netted, and caught some of the biggest rod-and-reel fluke I’ve laid eyes on during the waning days of Month Five.

Some Challenges
None of this is to suggest that May fluking is a slam-dunk. In cranky-weather years, an endless queue of gales may leave otherwise prime grounds unfishable, thanks to water the color of chocolate milk, for weeks on end. In recent seasons, another complicating factor has been intense dragging pressure along the south-shore beaches, as a sizeable fleet of boats tries to capitalize on what have been very strong spring loligo squid runs in Block Island and Rhode Island Sounds. In the interest of fairness, it’s not that these drag boats are catching loads of fluke—many are fishing rope nets and rock-hopper sweeps that effectively exclude most flatfish in a net’s path. The problem is that all the gear raking the gravel- and cobble-bottom areas where squid congregate and ultimately spawn tends to stir up silt and tons of that nasty brown weed that fouls drifted strip baits meant for fluke. The drag effort also mops up huge amounts of the squid that has always been one of the primary early-season sources of fluke forage. The net effect—no pun intended—has been notably poor fluke fishing along many areas that used to offer excellent May action.


The good news is that, with a bit of heads-up, you can work around these challenges, land slabs into double-digit sizes while the other guys at the marina are grousing about all the rat-sized slabs tiling the bottom they’re fishing. First key concept in targeting larger fluke is to acknowledge that summer flounder—unlike their toothless winter counterparts—are active, aggressive predators who can thrive in an array of seafloor habitat, including boulder fields, kelp forests, rockpiles and other places that hold all kinds of baitfish and other easy meals. While you’ll catch plenty of summer flatties on easy, sandy bottoms, know that long stretches of open bottom tend to hold abundant nursery-size slabs, and also represent prime drag bottom. Conversely, when you venture off the grid into the broken bottom—or make shorter, more precise drifts over small lanes of gravel—you’ll be dragging your strip baits and bucktails through terrain draggers and gillnetters avoid, lest their gear come back aboard in tatters.

Another principle that should help you in your hunt for May ‘mats is the age-old truth that fish gather where bait’s abundant—a notion that’s especially relevant as you seek out larger slabs in the first weeks of the new season. Fluke, which migrate inshore-offshore with the seasons, tend to fill in on certain pieces of bottom for some duration before they spread out around the area. For example, fluke often bunch up on the high ground south and east of Point Judith Light and the Center Wall before they fan out toward points west. Likewise, the deeper areas south of Newport’s Ocean Drive (outside Brenton Reef, Bailey’s Beach, or Seal Ledge, among other inshore pieces) will often see an influx of quality slabs weeks before the fish appear along the channel edges around the Newport or Jamestown Bridges. The trick to fishing these 50- to 80-foot areas out front is preparing yourself to burn through plenty of rigs as you attempt to dial in on workable concentrations of right-size slabs—tackle sacrificed not just to gnarly bottom, balled-up gillnet and lobster gear from yesteryear, as well as plenty of active gear, not all of which is marked properly.

Bait and Bottom
It’s not just a matter of choosing the right areas; to find piles of the more cooperative flatties, you’ll do well to seek out clouds of squid and other forage within your larger target spots. When you have the right bottom and plenty of bait on your sounder screen, the odds you’ll encounter some quality slabs in the first inning increase dramatically. Then again, because it’s May—out ahead of the first major bodies of fluke that tend to storm the south shore beaches sometime between the first and third weeks of June—realize that the fishing often fluctuates wildly, wide-open with all quality fish one day, and a briny desert the next for no discernible reason. The trick, if you’re serious about an early launch to your own slab season, is that you have to keep at it, taking the skunkers—sometimes a number of them consecutively—if you hope to be out on the water when the bite blows wide open for a tide or three.

Use Every Advantage
If you’re hoping to time your own first outings right, it won’t hurt to keep fairly close tabs on developments within the squid run, since the first better showings of cooperative keepers tend to shadow the main push of squid into our area. If you’re smart, you’ll dedicate some time to your squid rigs, jigging up and portioning out as much of the fresh, iridescent-looking local stuff as you can coax on to the jig tines: There is no better staple bait than just-caught calamari, larger strips of which have fooled a number of my personal-best summer flatties during the last quarter of Month Five. Save any of the smaller squid you can scratch together—the four- to six-inch tubes—and drift them whole, ideally with a second “stinger” hook concealed in the head/tentacles, given even doormat-sized slabs’ confounding tendency to decapitate whole baits, rendering the tube that remains virtually worthless until you retrieve it and trim it into strip baits.

While many fluke fans carry well-hidden but near-crippling addictions to add-on fish-baits like smelt or spearing, which at times prove deadly in conjunction with a carefully-shaped strip of fresh squid, you’ll often boost your keeper-to-throwback catch ratio by a wide margin if you forego the mini-fish in favor of a second, thin-profile strip bait cut from a fluke belly, a bluefish fillet, or, best of all, a good-sized sea robin. The combination of that latter secret weapon and the aforementioned fresh-squid pendant has delivered some of my largest spring slabs over the years. Just be sure to trim away most of the meat from the strip, and aim for a long-gradual taper in the strip’s profile, since a big old meat-wad bait will deaden the all-important visual appeal—the perfect fluttering action—of your combination offering. And be sure, especially when you’re dragging outsized baits with welcome mats on the brain, to hang such offerings on hooks that offer sufficient gap and point to grab solid footing in a heavyweight’s needle-toothed maw. (I like thin-wire kahle—wide-gap—hooks in 5/0, and recently secured a supply of 6/0’s Owner now offers; I didn’t even attempt to conceal my rabid excitement over that purchase, may actually have scared a few folks at a local tackle shop.)


Where, When
The wild-card in May doormat hunting is timing—a factor that always bedevils attempts to accurately predict the early bite. .As of the last week in April, a number of sources I consulted were of the opinion that things are running a week or more behind their average timeline, thanks to sluggish air temps, all kinds of bitter wind, and a total lack of sustained warm spells or settled weather. Then again, Mother Nature calls the shots—and loves to punish presumptuous fish-writer types when they imply that they know the unknowable. There’s only one way to track the real-world progress of the northbound parade of summer flounder: Get out early and often.

For what it’s all worth, I ran some timing and strategic questions by a few known slab specialists. Some of the details they reluctantly furnished follows. Capt. Russ Benn of the Point Judith-based Seven B’s V, one of the state’s foremost fluke sharpies, dodged specifics—the man detests Googanesque inquiries about the quality and consistency of fishing that’s still nearly a month off—but was willing to share some thoughts on the more general strategic elements of May drifting. He suggested that readers monitor reports on the squid fishing, noting that the arrival of a new season’s first waves of better summer flounder tends to coincide with the peak of that run along both sides of RI’s south shore.

Benn added that the brave souls willing to trek over to the Island might get an early jump, by a week or two if things progress at their press-time rate, drifting the edges of tougher bottom anywhere from out in front of New Harbor down to the Southwest Corner, depths ranging from 45 to 80 feet. He advised that prospectors to look for areas showing decent shots of bait, as migration-weary slabs tend to crowd the buffet early on. Closer to home, he said the bigger bodies of fluke tend to show up first on the broken, tideswept ground south and east of Point Judith Light and the Center Wall, that action hitting stride before things heat up in areas farther west—Nebraska Shoal, Charlestown, and so on. He named the tough bottom south of Newport’s Ocean Drive as another area known to come alive ahead of other mainland fluke grounds.

The word from Sam Toland at Sam’s Bait and Tackle over in Newport is that the first of a season’s fluke activity is tightly linked to the major push of squid into the area, with the first of the better fish typically unhinging their jaws somewhere around the third week of May. He was quick to add that the early bite can be maddeningly inconsistent—steady picking on all jumbos one day, followed by three days of s-l-o-w going on a scattered handful of postcard-sized specimens. The fact that we’ve been stuck in a frigid spring leads him to conclude that things are apt to remain the week or two off the average pace that he’s been seeing right along. Asked for some probable sites of better fluking as that fishery grinds back to life, Sam offered the 50- to 80-foot areas of tough bottom outside Second Beach, Agassi’s, and Bailey’s, as well as at Austin Hollow on the southern end of Jamestown’s west side. One challenge on the pieces south of Newport is an abundance of gillnet and lobster gear that often force short, precise drifts and a degree of vigilance not all fluke fans love.

My good friend, Charley Soares, who logs a mind-boggling number of hours outside the mouth of the Sakonnet River each season, observed that, while it’s possible to chip away at fits and starts of cooperative slabs earlier, May 25 is probably a pretty dependable starting point for steadier catch rates. He added that he’s spent years wondering why these fish—along with scup—will show up in the fish traps well ahead of the point when they’ll actually start to chew. The wide-open fluke fishery for which the Sakonnet River mouth has become so famous really doesn’t hit stride until a few weeks later, the second to third week of June through July.

Regardless of where you start your search, May, especially the waning days as June approaches, is an under-rated time to connect with what could be the biggest, baddest doormat of your season or even your career. Watch the weather patterns, get those top-secret rigs ready, and prepare yourself for the likelihood you’ll endure some major-league tedium before you get your shot at a super-sized slab. Be sure to hit your pet spots under various tide and drift conditions, since the fish can be unbelievably persnickety in their Month Five feeding preferences. The good news is that if you can maintain focus through the inevitable skunkings and slow picks, you might just rack up a score of heavies that resets the high-water mark of your doormat-hunting career.