Oh, how far fluking has come. My earliest memories of fishing for summer flounder involve the beach, killies, and squid. My father tossed a regular fluke rig baited with one or both into the Sea Bright surf, handed me his rod, and said in a steely voice, “Just leave it.” But, every fluke angler worthy of the name knows letting bait sit motionless is the kiss of death. Fluke fishing demands movement because the fluke is an aggressive fish wired to hunt for its food. Over time, I learned that imparting more action to the bait resulted in more fish. With age came wisdom—and squid skirts, colored beads and spinners. Now, the trend is fishing bucktails for trophy fluke.
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Bucktailing for fluke is not new—I’m told sharpies used Smiling Bill bucktails tipped with squid for decades—but with the introduction of Berkley Gulp in its many colors and shapes and the arrival of varied styles of bucktails, the popularity of bucktailing for fluke has exploded over the last 10 years.
Dragging bait with a standard fluke rig still has its loyal fans, but step aboard any party boat at the height of fluke season and most anglers will be fishing with bucktails.
My friend Jim Stonaker introduced me to bucktailing in 2008 using a three-way swivel with line from the reel tied to one eye, the jig tied to another eye with a short length off a 30-pound-test leader, and a trailer hook tied to the remaining eye with about 18 inches of leader.
He put a big Gulp grub on the bucktail and a 4-inch swimming mullet on the trailer hook. Pink Shine, chartreuse or Nuclear Chicken were common choices for the grub while white or chartreuse mullets went on the trailer hook. Strips of squid or sea robin were often added to the bucktail. Weights varied depending on the conditions but were usually around 3 to 5 ounces, heavy enough to hold the bottom. Similar rigs with much lighter jigs (½ to ¾ ounces) using Gulp and live killies were successful in local rivers and bays for fluke. Others preferred a high-low rig where the bucktail was on the bottom with a Gamakatsu baitholder hook tied to a dropper loop about two feet above the bucktail.
Whatever the rig, fluke anglers love to improvise. Brightly colored squid skirts, hammered spinners, Viper spoons or hot pink hair all became part of the offerings. I’ve seen rigs that more closely resembled chandeliers or carnival rides than something that would attract a fluke.
But, who am I to judge? Plus, there’s more to bucktailing big fluke than just the rig. For a complete lesson, I jumped aboard Parker Pete’s Fishing Charters out of Belmar in late September 2019.
For the past several years, Capt. Pete Sykes has been conducting on-the-water bucktail seminars, often in conjunction with bucktail manufacturer, KTS Customs. For this trip, Capt. Sykes assembled a group of his regulars hoping to land a trophy before the season closed. Also aboard was Capt. Danny Costantino, who runs the Parker Pete when Capt. Sykes is at his other job, a lieutenant with the Irvington, New Jersey, Fire Department. Constantino is a well-respected fluke angler and a constant presence in local fluke tournaments, usually finishing in the money.
Both Sykes and Costantino grew up around the Belmar Marina and have been working out of there for 25 years, starting when they were kids. “My mother used it as a form of daycare,” Sykes said. The pair joined forces aboard the Big Mohawk under Capt. Gary Fagan and learned all there was to know about catching fluke and other local species. Capt. Sykes began his charter boat career in 2008 with a 24-foot Parker before moving up to a 35-foot Donnell in 2012.
Both Sykes and Constantino favor the high-low rig, especially when fishing structure in search of big fluke. It provides just the right amount of flutter off the bottom that triggers a strike.
➤ How to Work a High-Low Bucktail Rig: This is a great rig for anglers who prefer to actively jig for fluke. Work a bucktail structure jig vertically by bouncing it on a tight line to keep it from snagging between rocks or along wreck edges. It is ideal for fishing rough bottoms. Tip the hook with a spearing, strip bait, or Gulp Swimming Mullet. The bucktail should be heavy enough to bounce on the bottom, which may be as light as 5/8-ounces in shallow water with light current, or up to 6+ ounces in deep water and strong current.
During the off-season, Capt. Sykes conducts bucktail seminars at several outdoor shows and incorporates underwater videos by John Skinner, a highly regarded fishing author and fluke fisherman, that demonstrate what the high-low looks like in action. Capt. Sykes likes to use the lightest bucktail possible while still holding bottom. “You want to feel the bottom, the bite, and the terrain,” he said.
Rigging Bucktails for Trophy Fluke
The motto for Parker Pete’s Fishing Charters is “keep it simple.” Braid line on the reel is the preferred choice tied to 30-pound fluorocarbon with a no-name knot. A dropper loop holding a 6/0 Gamakatsu baitholder hook is next, followed by a surgeon’s loop at the bottom for the bucktail. About 18 inches to two feet separate the dropper loop from the bucktail jig. There are no swivels, clips, or unnecessary terminal tackle to get hung up on rocks, wrecks or other structure. That’s where the big fluke hang out. They prowl the edges of reefs and wrecks while hunting for a meal.
Sykes uses ball-shaped bucktails for the same reason: they are less likely to get stuck. The baitholder hook is also critical, he said, as it keeps the Gulp grubs in place.
Gulp selection is a personal matter because everyone has their favorites. A 6-inch grub is among the most popular when targeting big fluke. The 5-inch swimming mullet also has a devoted following. As for colors, on our trip, I saw them all. One angler, Dr. Han Huang of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, used Fire Tiger, Red-Bellied Shrimp, and Blue Fuse in addition to Pink Shine, white, and chartreuse. Red Salmon has also become very popular.
Capt. Costantino is a self-admitted Pink Shine junkie, with White Glow his next favorite. Costantino said the goal is to match the natural baits fluke feed on, and pink and white are the colors of squid.
New Penny, Capt. Sykes said, approximates the color of ling, another favorite of big fluke. Capt. Costantino has all the bases covered since he carries a Plexiglas suitcase stuffed with a smorgasbord of colors and sizes. Water clarity has a lot to do with color selection, with more vibrant colors getting the nod in murky conditions. When out with a charter, Costantino suggests each angler try a different color so that, as the day goes on, they can determine what’s working best.
After the rig, Sykes said the presentation, whether it’s Gulp or natural bait, is critical. Make sure it’s on the hook correctly and providing the desired action. And, you have to work it. If your wrist doesn’t hurt at the end of the day, you’re doing it wrong, is the Parker Pete mantra. It’s called bouncing bucktails for a reason. These are aggressive fish and constant motion will deliver many more strikes than just dragging the bait across the bottom.
On my trip, the crew worked very hard all day at keeping their baits moving. Some chose a rapid twitching motion while others elected to lift the bucktail up and down in a long arc. In deeper water, it helps to exaggerate the action since the scope in the line diminishes the motion by the time it reaches the bucktail on the bottom. Two feet of action on the boat might translate to only a few inches down where the fish are.
Everyone was very focused on the job at hand—there was little idle chatter. Mike Spies from Ringoes, New Jersey, was a machine, bouncing his bucktail up and down without a break all day.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle, Sykes said, is the hookset. It’s different than when you drag bait and let the fluke chew, he added. “In bucktailing, when you feel the weight, swing for the fences.” “I try to cross their eyes when I swing,” Capt. Constantino said. The goal is to set the hook solidly in the jaw and to keep constant pressure on the line. Any lapse in that pressure gives the fish a chance to work the hook loose and make its escape.
Most of the guys, Tom Kreibel from Hatboro, Pennsylvania, John Karpiak of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Ed Lepelis (also from Ringoes), and Scott Belgard from Hightstown, New Jersey, fished the drag side with their baits moving away from the boat as it drifted. However, Sykes said fishing the opposite side has its advantages. During his charters, he tries to add to the catch by casting a bucktail away from the boat, waiting until it hits bottom, then bouncing it back to the boat.
“When it reaches the boat, the rig flips over, and that’s when you’ll get the bite,” he said. He calls it “a bucktail stopper” and it’s usually a big fish, though sometimes it’s a rock, wreck, or some other bit of structure.
One thing you can’t avoid when bucktailing is the occasional snag. Even the gunslingers, (i.e., good bucktailers), aren’t immune to getting stuck from time to time, but keeping the bucktail in motion decreases the odds of that happening.
In terms of rods and reels, Sykes said it’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with. He uses a spinning reel with a rod that has some backbone to set the hook and a flexible tip to bounce the bucktail. Constantino prefers a conventional reel for better line control.
On our trip, we fished in deep water between 80 to 90 feet in an area known as The Farms. Since the season was winding down, the fluke were on the move to their winter grounds in the canyons, though a few big fluke had been caught recently.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Dorian had just paid the Jersey Shore a visit and stirred things up. After its departure, stiff northeast winds arrived and made matters worse, so conditions were less than ideal. Still, the anglers aboard Parker Pete’s boat worked diligently and put together a decent catch for the day. Dr. Huang got the first keeper with a 21-incher. There were plenty of cookie-cutter shorts coming aboard throughout the day – healthy fish in the 17- to 17¾-inch size.
Most of the fish hit the top hook on the high-low rig and the Gulp color that got the most attention was the 5-inch Pearl Mullet. Tom Karpiak got the next one for the box, a beautiful 7-pounder that went for the ball jig on the bottom of his high-low rig.
It wasn’t a hot bite by any measure, and by all accounts, it wasn’t a great fluke season. Capt. Costantino said there were plenty of short fish around, but the bigger fish didn’t show up with any consistency until late in the season. The biggest fish of the season for the Parker Pete, a 9.5-pound fluke, didn’t come aboard until the last week of August.
Ed Lepelis was the next angler to land a keeper, a 6-pound fluke that hit the top bait, another white pearl mullet. Lepelis landed two other keepers, getting the only limit on the boat. Despite the picky bite, the group had a good time and all were glad to be out on the water as the season came to an end. Dr. Huang said it’s one way to “turn his mind off,” and relax with a nice group of people.
After landing his third keeper, Lepelis was asked for some tips and he replied, “I put it in the water and hope for the best.” That’s really all anyone can do, though you can increase your chances of catching a doormat this season with a proven rig, your favorite kind of Gulp, an energetic presentation, and a hookset that brings the fluke over the rail.