Night On The Sand Flats Flounder Gigging

Have a hankering for some tasty fillets, or maybe just want a little saltwater adventure? Try a nighttime wade for Georgia flounder.

Bo Russell | July 4, 2005

In August of 1975 a man named David Crews invited my father and I to join him on a flounder-gigging expedition to the sandbars of Harriet’s Bluff on the Crooked River in Camden County. It was the first time we had ever heard of such a thing, and for a 13-year-old, a terribly exciting proposition. My father was curious enough to skip the weekly race at Golden Isles Speedway so he could find out more about this strange way of fishing.

David told us to meet him at Mr. Fulford’s store down at the Bluff where you could buy bug spray, a burger and fries all through one window. (Mr. Fulford never changed his grease and his fries tasted just like fried mullet.) Daddy and I shared one flashlight between us. It was one of those big old red plastic 6-volt Eveready models with a molded-in handle and a black rubber push button on-off switch. It was dead, but we hoped Mr. Fulford would have a battery, and he did. Unfortunately it didn’t help the light, and I began to worry that our expedition would never leave land. But after trying a new bulb with no luck, my father smartly pulled out his Barlow knife and shorted the wires to the switch. It worked, and while I smacked down an order of mullet fries, Daddy removed the switch, pulled the wire through the hole, and knotted them so they wouldn’t slip back through. To turn the light on you simply twisted the bare wires together. The next thing I remember we were launching David’s 13-foot Boston Whaler on the steep public ramp. Once in the boat, it was just a short run to the first bar.

Now a sand bar on a summer night with a falling tide is intoxicating for young and old alike. Very quiet and exclusive, each bar is virgin land ready to be claimed for the duration of low tide. The gnats have gone to sleep and usually there is a gentle breeze that keeps the ‘skeeters from venturing out. As we disembarked, I witnessed for the first time in my life, phosphorescence, which is the result of aquatic microorganisms that give off eerie green light when disturbed. As my eyes became accustomed to the reflection of the flashlight beam on the water, I became part of a fantastic eco-drama being played out in the sandy shallows. There were shrimp darting and jumping at the light, hermit crabs scuttling by in a hodge-podge of second-hand shells, and even a few blue crabs.

David had collected several flounder the previous weekend, and I couldn’t wait to sink one of his homemade spears in one. Back then, the preferred gig resembled a wooden rake handle with a single 4 1/2-inch nail driven an inch into a pre-drilled hole, the end with a hose clamp tightened around the wood for good measure. This left about 3 1/2 inches of nail exposed. The head was removed with a hacksaw, and then the tip was sharpened with a file. There were no barbs, and a speared flounder was not a captured flounder until you slid your hand underneath with the spike between your fingers, and raised him out of the water. David warned us to get a good look before doing the hand-slide trick because there were plenty of sting rays around and they are easily mistaken for flounder when partially covered with sand.

Flounder can be found in coastal waters almost year-round, but they move into the shallows as the water temperature rises in June. They are an ambush predator and conceal themselves on the bottom by flipping sand or mud onto their backs. There they will lay in wait with only their eyes and outline exposed; a hunter in a blind. They instinctively follow the water levels and bait populations, moving up from the depths on the rising tide, then retreating back with the falling tide. Although they follow the same routine during daylight hours, they tend to avoid the truly shallow water until dark. At night flounder can be found in just a couple of inches of water, although most are collected in six to 24 inches inches of water.

Often you will see “flounder tracks” on the dry part of the bar, where the fish had been laying at high tide. That’s a good sign. Sometimes the tracks are still underwater, in which case you may need to be a little more quiet. If you see what looks like a track under water, gig it. Sometimes the fish really bury themselves in deep and you may get a pleasant surprise.

Water clarity is critical and is always the limiting factor on depth. If you can’t see the bottom plainly, you will not see the faint outline of the flounder. Rain runoff will muddy waters, as will a extra high full- or new-moon tide. Water current is also critical — when stalking flounder your feet will kick up a muddy trail which should be going behind you. Move against the current because it will mask your approach, and remember, the shallower the water, the more skittish the fish.

Nowadays there are commercially manufactured gigs (or spears) of all sizes and descriptions on the market, most with multiple-barbed prongs, which lessen but do not eliminate the chances for escape. Lighting, the most important tool, has also evolved from simple hand-held flashlights to floating fish lights on a pole powered by a 12-volt battery. The battery is pulled behind the giggers on a float, which also serves as fish storage. One very simple way to rig a float is to match up a wash tub with a truck inner tube, or if possible, just use the boat you rode in on. The floating lights are much better than flashlights not just because they are brighter, but because they eliminate the glare you get from a flashlight beam reflecting off the surface and back into your eyes. The ideal set up is three people, a light man in the middle, a shallow gig and a deep gig flanking him on either side. The giggers must stay half a step behind the light to avoid spooking the fish. When a fish is spotted everyone freezes, and the gigger closest makes his move. He only gets one chance per fish. The thrust should be quick, hard, as straight down as possible and deliberate. If you tickle a flounder, he leaves in a hurry! The more straight up and down, the less you have to worry about angle. It’s best to take practice shots as you walk along. The refraction of the light on water takes a bit of getting used to. At first your shots will go high, before long though, you learn to compensate for the hold.

Hereʼs how every young man should spend his 13th birthday! Chris Moore, of Brunswick, (left) took his son Marshall (center) flounder gigging last month on Marshallʼs birthday. Also on the trip was cousin Christopher Alger, of Jacksonville, Fla. They took a small Bass Tracker boat on the bow of a big 21-foot Mako to their secret honey hole. There they anchored and pulled the little boat behind as they walked and gigged.

If this sounds like fun and you would like to give it a try, you need to get prepared. You can order your spearhead at among other places, or try your local fishing-tackle provider. The easiest way to build a light rig is to take a floating Styrofoam crappie light, and using cable ties or even a coat hanger, attach a six- or eight-foot piece of 1 1/2-inch PVC pipe for a handle. Run the power cord up the pipe and out the other end.

The entire coast of Georgia is riddled with places to go. Practically every public boat landing on tidal water has a sandbar within sight. Generally the closer you are to the ocean, the better your odds are. A very popular spot to start is the Village Creek boat ramp at the end of South Harrington Drive on St Simons Island. From there you can reach Gould’s Inlet which separates St. Simons from Sea Island, or Pelican Spit which is between Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island. At dead low tide the creek turns into a mud flat, so plan accordingly. In Camden County there are public ramps at Harriet’s Bluff and Crooked River State Park with bars (sandbars) in close proximity. The State Park has cabins for rent as well.

This is merely a sampling, but wherever you go, plan carefully, and study a nautical map. Make sure your boat has proper lights, and bring a Q-beam for navigation. Be resourceful and creative. Know how to trouble-shoot your outfit, and bring extra flashlights!

Some folks get into gigging as their main sport. They build elaborate custom rigs, and develop personal techniques. It’s a great sport for shift workers and sun-sensitive people. Many serious giggers never get their feet wet; instead they use shallow draft boats with submersible lights and pole along with the gigs. This technique enables them to cover mudflats, which cannot be walked, and also shell beds and narrow marsh creeks. Flounder love all of these habitats, and if the bait is there, the flat fish will have it staked out. The limit on flounder (according to the 2004-2005 regulations) is 15 per person, with a minimum total length of 12 inches. Don’t gig the little ones please. There are plenty of flounder out there already, but the big ones (over five pounds) are usually taken in late summer and early fall. The state record, a whopping 15-lb., 10-oz. fish, was caught in November of 1990 off the Jekyll Pier by Janice Youmans. Big flounder are called “door mats,” but that one was more like a living-room rug!

Any powered jon boat will get you to a sand bar, the light man can actually sit on the bow of a small boat and pull the boat along with his feet. But don’t tackle big water in a small boat. There are plenty of creeks full of flounder. Tidal creeks and rivers can be very tricky, and at night even more so. Make sure you scout out your target area during daylight first, and leave behind a written copy of your planned destinations with someone in case you get stranded. You have to understand the tides. Understand that if you leave your boat pulled up on a long sandbar at low tide without throwing out an anchor and take a 30-minute walk, your boat will be gone when you get back because the tide came back in around it. It’s going to keep coming in around you, too! Also understand that there are plenty of things that can hurt you.

The gigs themselves have to be handled carefully in the dark, keep them pointed down and away from your partners. Wear some kind of shoes, I like old sneakers. You are likely to step on oyster shells, crab shells, and stingrays, any of which would ruin your bare-footed fun for the night. If the alligator clip pops off the battery post, don’t try to re-connect it without some sort of light… believe me, saltwater is a terrific conductor! Sharks are sometimes spotted, although they usually are small, and I have never heard of a flounder gigger getting in a tussle with one, but I have heard of giggers endangering themselves when a shark is spotted.

Back in the summer of ’93 a man known only as Bald Headed Billy was the deep gigger in a trio working the Sea Island Groin across from Pelican Spit at the mouth of the Hampton River. His two buddies saw a 4 1/2-foot shark cut through the light and they politely said “SHARK!” and scooted their fannies up on the boat lifting their feet out of the way.

Poor Bald Headed Billy was a few steps behind them. Being the deep man he froze in his tracks, unable to simply scoot up on the boat. About the time his partners were deciding the coast was clear they heard a startling commotion behind them and felt something big hit the small aluminum craft. Bald Headed Billy had made a run for it and belly flopped into the back of the boat. His pride is still in rehab… And his friends aren’t helping with the recovery process!

Georgia’s coast is an sportsman’s blessing, offering diverse adventures almost all of which have the added bonus of resulting in wonderful tablefare. Flounder gigging ranks near the top in both. Wading a sandbar at night will stir your adventuresome soul, and flounder fillets stir the palate like few other fish.

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