Once the mainstay of spring fishing along our Mid-Atlantic Coast, winter flounders are still a harbinger of each year's new saltwater fishing season. Here's the latest on how these flatfish are faring. (Feb 2009)
Among all the early-spring season fish in the Mid-Atlantic, the winter flounder is perhaps the best -- and worst -- of the bunch.
I enjoy its taste, and for such a small fish, it provides a decent fight. But despite all of its other positive attributes, winter flounders are facing an uphill battle that many experts predict they cannot win.
During the first months of the fishing season, when the ice on the lakes is just starting to melt, a friend and I often will board a party boat and take a short trip on the Manasquan River.
Other boats, like the Jamaica and the Norma K, fish the river here for winter flounders during early spring.
The arrival of these flatfish usually indicates the beginning of another picture-perfect fishing season along the East Coast. I recall using a small ultralight trout rod equipped with a double flounder rig, with each hook having a small yellow bead above the eye. In years past, we used to take home many fillets and enjoyed this fishing before the stripers made their annual run.
But over the past few seasons, the regulations on the winter flounder have put a chokehold on this fishery, which many claim to be the backbone of the spring fishing season.
In recent years, several size and limit changes enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have all but destroyed the flounder fishery in New Jersey and many other Mid-Atlantic states.
Due to further regulations, high fuel prices and other factors, just last year more than five of New Jersey's party fishing boats had to be sold out of state due to lack of business. Most tackle shops in the central Jersey area have also reported tremendous losses in revenue due to the limit changes.
These statistics may not seem like much. But in states like New Jersey, where folks depend on the fishing for winter flounders, a shortened season and limit changes could mean losing a family business.
Other states far to the south, like the Carolinas and Florida, have year-round fishing seasons. Less restrictive fishing regulations and warmer climates give anglers the chance to take home a few fillets for their hard-earned money.
Fisherfolk from New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware do not have that benefit. In fact, many local businesses consider the winter flounders' arrival to be the start of the fishing season.
In the past, they've based their business around it. But within the last few years, increased size limits, along with the ever-rising cost of marine fuel, have bankrupted several long-standing fishing businesses.
Many anglers were outraged by the limit changes for the 2008 season, especially for fluke (or summer flounder), a cousin to the winter flounder. Each year, the size limit for both fish changes, but with not much hope of the fishery getting better.
In the eight years since 2000, for example, New Jersey's limits for the winter flounder have increased by 1 1/2 inches. Though that's a small increase, it's almost impossible for a winter flounder to grow more than 2 inches in a year.
It would take another two fishing seasons for anglers to be able to catch those same fish that were legal only a few years ago. With all the fishing pressure now on barely legal flounders, the chances of catching a keeper flounder are bleak.
New Jersey's season dates have also been changed. The winter flounder season used to start on March 1 and extend until May 31, with a fall season usually starting on August 1.
In 2008, the season started on March 23 and ended on May 21 -- and the loss of four solid weeks of fishing, down to a two-month season, can be detrimental at best. In 2006, the NMFS also eliminated the fall flounder season completely. Bait shops and boat owners who relied on the flounder had to "sink or swim." (Continued)
From a biological standpoint, winter flounders have very little chance to make it to present legal-size limits. Flounders have one of the lowest survival rates in the sea. In New Jersey, one of their better spawning sites is in the Manasquan River. After the middle of February each year, thousands of flounders move into the river to spawn. In a good year, a flounder can lay thousands upon thousands of eggs in one spawn. But fewer than half of those will hatch to become fry.
Of those hatched flounders, about 30 percent get eaten or die before they can reach their first year.
At the same time when these fish are hatching, other species such as striped bass and bluefish are coming into the rivers to spawn as well. These fish take a devastating toll on flounder numbers. Many anglers have said they've seen striped bass with stomachs full of winter flounders.
If a flounder makes it past its first year, it will have less than a 50/50 chance at spawning in the same river where it was born. By the time a flounder gets to be two or three years old, it will be about 8 to 10 inches long -- still well below the legal size in New Jersey.
On the bright side, once a flounder does spawn, the number of eggs it can lay can almost double as the years go by. For example, say a flounder lays 20,000 eggs during its first spawn. At this point, the female flounder is just legal size. But if it doesn't die or get caught before the next spawning season, it can lay about 30,000 eggs.
But in fact, most flounders won't make it to their first spawn for any number of reasons. The odds are stacked against them.
Once a flounder hatches, it doesn't swim on the sea floor the way it does when you catch it. For the first year of its life, a flounder swims in the water column just like any ordinary fish. Not until one year later does one of a flounder's eyes migrate to the other side of its head and it starts to swim on its stomach.
Making the switch from one swimming pattern to the other is one of the crucial stages of a flounder's life cycle. During this time, it is very vulnerable and susceptible to predators. After it completes the switch to swimming on the ocean floor, it must avoid all the other predators that sift the sand in search of food.
Since the turn of the century, flounders' numbers have dropped severely along the East Coast.
Local factors such as overfishing, polluted waters and commercial fishing are among the top culprits in the species' decline.
Flounders are a tidal species, which means that they live in rivers and bays for most of their life. A top ecological factor in the plight of winter flounder is pollution. Rainwater sweeps into the rivers such harmful substances as lawn fertilizers, lead-based paint and other chemicals. This runoff ends up in rivers and bays and ultimately sinks to the bottom where the flounders live.
These chemicals get mixed into the dirt and mud where flounders inadvertently consume them. Other forms of pollution find their way to water sources and leach toxic chemicals into the water supply, thus killing more flounders in the process.
Natural predators have taken perhaps the largest amount of flounders in recent years. Almost everything in the estuary, including other flounders, eats baby flounders.
Studies have shown that in recent years, most predatory game fish on the East Coast are consuming far more flounders than before.
The early portions of the season, right after the spring spawn, are the most crucial time for flounder offspring. If predators like striped bass and bluefish enter the rivers early, the flounder spawn will almost collapse due to the lack of surviving young flounders. In recent years, predation has driven down most numbers of surviving flounders by more than 50 percent.
Besides all the factors conspiring against winter and summer flounders, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Some advocacy groups across the Mid-Atlantic, comprised mainly of fishing clubs and organizations, are leading the charge to prevent a collapse of the flounder fishery.
These groups' main goal is to preserve a sustainable fishery for future generations. By teaching the public and the powers that be, several publicly funded groups are standing up for the powerless flounder.
Tom Fote, a representative of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA), has worked countless hours to save the flounder fishing seasons.
The JCAA is comprised of multiple local fishing clubs and organizations that fight for the right to fish for all species in New Jersey. These clubs hold various fishing tournaments and events, with most of the proceeds going directly to helping the ailing flounder fishery.
In an interview, Fote stated that most of the problems with flounder numbers have to do with a lack of future generations.
"We know that most of the 2- and 3-year-old flounders (and fluke) are just not there. Nobody knows why they are missing, but we know it will be hard to have a fishery without them."
Later, Fote explained how hard it is for local anglers to have confidence in the same system that increases the limits each year. "It'll be hard to take home any fish when the limits go beyond what they should be."
Other advocates are trying to educate everyone about the problems before the fishery collapses. Unlike striped bass, flounders will not rebound on their own.
Many others clubs share the same views as the JCAA. In 2007, a group known as Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF) was organized to fund independent research into flounder numbers.
The arrival of these flatfish usually indicates the beginning of another picture-perfect fishing season on the East Coast.
Two of this club's main goals are to raise funds to pay for research and to help lower the stiff limit regulations set forth by the NMFS.
Most fishing groups are not satisfied with the NMFS's classifying the flounder fishery as overfished and stating that the regulations for flounder and fluke need to be tightened in hopes of stopping the decline.
The NMFS regulations mean that most fishing services will lose money and business, while all recreational anglers will lose the right to keep decent-sized fish.
Both the JCAA and the SSFFF are run by private individuals who want to save their fisheries more than anyone. They know the effort must be made to avoid any mandatory shutdown of the fishery, much like the closures for cod and striped bass years ago. If the winter flounder fishery is shut down for even one season, most fishing services in the Mid-Atlantic will have no income until the summer.
Not only is this unacceptable, but New Jersey and Maryland will lose millions of dollars in revenue.
Regardless, the Mid-Atlantic States that have flounder fisheries are still providing excellent fishing. Along the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard, the remaining flounder spots are alive and flourishing, as many anglers know.
New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland all have several well-known hotspots for catching winter flounders. All of these unique places produce some of their state's biggest winter flounders, year after year.
Come March, two rivers in the Garden State stand out as top spots to check out. Both rivers are relatively close to one another, so it's safe to bet that the surrounding areas are loaded with flatties for a most of the season. The Manasquan River, with its easily accessible boat launches and highly successful party-boat services, is a definite hotspot.
When flounders enter the river from the ocean in late February, they find an active river with plenty of spawning locations.
Since the river is neither too shallow nor too deep, water temperatures stay relatively the same from the inlet to the back of the river.
This provides ample habitat and conditions for an otherwise picky fish, which will spawn only when the temperature is right.
The other hotspot to check out is located to the south of the Manasquan River near Waretown. It's called the Oyster Creek Channel, where plenty of big flounders are taken each year. This section of the river is known for its power plant discharge, which keeps the water temperature several degrees warmer. Flounders often seek out this river for its nutrient-rich warm water, which is ideal for both feeding and spawning at the right time of year.
Some of the shallower parts of the river are accessible only from land, so boaters are limited to the channel section. Due to the water levels rising throughout the day, anglers are advised to check local tide charts for the areas close to the bridges.
To the south, the state of Maryland also holds its fair share of winter flounder hideouts. Perhaps one of the most debated spots to catch big flounder would have to be Ocean City. This quaint summer tourist town is home to a diverse number of fishing opportunities for anglers of any age or experience level.
Places to the north like Rehoboth Beach also produce their fair share of flatfish. But for Free State flounders, Ocean City is ground zero.
In the very early spring, flounder take full advantage of sea worm blooms and usually stay in Ocean City's waters until the end of April.
One drawback to Ocean City is the amount of competition there for winter flounders. It's a good idea to check out what charter services seek winter flounders, since they'll know where the best fishing spots are.
When flounder enter the river from the ocean in late February, they find an active river with plenty of spawning locations.
Delaware has a unique situation on its hands. It's home to premier winter flounder fishing for most of the season, but only a few places can be argued as being flounder hotspots.
In recent years, Indian River Inlet has turned out a consistently big flounder bite from the season's beginning to end. With ample spawning grounds for flounders, this river/inlet has both great accumulations of bait and access for almost any size boat.
With its good sandy bottom, flounders can easily inhabit this area and spawn in great numbers. Indian River provides a good camouflage bottom for evading predators and wide-open areas of sand, which are perfect for baitfish and sandworm presentation.
As with all recreationally fished species, the key to success is conservation mixed with education.
The more we know about this species, the better off we will be as anglers. Finding the common ground between acceptable fishing limits and a workable conservation plan may be debated for generations to come. The days of boats filled with massive flatfish may be long gone, but catching and keeping just enough to eat may be all the options we have left.
Be sure to check -- and abide by -- the local flounder limits anywhere you fish. Otherwise, our fishing privileges may be lost forever. As fishermen, our job is to save the winter flounder fishery from becoming only a fond memory.