October 04, 2010
When the flatfish start migrating, count on great angling at these prime Gulf Coast locations. (September 2008)
I don't remember exactly when it happened, other than around the time I was 14 or 15. We were sitting in a booth at a seafood restaurant on the Gulf Coast, and I was about to order my usual fried shrimp plate.
"I'm going to have the flounder," my mother said as she studied the menu. "It's really good. You ought to try it."
A motherly recommendation would ordinarily be enough right there for most teenagers to stick with the fried shrimp, but maybe I was more suggestible. At any rate, I decided to try the flounder.
That long-ago supper -- I think it might have been in Port Lavaca -- got me hooked on flounder. I certainly haven't forsaken fried shrimp (or shrimp prepared any other way, for that matter), but fresh flounder, particularly stuffed or broiled, is my favorite seafood dish. (Well, OK, there's red snapper -- but this story's about flounder.)
While they taste great, flounder do look a little weird. To fish scientists, the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) is "laterally compressed"; to us mortals, it's flat -- a veritable swimming pancake with a small body cavity and no air bladder, which makes it easier for it to operate along the bottom. Oh -- and both eyes are on its left side.
Their bellies pale, their mottled backs capable of changing colors and so serving admirably as camouflage, flounder tend to lie around on the bottom, blending in with the surroundings until something edible wanders by. Then, in a flurry of sand or spray of mud, they light into whatever small fish or crustacean whose luck has just run out.
Most flounder taken in Texas are in the 14- to 16-inch range and weigh a pound to a pound and a half. One fish makes an individual serving, two enable you to invite a friend, and a limit will feed your family a couple of times. Females tend to be larger than the males, so most caught in Texas are of that gender.
The Texas record, caught in the Gulf, weighed in a Texas-sized 14.5 pounds and extended 34.5 inches. The second-largest flounder, 13 pounds, was reeled in from Sabine Lake in 1976. The world record -- a 20-pound-plus specimen big enough to feed a whole family and more -- came out of Florida waters in 1983.
My introduction to flounder as table fare came in the early 1960s. Back then, the flatfish was plentiful all up and down the Coast. But in the 1970s, flounder numbers began to decline. To turn that trend around, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department banned commercial gill-netting, took measures to lessen the number of flounder taken by shrimp trawlers (by-catch) and in 1998 established a minimum size (14 inches) and a bag limit (10). More recently, the bag limit and the possession number were made the same to avoid double-dipping. Since then, these conservation measures designed to decrease pressure on the species seem to have stabilized the population.
Not only is the flounder a fine-eating fish, but it's also one that's fun to catch. Though an aggressive species, they don't fight like a big speckled trout or bull redfish -- but you know you have a fish on the line when you hook one.
So what are the top five flounder hotspots in Texas?
Mike Ray, deputy director of the TPWD's Coastal Fisheries Division, didn't need any time to think in order to come up with the top area: the Upper Coast, particularly Galveston Bay and Sabine Lake. "The fishery trends for Sabine Lake are going up for flounder," he said.
Moving down from the Texas-Louisiana border, the next hotspot is Galveston Bay. "The majority of our flounder catch is out of Galveston Bay," offered Ray. Last year, numbers were down somewhat, but most observers attribute that to a late start on the run, which resulted in less fishing and few landings.
Matagorda Bay, San Antonio Bay and Aransas Bay round out the Top 5 list.
"Galveston is the flounder capital of the state," said Mark Fisher, the department's coastal fisheries science director. "But anything in the Upper Coast will be good from Sabine Pass on down to West Matagorda Bay."
So why is the Upper Coast better? "Because flounder recruitment is temperature dependent," Fisher explained. "The warmer the winter, the fewer flounder we see." Since the 1990s, a run of warm winters has resulted in declining numbers from San Antonio Bay south, he pointed out, but the Lower Coast has always been the southern limit for the southern flounder, and as average water temperatures have crept upward, their range has contracted northward.
Though called southern flounder, the species has a Yankee's appetite for cool weather. In fact, their life cycle revolves around it. When the water temperature starts to drop, flounder activity goes way up. Accordingly, prime time for flounder fishing is in the fall, usually starting in late October and continuing through December. As geese head south and Texans occupy themselves with football and the coming holiday, flounder begin migrating from the bays to the Gulf of Mexico, there to tend to their biological compulsion to reproduce.
The 2-year-olds that make it past Texas anglers during this annual "run" end up in the open water beyond the bays and protective barrier islands. In water ranging from 9 to 16 fathoms, they release their eggs. These eggs float until they hatch. At first, the larval fish swim upright, with their eyes on opposite sides of the head, like most fish. But with growth, the right eye begins to move to the left side of the flounder's head. When the fish is about a half-inch long, the eye relocation is complete, and the fish remains in its unusual orientation for the rest of its life.
One fish makes an individual serving, two enable you to invite a friend, and a limit will feed your family a couple of times.
Last year, the flounder run ran late, not beginning until the first substantial northers had made it far enough south to cool things off.
Most flounder used to be taken by gigging, which is the sporting equivalent of fishing and hunting combined into one activity. Unlike most traditional hunting, however, gigging for flounder occurs at night, preferably on a moonless one.
Armed with King Neptune-like mini-tridents, flounder-giggers use brilliant lanterns to illuminate the shallow waters of passes and flats in search of the well-camouflaged flatfish. The idea is to wade quietly and carefully -- think stingrays -- in clear water on windless nights until your lantern illuminates a keeper-sized flounder. The light tends to immobilize the fish, allowing you to
spear them for your next supper.
You can also gig flounder from a boat with a bottom about as flat as a flounder's. Secure lantern or lights to the bow; then, quietly pole through the water until you spot dinner. Obviously easier than wading -- and, given the stingray issue, a lot safer.
But gigging only works in clear water. As the flounder have moved north up the Coast, they've moved into the part of the state where clear coastal water is less common. Consequently, taking flounder on rod and reel has become much more common than it used to be. And there's nothing like the feeling of having a flounder fighting on the end of light tackle.
"Rod-and-reel fishing on the Upper Coast is the way to go," Fisher continues, "because it's difficult to gig . . . the water's not as clear."
In rod-and-reel fishing, flounder will hit either artificial or natural bait. When fishing bottoms, use plastics to lure lurking flounder into staging an ambush on your bait. On grassy flats, it's hard to beat a weedless silver spoon. Live shrimp or mud minnows work best if you don't want to use hardware.
"During the fall run, when they're making their way out to the Gulf," Fisher said, "just fish near any passes. Use finger mullet on the bottom, or a soft plastic."
No matter whether you use artificial or live bait, make sure your hooks are needle-sharp. Flounder have small mouths and a set of piranha-like chompers, so it's easy for them to spit out a lure once they realize it's not the real thing.
Also, it's best to use a net when trying to land a flounder -- not because of their size, but because trying to get one into your boat or up on the pier by hand gives the flatfish that much more opportunity to shake your hook.
Jerry Needham of Port Arthur has been fishing Sabine Lake since he was a kid. For years, he was the only fishing guide working the huge estuary --14 miles long down the middle and (except for the ship channel that cuts through it) averaging 6 or 7 feet deep.
To take flounder, Needham typically uses a curly-tailed Gulp! grub in either white or chartreuse or a curly-tailed plastic with a piece of shrimp on the hook. "I salt the shrimp, which toughens it up so it'll stay on the hook," he explained. He'll also use a jighead and attach a worm just like he was fishing for bass.
Sabine Lake has been great for flounder "ever since way back," as Needham puts it. But in 1998, a combination of natural forces -- a tropical storm, an unusually high fall tide, and other weather factors -- pushed an extra 5 feet of salt water into the lake for several days. The result: a catastrophic fish kill from oxygen deprivation in grasses killed by the salt water that really set the flounder and other species back. That, however, was a decade ago, and since then the lake has been coming back with a vengeance.
Needham catches flounder both intentionally and "accidentally" while focusing on speckled trout. "For trout, I like a Road Runner with a 1/8-ounce jig and a piece of shrimp on it," he said. "Sometimes the flounder like that, too." For flounder he suggests light spinning or baitcasting rods whose reels are spooled with 8- to 10-pound line.
The flounder run usually starts around the first week in November. "Watch the weather," Needham said, "and when it starts cooling off, start checking to see if they're moving."
If you don't use a guide, Needham suggested, fish to the mouth of the bayous on the Louisiana side of the lake.
Even though he's been fishing flounder for years, Needham loses about half the flounder he hooks. "Once they bite on something," he said, "they keep their mouths shut. That makes it hard to set the hook, because they clamped down on it where it can't move very well. A lot of the time, when they get right up to the boat they open their mouths and out comes your hook."
In Needham's view, the best strategy is to keep trying to set your hook as you reel the flounder in. While fall fishing is best for taking flounder, they can be caught in spring and summer. The best bet is to work the shallows or bottom-fish off piers and other structure.
In the spring, the cycle renews itself. Only a half-inch long, young fish return from the Gulf to the shallow water to grow up. But the mass behavior seen in the fall migration is not emulated by the flounder fry, which return as the mood strikes them, not all at once. They head for the grassy areas near the passes and move farther back in the bays as they get bigger -- which happens pretty fast. Within a year, they average about a foot long, only 2 inches shy of keeper dimensions.
The mass behavior seen in the fall migration is not emulated by the flounder fry, which return as the mood strikes them, not all at once. They head for the grassy areas near the passes and move farther back in the bays as they get bigger -- which happens pretty fast.
It appears that humankind is going to be able to help Mother Nature out a bit when it comes to flounder. Texas is the first state in the nation to begin experiments with raising flounder, a program inspired by the success that the state has had with raising redfish.
"We've already had some limited stocking," Fisher noted. "Last year we put 1,000 or so flounder off Aransas Pass. But large-scale stocking is still a few years away. We need more research to learn how to get them to spawn successfully in hatcheries."
Fisher feels that it's still too early to tell if the effort will be fruitful -- but he's optimistic.
If you want to help out in the campaign to make flounder even more plentiful, you can register on a first-come, first-served basis to participate in a TPWD Coastal Fishers Bay Team tournament. There's no registration cost, but entrants must be at least 21 years old.
Anglers who donate their flounder to be used for the state's hatchery breeding program will be eligible for drawings for prizes ranging from a Global Positioning System device to quality rods and reels.
This year's flounder tourneys are set for Oct. 18 at Port O'Connor, Oct. 25 at Pleasure Island, Nov. 8 at Texas City, and Nov. 15 at Aransas Pass. For more details, see www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/programs/cfbt.