Flounder (verb): To move awkwardly; to have difficulties; to act clumsily.
“Look,” said a local southern flounder, “I survive by ambushing my prey. Could a clumsy fish do that?”
Let’s set the record straight: the verb “flounder” has nothing to do with the fish. The flounder’s most striking features are its two eyes on one side of its head and its ability to camouflage itself on the ocean floor. Awkward looking, yes, but not clumsy by any means.
Our most common local flounder is Paralichthys lethostigma, commonly called the southern flounder, though you’ll see the gulf flounder and summer flounder too. The southern flounder is flat, oval-shaped, and brown on its left side, with light and dark splotches. Its right side is white. The flounder lies on its right side under a thin layer of sand or mud on the ocean floor, and blends in until the moment is right to strike. Flounders eat mostly fish spawn, crustaceans, polychaetes (segmented sea worms), and small fish. Southern flounder are particularly found of blue crab and shrimp.
The adult flounder’s two eyes are on its left side; they’re most useful there because the flounder spends most of its time on the ocean floor looking up. But they aren’t born like that.
When hatched, flounders have one eye on each side of their body, but a startling metamorphosis occurs between the larval and juvenile stage in which the eye on the right side of the the body migrates to the left. This is true of many other flatfish as well, including sole and halibut.
In North Carolina, the bag limit was recently reduced from 6 per day to 4 per day (per person). The recreational size minimum remains at 15 inches. Your typical catch is going to be 13 to 18 inches, and weigh in about 3 or 4 pounds, though fish in the 5 to 6 pound range aren’t uncommon and several over 10 pounds are caught each year. The North Carolina State Record was a 20 pound flounder caught in Carolina Beach in 1980.
The prime season for catching flounder is June to September. Flounder can be caught in both the inshore waters such as the creeks, waterway and inlets, as well as in the ocean out to about 7 miles. Inshore, most anglers use live minnows on Carolina rigs. Weight selection depends on water depth and current, but 1/2-2oz leads are the most common range. Use 30lb fluorocarbon leader and either an octopus or kahle hook from size 1 to 4/0 depending on bait size. Flounder are also targeted on artificial lures – and even flies. To find flounder, you want to fish areas that hold and funnel baitfish and shrimp during the tide changes, like deeper marsh banks, dock pilings and oyster rocks and bars. Man-made structures such as bulkheads and jetties are another good spot.
In the ocean, look for the flounder to congregate around natural ledges, as well as the artificial reefs and wrecks off our coast. Carolina-rigged live baits are still the most popular method, but your sinkers will need to be heavier to reach the bottom. A 2 oz bucktail rigged with a scented soft plastic is another great choice when targeting ocean flounder. Bouncing these along the bottom near the same structures often works just as well as the live bait.
Gigging is a popular way to target flounder because it is much easier to stab them with a gig rather than fool them and land them via rod and reel. This is done by attaching a gig or spear-type head to the end of a long pole, and affixing lights to the front of a boat. At night, as the boat is driven or drifts over an area of a creek or flat, the flounders are speared as they are seen. Some folks also like gigging because it’s man vs. fish at its most primitive. Though the man is usually not in much danger in this case.
Flounder is a delicate, mild-tasting fish — a favorite among those who don’t like “fishy” tasting seafood. It’s also pretty easy to cook; you can have a nice pan-fried dish in about ten minutes from start to finish. Baked flounder with parmesan is another easy dinner as well. Even the novice chef is in no danger of…well, foundering is a perfectly good word (and probably spawned the variation “floundering”) and it’s not going to hurt anybody’s feelings.
If you’re interested in learning more about flounder or how to catch them — and even some hot tips on where they’re biting lately — stop by and see Ben and Arlen at Intracoastal Angler on Oleander Drive in Wilmington.
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