Flounder may not win a beauty contest but a plate of fried fillets looks beautiful.
The sun had just climbed above the line of pine trees off to the east, and early morning was very pleasant on this river that feeds into Mobile Bay.
The cold winds of winter were gone, and the Alabama Coast was going into full spring. However, the angler who was fishing for flounder in the still waters of the river was not paying much attention to the land-based world around him.
He had more pressing work on his mind.
A cast toward the line of old wooden dock pilings had just settled to the bottom of the river and the angler started a slow, irregular retrieve with his bait bumping along the bottom of the river.
“Whatever had taken the bait didn’t want to leave the bottom.”
About halfway back to the boat, the angler stopped his slow retrieve and focused his total attention on his line. He allowed the bait to sit still, and then he slowly took up the slack, and when the line came tight, he gave a short, sharp hookset.
At this point, the angler’s rod bent over and something below pulled strongly, but not with a great deal of speed. Whatever had taken the bait didn’t want to leave the bottom.
After a good struggle, the pull on the end of the line came to the surface.
A broad, mottled, flat body with a funny-looking face and a mouth full of impressive teeth rolled on the surface. The angler quickly dipped with a landing net to secure the catch.
Carefully removing the hook from the ugly fish, the angler mentally weighed the flounder as he lifted the almost three-pounder to the ice chest. A smile crossed the angler’s face as he pictured in his mind the wonderful meal this ugly ol’ flatfish would make.
Even though flounder are funny-looking, they’re just about the best eating fish to be found anywhere. And Alabama’s coastal waters are home to lots of these fish.
Life History of the Flatfish
Karon Aplin is both a first-rate angler and a biologist for the Alabama DCNR, so she can give us both scientific information and practical advice when it comes to finding and catching flounder in Alabama waters.
In these waters, we have two species of flounder that we commonly catch. Biologist Aplin says, “Our two most common species are the gulf and Southern flounders. Gulf flounder prefer a sandy substrate and are distinguished by a triangle pattern of three spots. Southern flounder prefer a muddier habitat and are an evenly mottled brown color. Southern flounder are the larger of the two species.
“When flounder hatch in winter to very early spring, they are just a couple of millimeters long and look like a ‘regular’ fish. Around the time they reach about ten millimeters in length, one eye—for our local species, it’s the right eye—begins to migrate to the other side of its head.”
Aplin adds, “The larvae are carried into the brackish estuaries where they’ll settle out. In the spring to summer, the young and adults will begin to move out into higher-salinity areas. In the fall, flounder are migrating out to the Gulf, and around November the adults will begin to spawn offshore, and the cycle begins again. Temperature and salinity seem to play big parts in driving this cycle.”
Where to go Fishing for Flounder
The first job for fishing for flounder trip is to find them, and this can be hard at times. Flounder are not homebodies. They move around quite a lot as seasons and conditions change.
“In the spring and summer, Gulf flounder are usually found along the beaches and in the lower parts of our bays,” Karon Aplin says. “Southern flounder are found further inshore around the mouths of creeks and rivers. Weeks Bay has traditionally been a good area for Southern flounder, and Little Lagoon holds nice fish as well. In the fall, when flounder are migrating, the northern side of the Fort Morgan peninsula and the north side of Dauphin Island can be bottleneck points.”
As most anglers know, flounder love to hide and wait for their prey around any kind of underwater structure. Inshore pilings and bridge structure are good places to start a search for flounder.
Also, flounder tend to be schooling fish. When one flatfish is caught, keep working the immediate area because there will probably be more fish in the area. When holding tight in a small area, flounder can be very competitive for lures and baits that are presented to them.
Even if a flounder strikes and misses, go right back to that same spot and fish it again; a little slower this time.
How to Catch the Hidden Predators
Every flounder chaser has specific fishing techniques that consistently work for flounder, but some good advice comes from Karon Aplin.
“I seem to keep going back to a jighead with a strip of bait, either a shrimp tail or a strip of mackerel belly,” she says.”I like to use fluorocarbon leader because a flounder’s teeth are no joke, and some of the areas I like to fish have pilings, stumps and so on. But a Carolina rig with a live shrimp or bull minnow does the trick just fine.
“When I use artificials while fishing for flounder, I usually use a grub; I’ve had those weird days when I was catching flounder left and right on a rubber shrimp under a popping cork. I was trying for trout that day, but I gladly took the flounder instead.”
Aplin continues. “That jighead/strip bait combo has worked out great for me in the past. I just cast it a little further out than the spot I think a fish might be lying—just past a piling or deep hole, for example—and slowly work the jig back to me. I let the bait sit for a little bit, then make a couple of slow cranks and keep that rhythm going.
“Flounder are ambush predators and my intent is to taunt them with something and get them to lunge out of their spot and grab this slow-twitching treat as it passes nearby them.”
Special Tricks That Work
Flounder often bite well on jigs and other artificial lures fished on the bottom, but sometimes they can be very, very picky.
An old but reliable trick when the flounder are being particular about what they bite is to take a short two-inch-long by ½-inch-wide strip of belly meat from a previously caught flounder and use the belly strip as a trailer on the jig being used.
An even better trick is to use a strip of white belly meat from a sea robin—one of those funny-looking, spiny-headed fish that often eat up shrimp and other live bait intended for flounder.
A strip of sea robin belly is the very best possible trailer to sweeten up a jig used for flounder.
“The hard lesson learned: when a flounder bites, give it time to eat up to the hook before trying to set the hook.”
There is one more special trick that flounder anglers soon learn to employ. Be patient when a flounder strikes.
Many times, flounder will short-strike a bait or lure but will gobble the bait down to the hook if given a little time after the strike.
“I learned this lesson the hard way,” Aplin says. “Let the fish eat. It was a beautiful spring day and the flounder were on the move out of the rivers. I had a bait down on a deep hole next to a piling just outside the mouth of the river. I was making that slow retrieve, and when the fish hit, it felt like a freight train.
“I knew it was a big female flounder and I let excitement take over, and I just horsed the fish to the boat. I saw her—the head and the front half of her body were hanging from the sardine-strip tail rather precariously. It’s no exaggeration to say her body was as wide as a doormat.
“Right then I realized that she hadn’t taken the bait all the way down to the hook. She shook her head once and the last thing I saw was the flick of her tail as she escaped. I should have allowed the fish to get a better grip on her prey and the hook would have found the mark.”
The hard lesson learned: when a flounder bites, give it time to eat up to the hook before trying to set the hook.
Also, flounder are very good jumpers when put in the boat. Make sure a caught flounder goes directly into the cooler or livewell. Don’t just let it flop on the bottom of the boat. Some very good flounder have been lost after being caught because they were allowed to flop around and make a strong jump to freedom.