This big summer flounder hit a bucktail jig that had a long strip of squid hanging off the back. Note the stinger hook in its mouth.
All three species are white on the bottom and can vary the shade of coloration on the tob to match their surroundings.
The beginning of summer is flatfish time for many saltwater fishermen. If you’re not one of them, you haven’t fished for these odd looking, but very tasty critters. Once you do, you’ll find it as addictive as we do. Off the Mid Atlantic States the prime target is the summer flounder. In the Southeast and Gulf states there are southern flounder and on the West Coast you can find the hefty Calif. halibut. All three share some common traits, not the least of which is they are some of the best eating fish you’ll ever filet. They all share the same low-to-the-ground appearance, but don’t let that fool you. They are very aggressive predators with a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth that they use to grab and hold onto prey before they swallow it. Then there’s the simple fact that they are not too hard to tempt with bait or artificial lures, which means they can be fun for the whole family!
Of the three species the Calif. halibut grows the largest, up to 50 pounds, and are found from northern Mexico to Wash. State. The summer and southern flounder are scaled down versions of the halibut that can grow to 25-pounds, while most range from 1 to 6 pounds. Their ranges overlap around Cape Hatteras, N.C., with the summer variety ranging to Mass. and the southern variety around Fla. and into the Gulf of Mexico. California halibut and summer flounder populations were once considered to be overfished, but management plans put in place to rebuild the stocks have been wildly successful. Today both species are abundant and readily available to recreational fishermen, just check the regulations for seasons, size limits and bag limits where you fish so you do not run afoul of the law.
Like all flatfish, their bodies have morphed into a flattened shape with both eyes on one side of the head, an adaption that has made them highly successful predators. The bottom side of the fish is usually white and the chameleon-like top can change color and pattern from deep browns to mottled grays and tans to match the color and pattern of the bottom. On sandy bottoms they will actually dig in and cover their bodies with sand so only their eyes are visible. Blending into the bottom they lie in ambush until a crab, shrimp or smaller fish happens by and then strike with lightning speed grabbing the prey before swallowing it whole.
All three species of flatfish are found in coastal ocean waters, inlets and bays, but the summer and southern flounders will venture well upstream in tidal rivers, too. They can be found on open bottom, but also hunt around underwater structure that attracts forage. Wrecks, artificial reefs, natural hard bottom and mussel beds are good target areas in ocean and bay waters while grass beds can be very productive for summer and southern flounder in shallow bays and tidal rivers where they feed on small shrimp and baitfish.
Their hunting behavior is also their downfall. Once you know where they tend to congregate, you can entice these finny bushwackers by working lures close to the bottom or fishing bait on drift bottom rigs. The bait can be a long strip of squid or a whole baitfish, either dead or alive, or a combination of strip and fish. The basic rig starts with a three-way swivel with a six to 10-inch long dropper loop for connecting a bank sinker off on eye and a three-foot long leader to a large hook on the other. There are dozens of variations on this theme and most tackle shops sell prepackaged rigs for flatfish. Just add bait and enough weight to keep it on the bottom as you drift along.
Because they are aggressive hunters, lures like bucktail jigs, lead heads with plastic worms or fish shaped bodies will work, too. Just be sure they are heavy enough to bounce bottom, as you drift along or while casting and retrieving them. If your lures or baits are not within a foot or two of the bottom you won’t be getting many bites! If you’re going to be fishing in bays, inlets or tidal rivers, you’ll find the fish bite best when the tide is moving and action stops when the tide goes slack. Plan your fishing day accordingly.
Flatfish are some of the best summer fun you can have on board a boat, whether it’s big or small, and the rewards don’t stop at the dock. They continue when you get home and fry or broil a few filets for dinner. Y