A Fluke Is a Very Fortunate Event
Summer flounder are challenging to hook, difficult to land and devilishly hard to find
On an early morning in late June, I was drifting the transitional edge of one of the deeper channels that cut through an island chain in the Southeastern Bay. The tide had just started moving nicely when the fish I was seeking made its move.
Swimming a small spot close to the bottom on a fish-finder rig, I felt a light tap. Then another. I lifted my thumb from the spool and gently fed line into the drift, releasing all tension from my bait below.
A long 10 count increased my apprehension considerably. Then I quietly put the reel back into gear and gently lifted the rod tip, searching for a sign that my quarry was still there. At first there was just a hint of resistance. Then, as the line came tighter, I felt just what I’d hoped for: solid resistance.
I set the hook with a cautious sweep of the rod. The mouth of a fluke, or summer flounder, is a toothsome but fragile affair, and striking too violently is just one of the many ways you can lose these fish.
A fight with a doormat-sized flounder is a tentative contest, closer to enduring an anxiety attack than a brutal physical battle. This is one species that is just too delicious to lose. As table fare, it has few equals.
A species of flatfish, the fluke or summer flounder, Paralichthys dentatus, is quite remarkable in appearance. Though born moving erect with eyes on both sides of their heads, summer flounder soon convert to swimming on their side (right side down), the starboard eye migrating across the top of the head to the left.
Their bottom side becomes stark white and their top becomes dark and mottled and able to change coloration and pattern to match their surroundings.
Flounder are challenging to hook, difficult to land and devilishly hard to find. A predatory fish, they patiently lie in ambush on the bottom, invisible to electronic fish finders and any unlucky baitfish or shrimp that swim near them.
Straining against the line, my flounder moved off briskly, putting a lovely arc in my medium-weight bait casting rod and getting distance against a moderately set drag. I knew it was going to be a good fish if I was lucky enough to get it aboard.
When it finally paused, I applied side pressure, trying to haul the fish back toward the skiff. As I gradually drew it closer, the fish panicked and ran back out, not fast, but in a determined run.
With their fragile mouths, flounder cannot be bullied during the fight. Nor can they be lifted into the boat without a net. Netting a flounder is another angst-filled exercise. It is one of the few fish that can swim backward. Many are lost during the last moment.
By the time I finally got my treasure in the boat, my shirt was damp from nervous sweat as well as exertion. This one was a truly fine specimen, about 24 inches, not only an angling prize but a culinary trophy as well.
Flounder visit the Chesapeake in goodly numbers each summer, generally traveling as far north as the Bay Bridge. Some do winter here, but most retreat to deeper ocean waters as the temperatures drop later in the fall.
They are fairly common in locations favoring their foraging habits, but not many anglers harvest them. One of the reasons is that flounder have to be specifically targeted to be consistently caught.
Drifting the proper baits close to the bottom and giving the fish ample opportunity to grasp and devour the bait is the key to getting a good catch. An exaggerated drop-back of the bait after the initial bite is a particularly effective strategy for hooking up.
A frisky bull minnow over a strip of squid behind a beaded spinner blade, a set-up known as a Wachapreague sandwich by devotees, is particularly effective in attracting strikes from fluke.
Small live spot can be prime bait, as are white belly strips from the fish itself, for it is a notorious cannibal.
Fluke even has its own special hook, the Kahle, a bent shank type of fish hook that gives better purchase in the fish’s sideways-positioned mouth.
Flounder fishers are a secretive breed of angler and generally loathe to share information, locations and success. If you’ve had occasion to dine on a large, fresh-caught flounder, properly prepared, you’ll completely understand their obsession and reticence to share.
Note: Chesapeake Bay flounder limits are two per day per person, 15 inch minimum size. Atlantic Ocean flounder limits are four per day per person, 15.5 inch minimum size. Flounder season is open year-round in all locations.