Most years, if your diet depended on catching flounder and you lived along Florida's west coast, you'd wind up as thin as, well, a flounder.
That's not the case this year.
For reasons unknown - except, perhaps, to the flounder themselves - there are more flounder in Bay area waters than at any time in decades. Some expert anglers are actually targeting the species that in most seasons would be a completely accidental catch.
Flounder are abundant on the east coast north of Cape Canaveral. And in the murky, shrimp-rich waters of coastal rivers throughout Georgia and the Carolinas, they are one of the favorite catches. On our side of the state, however, they're nearly always scarce.
But this year, some anglers have reported catching 20 a day - about what most would expect to catch in a couple of years prior to this fall. There has been no dramatically strange weather or water conditions to explain the inflation of the flatfish population, but those who have discovered it are all smiles.
Experts such as captains Scott Moore of Anna Maria and Ray Markham of Terra Ceia say the fish are most often caught in potholes and sloughs, often on the outside edge of the grass flats.
In general, flounder don't venture into thick grass because they can't burrow into the bottom in these areas. And burrow they do, according to fisheries biologist Bob Shipp, author of Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. Their standard means of predation is to cover themselves with sand, lie perfectly still and, when a shrimp or minnow comes by, explode from under the cover to grab it. If you remember the Sandworms in the movie "Dune," you have an idea of what these poor prey species must experience.
Larger flounder, including some doormats more than 4 pounds, are being caught around the inshore artificial reefs in the Bay area. They're usually found several feet away from the cover, on the flat sand that surrounds most of these structures. The species most abundant here, the gulf flounder, reaches at least 6 pounds, 4 ounces, which is the International Game Fish Association record. But any fish of 4 pounds or more is a trophy. (The southern flounder, seen here occasionally and frequently on the east coast, gets quite a bit bigger; the record is 20 pounds, 9 ounces.)
Flounder put up a credible fight, but the reason to chase them is not for the sport. They are absolutely great on the table, and it's a rare fish of legal size (12 inches) that flutters back to its abode after being captured.
Good places to look for flounder this year include any of the "shoulder" areas in the lower bay, roughly from Port Manatee seaward. There are lots of potholes and edge areas around Bishop's Harbor, Mariposa Key, Miguel Bay, Terra Ceia Bay, Anna Maria Island, Sarasota Bay, Fort DeSoto and Tierra Verde, among other areas.
Water depths from 2 to 8 feet hold the fish; at dawn and dusk in temperate weather, they can be found in water only knee deep. Larger fish are often found on channel edges and around offshore structure; according to Shipp, the adults are sometimes caught all the way to the edge of the continental shelf in some 200 feet of water.
They eat about anything that will fit into their toothy jaws, but they love live killifish and live shrimp, so fishing the real thing is the first tactic, followed closely by fishing artificials that look like these livies. (Killies can be caught in traps around oyster bars.) Whether you fish live bait or lures, the action that works best for flounder is a slow hop or even a drag; they're not inclined to run down fast-moving offerings.
One of the favorite rigs among east coast flounder experts is a live killifish on a quarter- to half-ounce jig. That works well on this coast, too, when the fish are in water deeper than about 6 feet. They also readily grab live sardines, which is why they are sometimes caught accidentally by snook and redfish anglers.
Cleaning a flounder is a bit of a challenge because they don't fillet like "normal" fish. Basically, use a fine fillet knife and cut down the centerline, then fillet the meat away from the bones in both directions. They have two fat fillets on the top, and two thinner - but very tasty - fillets on the bottom. Skin the fillets and you're ready for a little Cajun seasoning and a hot skillet. The limit is 10 daily, and there's no closed season.