North Fork Outdoors: Flounder stocks are nothing like they used to be

Turning a page on the calendar and opening a fishing magazine last weekend brought back memories of seasons past. April was our prime flounder month. Until some 20 years ago, the winter flounder, the “left-handed” “fig leaf” with the rubbery lips and small mouth, was our Peconic staple, our harbinger of spring, and a sure bet for fish on the table until predators arrived in May.

Those days seem a long time ago. With flounder stocks pathetically low and the failure of regulators to put a moratorium on catching what has now become mostly a commercial fish, the recreational angler is lucky to scratch out his or her daily two-fish limit of keepers, 12 inches or better, during a two-month season in April and May. We can argue forever about the cause of the demise (e.g., overfishing, at first by recreational anglers, then by commercials who switched from decreasing yellowtails to “blackbacks,” increased water temperatures, habitat disturbance like scraping clam beds, or increased predation on juveniles by stripers (or seals!), but the fact remains: Finding flounders these days is harder than catching stripers.

The idea of gearing up a small boat — with chum pots, anchors, a couple of outfits per person, cutting boards, and net, then going somewhere to buy worms, mussels, and or clams — just to catch TWO flounder per person sounds like sheer lunacy. But is it any crazier to haul those outfits and ancillary gear aboard a party boat and lay out more than $50 for those same TWO flounder? And we haven’t even added the cost of travel at 50 cents per mile! Would you do the same for TWO scup?

On the other hand, if the water is calm and the sun shines and you’re in good company, what the heck! It’s cheaper than traveling to the Big Apple to take in some Broadway rerun! Besides, for some gourmets, a meal of truly fresh flounder, fish that were properly filleted on a boat’s cutting board, then iced, is worth every bit of the money you’ve paid. (At those prices, though, you’ll want to process the fish heads and fins for stock, and maybe even serve some lightly steamed roe with mayonnaise and crackers, too!). Another tip for the table: the later in the season you go flounder fishing, the more sea robins you’ll catch. Be sure to fillet them, too. Not delicate fare like flounder, they nevertheless stand up for use in chowders and curries. The wings from large skates are also excellent. Steam lightly, remove the skin, then continue to steam until you can remove the delicate meat from the cartilage.

What are the odds of catching in the first place? Spring trips are so weather dependant you have to choose your date with care if you take small craft out. On the other hand, on an open boat on Long Island Sound or the bays (probably Moriches), your skipper has been tracking the action for a while and can zero in on the right spot and the right tide better than the amateur who only sails occasionally. If you have an idea of how many flatties are caught on a typical trip, say 20 to 50, and divide by the number of anglers at the rail when you sail, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect. If the result is much less than one, you had better have a lot of confidence in yourself!

Flounder tackle is almost always light. Even on a party boat, mainlines can be six-pound test with sinkers less than three ounces, provided you tie good knots on your tandem rigs, provided currents are light, and provided waters are shallow. If you’re a sharpie using beads and rubber grubs, bless you, but on most days, the bait’s the thing — small, fresh, and fluttery, mounted on small hooks, 6s to 10s. A swallowed hook? Disgorgers are O.K., but why not cut the leader and re-rig? Most flatties will probably be keepers. Don’t be an idiot; unless you’re certain the fish is undersized, call for the net rather than use the old “swing her aboard” technique.

Any prospects for a return of the beloved flounder? Unfortunately, when the light dims on any slow-growing species like cod or flounder, it’s hard to fill a niche taken by other fish. Still, hope springs eternal for a small miracle, like a couple of good spawning years back to back.

Whether to fish a depleted resource is an individual choice. A couple of fish means nothing while commercial activity continues, I know, but it’s a matter of principle. One flounder fishing “buddy” from years ago still loves the fish, but hasn’t used his skiff at Captain Marty’s for that purpose in years. Currently, he has a home in Howard Beach with small boat access to Jamaica Bay, so I keep hoping for a call from him. So far it hasn’t come.