Advancing the “north vs. south” debate a little farther down the line!
My favorite fish to pursue as a child was always summer flounder, or fluke. I’d fish by boat, beach, bank or bulkhead with my father and grandfather whenever I was given the opportunity. It was no surprise to my family that when it was college decision time, I attended University of North Carolina – Wilmington, a school situated a few miles from the beach. There I majored in education, but minored in surfing, wakeboarding, and of course, fishing.
The water world of the Carolinas became my playground when away from studies, side jobs and then the beginning of my career. Aluminum john boats gave me access and opportunity to explore and hunt many species, but none more than my beloved flatties.
A small sample of my background is relevant because it was down south that I learned summer flounder were not the only species of flatfish I was catching. Since I was fishing Carolina’s rivers, estuaries, inlets and the nearshore ocean structure, I was encountering summer flounder (fluke), southern flounder and gulf flounder, three distinct species that are not the same.
During my Carolina days, I learned first-hand the nuances, habits and cycles of each species as I fished any body of water that my small vessel would take me. Before returning to New Jersey, I had logged 9 years fishing the Carolinas with youthful hunger and vigor.
Fluke are the primary flatfish that anglers target in The Fisherman readership so it’s shouldn’t come as a surprise that flatfish caught when vacationing in the south might be misidentified as fluke. Likewise, many southerners have no idea that there exist three distinct species of flounder, let alone how to tell them apart. The southern flounder (paralichthys lethostigma) for example range from the Gulf Coast to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they begin to fizzle in numbers. Despite wrapping around Florida, they do not prefer the waters in the Keys and extreme South Florida. I suspect some wander up to Virginia waters, but they’d be in minimal numbers and probably unnoticed if caught.
Southern flounder lack oscillated spots which are the small circles that have a distinct contour around them on fluke. Instead, they are entirely mottled and blotchy on the brown side. This is, by far, the easiest way to distinguish southern and summer flounder from one another. Since there is overlap in the range, anglers have to understand what they are looking for in order to tell them apart. Honestly, it’s really simple once one knows what to spy on the fish’s brown side.
Southern flounder prefer a multitude of habitats. They are heavily drawn to structure and are less likely stage along barren sand unless they are in transit. Therefore, anglers drifting channels like they would for fluke would likely see low catch numbers. Instead, anglers can find them snug against dock pilings, rocks, boulders, broken concrete, sod edges and oyster beds in the estuaries. Any kind of debris or rubble is worth inspection. Redfish fishermen catch many southern flounder because they prefer similar structure. In the ocean, southerns like hard, love bottom features along with wrecks and can be found in water as shallow as 6 inches to well over 100 feet.
Another interesting attribute of the southern flounder is its ability to tolerate waters with a low amount of salinity. Salt ponds and brackish creeks that fluke would find inhospitable are to the liking of southerns. Moreover, southern flounder will swim many miles up rivers and even find paths into freshwater lakes where anglers targeting largemouth bass catch straggler southern flounder. During years of heavy drought, schools of fish will go further up rivers than in years of heavy rain.
The most successful method to target southern flounder is to anchor near the chosen structure and pitch live baits to the area believed to hold a fish. Trolling motors are even better because dropping an anchor is a chore, and done improperly, the danforth can create commotion. Plus, trolling motors are outstanding for moving along banks while casting. Live mullet and peanut bunker are perhaps the top choices in the live bait category. A Carolina rig consisting of a bare hook and a very light egg sinker above 24 to 36 inches of 30-pound test monofilament leader is the most popular rig. Berkley Gulp offerings are superior when fastened to a jighead or bucktail. Swimming mullets and grubs are terrific, but shrimp presentations catch well also.
Size and weight disparity is strikingly similar to that of summer flounder. A 10-pounder is still considered the Holy Grail and the challenge and percentages of catching one are identical. There are plenty of smaller trophies ranging from 4 to 9 pounds, but the average fish, much like a summer flounder, ranges from 12 inches to a few pounds. The North Carolina state record “flounder” is listed at 20 pounds, 8 ounces from Carolina Beach where it was taken in a passage called Snow’s Cut that connects the Intracoastal Waterway to the Cape Fear River. I lived in sight of this waterway as my boat slip and rented condo were literally 300 yards away. I fished it hard for about 5 years and caught many mats there. This is a known hotbed for southern flounder that holds many fish of doormat proportions.
Where am I going with all this? That North Carolina record is listed as a fluke. However, that stretch of water sees an extremely limited amount of fluke and those that are caught rarely exceed 15 inches. In other words, thousands of angling efforts and single digits of tiny summer flounder. They just don’t like it in that section of water and the few that meander into those waters are extremely small, more than likely because of the freshwater influences of the river congruent to summer flounder being low in their respective range on the east coast. I’d bet the farm that it was a southern flounder!
So perhaps we have no idea what the North Carolina state record summer flounder really is. South Carolina, on the other hand, lists its state record summer flounder at 3 pounds, 8 ounces, while their southern flounder record sits at 17 pounds, 6 ounces. They specifically list the two separate species, they just don’t get that big down south.
Gulf flounder (paralichthys albigutta) are the other species of flounder, aside from a southern, that would most likely cause confusion for a fluke angler on vacation. Their range includes the Gulf of Mexico coastline, and on the east coast, Florida straggling up to North Carolina. Although they swim up into the Carolinas, Florida and the Gulf coast states are the most likely places to put together a handsome catch of these fish.
A cool, flounder grand slam of sorts is that there is a real possibility of catching all three species of flatfish – southern, gulf and summer flounders – when fishing in North or South Carolina. In fact, I did catch all three in the same outing twice in my tenure in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.
Identifying a gulf flounder from a southern flounder is pretty easy. The gulf has oscillated spots, also referred to as ocelli whereas once again, the southern is simply mottled. Gulf flounder also have three, large ocelli that form a triangle; two are centrally located and one is in front of the caudal fin near the tail. Conversely, fluke have more oscillated spots and they are not laid out in a distinct, consistent triangle.
Gulf flounder prefer salty nursery and inlet waters with a liking to wreckage offshore. In that way, they are similar to southern and summers. However, they won’t go way up rivers like southern flounder. They can be caught by surfcasters seeking out gullies and sloughs. Angling techniques are the same; live bait such a mullet, minnows, baby menhaden and shrimp will do the job. Drifting for them like one would do for fluke works well in the channels in addition to anchoring and casting. Additionally, anglers like to use live or Berkley Gulp shrimp under a popping cork in order to entice gulfs.
Gulf flounder remain smaller than southern and summer flounders. The all-tackle record is 5 pounds and was caught in Florida. Fish average 10 to 14 inches and have identical taste to fluke and southern flounder making a creel of them worth harvesting. Like all the flatfish species, gulf flounder have been exploited and overfished at times in their history.
Our favorite summer flounder (paralichthys dentatus) need no introduction to saltwater anglers in The Fisherman’s readership area. Fluke, as they are famously known, range from Northern Florida to Maine. In reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to find them below South Carolina. Waters adjacent to the Core Banks in North Carolina, and on up to the north, are where fluke begin to populate with some density. The difference in the schools in the southern portions of their range and those in the Northeast is that the fish are much smaller and average 10 to 16 inches in length. Sometimes anglers catching small fluke in the Carolinas will unknowingly catch a southern flounder and it will far exceed the size of their fluke catch.
Summer flounder actually have greater potential for doormat size and weight once into Virginia waters, and the odds of catching a trophy increase the further north one fishes. The epicenter for fluke doormats is the corridor from Montauk to Nantucket, waters which clearly contain the greatest concentration of double-digits monsters in fluke nation. The IGFA’s all-tackle world record fluke of 22 pounds, 4 ounces was caught adjacent to Montauk in 1975. Anglers fishing below Virginia can’t expect to catch hefty fluke because they just aren’t there in any numbers. Sometimes I’ve gotten wind of the grouper and snapper boats bringing in a few stud “flounder,” but having not seen these fish, I couldn’t accurately say whether they are summer or southern flounder.
Drifting live, dead or synthetic baits from a craft is the most effective way to put together a haul of summer flounder. They are unique in that they can be found in any depth, provided there is current, high salinity and well-oxygenated water. The biggest fish prefer structure, but they can also be found on featureless flats and in channels. The fluke’s characteristics of inhabiting such a wide variety of underwater topography is a unique survival attribute. The only place they all truly gang up is way offshore where they spawn in the winter. In fact, all three species discussed procreate in offshore waters.
Scientific literature says there are more than 700 species of flatfish worldwide, which of course also includes our northern winter flounder. But the southern, gulf and summer flounder are the primary flounder species that one of The Fisherman Magazine’s traveling anglers might catch while fishing on the United States more southerly coast.