Surf Flatties

Surf Flatties
Gyotaku print of flounder made by the author.

The bountiful waters of the Texas coast support many species of fish. From the coastal marshes through the bays, to the jetties/nearshore waters and into the open Gulf, sources estimate at least 230 species of fish swim in the Lone Star State's saltwater. The beachfront shallows, from Bryan Beach to Texas Point, serve as a transitional zone, where many species interact. Some begin life in shallow bay backwaters before heading to the Gulf to live out their adult lives; others leave the depths of the open ocean and venture close to the beaches during these migrations.

Some species inhabit the beachfront waters in abundance, throughout the year, while others temporarily run the beaches. Others occur infrequently, almost accidentally. I've caught and seen too many species of fish along the Texas Coast to keep count. Out of all those I catch, one regularly provides me with a unique thrill. Some might guess it's a king mackerel or a snook, maybe a tarpon or cobia. But my most welcome surf-zone surprise is a flounder, especially one the size of a doormat.

In Texas, the southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) is the largest and most common of over twenty species of flatfish. Acknowledging their popularity on the menus of seafood restaurants throughout the country, state authorities continually tweak the regulations related to the harvest of flounder, applying the regulations to all species of flounder, and their hybrids.At certain times of year, both recreational and commercial anglers harvest flounder fairly easily. Whether sought on rod and reel or under the stars on a gigging mission, flounder are exciting to target.

For nearly twenty years, I pursued flounder at night with lights and gigs. I've logged many miles and hours dragging a kayak rigged with underwater lights through the bays, searching for tasty flounder. When I possessed a commercial fishing license and sold flounder and other fish to local markets, I was one of the few, if not only, angler using a kayak instead of a motorized boat to target flounder, but I did regularly gig my legal limit of thirty fish. Years of experience helped me learn patterns related to tides, water temperatures, salinity, moon cycles and weather, so I could become efficient at harvesting flatfish in our bays and marshes.

Back in my commercial fishing, gigging days, I handled flounder regularly, but these days, working as a guide in the surf, I catch them mostly by accident. We almost never see flounder sitting on the bottom in the surf, though we do occasionally step on one and feel our heart rates rise, fearing the barb of a stingray. Mostly, the water is too turbulent and murky to allow us to see them in the shallows along the beachfront. Every flounder I've caught in the surf has come as bycatch, while I was throwing lures for other species. Nearly all my surf flounder fell victim to soft plastics rigged on jigheads and bounced around on the bottom of the guts for trout or reds.

Catching flounder in the surf doesn't happen often, though plenty of southern flounder do pass through the nearshore waters every year. During the fall, most mature flounder leave the bays and make their way to Gulf, where they spawn at depths ranging from fifty to one hundred feet. A relatively small number of adults remain in the bays throughout the winter months.While mature males rarely exceed twelve inches in length, females grow to much larger sizes. In spring, after making more of their kind, the flounder reenter the bays over a fairly long period of time, creating a less-concentrated spring "run."

Sometimes, we intercept these mature flounder in the surf while they move in and out of the bays. Most of my surf flounder have been caught within about five miles of the nearest pass or channel connecting the bay waters with the Gulf. I've found a majority of these fish in fall, when some of the fish heading out to spawn linger in the shallows around the jetties and/or take short detours down the beach. Some surmise the predators are taking advantage of the fall bait-migrations, feeding heavily in advance of their spawning season. Big flounder are voracious predators. I've filleted long, fat flatties with large skipjacks and mullet in their stomachs. They lay in wait on the bottom and swiftly devour any prey which moves within range, rarely refusing an easy meal.

While they are masters of camouflage, their twin, articulated eyes on the same side of their head and their iconic silhouettes make them stand out like the bat signal under a gigger's lights at night. Consequently, the numbers of southern flounder in our waters had dwindled down to historical lows as of a few years ago. Thanks to recently implemented harvesting laws, flounder numbers are now slowly starting to climb. This could mean we'll catch more in the surf in the years to come. Despite encountering so many flounder in my life, each and every one I catch in the surf still lifts my spirits. The uncommon surf doormats always make me pause for an extra minute to stare in wonder and admiration.