Capt. Kirk Stansel seemed anxious as we idled out of the canal in the cool of the morning. “The big fish are here and are biting,” he said. Keeping my enthusiasm in check when Stansel slowly leaned into the throttle, I fought the urge to help him push it all the way down. He had been plying these waters long enough to know the how, when and where of trophy inshore fish on light tackle and is widely known as a trophy trout and redfish expert. I was certain that in no time we’d be chucking topwater lures for giant seatrout or perhaps chasing schools of surface-busting redfish along the grassy edges of the bay’s shoreline. But this light-tackle guide had other plans. I was about to be reintroduced to a game fish with misplaced notoriety, given high status as table fare but little fanfare: the southern flounder.
In coastal Louisiana, flounder are often more of an afterthought than a targeted species. In an area where gator-size seatrout are as thick as mosquitoes and redfish lurk on most every flat, flounder are what Cajuns call lagniappe: a little something extra. But in recent years, there has been such an increase in both the size and quantity of Gulf flounder in their amazing, pole-bending biannual run that they have garnered much more respect, transitioning from bottom-dwelling bycatch to sought-after trophies. Southern flounder are aggressive feeders, the largest of all flatfishes in the coastal northern Gulf and highly prized as a delicacy, as well as for their outstanding qualities as sport fish.
“The fishery is unique and bountiful,” says Jeff Ferguson, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “Even though there are two distinct runs for anglers to enjoy, the fish are around all year.”
As an angler who targets the flatfish himself, Ferguson is quick to point out the species’ vitality and timing: “We start to see flounder numbers rapidly increase in February, as water temperatures signal their re-entry from the Gulf.”
The young fish enter the bays during late winter and early spring. At this time, they are about a half-inch long and seek shallow, grassy areas near the Gulf passes. As growth continues, some move farther into bays, coastal rivers and bayous. Males seldom exceed 12 inches, but females grow larger and often reach 25 inches or more. Most flounder caught by anglers are female. Ferguson also points out that the Gulf Coast’s two-year drought has affected the species.
“Because of high salinity, the fish have pushed well into the far reaches (northernmost confines) of our system,” he says. Once in the estuary, flounder grow rapidly, reaching 12 inches by the end of their first year. Research indicates that males stay offshore, while females leave the estuary around Thanksgiving to spawn in the Gulf of Mexico.