• Brett Geddes (first published February 2022)
I look at flounder as a stunning example of how a species of fish has adapted and evolved to perfectly suit its environment. Their camouflage is impeccable and exquisite with countless different colours, spots and patterns to no doubt fool hungry predators. In fact, their supreme trickery is so successful there are more than 700 different species of flatfish the world over.
The group includes flounder, halibut, sole, plaice, turbot and more. Australia has several species that inhabit various areas of the entire coastline so no matter where you live, flounder could be a viable target. Just in case you don’t know they are also regarded as one of the finest table fish on the planet, and in the northern hemisphere flatfish grow to extraordinary proportions. The Atlantic halibut is the world’s largest, growing over 200kg and 2.5m long. We have an Aussie halibut measuring a modest 64cm but it has a large mouth with nasty canine teeth. From a recreational aspect, I’ll concentrate on our flounder varieties that are usually 28-45cm. But firstly, to know how and where to target flounder you need to understand more about their habits and biology.
Flounder feed on all sorts of small creatures found mostly on the bottom of shallow sea waters or tidal estuaries, including worms, small crabs, shrimp, prawns and small fish.
Larval flounder are born with one eye on each side of their head, just like a typical fish. Then in early development the tiny larva settles on the bottom and the right eye migrates to the left side of its head. In some species it’s the left eye that moves and in others it can be either one. During this metamorphosis other changes occur to the head bones, nerves and muscles until the fish can lie flat on one side of its body on the bottom but with both eyes now looking upwards. See what I mean, flounder are an amazing work of nature.
The underside of the fish is usually white but the topside is where their astonishing deception is found. They can be drab and dark to fit in with a muddy bottom or a very light colour to suit open sandy areas. They have even developed exquisite spots, dots, circles and rings to match the exact features of their habitat of stones, silt, rocks, or any sort of territory for that matter. They perfectly match their surroundings so well that often the first time you notice them is when they take off from under your feet.
The whole flatfish family have been quoted as dramatic examples of evolutionary adaptation and fossils date way back to 50 million years ago. They’ve been at camouflage and survival for an awfully long time, so no wonder they are such a prolific and successful fish.
Where they live and regulations
Nearly all flounder targeted by rec anglers are found in sheltered bays or inshore coastal estuarine waters. They are able to tolerate a range of salinities and can sometimes even be found in the upper reaches of rivers. Often thought of as a very shallow water species they do also live in offshore depths to 100m here in Australia.
In the northern part of the country, there are live bigtooth twinspot flounder from Onslow in Western Australia all the way around to Hervey Bay in Queensland. There are no size regulations in Queensland but there is a bag limit of 20.
Various species inhabit NSW waters, including the large toothed and small-toothed flounder, as well as long snouted and greenback flounder found in southern NSW, adults range from 34-55cm. The NSW regs are 25cm minimum length and a bag of 20.
In Victoria and SA, the greenback flounder is the common species with a daily bag limit of 20 in both states. Vic has a minimum legal size limit of 23cm but in S.A. there is no size restrictions.
There are two common species taken in Tasmania, the greenback and the long snout flounder. The bag limit is 15 and a possession limit of 30 per person, and they must be at least 25cm in length.
Finally in WA the small-toothed flounder grow up to 55cm long and there is a bag limit of 8, 25cm minimum length. Of course before taking any species of fish you should always check your local regs for changes and updates.
Hunting flounder and gear required
Flounder are a rare catch with rod and reel in my Victorian waters, unlike their counterparts in the northern states, especially in NSW that seem to take baits and even lures quite readily. Over the years though, I have now caught around 15 flounder in Gippsland on soft plastics and especially blade lures with stinger hooks. I predict that in the years ahead chasing flounder country wide with micro lures will eventually gather momentum. But for now they always turn up as a by-catch for me and I never treat them as a target species on lure.
The recognised way to obtain a good feed of flounder is spearing them at night with the aid of a waterproof under water light and a hand held spear. Check on the current regulations in your area about the use of a handheld spear. For instance, in Victoria there are no barbs allowed on the prongs and in some inlets spears are banned altogether.
Some of the best underwater lights now available in tackle shops are light plastic and run on D size batteries, but for longer life or stronger beamed lights use a small car or motorbike battery. New lithium batteries are now all the go and because they are so much lighter than heavy lead options, are well worth the extra dollars.
Historically walking the shallows at night in a pair of vinyl or PVC chest high waders was all the go but newer neoprene waders not only keep you dry but also warmer to beat the chilly nights and cold water. Leg or hip waders are also fine to use because more often than not you will find flounder in water below knee height. During summer or warmer climates it’s nice to ditch waders altogether but some sort of footwear should be worn to protect you from sharp unseen objects on the bottom or a sting from a small nasty fish called a cobbler or fortesque.
While wading you can tow a small purpose built punt along behind you, a floating tub or maybe even a kayak to hold your battery and store captured fish. Over the last ten years I’ve been chasing flounder in my hands-free Hobie kayak and I can pedal over very shallow water with a spear in one hand and my light in the other. This enables me to cover vast areas, increase my catch rates and also spear in much deeper water, even down to 2m.
Dark cloudy nights or during the new moon period is generally thought to be the best time to look for flounder. I’ve challenged this theory and had plenty of success on the brightest full moon cycles, so now I base my trips around the calmest nights possible and ignore the moon cycle.
Wind is your greatest enemy because it becomes near impossible to see the flounder, even with just a rippled surface let alone small waves. With a calm flat surface you will observe greater detail on the bottom, see much further ahead of you and penetrate deeper water. Often you can pick up their body shape from many metres away on calm nights. Tricky flounder will often bury themselves under the sand and have just their two beady eyes sticking out as they sit motionless in the shallow water to avoid predators and ambush prey.
Prime times are a few hours before high tide until a couple of hours after the full water. I’ve also found that just before dawn, flounder have one last flurry of hunting in the shallowest of water before they retreat to the depths at sunrise. At these times, the flounder can be found right up close to the water’s edge sometimes in only centimetres of water.
Contrary to belief, I’ve found as many flounder during winter as the warmer months and I believe the only reason more are caught in summer is due to the creature comforts of the human hunter! In fact, I find the weather ideal and so much calmer in autumn and early winter.
Where to go
Most larger Victorian estuaries have flounder and I’m guessing the same applies to the entire coastal waters of Tasmania and the Aussie mainland. Look for large sandy areas or places with a firm mud or silt bottom which the flounder seem to like best.
Occasionally the fish will be found over a broken bottom punctuated with large weed patches, and at other times they seem to congregate over vast shallow sandy areas. Sometimes they gather on sand flats near river mouths but generally the lower areas of an estuary nearer tidal flow are preferred habitat for flounder.
They can sometimes settle on very short weed stubble but they will totally avoid areas with longer thick or strappy weed and, obviously, I’ve never seen them over areas with big rocks or boulders.
Don’t forget to take a prawn net and it’s also very handy when those big yellow-eye mullet or sea garfish start swimming close around your light. Let me tell you, those big sea gars get close to 50cm long and two of them will fill the biggest belly of any angler!
Flathead are another night bottom dwelling fish that inhabit the exact same areas as the flounder. Usually all you will see is a big cloud of stirred up silt or sand as a flatty powers away and spooks well before your approach.
You will probably also see another flatfish called a sole and they are easily distinguished by the lack of a defined tail or head and are a much rounder oval shape. And take it from me, they taste just as good.
All sorts of other creatures come out at night in our estuaries from eels, crabs, seahorses, small sharks, miles of mullet and, in my area, surprises like schools of bream or big estuary perch. Strangely, I’ve never once surprised an elusive squid at night in areas, where I’ve caught plenty of them during the day? Skates and rays are also often seen in the shallows and all these critters are interesting to look at and provide plenty of amusement if the flounder are hard to find.
Preparing the catch
Grilling the whole flounder is very popular and most people have seen them served up in pubs and restaurants like this presented on a huge plate. Pan-fried in a little butter is also a treat and the oil makes the skin nice and crispy.
Another neat trick is to cook flounder after you fillet them and, although it’s a little fiddly to extract the four pockets of flesh from their flat frame, it’s a delight to eat the succulent meat without any bones. The whole fish placed on the BBQ is also okay but be cautious to never over cook them and dry the fish out.
So good luck with your night floundering and you’ll be amazed at all the other life swimming around under the cover of dark.