Flounder reward worth the work

Published 9:10 pm Thursday, September 17, 2009

When the caller ID indicated my pal Jay Gunn was on the phone, I thought it would be one of those “catching-up” calls. However, I would soon be pleasantly surprised by what was on Gunn’s mind.

“You got anything going tonight?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied.

“Meet me at my house at 7:30 (p.m.), conditions are perfect to do some floundering,” he said. Of course, I jumped at the chance and asked what I needed to bring, knowing full well that Gunn was completely outfitted for the excursion.

While in the not-so-distant past it was common to see waders with lights eerily gliding along the coastline scanning the shallow water for these abundant flatfish, it seems the practice of flounder gigging has become somewhat of a lost art with the obvious exception of the frenzy that occurs when a jubilee is in progress on Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore.

Gunn’s hypothesis for the waning number of flounder giggers is it takes a certain set of atmospheric conditions to have a successful outing. With today’s busy schedules, most people can’t adjust when the conditions are right.

“I’m looking for calm or very little wind,” Gunn said of the elements that make for successful floundering. “I’m looking for a rising tide, at least halfway back from a low tide. Sometimes a neap tide will work, but a low tide doesn’t seem to work well in the areas I go to.

“A north wind will smooth out the front beach. Wherever you go, you want the wind to put you in a ‘lee’ situation where there is no wind blowing up against the bank or beach to stir up any silt or muddy the water. You want it as clear as you can get it.”

That situation describes the conditions we found on the Fort Morgan peninsula after we’d grabbed two gigs, an underwater light and a battery lashed onto a backpack.

“The best way, if you’re going to walk, is to get an underwater light that you can buy at some of the big sporting goods stores and hook it up to a 12-volt (lawn tractor) battery,” Gunn said. “There are several different manufacturers that make flounder lights. Of course, the old way is to use a Coleman lantern that’s built for floundering with a shield, but they’re pretty much outdated. With today’s small 12-volt batteries and underwater lights, you’re going to be way ahead to get an underwater system.

“When you have an underwater system, you don’t see the ripples on the water. You don’t have to look through them like you do with a regular light. With an above-water light, you also have to look through the glare and it makes it harder to see the fish. The underwater system also gives you a much better spread, especially on whiter, sandier bottoms. Sometimes you can see 30-40 feet ahead of you and 15 to 20 feet to the side, whereas a propane lantern with give you a confined area of light – 6 to 7 feet – where you’re able to recognize a fish lying on the bottom. Sometimes that’s too close to make a good gig shot.”

As we waded into the water, it was obvious that we were well on the upper half of the tide cycle with the water along the shoreline ranging from just over the knees to mid thigh.

The deeper the water, the more care is needed for the gig thrust. The refraction of the light through the water’s surface gives the illusion the fish is farther away than it actually is.

“Aim low” was Gunn’s admonition. “For short people and kids, it’s sometimes hard to get them to understand that the flounder is actually behind where he looks like he is. It’s better to ease your gig into the water and get it closer to the fish before you make your gig shot than it is to splash through the surface. You may spook him enough to miss him, but the main reason for getting closer is you’ll be able to make a more accurate shot with the gig.

“And one mistake people make is walking with their gig like a cane, like a walking crutch. All that does is tell the flounder you’re on the way. They’re pretty sensitive to noise and vibration. As long as you’re reasonably quiet and careful, you can walk right up on them. I walked right up on some that were between my feet.”

The best areas for floundering have a hard, sandy bottom with long, parallel lines in the sand near the beach.

“The softer bottoms just don’t seem to attract the bait fish like the hard bottom,” Gunn said. “We have a little formula. If we go for 30 minutes and we don’t see a fish, we’re going to get out of the water, go back to the truck and go somewhere else. If you don’t see bait in 30 minutes, you’re probably not going to see flounder either.

“And depending on the conditions, you’d be surprised how close they get to the beach. Sometimes they’ll almost have their noses out of the water, especially if it’s 6 or 8 inches deep right next to the beach.”

After having to “reload” once because of a defective battery, we decided to make a move to near the tip of Fort Morgan, a relocation that proved to be very fortuitous. By the end of the excursion, there were 19 nice flounder on the stringer, only one short of a limit for which I’ll accept the blame after two clean misses.

The quarry for the night was two sub-species of flounder, the Southern flounder and the Gulf flounder.

“We’re just about at the western edge of the range of the Gulf flounder,” said Gunn. “From here to the west are mainly Southern flounder, which get a lot bigger than Gulf flounder. A five-pounder is a really big Gulf flounder.”

Alabama’s saltwater fishing regulations include a flounder bag and size limit of 10 fish per person with a 12-inch size minimum. A saltwater fishing license is also required.

“A 12-inch flounder is not a big flounder,” said Gunn, whose largest flounder to date with a gig was a whopping 9.5 pounds. “Once you put a gig in that flounder, that fish is not going to make it, so we set our minimum size to 14 inches to make sure we don’t have that problem.”

Although floundering takes the right equipment and significant physical effort, the rewards are great – a fish with mild, flaky white flesh that can be prepared in many ways.

My favorite way, other than the traditional frying, is to take the 14- to 18-inch flounder and scale the fish before scoring the fish all the way to the backbone with a sharp knife in a diagonal pattern about an inch apart. I then take Cavender’s Greek Seasoning and sprinkle liberally over the fish, making sure some of the seasoning gets into the scored areas. Then I heat up the grill and place the fish on top of aluminum foil. When the fish flakes in the thickest area, it’s ready for the plate, and a finer table fare is hard to find.