Increasing size limit on flounder makes no sense

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

I wrote last week about the idea of decreasing the size limit on flounder in hopes of targeting less of the big females that produce baby fish. The current limit is 14 inches inshore and 14 inches in the ocean.

The state must have read my article, because it promptly went against what I suggested and raised the ocean flounder limit in the northern part of the state to 15 inches. In my next article, I will ask the government of North Carolina not to give me a million dollars.

That is a big flounder size limit. When I catch a 15 -inch flounder, I do a silly little dance.

Although it does not impact Brunswick County yet, it is not hard to read between the lines and see the future. The ocean flounder (called summer flounder) are managed by a group of Atlantic states that have gone above their quota, and even when N.C. doesn’t catch too many we suffer as well.

The main flounder caught around here are the inland southern flounder, whose size limit has steadily increased as well. The creel limit of fish you can keep remains eight.

Already, commercial and recreational fishermen are fighting about just who is catching too many flounder, while the long southern tradition of gigging (spearing) flounder at night is coming under fire as well.

There is tremendous pressure on southern flounder here, which is why it is not impossible we may one day see unreasonable size limits ourselves.

What we need is a lower size limit, like 12 or 13 inches, and probably a slot limit, which is an upper size limit that means you have to release a very large flounder, like one around 24 or 25 inches.

All the big flounders are females that lay lots of eggs. Many smaller flounder under the size limit, especially those caught on live bait, just die anyway so bigger females can be caught.

We also need to reduce the creel limit from eight to about five. Very few hook-and-line fishermen around here catch eight flounder on a trip anyway, though this will lessen the take of the giggers. Still, three people gigging could keep 15 flounder, which is respectable.

The commercial impact on the flounder stock, particularly the bycatch of small flounder, must be examined as well.

With these rules we could protect many reproducing females. The one thing we would have to worry about is the terrible practice of culling—keeping dead flounder just above the size limit and then tossing them away if you catch larger ones. Culling must be made into a MAJOR crime, with fines, suspensions and hotlines for this to work. But most fishermen I meet want to know the rules and follow them anyway.

I know many “sportsmen” don’t get the idea of people keeping a 12 -inch flounder, but anyone from the Lowcountry knows these smaller flounder are great fried up. People would keep and eat these fish. They have been doing it hundreds of years.

Most people who fish the piers and the shore and from small boats want enough flounder for dinner and are not trophy hunting.

Of course, this is unlikely to happen as the state just keeps increasing the flounder size limit, making everybody go after the big females.

Red drum have a slot, and a one-fish creel limit, which has helped their recovery. We don’t need a one-fish flounder limit, but a slot would help.

Flounder are a very important fish to our region. The most predominant way people fish for them is trolling or drifting inlets and backwaters in boats, as flounder like moving targets and live bait.

My key to finding flounder inland, however, is structure. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of flounder in the vast stretches of sandy inlets and oyster fields. The drifters catch them for sure. But in the summertime, drifting and trolling can get so crowded you might end up hooking up with another boat by mistake.

Anglers who focus their attention on hard structure and definitive landmarks do very well. Hard structure means bridges, docks, piers, sea walls, jetties and so on. Strong landmarks are points, backwater lagoons and the entrances of channels and waterways.

The other flounder, ocean ones, are the summer flounder that are the source of so much controversy and bigger size limits.

These are the fish, by the way, you catch on the beach fishing piers. In the ocean surf they stay rather shallow, and the first people you see on a pier will be the flounder gang.

Although hard structure like the pier pilings or rock jetties are great, surf fishermen on sandy shores learn to read the beach for ‘sloughs’ that hold flounder. Sloughs are calm water between white water that shows depth where flounder wait for meals.

Flounder favor deep water on the edge of fast running water, so places where the water doesn’t foam as much are good spots to try. These cuts in the breakers can signal troughs of feeding activity.

Live bait is the top choice for flounder. Anglers mainly use mud minnows, finger mullet and other small fish. Minnows can be bought, while finger mullet and other baitfish (pinfish, spot, croaker, etc.) are gathered using your cast net. Live shrimp can also be used if bait-stealers are not around.

Traditionally, anglers without live bait have resorted to long fish or squid cut bait strips, which they drag slowly through the water.

There are now lures on the market based on the same idea, and these flounder lures catch lots of fish. In fact, using lures for flounder can sometimes out-catch live bait.

Just remember, when fishing bait you let the flounder chew it for a while, but when using lures you strike as soon as the fish hits. Would you chew on an artificial steak?

Sometimes, people still-fishing bait like shrimp or bloodworms for spot, drum or assorted panfish catch a very hungry flounder. This always a treat, but using cut bait on a two-hook rig is not a great way to catch flounder.

I don’t know where this size limit thing will go, but the pressure on our flounder stock increases every year around here. Someday we may see the 14-inch inshore and 14 -inch ocean sizes raised.

It makes no common sense, but you can say that about a lot of N.C. fishing laws.

Jeffrey Weeks is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at saltyweeks@gmail.com.