May is often the best time to put a few winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus, for you Latin fans) in the freezer. They are fairly easy to find, the equipment to be used is pretty basic and easy to set up, and, best of all, you can fish for them right in the harbor or in any protected cove around the Cape.
There are over two hundred different types of flatfish including the familiar flounder, plaice (dab), sole, turbot, and halibut. What they all have in common is an asymmetrical skull where both eyes are located on one side of the head.
All flatfish come from the egg with eyes on both sides. In one of nature's magical transformations, at about three months of age, one eye slowly migrates up and over the top of the head so it rests beside the other eye.
This allows the fish to lay on its side on the bottom and look up with both eyes.
Of course just to confuse things, some of these flatfish have eyes that migrate to the right, the others migrate to the left. The winter flounder (black back) will have the eyes on the right side an no teeth. An adult summer flounder, or more correctly a fluke, has the eyes on the left side of the head and teeth. The Saltwater Guide put out by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has some excellent pictures to show the difference.
Although the IGFA record for a flounder is 22 lbs 7 oz., a good fish here in the Gloucester and Salem harbors would be in the 3 lb. class. Remember that from Nov. 1-Aug. 31 the limit on flounder is eight fish with a 12 inch minimum length.
Catching them is relatively easy and fun. These are fish that have a whole body designed to stay on the bottom. That is where you want your terminal tackle to be. Although they are a fairly aggressive fish and will rise up a bit to secure food, for the most part you want your bait on the bottom.
Some folks like to anchor up and use a chum bag to bring the fish to them. Get an onion bag and a long rope. Dump the contents of a frozen chum bag in the onion bag, add a little weight and drop it to the bottom. You can also buy nice chum buckets in the quart size that have a wire mesh. This time of year in the cold water I like the larger mesh as the frozen chum takes a while to thaw. In the summer I would use a bucket with a small mesh.
As it thaws the chum will filter on out and attract the flounder. If you are chumming this time of year, give the chum at least thirty minutes to disperse a bit in the current. Of course, it can attract crabs as well, but don't get discouraged if every once in a while you pull one of those clawed fellows on up. I use frozen clams we catch on a moon tide and then freeze in small bags. Shucked mussels will also work well. You can buy frozen clams at most bait stores.
I use a really light rod with a 10 lb. test line. This allows you to feel even the faintest of taps on your line. There are a number of combinations you can use for hooks and sinkers. The easiest way to hook up is to buy the pre-made rigs at the store. These inexpensive spreader rigs work very well. However, you can easily make your own for a fraction of the price of the retail rigs.
The one I like takes two three-way swivels, two snelled hooks you can buy in a package and a small sinker. You will need some spare line to cut into short sections as you make this arrangement. At the end of your line attach a small three-way swivel. Cut and attach a 12 inch piece of line to that. Add another three-way swivel. to the end of that line. Attach a 12 inch line to that swivel and then tie a small sinker on the end. The sinker should be at the very end of the whole rig. You now should have a line that has a sinker and two three-way swivels 12 inches apart. To the unoccupied ends of the swivels attach two small snelled hooks.
The sinker size will vary with the current or wind speed, but it is important to keep the bait near or on the bottom. Use enough weight to so the bait stays down, but as little as you can so the line will move along the bottom with out dragging up too much mud or sand. The key again is you must fish them on the bottom.
There are a variety of baits that will work. The easiest is seaworms or clamworms. You can buy them at the bait shops in town. Most folks will cut a long worm in half, but do not use too tiny a bait. Half a worm or larger is best. You can also use small chunks of mackerel or other bait fish, small pieces of clams or even muscles. However, worms seem to work the best.
Most times the bait shop will give your worms in a cardboard box and a little wet seaweed. Be sure to put this in a cool spot on your boat and keep moistening the weeds. The best place is in a cooler. The hot sun can dry these babies out in a hurry, rendering them useless.
The best method to catch them is to anchor up over a sandy or muddy bottom near a clam bed. Put over your chum pots and then wait a few minutes. Now cast out away from your boat. Slowly reel the line in, keeping the rig down as you do so. Once reeled to the boat, cast out about 10 degrees from you last cast, repeating until you have done a 360. If no fish, move your boat and repeat. If you do it correctly, it should take a thirty minutes or so to work a location.
Three locations work pretty well in the harbor. The current line at the Eastern Point anchorage down to Black Bess, off the point at Stage Fort, and the flats to the east of Ten Pound Island each produce especially on an outgoing tide. Also try at the mouth of the Annisquam on the right hand side.