Lying motionless on the sea floor, the partially sand-covered flatfish called “Chameleon of the Sea” changes its texture and color to further match its cover and surroundings. With its eyes peering out from its concealment, it waits for a suitable prey to swim or drift by. When one comes into range, the ambush predator bolts out and snaps up its next meal. When hidden in sand, a fluke can sometimes be difficult to spot even by a Scuba diver.
Known by many names including summer flounder, fluke, flatfish, plaice and doormat (reserved for those over 8 pounds), chicken halibut and others, flounders are a great seafood with a mild, sweet flavor that includes many nutritional benefits. In markets, they are mainly sold as fresh. Their taste is said to be similar to that of halibut and tilapia.
Along the Atlantic coast, summer flounders are among the most sought after commercial and recreational species. About 60 percent are landed commercially and 40 percent recreationally. In 2020, NOAA reported commercial landings totaling more than 7.3 million pounds, valued at $22 million. Their commercial value exceeds that of any other fish species. Yet, despite the fishing pressures, their 2021 stock assessment indicated that the species are not overfished. However, established recreational and commercial size limits help protect juvenile fish and their important role in reproduction. In New York and Connecticut waters, their recreational minimum length is 18.5 inches; Rhode Island’s is 18 inches. All three states have a daily creel limit of 4 fish per angler. All of the coastal states have a closed season; check with your own state for their specific regulations.
As the near-shore warms for the season, summer flounders return from their offshore habitats, back to coastal and estuarine waters. Though they can sometimes be found on rock-covered bottoms, they are commonly found on sand or soft mud- covered sea surfaces. By early to late fall, they immigrate back to the outer continental shelf to overwinter. Spawning occurs during the fall as fish move over the continental shelf. Depending on a female’s size, she can release between 460,000 to more than 4 million eggs during the entire spawning period. Released into the waters, the eggs hatch over the continental shelf.
Carried by the currents, the eggs hatch in 74 to 94 hours. Like most other species of fish, they hatch with eyes on both sides of their heads. But during their early stage of development, their right eye migrates to the other side of the head, next to the left eye. Once accomplished, the young larvae settle to the bottom, right side down. Like adult summer flounders, the hatchlings make it back to the coast where, by the end of the season, they can reach a length of 6.3 to 12.6 inches. They reach sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age and can live for about 12 to 14 years.
When fishing for summer flounder, it’s good remember that their usual feeding sites are on a sand or mud bottoms, where there is a decent current. They depend on moving water to help carry their favorite meals of shrimp, small crab and fish to within their reach. However, they avoid strong currents. In addition, water temperature plays a role in their choice of habitat. When water is below 58 degrees, they tend to move offshore. During the early season, in waters above 60 degrees, they can be found in relatively shallow water (5 to 15 feet). By August, they generally move to deeper water (25 to 40 feet). In Long Island Sound, fishing for the species begins in early June through late July or early August. For both commercial and recreational fishermen, the waters off Montauk are a favorite site for catching fluke.
When fishing for summer flounder, it is often recommended to use a 5.5 to 7-foot rod with a 25 to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. With live bait, it is said that the hooks should be tied about 10 inches below the sinker. Many fluke fishermen use a Carolina rig or knocker, with the weight of the sinker depending on the fishing depth and current. Live killyfish or shrimp, cut up strips of squid or even frozen spearing generally work well. Some fishermen even use a combination of bait. When using artificial lures, spoons, buck-tail jigs and curly tail grubs are recommended as well as scented artificial baits.
In 1975, Charles Nappi landed the IGFA world-record summer flounder while fishing off Montauk. It weighed in at 22.7 pounds. Thirty-two years later, Monica Oswald landed a 24.3-pound fluke! It was caught on rod and reel off the New Jersey coast, in about 50 feet of water. Unfortunately, it failed to become a world record after Monica revealed that she had temporarily rested her pole on the boat’s rail while playing the fish.
Massachusetts’ state record fluke was caught by Joseph Czapiga in 1980, while fishing off Nomans Island near Martha’s Vineyard. It weighed in at 21 pounds, 8-ounces, just a pound shy of the 1975 record. Rhode Island’s record was set in 1962 by G. Farmer of Warwick, RI. While fishing the Narrow River, he landed a 17-pound 8-ounce doormat. Connecticut’s record fluke was caught in 2019 by Michael Maffucci. As he was fishing the waters of Fishers Island Sound, he reeled in a 31.5 inch, 14-pound 31-ounce summer flounder.
Summer flounders range from Maine to the east coast of Florida. Most taken by anglers weigh between one to three pounds. One that tips the scale at five pounds is considered a great catch. However, no matter its size, a fluke by any other name is fun to reel in. In addition, provided they reach the legal-size set by the state, they make a fantastic take home meal.