Tackle and Tactics
FLUKES or black-backs as we called them used to be my favourite fish when I was a boy. Most of my flounder fishing was done during school holidays and although it involved the use of handlines I realised later it had been an excellent education into the habits of the species.
Several facts emerged from those boyhood flounder fishing trips. Apart from the fact that the fish swim in almost unbelievably shallow water as the tide makes, it became obvious from the pattern of catches that they move in shoals. The shoals are often composed of similar sized fish. Several such ‘waves’ of fish will pass by on a single tide. The presence of a hooked fish (flounder or coalfish in my case) on one of the three traces will, if left for a short time, usually attract a flounder to one of the other baits. Flounders often take herring baits as well as king rag or peeler crab.
Perhaps the most important lesson was one which would surprise most people. Despite the crude and heavy nature of the tackle; the fact that the line was held, at all times, between finger and thumb, allowed accurate judgement of what was going on beneath the water surface. The rattling tug of a six-inch coalfish was quite distinct from the heavy pull of a two-pounder or the dragging bite of a flounder. Even more important from my point of view was the way in which I learned to judge the precise instant when the fish had taken the bait firmly into its mouth.
A sharp lift of the wrist and forearm, at the correct moment, almost invariably resulted in a hooked fish. The proportion of missed bites was less than in almost any method I have encountered since and certainly far superior to that, ‘enjoyed’, by anglers accustomed to using rested rods. Some of these observations fell into place in later years and much of what I shall now say is based on the way in which my knowledge of flatties subsequently developed. The flounder is quite often over the same ground as its relative the plaice, although the latter is chiefly a fish of the open sea.
Also, as Kennedy points out in his book “The Sea Angler’s Fishes,” the flounder is much more of a fish eater than its red-spotted cousin. Sandeels, gobies, herring fry and, in fresh water, minnows and elvers are all mentioned as items of flounder diet. My own experiences bear this out and include a 3.5 lb. fish taken on live sandeel from a sandy-bottomed estuary, many large specimens caught on bottom-fished herring strips and several modest specimens of a pound or less which engulfed legered live minnows intended for trout or sea trout in the lower (freshwater) reaches of my local Dorset rivers.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the fish-eating tendencies of flounders is the way in which they will attack not only real fish but also artificial baits. On holiday in Donegal many years ago I fished the estuary of the little river Owenea where it wandered across a broad stretch of muddy sand to the Atlantic Ocean. At one point the river widened out into a good-sized pool that seemed almost to be paved with flounders.
We caught quite a few fish on light-legered lugworm and clam. I added a white plastic luggage label, from my suit case, to the trace as an attractor but I caught no more fish than any of my mates, presumably because there were such a lot of flatties present that the bait was always within view of one or more.
As the tide began to flood into the pool Ken landed a sea trout of about 2lb. (on worm) and this prompted me to switch to spinning in the hope of catching another. The leger tackle was removed from the 6lb. Line and replaced by a number two Mepps Mino, which is a Mepps spoon, followed by a soft rubber fish armed with a double hook and a small tail treble.
The result of the experiment was not the expected trout but a whole series of hefty flounders each with the rubber minnow well in its mouth. In John Garrad’s extensive experiments with the baited spoon he tried many comparisons between baited and unbaited lures of all kinds. The results show that he NEVER caught a flounder on the artificials unless they were adorned with bait.
I am sure that many anglers have taken odd flounders on artificials but why should a fast rotating spoon followed by a rubber fish succeed repeatedly? Before considering why flounders should select any particular bait or lure it is worth mentioning just one more observation. In the estuary of the river Frome in Dorset the youngsters fish from Wareham quay, particularly in early winter. They catch flounder after flounder on a wide range of tackles. Many of them bait their hooks with garden worms for, although the estuary is tidal, there is little or no salt-water influence. Some, however, use the alternative bait of ragworm, generally purchased from the local tackle shops. The result of the change is a large increase in the number of bites and fish caught.
It is quite clear then that flounders, although they have catholic tastes, may be quite selective about what they eat. Drs J.W. and I.A.Moore, from the University of Bath, studied the basis of food selection in these fish in the Severn estuary. It is already well known that the food of most fish (flounders included) varies from place to place because it depends on what is available. Within these limits the nature of the creatures eaten is governed by the time of year and the water conditions. The scientists sampled flounders from the intake screens of Oldbury power station. The water of the lagoon in which the fish were living was generally pretty dirty and the bottom was muddy sand.
The prey animals living in the lagoon were mostly crustaceans, worms and molluscs ranging from the larger forms like brown shrimps and red harbour ragworms to sand hoppers, Baltic tellins (little sand-burrowing clams), mysid shrimps and tiny, very active relatives of the woodlouse Eurydice and little snails such as Hydrobia.
In February the flounders feed chiefly on bottom-living harbour rag, from March to April they switch to beach flies which closely resemble the well-known fresh water shrimp. Then in the summer months, where they are feeding most actively. They chase, catch and eat the fast swimming brown shrimps and the smaller but similar mysids. In summer fewer of the fish have full stomachs because, although they eat more, the rate of digestion is much greater.
To back up these observations the researchers carried out some experiments using little water slaters as prey for the flatties in tanks. In one test the fish could detect prey in dirty water and in clear water. The fish search by making short darts across the sea bed, pausing between them to look for potential prey. It is pretty obvious when the fish spots its prey because its eyes flick about rapidly as it lines up its body for the strike. The strike itself is made with a smooth, swift forward movement. Large flounders are able to see slaters almost twice as far away in clear water as in dirty water (35cm as opposed to 19cm). Whatever the colour of the water the flounders are able to find very small prey, much smaller in fact than baits used by anglers.
It takes the fish up to four seconds to catch a large slater in dirty water but the time needed is much less if the prey are close when they are detected. Fresh water shrimps, which are much more active, escape from as many as 20 percent of attacks while the poor old slaters are caught every time. The very fast swimming Eurydice (a sort of tiny woodlouse) escape from 96 percent of the attacks.
Big brown shrimps were obviously desirable prey for the flounders which easily saw them and swam quickly towards them. The shrimps, however, were not impressed and darted away with a typical escape reaction. In clear water this tactic was successful in avoiding capture on about half of the occasions but in dirty water the shrimps got away every time.
When the water was cold (8 degrees centigrade), the flounders did not even bother to chase the faster-moving species of prey. Slower moving forms were just as vulnerable as in warmer conditions. Ragworms were more likely to be eaten in cold winter seas. Movement rather than colour was the most important feature allowing the flounder to detect its prey.
Much of what is known about flounder fishing fits into the picture painted above.Notably the ‘going down’ described by Garrad which involved the shift from active summer feeding habits which made flounders susceptible to the mobile baited spoon technique, to increasing success of legered and relatively inert baits in winter. It makes you think doesn’t it?
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Mepps Minos (very old ones)