During the Autumn months and early winter many anglers descend upon the  estuaries of the South West in search of the humble flounder. These obliging flatfish tend to arrive in my local estuary, the River Taw, around the middle of September coinciding by chance with the annual funfair at Barnstaple. As with most species, populations have tended to decline over the decades with anglers who fished in the good old days reminiscing warmly about days of plenty when they could fill an old tin bath tub with tasty flatties. It is easy to look back and wonder how big an impact angling for the pot and the popular and distasteful local tradition of ‘pranging’ impacted stocks.

I suspect that the decline in flounder populations has more to do with environmental changes than angling pressure. Fifty years-ago the estuary was a dirtier place than it is now with far more untreated sewage effluent discharged into the estuary along with discharge from abattoir’s etc. There are those who fished at that time who believed there was more food within the estuary for fish to feast upon. In addition to the flounder they told of vast shoals of grey mullet and multitudes of writhing eels sadly rare in the estuary today.

The Taw Estuary Landscape

The river is probably cleaner today than it has been for many years despite increasing discharges recorded from inadequate storm drain overflows as primitive infrastructures fail to cope with the ever growing population. The estuary eco system is undoubtedly a complex one that poses plenty of questions. The Taw and Torridge estuaries converge at Instow before entering the lower Bristol Channel in Bideford Bay.

Whilst both rivers have a run of flounder, the Taw undoubtedly produces a far better average size with two pound plus flounder caught each season. A two pound fish has generally been accepted as a specimen with occasional years seeing an abundance and others see hardly any above this weight. These natural fluctuations in fish populations and size have always occurred.

A skein of geese overhead

The Taw flounder have always been partial to a hook full of harbour ragworm, with this bait undoubtedly the top Taw and Torridge bait. On many South Devon rivers peeler crab is essential to tempt good numbers of flounder. Whilst these South Devon rivers are not within my area of experience I know that some rivers produce fish to ragworm whilst others respond to peeler crab. Why should this be? Why should the river’s flounder have varied tastes? These river estuaries are often just a few miles apart with the rivers that feed them sharing a close geographical location high on the West Country Moors of Dartmoor and Exmoor.

My excursions seeking flounder are few and far between, though whenever I do venture onto the estuary foreshore I am captivated by the atmosphere of the landscape, its wildlife and the ever streaming ebb and flow of tide and river. The haunting cries of curlew and oyster catchers always provide an atmospheric soundtrack as the tides ebb and flow whilst anglers watch their rod tips. Perhaps the flounder’s greatest attribute is that it can be very easy to catch, making it an ideal target for juniors or new anglers. It is certainly true that there is no requirement for specialist tackle or long casting skills. But the key ingredients for successful flounder fishing are location and bait selection along with tide and conditions.

The wide open estuary awaits the flooding tide

My latest flounder fishing excursion saw me join fellow Combe Martin SAC member Daniel Welch and his son Solly on a popular venue on the river Taw estuary. This proved to be a wise decision on my part as Dan had fished the river a few days previous trying several locations until he had found a pocket of fish. This is undoubtedly the key to finding the flounder that move with the tides, frequenting the ever changing gullies and undulations that are formed as the water sculptures the sand and mud. I had purchased a pound of fresh harbour ragworm from the local tackle shop the previous day as I often find that digging bait aggravates an existing back condition.

Spending twenty quid on bait is certainly a better option than a few days with a dodgy back. Dan had dug his bait the previous day and had a bait tub full of healthy worm. Dan told me that the digging had been fairly easy and I wondered if this perhaps coincided with this being a contributory factor to this being a good flounder season. It is essential that anglers who dig their bait and those who dig commercially follow relevant codes of practice. The trenches created when digging should always be backfilled and boat moorings etc should be avoided at all times. Failure to comply can result in bait digging bans and a tarnished reputation for local anglers.

Dan Welch waits for that distinctive rod rattle

We arrived at the venue a couple of hours before the tide was expected to flood and cast out our baited traces. In-line with club rules I was using a two hook flowing trace on one rod and a one hook trace on the other. It is recognised that flounder are an inquisitive species attracted to bright colours. For this reason, most flounder enthusiasts employ a good number of bright and flashy beads into their rigs.

In past decades anglers often employed baited spoons to good effect in flounder fishing with the book Sea Angling With The Baited Spoon by sea angler John P Garrad, published in 1960, a classic of its time. Whilst the use of spoons to attract flounder has fallen out of fashion, lure fishing for flounder via LRF tactics has become the in-vogue technique.

During the summer months, anglers targeting thin lipped grey mullet catch the occasional flounder whilst using a baited spinner, proof that there is room for experimentation and rediscovering forgotten tactics.

I was using a pair of old 2lb test curve carp rods and bait-runner reels loaded with 15lb b.s line. At the end of the trace were size 2 fine wire blued Aberdeen hooks that are easy to remove from the flounder bending out with a gentle pull if the hook is a little way down. The rods were set in a rest whilst I tackled up a spare trace ready to clip on when a flounder was caught.

A rod tip against a bright winter sky

It was surprisingly warm for late November as warm sunshine shone across the estuary landscape and I peeled off my warm waterproof coat. Overdressed, as is often the case, but I find it’s always better to be able to take a layer off than be underdressed and cold throughout the session. I tend to wear waders whenever fishing for flounder as they keep you clean and dry in a mucky environment. 

A few yards upstream Dan was already in action with a double shot of flounder swung ashore. This was certainly a promising start to the session. After taking a quick picture I returned to my rod to find that I too had a double shot of flatties.

I unclipped the trace and cast out a freshly baited rig before removing the flounder from the hooks. I dropped the fish into a shallow pool to monitor their condition and after a few minutes any fish that were bleeding or distressed were dispatched to take home for the table or freeze down for tope bait. Whilst I prefer to return the vast majority of flounder to the estuary and preserve stocks there is no point returning fish that may perish. A friend of mine has been experimenting with small circle hooks to improve survival rates which is something I might try in the future.

Dan Welch with a pleasing double shot of flounder

The typical flounder bite is a distinctive rattle on the rod tip. The angler notes this and waits a while for the fish to take the bait. This is un-rushed fishing. Pick up the rod and lift gently, feeling if the fish is there. If it is, just wind it slowly into the shallows enjoying the surprisingly pleasing resistance through the light rods. The light tackle with just a two ounce weight to hold bottom is great fun to use.

The first hour of our session proved to be hectic especially for Dan and Solly who had undoubtedly dropped into a depression in the estuary full of obliging flatfish. It was a joy to see young Solly smiling broadly as he wound in several double shots of flounder. 

The fishing became so hectic there was little time to actually savour the wait and take in the scenery. The fishing activity reached its peak as the first subtle signs of the rising tide appeared. At first almost imperceptible, the ebbing flow eased and the water slowly started to creep up the muddy shore line that was punctuated by rock and sea weed. Swirls of good sized fish appeared in the shallows as bass or possibly mullet moved up on the edge of the tide. The flooding tide slowly began to gain pace pushing us up the foreshore. The flounder kept coming at a steady rate and Dan told me that he and Solly had so far caught close to fifty.

It was a joy to see young Solly catching flounder

As the water rose and the current picked up we were forced to relocate to a fresh location a hundred yards or so upriver. An eddy slightly off the main flow seemed the ideal place to try. The bites eased off at this point giving the opportunity to sit back and savour the scene. Warm afternoon sunshine illuminated the estuary landscape. Floating debris drifted up on the rising tide. A skein consisting of hundreds of geese flew overhead their familiar cry resembling a pack of hounds resonating across the water. At the water’s edge smaller wading birds worked frantically to the daily heartbeat of the tide.

My contemplative mood was interrupted as the bait-runner whined as the rod tip was savagely ripped over, the butt lifting from the rest. I grabbed the rod and commenced an enjoyable tug of war with a good sized fish that splashed on the surface thirty yards out in the raging torrent of the flood tide. After a pleasing and careful tussle, a plump silver flanked four pound bass was drawn onto the foreshore. A couple more flounder succumbed to my rods whilst Dan and Solly’s catch rate came to a halt, highlighting the importance of location. As high water approached, small bass and tiny shrimps stripped our baited hooks within seconds of them hitting the water.

A pleasing 4lb bass broke my contemplation

We packed away as the tide turned and strolled back onto the old railway track that has now been utilised as a bike trail and footpath. The scents of autumn hung in the air as leaves accumulated at the path edge. Blackbirds and thrushes feasted upon bright autumn berries. As we walked the redundant railway line I noted the ageing structures and old signage that lingered beyond its intended years telling of a long and fascinating history lived by previous generations. Close to the car we met up with a couple of other club members. We exchanged details of the day’s sport, surprised to find that they had enjoyed very limited sport landing around half a dozen flounder between a similar number of anglers. Proof again of the importance of location.

Whilst the larger estuaries like the Taw and Torridge provide consistent sport it can be worth trying some of North Devon’s open coast harbours and beaches. Wherever freshwater enters the sea coinciding with areas of sand and mud, flounders can be caught. Fishing the shallow water as the tide floods can give surprisingly good sport using light tackle, with the flounder often joined by school bass, pollock, coalfish and pouting as the light fades. The north Devon coast might be renowned for its open-coast heavy weight’s, but for those who enjoy the lighter, more relaxing side of their fishing, the rivers found here offer a more tranquil side to the sport that is accessible to not just the experienced angler, but the raw novice, the young and old too. 

Solly Welch with a 1lb 9oz Taw flounder
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