Flounder are perhaps the most iconic of all English flatfish, amongst anglers if not the culinary scene that sees turbot dubbed ‘the King of flatfish’. Just think of how many of you started out on a local estuary or surf beach, probably with your dad, fishing a very simple running ledger or 2 hooked flapper for this once plentiful flatfish, always willing to give a good bit of sport on the right tackle. It’s something that hooked many young anglers and started their passion for the sport. 

In some ways, it’s almost a right of passage into sea angling, something I myself looked forward to every winter. I’d be riding my pushbike with rods tied to the frame, bucket on the handle bars, heading for the local marshland or beaches. I was lucky enough to grow up a mile from the shoreline of Southampton Water, an absolute mecca for flounder fishing in its day with 20 plus fish bags and better not just a regular occurrence, but almost a given.

An old photo of some flounder ready for release having been retained in a bucket.

Local matches would be won with huge weights, made up almost exclusively of these obliging fish. At times, you’d forgive yourself for wondering if they were stacked up on top of each other in the surf line, given as soon as one was removed, another would take it’s place to be retrieved on the next cast!

I remember a day on a particular spot that we only fished a small number of times, but one that would reliably produce double figure bags none the less. It was insane by today’s standards. On this fay we fishing two quiver-tips, rigged with 1oz drilled bullets and a size 1 kamasan on a simple running ledge configuration and finished with a bunch of worms flicked a mere 20 yards into the entrance of a creek. 

We then walked up and down, wobbling a spoon as we went, a popular tactic of the day. This session alone produced 24 flounder in a 5 hour period! Even by the standards of the time, it was a day to remember, at times watching 3 or 4 following my spoon and taking it at my feet!

It was a real red letter day, and the specimen fish were amongst them too, with the biggest brace at 2lb 14oz and 2lb 11oz. It felt like with these numbers of fish, they’d be around forever. As it was, this was to be the last year at this mark, before a group of around 6 clamming boats hammered it flat! Every bank, every gully, every shellfish bed… Gone! Flat barren mud was all that was left from this once bountiful habitat crawling with the life upon which the flounder thrive.

Braces of fish like this were typical, but long gone are those days

Many years have passed and the flounder have not returned in anything close to those halcyon days. Perhaps in determination, optimism, denial or through sentimentality, we continued fishing marks such as the reclaimed land and shore road, with bags that comparing to today’s expectations, would still be considered an excellent return, with perhaps 8 or 10 fish and a few good ones in the mix. The sudden drop from what it had been couldn’t be ignored though, and it served as a warning for what was to come.

Over the past 8 years, the numbers have continued to drop dramatically. Why though? Whilst the initial devastation seemed almost certainly to have been bought about by the clamming boats, it couldn’t  just be them, despite there being more around than 10 years ago.

The habitat destruction is very real, but you’d think there’d still be some areas to feed. If there’s still a clam industry worth the boats persisting with, the food the flounder seek must too still be present in the area. 

One other notable factor is the very visible increase in seal numbers, not helped by forced reintroductions of colonies that arguably never existed or were sustained in the fist place. There are now an ever increasing number of large adult seals living in and around Southampton Water and the adjoining solent. Research indicates that they can eat anywhere from 20 to 40lb of fish per day! I, personally, have seen many large flounders being devoured by large seals.

The damage done by the clamming boats is incredibly visible

Despite this, I believe another culprit may be to blame. I don’t profess to have any hard evidence on this, though you’ll find many experienced local anglers come to the same conclusion. Could it be linked to the numbers of bass exploding through the estuarine system?

Whilst flounder fishing through my childhood, teens and into my early 20s, you’d be lucky to land 2 maybe 3 bass per session and generally they would be 3lb plus fish, some smaller, some bigger. These days you can expect to have 20 and upwards and they are all mainly small fish of 5 to 10 inches. I, for one, have taken bass for the table around these areas and when the fish has been gutted, large numbers of juvenile flounder fill their stomachs!

Could this be the issue? Is our fixation on protecting one species because of its commercial importance to those culinary experts, threatening many other species as a result, the flounder being just one of them? 

In all likelihood, it is a combination of many factors and the question of whether flounder will ever make a come back will prove an impossible one to answer. Every time a session passes with a couple of fish, our hopes escalate, only to be dashed by the many blanks that then inevitably follow. 

In the past 3 years, I’ve struggled to find any flounder at all, with just the odd fish being caught. Though with lockdowns and Covid rules the past month, I’ve stayed local and fished hard in the overly optimistic hope that they could one day come back in numbers.

Some hope at least, but 2 flounder from 11 sessions doesn't give much of it

Over 11 sessions, using 8lb of fresh dug rag and involving miles of walking and hours upon hours of fishing time, I’ve managed to bank just 2 flounder in prime fat condition, full of spawn. Needless to say, both were released unharmed. In absolute contrast to this, I’ve landed 100 or more bass in that same time! At times, it was impossible to keep two rods fishing, with bites noticed before putting the rods in the rest.

So how can we help this dire situation, and oversee a recovery that is so pivotal to the introduction of a new generation of anglers to the sport? The first and most obvious step would be to have more areas protected from clammers, to allow the habitat to recover sufficiently to support any growing head of flounder. Secondly,  bass restrictions must be lessened, or something done to understand why numbers of larger fish are seemingly still declining, yet their juvenile offspring are getting out of control. 

Whilst it’s fantastic to see the bass in booming amounts, it is not worth it at the sacrifice of other species. Not only will bass consume the flounder, thus effecting their decline, but the record shoals of juveniles also compete for the same food sources. A booming number in one species nearly always displaces another, it’s how environments, left to their own devices void from human interferences, continually reach an equilibrium. 

I, for one, would love to see them come back, so I can teach my son how to catch them and continue a passion for fishing that we all enjoy. 

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