Captain Dan, the ‘Flounder Man’ has been hunting flounder on the Texas coast for more than 30 years. In the dark of night, Captain Dan escorts his clients along the Gulf shore in his brightly lit skiff and stalks flounder laying on the sandy floor. Armed with miniature tridents set on poles, his clients wait until they see the tell-tale sign of a flounder, two reflective eyes peering up from the sand. Once the client is in striking distance, he or she plunges the trident down through the flat fish.
It’s called flounder gigging (yes, similar to the type of frog hunting where ‘Gig ‘Em‘ comes from) and it’s arguably the most popular way to catch flounder on the Texas coast. Unfortunately, commercial fishing, weather and certain types of gigging have put a hurt on Texas’ flounder. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is trying to stem the decline of flounder in Texas with a breeding program and stricter bag limits on flounder, and it seems to be working.
“I’m seeing a big increase in numbers,” says Captain Dan, who was a Gulf Coast commercial fisherman for 30 years before starting his own guide service three years ago.
Texas’ flounder breeding program is the only one of its kind in the Gulf. It started, in earnest, around 2008, says Shane Bonnot, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hatchery manager at Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson.
While the Wildlife Department has only bred flounder for about five years, it has been breeding redfish and spotted sea trout since the seventies. The flounder breeding program started under similar pretenses to the redfish and trout programs: huge population declines. The decimation of the flounder population off Texas’ coast was not a surprise, though.
“The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been monitoring flounder, along with with other fish, for 35 years by sampling. Over the years, slowly but surely, the flounder populations declined,” Bonnot says.
For one, flounder are persnickety breeders. Above-average water temperatures, like the ones hitting all of Texas in recent decades, adversely affect the winter-time breeding of flounder (Southern Flounder to be exact). Human fishing, particularly commercial shrimp fishing and gigging in November, also made a big dent, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.
“The most important part of the recovery was restricting the catch of flounder. They changed bag limits in 2009-2010,” Bonnot says. “During November, there is no gigging. That is a breeding and migration time.”
Bag limits were cut in half for recreational anglers — from ten flounder to five — and for commercial fishermen — from 60 flounder to 30.
Captain Dan believes the single biggest factor in improving the amount of flounder has been the restriction of November gigging. In November, the flounder migrate and can become bottlenecked in channels, which makes them easy picking.
“Thirty years ago none of this mattered, but it does today becaue of overpopulation. Now we have overpopulation and people pounding on the species,” Captain Dan says.
It will take a few more years for the flounder program to be fully operational. It took about ten years for the wildlife department to totally develop the redfish breeding program, Bonnot says. The Parks and Wildlife department is intent on totally developing the flounder breeding program, he added.
Despite running a business contingent on fullfilling his client’s desire to catch lots of big fish, Captain Dan is all for stricter limits on keeping flounder. He says five flounder fillets per person per night, plus numerous fillets from other fish like sheepshead and drum, are enough to satisfy almost all of his customers.
“You have meat hogs. I can tell when they go out with me because they are never happy unless they hit their limit,” Captain Dan said. “It’s not all about killing fish, it’s about going out and enjoying nature. There’s more to it than killing fish.”
David Barer is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas.