Winter Flounder Fishing on Cape Cod

What happened to the Cape's winter flounder?

Flounder

Pictured Above:While habitat destruction, heavy fishing pressure, and predation by seals and cormorants have knocked down Cape Cod winter flounder numbers, there are still fish to be caught if you know where to look.

I booked my 2019 Nantucket Shoals fluke dates in August 2018—and Captain Jeff Viamari’s calendar was already filling up. The Helen-H sells out just about every Nantucket Shoal fluke trip within days of announcing the dates. There’s no question: Cape Cod has become a major destination for fluke. But what about the fluke’s cold-water cousin?

Just an hour’s drive north of the Cape, the winter flounder fishery is alive and well. Captain Jason Colby of Little Sister Charters fishes Quincy and Boston Harbor where he catches limits of these small-mouthed flatfish. On the Cape, few fishermen target winter flounder.

I’ve gleaned snippets of winter flounder intel while doing the weekly Cape Cod fishing report for On The Water over the past decade. Occasionally, Jeff or Bruce at Canal Bait and Tackle mentioned flounder being caught in the Canal, and Paul Newmeir at Blackbeard’s infrequently spoke of flounder being caught in Cape Cod Bay.

Flounder

I’ve spoken with fishermen who had some success in Provincetown Harbor, and the late Dave “Pops” Masch, beloved On The Water columnist, once told me that the harbors on the Cape Cod side of Buzzards Bay were a hotspot decades ago.

But mainly, the mention of Cape Cod winter flounder caused fishermen to wax nostalgic about days when casting worms from a harbor dock was a sure thing for securing a flounder dinner. They also fondly recalled how flounder were available all year, and how fishermen filleting large striped bass regularly found winter flounder stacked like flapjacks in stripers’ stomachs.

flounder
The small-mouthed flounder roots around the bottom for worms and invertebrates.

There wasn’t much to go on, but every year I made a few half-hearted attempts. I soaked sandworms in Green Harbor, Megansett Harbor, Quisset Harbor, and Sandwich Marina. I caught schoolie stripers, scup, sea bass and, in Sandwich, a few juvenile pollock. I did catch two winter flounder, both by accident. One hit a fluke rig drifted off the south side of Falmouth, and the other was foul-hooked on a soft-plastic jig meant for an early-season schoolie. Both were keeper-sized, and both I released out of fear that if I kept them, I’d end up with the blood of the Cape’s last blackback on my hands.

Still, every spring, I sought more information about the species, figuring that somewhere out there, one of the old guard was enjoying fresh flounder dinners each spring. I was surprised when it was a 30-something captain, Diogo Godoi, who showed me the way to Cape flounder.

Godoi runs striped bass and tuna trips through Coastal Charters Sportfishing with Captain Dom Petrarca. The duo specializes in spinning-rod tuna fishing, and Petrarca targets nothing else. Godoi starts his season chasing stripers before switching over to tuna full-time in midsummer. On his early-season scouting trips, before his striper season gets underway, he keeps some flounder gear on board.

Flounder
Captain Diogo Godoi with a Cape Cod Bay blackback.

I was looking too shallow, Godoi advised, when he invited me out on a late-May morning last year. Instead of the shallow, protected, mud-bottom flats where I’d focused my winter flounder efforts, he told me we’d be fishing 40- to 50-foot depths in the open expanse of Cape Cod Bay.

Winter flounder were once a favorite species for fishermen from New Jersey to Maine. Anglers would kickstart their seasons by filling buckets with these flatfish, which seemed to pave the bays in never-ending numbers. While that wanton harvest didn’t help the flounder numbers, habitat destruction doomed them. South of Cape Cod, anglers can keep only two winter flounder per day. The old-timers, used to the days of full buckets and easy fishing—even from shore—don’t bother, and the younger anglers, having never experienced good flounder fishing, don’t even give it a shot. Yet, even with those restrictive regulations—and minimal angling effort—the flounder have failed to come back.

It’s the eel grass, many fishermen believe. The once-lush meadows of eel grass that coated the bottoms of our bays are gone, victims of over-nutrification and the resulting algae blooms created by run-off and pollution. Along with the eel grass went a rich nursery for a variety of inshore species, including the winter flounder.

Around the Cape, fishermen also point their fingers at one of their favorite scapegoats, the seals. Gray seals—which have enjoyed a population boom over the past decade and a half—found an easy target in the bottom-dwelling flounder. With their immense appetites for fish, seals could have seriously dented the local stock, though, by many accounts, the flounder scarcity predated the seal superabundance. Either way, the 50,000 fish-loving pinnipeds currently calling Cape Cod home aren’t helping things.

Cormorants—another fish-eater with a booming population—also share in the blame. Vast flocks of these “devil ducks” descend on the Cape each spring with ravenous appetites—and backwater flounder nurseries are one of their favorite hunting grounds.

In truth, it’s all of these things—and probably some others we don’t fully understand—that wiped out the winter flounder of the Cape’s bays and harbors.

In open water, however, the fishing remains great, Godoi assured me as he pulled back the throttles over his flounder numbers. We were fishing 40 to 50 feet of water, and instead of the seaworms I was accustomed to baiting the Chestertown-style flounder hooks with, Godoi set to shucking a bucket full of super-sized mussels he’d bartered off a local shellfisherman.

mussles for flounder
A two-hook rig, baited with mussels is a favorite for Cape Cod flounder.

“This is what they’re after,” Godoi said, as he handed me the bait. “The draggers crack up the shells and it makes an easy meal for the flounder.”

We didn’t have to wait long for bites; in fact, we didn’t have to wait long for our limit. Though we didn’t keep the full eight fish apiece we could have (winter flounder regulations differ north and south of Cape Cod), we caught at least sixteen 12-inch or better flatfish in a little more than an hour. It was a glimpse of what I imagine winter flounder fishing was once like in harbors from Maine to New Jersey—fun, easy fishing with the promise of a delicious meal afterward.

The flounder bit with sharp rat-a-tat-tats, and I missed far more than I hooked, treating them like their big-mouthed summer cousins by swinging for the fences. Godoi, by giving them time to eat and setting the hook with a slow, steady lift of the rod, had a nearly flawless hook-up percentage. Even when he did miss, he lowered the bait right back and got a second shot. On my wild swings, the bait usually tore off the hook, forcing me to reel in and re-bait.

The fish fought hard against the lighter tackle, and unlike fluke, which are adept at shaking hooks, once hooked, the flounder always seemed to make it into the boat.

By 8:00 a.m., we’d had our fill of flounder fishing, and moved into the beaches to see if any stripers had made their way through the Canal. I’d experienced a glimmer of hope for the Cape flounder fishery, and reignited my interest in finding more of these forgotten flatfish within casting (or at least kayak) range of shore.

Captain Diogo Godoi
Coastal Charters Sportfishing

Related Content

Read: How to De-Bone a Winter Flounder

Read: Winter Flounder fishing in New Jersey

This article was originally published online in October 2019.

 

12 on “Winter Flounder Fishing on Cape Cod

  1. Cam

    Great article. Each spring I always try green pond but always come up empty handed. Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to get one south of the cape.

  2. Ty

    Great article. Grew up going to fish flounder in Boston and Quincy with my grandfather.(launching out of Hurleys back in the 70’s and 80’s) Started going again about 7 or 8 years ago. Greaty to spend a weekend or two every spring. Great eating too. Will have to give great mussels a try.

  3. Pete

    Used to spend summer on Great Island in Galilee RI in the 60’s & 70’s, used to catch’em right off the bridge going over to the island. Great article, brings back great memories.

  4. Steve

    I fished Quincy Bay once with friends on one of their boats, basically with no clue what we were doing. We caught scores of flounder and kept most of them. During the late 70’s and early 80’s I fished Plymouth Harbor and Bay from my Skiff. The amount of flounder we caught was obscene. One trip my wife, young son and I fished inside of Plymouth Long Beach. We made two drifts from the point to the jetty and caught 70 flounder, a bluefish and a fluke. They caught almost all the fish and I kept busy with mate duties.
    When I look back we were so clueless keeping far too many fish.

  5. Cole

    I catch a few off my dock in maine. Just gotta get lucky. My biggest so far is 14 inches. Sand worms and clam. If the tides right I sight fish for them at night with spotlights.

  6. Lee

    As a young man in my late 20’s; in the early 1980’s I remember the “older timers” talking about the good old days! Bailing hundred’s of pounds of codfish off the southern coast of Long Island and the coast of New Jersey. In 1981, 1982 and 1983, for three days (right around Election Day in November), a friend and I drove from New Jersey to Hull, MA to fish for winter flounder in Quincy Bay. The number of fish we caught in 2 1/2 days was obscene. Literally hundreds of fish! We filleted every one, iced them, and our families enjoyed them for months! Now as I am about to turn 65 years of age in a few weeks; I can lament about the “good old days”! But I also ask myself, how much did my friend and I contribute to the demise of the winter flounder fishery?

  7. Jerry

    I stayed in Falmouth several weeks a summer back late 70s early 80s and had good success catching winter flounder in Great Pond on seaworms, along with schoolies,scup, and occasional seabass. We always caught a decent amount. Enough to target

  8. Ed Kasper

    We still catch in CT But it is tough fishing Try seeding areas with crushed mussels then drift through those areas seeded with 2 long Sandworms If u get a tap let line out then after counting to 4 lift to set Hook

  9. Bob aiello

    Okay. I’m guilty of overharvesting flounder in the hey day in quincy bay area. There were a bunch of skiff rental shops but we used Harvey’s. 6 of us went out 2 to a boat and staged our own tournament. The other 2 boats came in and thought they were winners with 100+ fish each boat. We barely made it to the dock as our boat was overloaded with 275 winter flounder. This was a 4 hour rental. Our competition was not happy having to pay our rental and fish cleaning (10 cents a fish). I look back today with some regret that there were no limits back in the seventies but I am still not convinced overfishing was the reason. At least I have a good fishing story

    1. Ross Goldberg

      I used to make the trip from New Jersey to Quincy as a college guy
      We would catch 100 bailing them with 2 rods in hand. Lots of fun but unfortunately was too young to think of the consequences to the fishery. Great memories and glad to ear their coming back
      Capt Ross
      The Lady J

  10. Steve

    Not as much as Gov. Dukakis did when he let the bottom dragging trawlers did in the late 80’s. I used to fish Hull every year.

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