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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
This article was originally published online in October 2019.