by Frank Sargeant
For those who are not sitting in a deer stand this month, there's lots of fishing action to be found on the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, it's the best time of the year to go after two of the tastiest species in saltwater, flounder and sheepshead.
Flounder school up in November and December as they prepare to head out the passes and settle on the nearshore reefs to spawn, while sheepshead move into the back bays, potholes and deep creeks to feed on oysters, barnacles and other crunchies.
Finding the Fish
Live killifish are a favorite bait around much of the Gulf for flounder, but live shrimp also catches plenty.
Flounder inside the bay in November are likely to be close to bridge pilings, rip-rap or docks, as well s along the edges of oyster bars--anywhere that killifish and shrimp are likely to pass within range. Because of their build, they're nearly always found on sand bottom; they burrow into the sand and wait for prey to pass near enough to catch, so they're not inclined to settle on rock or oyster shell.
The fish also come out of the bays in large schools this month headed to their spawning areas along the beaches, typically within a few miles of the jetties. But before they spread out to the reefs, they sometimes hang around just outside the passes near the buoy line, where smart anglers can anchor up and work them over. They can also be caught from the sand in front of the rocks lining the major Panhandle passes at times as the migration is in progress.
When they're on the reefs off the beaches--typically at depths of 20 feet to 60 feet--they tend to lie on the sand on the downtide side when the flow is strong. They're not usually found up on the structure itself, which is where the grouper and snapper rule.
Biologists tell us that most flounder over 15 inches long are females--and the males, once they go offshore, usually remain there throughout their lives. This is true for both common flounder species in the Gulf of Mexico, the gulf flounder and the southern flounder. Maximum size on female gulf flounder is around 18 inches, while southern flounder can reach 28 inches. Spawning takes place from late November through January in most years, researchers say.
Sheepshead are nearly always found close to hard structure; rocky creek and coastal river holes will be prime after the first freeze, but until then most will be found around docks, pilings, bridges and wrecks inside the large bays, anywhere that oysters or barnacles can grow.
What They Eat
Both species of flounder grow up eating shrimp, but as they mature they seem to prefer small baitfish. Menhaden, anchovies, pinfish, grunts, pigfish, croakers, and mullet are all part of their diet, but even the larger ones prefer baits no more than 4 inches long. The banded killifish, aka "bull minnow" or "mud minnow" is the favorite bait around the panhandle, mostly because it's readily obtained at bait shops or via a minnow trap, but also because they're hardy in the baitwell and the flounder love them. Baby pinfish are also very good, while for larger flounder on the reefs, finger mullet are tops.
Where live bait is not available, a fresh-cut strip of pinfish or mullet, 3 inches long and a half-inch wide, with plenty of meat on the leading end, can work well, particularly when tide flow is strong enough to carry the scent.
Most anglers who target flounder use an egg sinker of 1 to 2 ounces, depending on water depth and current, secured by a swivel, with a dropper of 20-pound-test mono about 18 inches long below the swivel running to a size 1/0 to 2/0 circle or Kahle style light wire hook. Larger hooks mean fewer hookups--flounder have relatively small mouths. Larger hooks also are tougher for baits to carry, reducing the number of bites.
Flounder can also be caught on the DOA Shrimp, soft plastic crabs, Gulp! shrimp and crabs and on small mullet-like swimbaits drifted with the current or crawled slowly along bottom--they don't often run down a hopping jig as trout and reds do.
Sheepshead can be tricky to hook due to their hard, toothy jaws--small hooks and baits are a must.
However, a 1/8 ounce jig with a 3-inch shrimp tail, plus a small sliver of fresh-cut shrimp on the hook, can be highly effective for flounder, particularly when fished around docks, rip-rap and pilings. The lure is crawled, with only occasional short hops, rather than the large hops used for trout and reds. The shrimp sliver will require frequent replacement, but adding that bit of scent makes a huge difference in the catch on most days.
Sheepshead are pretty much a natural bait proposition--they rarely take an artificial unless it's dosed up with scent. A fresh-cut shrimp tail on a size 1/0 hook is hard to beat, but they also readily eat oysters, barnacles and fiddler crabs, among other crustaceans. (Frozen shrimp is a very poor second to fresh shrimp for sheepshead fishing.)
Flounder don't slam a bait and run off with it as trout, reds and other species often do. Though they sometimes hit hard, particularly on baitfish, they then usually settle right back down on bottom to finish swallowing the meal. This can make the line go slack, which causes the angler to think the fish missed the bait.
For that reason, anytime you're in flounder territory, it often pays to gently raise the rod tip anytime you feel a bump on the line--if there's weight there, a flounder probably has the hook in its mouth. Make a slow, smooth pull--or reel rapidly--and the circle hook will stick the fish. A hard hook set, as you might use with conventional hooks, tends to make a circle or Kahle hook come free.
Typical trout tackle is fine for flounder--a 7-foot medium-light spinning rod, 2500 to 3000-size reel and 10-pound-test braid is ideal, but a light-duty baitcaster with 15-pound-test mono is also fine. If you're fishing outside the passes or around the artificial reefs where larger reef species may crash the act, move up to 15-pound-test braid on spinning gear, 20-pound-test mono on baitcasters, plus stouter action rods.
Best way to get a flounder to the boat is to reel steadily. They're rarely large enough to budge the drag, and the classic pump-and-reel fight used for larger fish sometimes causes the hook to fall out of their mouths.
Sheepshead are tricky to hook; most anglers use a J-hook and set the instant they feel pressure from a bite. These fish are noted for quickly nipping off a bait and expelling the hook, so it takes some experience to hook them consistently--going down a size or two on hooks can help if the fish are small.
Most anglers who focus on sheepshead around the pilings carry a spud or hoe to knock oysters and barnacles off the structure, creating a chumline. These bits of meat and broken shell can keep the bite going for hours at times.
Boating the Catch
Flounder frequently get hooked on the outer edges of their mouths, particularly on live bait fished on circle hooks, and this area is very delicate. On larger fish, the hook will often pull free if you try to raise the catch up out of the water without help from a net. Sheepshead have tougher mouths, but it's still a good idea to net the big ones if you've got your sights on a seafood dinner.
Best nets for this duty have a 6-foot handle--the typical 4-foot nets sold at big box stores don't have the reach to get at them easily from many boats.
There's no closed season on either species of flounder. The minimum size is 12 inches, the bag limit 10 per person per day. The FFWC says there are adequate numbers of the fish to support these harvest rules for the foreseeable future.
Sheepshead are also abundant. There's no closed season, minimum size is 12 inches, and the bag is 15 per person per day.
How to Cook 'Em
Flounder are easily cleaned, and they make outstanding table fare.
Both flounder and sheepshead are prime seafood, with delicate white meat that's never oily or "fishy" in any recipe. However, both present a bit of a challenge in cleaning.
Flounder are basically "one-sided" fish, with most of the muscle--the edible flesh--on the top side. This means they are best filleted with a very thin slightly curved fillet knife. Experts advise removing the lower or white side of the fish first--lay the fish flat, cut around the skin, flatten the knife and fillet to the backbone, then go up and over the bone and cut down on the other side before flattening the knife again to take off the second part of the fillet.
This gives a one-piece fillet with only a tiny bit of bone that can easily be removed before cooking. The same action removes the top of the fish, and then a flat skinning knife can be used to peel away the skin. (If the fish are small, they're also great cooked whole--just remove the head and entrails, wash thoroughly, score the top side of the fish and put a bit of butter over it before broiling. The skin can be easily peeled after cooking. You eat the top fillet, then lift out the backbone and eat the bottom fillet.)
Sheepshead have a more conventional build than flounder, but they are armed with incredibly abundant and sharp spines that can make cleaning them very painful. Best bet is to use kitchen shears and nip off the spines before starting the filleting process--they can then be handled like any other fish. They're great grilled, broiled or fried.