It was not until a year ago or so that I found that like many other estuarine fish, flounder can move far upstream each year for feeding and breeding.
This is not an unusual fish trait, sharks can often be found considerable distances upstream (especially in the lower Waikato River), and of course we all know that both Trout and Salmon run to and from the salt... a one way trip for Salmon, but trout manage it quite easily.
I had not realised though just how far up the rivers Flounder do run, until finally a mate and I came across a number of good sized flounder well up the Waioumu Stream at Matamata.
We have been trout fishing this river for years, but seeing these fish in previously trout-only pools came as something of a shock. I guess it is an indication of recovering flounder populations that the runs are again becoming noticeable. Indeed, this year, we have had an awesome time on the river catching flounder.
My first sight of a flounder in the Waioumu left me stunned.. and just a bit ridiculed by my regular fishing mate, Denn Rasmussen. I had been slowly wading my way up one of the slower moving, silt-bottomed pools in the stream, when from under my feet the familiar “smoke-trail” of a fleeing flounder erupted from under my feet.
Well, when I say “familiar”, it is familiar if you are wading in estuaries eh, but by cripes, when it happens in what you have always thought of as a purely trout fishing stream, it scares the blazes out of you! I don’t know which Dennis found most amusing, the sight of me swinging from a low hanging willow branch, or my reason for being so startled.
“Flounder!” he laughed “geez, you really must be going nuts! There’s no flounder in these streams these days!” Yeah? Well, one pool later, when he saw not one but TWO flounder shooting off into the deeps, I felt perfectly entitled to my smug “I told you so” tirade.
OK then, with the presence of these tasty targets firmly established, we set out to see what we could do about catching some. Over the last few years, I have become very keen on flounder netting (I shall elaborate on this later in the article), but such a simple method of catching these fish in the protected trout waters would I suspect land us in some very hot water... Rangers take a dim view of people walking up trout streams dragging gill-nets.
So, obviously netting was out as an option. Luckily, thanks to the internet, I have been able to chat with fellow fishos overseas, where catching flounder on rod and reel is a common practice, such as along the eastern coast of the US for example (West coast flounder are a different proposition...they call them “Halibut” and those guys are measured in feet!), and these guys gave me a few helpful tips.
So it was that Denn and I started experimenting with various rigs for tempting flounder. Because of the restrictions on fishing placed on us by the areas trout fishing regulations, we were not allowed to use baits in this area, so instead we opted for more acceptable (to the rangers anyhow) methods. We have found that soft plastic or silicon lures are reasonably effective at attracting the attentions of these fish.
By casting slightly upstream of the pools (flounder tend to sit in deeper pools and slower moving reaches along the rivers. They are almost impossible to spot when not moving, as anyone who knows flounder will be able to tell you) we let these soft plastic “baits” wash over the lips of the pools into the deeper waters. By gently bouncing the lures across the bottom, we found that we started to pick up fish.
At first it was only a stream of trout... often quite large Brownies up to 2 kgs or more, but as we slowed down our retrieve, we began picking up the odd flounder Then we were in for a heckuva surprise!
With the current to help them, it turns out that a flounder on a rod and reel is a pretty excellent fighter! These fish have a mean turn of speed, and can quickly strip line from your average trout spinning gear, dare I say it, even more so than a trout will! A flounder can shoot across the bottom with blistering speed when hooked, and lifting this fish off the bottom is pretty hard to achieve. Anyone who has caught a stingray will go along with this, a bottom-sticking fish is tough to lift!
However, in the freshwater streams, flounder do far more than just clamp themselves to the bottom. Perhaps it is the flowing water that lifts them, but once you get the fish moving they will often fight it out in mid-water, and to our considerable surprise, we have even had flounder jump several times!
Many of you may have seen sting-rays jumping at sea.. certainly if you have been to the tropics where Manta rays are more common you will have, well flounder are just like that. Not particularly aerobatic, these fish can flap up out of the water like a doormat in a strong wind, leaping perhaps 6 or seven inches.
A flounder will not usually do this just for the fun of getting air-born though, as do trout. I suspect that flounder do this with malice-aforethought to tie you up in trees... as almost every time I have seen a flounder leap, it has been right under a hanging willow or bank-side bush, and have lost fish after they have entangled my line in the branches.
Should a flounder stay hooked for long, it will soon tire of being hedged in one pool. Flounder are not shy about shooting upstream or down through rapids. A flounder, headed downstream through rapids is impossible to stop, it is at this time that line capacity on your reel is crucial.. many times Denn and I have been saved only by the fact that we have our spinning reels loaded with Fireline, a non-stretch line that is roughly one third the thickness of nylon.
About the only time you really see flounder moving about in the streams is in the warmer parts of the afternoon, as they often move up to the shallower waters just below riffles and rapids, presumably feeding on stuff washed down to them.
Using spin tackle and small soft plastic lures was fine, but it dawned on me that these fish would be great fun on a fly-rod. Many of the salt-water fly patterns are imitations of small crabs and shrimp, which are prime flounder-tucker in the salt water, so I guessed that they would probably have to do the trick with these fish running up into the fresh water.
So it was that one day Dennis and I headed upstream from the main Matamata/Tauranga highway bridge to try for some more flounder, he with his usual spin tackle, me with a light 4 weight flyrod. Dennis was first to score, but only as he started first, the first pool or two we came too having no room for fly-casting. However, the next pool was far more open, so I finally was able to flick my small crazy-charlie fly across the swirling water at the head of the pool.
Being a saltwater fly, this was a fairly heavy lure, so it sank very nicely into the waters just below the lip of the pool. It was a considerable surprise, and pleasure, to have my line come tight after only one or two short strips of the line, and immediately this fish took off in a hurry, whipping off all my mainline and a good chunk of backing, as it shot not down into the pool, but straight ahead, through the swift waters above the pool.
Scrambling to follow, I had no idea if this was a trout or a flounder, most flounder we had hooked had been a little further back in the pools, and had not shot forward like this before. I was understandably keen to see just what I had hooked into!
I was delighted to see, as I scrambled up the bank to the next pool’s margins, the broad smoke trail of a nice flounder. None of the flounder we have seen up here have been undersized, mostly hovering around 30cm or so, but this one looked to be a little better.
In this somewhat larger pool, I finally was able to get to grips with this fish. Not at all a jumper, this flounder slugged it out on the bottom of the pool. It set itself on the bottom a couple of times, and with only a fairly light nylon leader, I had to be careful not to exert too much force trying to pry the fish from the silty bottom.
By moving up the river bank, I was able to get better angles on the fish, levering the head up, the current through the pool doing the rest in lifting the fish clear of the floor. It took a fair while, probably a good 15 minutes, but I at last managed to get this top fish to the shallows where I was finally able to get a hand under it to flip it onto the dry pebbles. This is great sport, and even better eating!
There is no mention of flounder on the trout fishing licences for this area, probably through some official oversight, but Dennis and I assume that the size and bag limits that hold good for salt water floundering must apply to these river flounder. We have yet to even come close to getting our bag limits of 20 each of these tasty treats, our combined best being 9 in one day, but we seldom score less than three or four between us.
For a big haul of flounder though, Denn and I still head over to his favourite spot on the Tauranga harbour. Denn has sworn me to secrecy (well, he swore AT me about secrecy to be honest) as to just where we go, but I am allowed to say that Pahoia is a little estuary with a small rest-area just past Omokoroa. I can tell you no more than this!
We shoot over there with Denn's 11ft Ramco, where we like to set net, being the lazy-mans way of floundering, as opposed to the more arduous Dragging, especially in the thick, glutinous mud at our spot X. To make this a more efficient game, I bought a new 60m set net from Gourocks in Freemans Bay, which is far better than converting the Rasmussens drag net into a set net, by simple reason of the extra 20m of net you are allowed!
We motor out to our usual spot, on the edge of one of the several channels in this small estuary, and set the net just after the full tide. Then, having nothing better to do, we usually take off for the mouth of the estuary to have a crack at some snapper or whatever we can find on rod and reel, a pleasant hours diversion while we wait for the current to start flowing out.
After the first hour of flow, we head back up to the net, to make sure everything is laying right, that nothing has rolled up the net and always in the hope of finding something worth while in the meshes. So far, we have only taken the very occasional flounder, and one small eagle ray, from the net in this first hour or so of the tide, the action really only starts from the second hour onwards. Recently, the hauls have been very good, with 10-15 fish each hour coming from the net. It only takes a couple of checks to have 25 or more flounder in our bin, more than enough for us, which is as well, as the flounder “run” tends to taper off in the bottom half of the ebb... we’d be lucky to get another half dozen fish in the last couple of sets.
These saltwater flounder are identical to the ones we get up the rivers, although we have yet to come across any Dab or Sand flounder (easy to tell from normal flounder by their distinctly diamond shape) upstream, perhaps they are not inclined to move so far up the rivers. We have never thought to check in the fresh water streams coming from the Tauranga harbour, but I would expect as many fish to be up those creeks as are up our local ones here in the heart of the Waikato.
Our flounder have obviously come up from the Firth of Thames, following up the current from the lower Waihou river system. I have not noticed any particular taste difference between the fish from the salt water and the fresh, but the river fish have all been full of roe, so I assume that these are just seasonal runs upstream to spawn.
Anyhow, that has been the highlight of my year so far flounder chasing in the Waikato streams near my home here in Matamata, a flounder on a line in a stream is a far better fighter than any trout of similar size, and by far a better eating fish. Go out there and try it, and see if you can find some freshwater flounder in a stream near you!
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