We're getting ready to do some serious flounder fishing, but instead of plying those once rich with flounder places on the Piscataqua River and the coves and back bays connected to it, we'll probably head to Boston Harbor, where flounder fishing has returned to almost its once greatness while ours here hasn't seen that much of a recovery. The two bright spots on the New Hampshire coastline seem to be Rye Harbor and the waters just off the harbor and the Hampton Harbor and also the waters just off the harbors. But even at their best they can't match what goes on in Boston.
Fishing for flounder off the docks in Portsmouth was my first encounter with any kind of fishing. We'd ride our bikes to the docks near what is now Prescott Park, picking up a handful of clams for bait from the fish market nearby that also provided us with our first fishing gear. The gear was pretty simple. A wooden frame wound with about a hundred feet of what then was called cod line, a sinker and a long shanked hook. If for some reason you lost your sinker or hook, you could just run over to the fish market and purchase replacements for a few cents. When you bought this first hand line the clam bait was complimentary (For kids anyhow.)
When we finally got our own boats, we were free to go exploring and found alot of great places to get those flatfish to hit. One of the best places was off Kittery Point and just inside Pepperell Cove. On some days we had enough people going that we'd have three or four boats all putting together their catches so we could have a huge fish fry. Back then none of us was as skilled at filleting and skinning flounder as we are now so it was quite a chore to put our knives to up to fifty flounder but the rewards were always a great party and some incredible eating.
When our flounder started to get scarce we then moved our fishing to more remote places. At the Isles of Shoals, the harbor could produce some huge fish but not quite the number that we'd been used to but their size made up for it. Also we'd found some good places to fill a bucket with flounder off of Hampton Harbor and also the Merrimack River in Salisbury. These fish were run of the mill in size but usually you could count on a good enough catch to support a nice fish fry.
And then, like out of nowhere, came some kind of influence on the fish or their ability to reproduce that catching any flounder anywhere became too hard to even attempt. Friends, that was a very sad situation for those of us that loved to catch and loved to eat these fish. It was like losing some kind of tradition that was woven into the actual garment of your life.
Things had definitely changed for the worse with flounder in the Northeast - big time. Even though the inshore netting of flounder has been banned for many years, this method along with plenty of recreational harvesting brought flounders to a very low point that really hasn't changed in many years.
Fisheries managers have been very frustrated about failure after failure in finding the key to flounder restoration. But finally a puzzle is starting to come together that suggests that the reason for all those failures has been that instead of one big happy school of flounders that mixed and mingled and migrated here and there, it seems like there are distinct and separate flounder populations that are imprinted on each spawning area and do not mix or migrate with others. Studies suggest that flounder populations that say were spawning in Hampton harbor and its rivers would be a separate population of those that were calling the nearby Merrimack River their home. So efforts to manage flounder populations as a whole were missing the boat, so to speak. And adding a lot of confusion to the fish's management as when one area was showing some signs of recovery and looking like the management was working, other distinct populations were failing.
Some of the more robust populations of flounder have even disappeared completely. Places like the Saco River and Bay, Scarborough River and marshes are just about void of these fish. While for the last couple of years flounder appear to be making a resurgence in places like off the mouth of the Hampton River and in the harbor as well as off Rye Harbor.
Why didn't Boston Harbor suffer the same consequences as our waters? One reason may have been their super-abundance to start with. We had never fished there but the flounder catches that started at least a month earlier than our waters were legendary, especially in Quincy Bay were literally a boat full of flounder was not just a saying. Some boat catches were well over a couple hundred fish.
Thank God that now flounders are highly regulated with seasons and bag limits and it looks like if we have enough patience that this management plan could work to bring back some of our flounder fishing, but the quirky thing of having a lot of small populations of genetically related fish may be the stumbling block to seeing a fishable population in our old spots like Pepperell Cove and Newcastle's Back Channel and several other places that were special back when.
We're not terribly happy to have to fight the traffic and drive to Boston Harbor to go flounder fishing. But that's the real world we live in. So we'll tough it out and have hope that Mother Nature will once again provide us a local place to at least provide a decent feed of these great fish.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.