They may all be flat, but not all flounder are created equal.
Three different species are caught in North Carolina waters. And two grow to larger sizes.
Summer flounder are northern flounder and are most common from New River Inlet north along the Atlantic coast, are the largest of the three species and are caught more frequently in the ocean. Gulf flounder are common up to two pounds. Southern flounder are roughly the same size, but it’s not uncommon to see larger ones that reach more than 30 inches and double-digits in weight.
Less than five years ago, summer flounder were governed by different regulations and southerns and gulfs, but regulations are standard now: a statewide minimum of 15 inches and a six-fish daily creel limit.
All three species have a flat, rounded body with a top side that can vary in color depending on the composition of the bottom where they are found; their bottom side is white. While often difficult to see, gulf flounder have three ocellated spots on their dark side, and summer flounder have five ocellated spots on their dark side. Southern flounder do not have the ocellated spots.
Flounder are very versatile in coping with their environment and are found in a variety of habitats from well offshore to far inland. They have been caught as far inland as Weldon in the Roanoke River, Greenville in the Tar/Pamlico River, Kinston in the Neuse River and upriver from Wilmington in the Cape Fear River. There is a reproducing population of flounder in Sutton Lake, a freshwater cooling reservoir for the Sutton Electric Plant near Wilmington. Flounder are found on smooth bottoms and around a variety of structure, and they feed on small fish, shrimp and crabs.
Flounder reach sexual maturity during their second year and spawn offshore during the fall and winter. Young flounder return to estuarine areas to grow to spawning age. Flounder tolerate captivity well and are successfully spawned in hatcheries and raised to release and market size in aquaculture operations.
The state record flounder was caught by Harold Auten at Carolina Beach in 1980; it weighed 20 pounds, 8 ounces. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ citation program recognizes flounder weighing five pounds or more.