Illuminating a hidden world

Illustration of a gulf flounder by Diane Peebles, provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

We’d been working the banks hard that night, straining our eyes to see even a few inches through water that looked more like chocolate milk.

Whenever we’d push the john boat over a patch of cleaner water, the pan lights clamped to the gunnel would reveal a hidden world.

Blue crabs crouched among the oysters, sometimes one every foot or two. Stone crabs here and there crushed oysters with their oversized claws. The occasional mantis shrimp scurried from the lights. Ghost-like blobs of white barely visible at the bottom turned out to be whelks spilling out of their shells to feed on oysters.

Two small terrapin turtles joined us for a stretch, paddling for all they were worth to keep pace with the orbs of light under the boat’s bow and stern.

Pinfish and small redfish hovered just off the bottom, usually tucked in beside a big cluster of oysters. White shrimp flittered through the light, while schools of small mullet broke into a panic at every turn (one small fish even jumped into the boat).

For about an hour we drifted along with the tide, cursing the muddy water we knew hid plenty of flounder. Finally, as we rounded a shelly point, we hit pay dirt. The water cleared for a moment, and suddenly I found myself staring at a familiar shape: An oblong, dark spot on the bottom, shaped like an ace of spades.

I brought the gig down hard, hitting the flounder a little behind the gills. The water erupted in a cloud of silt as the fish struggled briefly. I swung it into the boat, and as I was shaking the fish into a basket at my feet, I spotted another flounder just few feet away. In just a short stretch of bank, we put three fish in the boat.

We gigged for a few more hours, scoring only one more flatfish but observing plenty of marine wildlife. A close encounter with a sea turtle, maybe a small loggerhead or green turtle, provided the heart-stopping highlight of the evening. When it jetted off the sandy bottom at the edge of our lights, it looked, for a moment, like the mother of all flounder.

Thank goodness neither of us brought a gig down.

That’s flounder gigging — an addictive mix of hunting, fishing and nighttime exploration. There’s nothing quite like it, and those with a taste for adventure (and fresh fish) still have a few weeks to give it a try.

In fact, late summer and early fall offer some of the best opportunities for gigging, particularly as water clarity improves. Big flounder move offshore to spawn in the winter, but can be found in good numbers in inlets and nearby waterways just before they head out.

Flounder must be at least 14 inches long to keep, so judge carefully before sticking a fish.

Anglers are allowed to take 20 flounder per person per day, not to exceed 40 per boat (half that in waters from Pawleys Inlet north to Garden City Beach, where generators also are not allowed.)

Many conservation-minded anglers consider the 20-flounder limit too generous, and it’s possible that new regulations will lower it at some point over the next few years.

In the meantime, if you happen to come across good numbers of flounder, gig only those you’re sure you’ll eat (they can’t be sold).

Take it easy on these fish.

The first segment of the statewide dive season opened Saturday and will run through Oct. 6. The second segment will be Nov. 17-Nov. 24, and the last Dec. 21-Jan. 15.

The daily bag limit is 15 mourning doves per day, per person. There’s no limit on Eurasian collared doves.

Most dive hunting is done on private land, but the state does plant a number of dove fields open to the public. The following special regulations apply to all Wildlife Management Area public dove fields:

Hunters are limited to 50 shells per hunt

Dove hunting on all public fields is afternoon only. No entry onto fields before noon.

No shooting after 6 p.m. during the first segment of the season (Sept. 1–Oct. 6).

Here are some of the public dove fields near Charleston:

Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/WMA: Edisto Island. All hunts are youth hunts only. Sept. 1, Sept. 15, Nov. 17, Dec.22 and Jan.12

Canal WMA: St. Stephen, Sept. 1,8; Oct. 6; Nov. 17.

Donnelley WMA: Green Pond. Sept. 1, Sept. 8, Sept. 15 and Nov. 24.

Samworth WMA: Georgetown. Sept. 1, Sept. 8; Oct. 6 and Nov. 17.

For complete dove hunting regulations, check

Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or