Meet the Fleet’s flounder foray

May 29, 2024 | Aids to Navigation

Bill Amaru, left, and his son Jason talk about fishing for flounder at Meet the Fleet.


By Doreen Leggett

Meet the Fleets are all about demystifying the lives of commercial fishermen and the catch they bring to shore. There is lot of confusion out there.

Aubrey Church, policy director at the Fishermen’s Alliance, offered an example. Years ago, her mother saw lemon sole in the grocery store and wondered if it was lemon-flavored flounder.

“It’s a running joke in my family,” Church said with a laugh.

A full house at the Fishermen’s Alliance’s April Meet the Fleet chuckled along with her, and as they would find out, it is tough to know your flounders; there are numerous different species and remembering them gets even harder because they have multiple names. Lemon sole is also known as winter flounder. Summer flounder is sometimes called fluke and witch flounder is sold as grey sole.

Captain Bill Amaru joined his son Jason, Chef Ben Porter from Viera in Chatham, and Church to say that there were more than 600 types of flounder, regaling the crowd with fun facts about the flat fish — including how they “change their spots.”

Some flounders are considered masters of disguise as they use chromatophores, skin cells that contain colors, or pigments, that can change to blend in with the ocean floor, Amaru explained.

Church added one of the most curious facts of all: Flounders are born round and as they age one of their eyes migrates. Depending on the type of flounder the eye can move right or left. A winter flounder is a right eyed-flounder, a summer flounder is left.

Summer flounders are one of the most sought-after, commercially and recreationally.

“This is the only one that has teeth,” Jason said.

Jason catches all types of flounders, and said they all aren’t created equal. Winter flounder, abundant in the 1980s, have no teeth to speak of. Their mini-mouths make it virtually impossible to catch them with a hook.

When Bill Amaru started fishing close to 50 years ago he used hook and line, but as years passed he opted to go dragging. Dragging, he said, is a mobile gear and provides more flexibility than hooks or gillnets that remain stationary until you pull them in.

Jason fished a bit with his father when he was in high school, but ended up going to Massachusetts Maritime and working out of state after graduation.

Too many years away from family convinced him to come back and fish with his dad, and now that Bill Amaru is semi- retired, Jason has taken over the JoAnne III, the third iteration of the boat named after his mom. Joanne was in the audience with Jason’s wife, Cheri.

Now Jason’s son Christian runs the boat with him. They fish year-round for squid and scallops as well as flounder.

“He is good on a boat, just like my son is,” Bill said.

The flounder they most often bring up is grey sole, otherwise known as witch flounder (to remember the names, the old debatable saw is that witches have grey souls).

“This is really what we make our living on. It’s a white tablecloth fish, you’d see it in the Russian Tea Room — when it existed,” said Bill to laughter.

Most grey sole goes overseas, but isn’t fetching a good price. They are getting around $1.20 a pound, the same as in 1999.

Bill Amaru says the price is down as the local market disappeared and many buyers looked to Alaska to fill the void.

“We haven’t cracked back into that,” Bill said. “I wish the markets would have them for you to enjoy.”

The Amarus are also happy to catch halibut, not a flounder but still a flatfish. They can only keep one halibut, which has to be more than 40 inches, per trip but it fetches a good price at the market.

Father and son were involved in a halibut tagging project several years ago with the Fishermen’s Alliance. The project was designed to give managers more data on the health and biology of the species. Many fishermen believe halibut numbers are increasing and if that anecdotal information is backed up by data then the catch limit can be increased.

Jason pointed out the United States’ commercial fisheries are heavily regulated. He said he needs to have a federal observer aboard keeping tabs on the catch 100 percent of the time or have a camera on the vessel. The mesh they use is six and a half inches, meant to allow small fish to swim right through.

“That’s the largest size mesh of any fishery in the world,” Jason said.

Jason will tow for about an hour and half, bringing up mostly flounder. Some other species he can keep, others he cannot. One keeper is Jonah crabs for his father, who enjoys eating them.

Some trips are good and he will be in and out in a day. Others, said Jason, take two days to pay the bills.

The Amarus are one of only a few small-boat trawlers locally. Their net, 150 feet long and 60 feet wide, is held open by “doors” that look a lot like vertical airplane wings.  The net is pulled along at a slower pace than fish can swim, but as the fish tire they are collected in the back of the net, called the cod end. The net is then brought aboard, emptied and sorted – after stern boards (like a tailgate) are dropped in place.

“We do a lot of fishing in the dark, especially for flounder,” said Bill.

They have an ice maker on the boat to make sure the fish get the best treatment possible, a bath in saltwater slurry.

The flounder of the evening was a yellowtail, picked up earlier from Chatham Fish & Lobster.

“If it’s fresh, yellowtail has a flavor like no other,” Jason said.

“It came in super fresh. It looks awesome. I’m excited to try it myself,” said Chef Porter.

Porter said since flounder is thin, he rolls it to keep it moist. If he is cooking in the oven, a temperature of 350 is good for any white fish, he noted.

The Almond Panko Flounder with Herb Mayo disappeared in moments.

The dish was such a hit Porter planned on serving yellowtail flounder the next weekend at his restaurant, located a stone’s throw from Chatham’s Orpheum theater.

If people missed flounder on the menu at Viera’s, Porter’s helpful tips will be a boon in the coming months. Chatham Harvesters, a fishermen’s co-op, has local fish available at pop-ups and Farmers Markets.

“They buy summer flounder from me in the summertime,” Jason said.

A NOAA Fisheries “Saltonstall Kennedy” federal grant helps fund the taping and editing of Meet the Fleets. You can find them here.


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