The Winter Flounder, a Master of Disguise With a Wandering Eye
By DAVE TAFT
APRIL 1, 2016
The New York Times
N.Y. / REGION | N.Y.C. NATURE
Nothing suits a winter flounder like cold water. Unlike most local fish, winter flounder enter shallow bays and coves in midwinter to spawn and stay until the sun warms the water to temperatures above what they prefer. This habit earned these flatfish their name. It also brought them closer to humans, who found that they were fine eating.
Sadly, more accessible fish were easier to exploit, and near-shore waters were more prone to degradation. In New York and southern New England, flounder numbers are low, and their harvest has been regulated for decades. Still, as spring arrives, enthusiasts head excitedly to docks and piers to cast their lines.
Winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) are born looking like most other fish, with eyes on opposite sides of their heads, tails swaying side to side. But a remarkable transformation begins when the fish are about 8 weeks old; one eye actually travels around the head to meet its counterpart. Some find it hard to relate to a cold, slimy fish, and admittedly, an eye shift would not be a flattering metamorphosis for humans. I wonder whether Picasso’s Cubist portraits would be so admired were we to suffer such changes.
Interestingly, almost all winter flounder wind up dextral. That is, if you hold a winter flounder eyes-up, mouth on the bottom (along the lower edge of the fish) it will almost always face to the right. There are a few more ways to distinguish winter flounder from other local flatfish swimming through New York’s briny bays and coves. Most notably, flounder have smaller mouths than summer flounder or windowpanes, and correspondingly smaller teeth.
Small mouths do not set winter flounder back much: They are voracious predators of sandworms, small shrimp, even bits of clams and mussels churned up by the tides. They are also masters of camouflage, changing from light and pebbly to velvety brown, depending on their environments.
Flounder also have the amusing habit of burying all but their bulging eyes under a shallow layer of mud or sand, the better to slyly watch for passing meals. Alternately, flounder can deftly crawl on their fin tips, craning their heads to get a better view. This rather unfishlike behavior is called “shambling” and can be comical to watch.
You don’t need a fishing rod to have a close encounter with a flounder. Various nature centers including the New York Aquarium often keep captive flounders. In a pinch, a trip to the local fish market will also get you up close and personal with several species of flatfish.
If I’m not fishing for one myself, I like to hang around the piers of Canarsie or Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to inspect the buckets of the anglers there. Truth is, any pier in a salty backwater will do, including docks in the Bronx, Queens or Staten Island.
A version of this article appears in print on April 3, 2016, on page MB4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Fish That Looks Like a Picasso. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe