The most popular of the many species of flatfish found in Japanese waters, the olive flounder, or hirame, is a challenge to catch and a gourmet treat.
With both eyes on the same side of their body, flatfish are among the more distinctive-looking creatures in the sea. When very young they have an eye on each side of their body like other fish, but as they mature, one of the eyes migrates. The giant halibut of the North Pacific and the marbled sole commonly found in Tokyo Bay are right-eyed flatfish, with both eyes on the right sides of their bodies. Olive flounders, along with close cousins summer flounder and California halibut, are left-eyed.
In Japan, olive flounder (Paralichthys livaceus) can be found in waters from Hokkaido to Kyushu, where they lie in the bottom sediment with only their eyes exposed. The flounder’s blind side is white, but the other side is a camouflage blend of olive or brown with dark blotches and white spots, making it almost invisible to the small fish and crustaceans it feeds on.
Olive flounder fishing requires a reel with a smooth adjustable drag and long flexible rod. The fishing pole is typically 3 meters or more in length and is very supple. This soft action enables the angler to detect light strikes while offering only minimal resistance to wary fish.
An olive flounder fishing rig is usually made with a 1-meter leader of No. 6 monofilament line, which is attached to the mainline using a three-way swivel. The sinker is fastened to the bottom eye of the swivel with 50 cm to 1 meter of a weaker monofilament line. Use of the lighter line allows for the rig to be lost without losing the rod.
Most anglers use two hooks spaced about 14 cm apart on the leader. The standard bait is a live sardine, the livelier the better. The first hook is placed through the nose of the sardine and the second either behind the dorsal fin or the anal fin. The bait must be hooked carefully so that it will swim freely. The basic technique is quite simple. The depth normally ranges from 10 to 60 meters. Drop to the bottom and reel up about 1 meter of line so that your bait is suspended close to the bottom but the weight is not touching it.
A flounder will lie on the bottom waiting to ambush its unsuspecting quarry. When the victim swims into range, the flounder will quickly rise up, grab hold and pull it back down to the bottom. The flounder then very slowly devours its prey. It can take a flounder 40 seconds or more to swallow its meal, and therein lies the dilemma of flounder fishing — when to set the hook. If a fisherman tries to set the hook too soon, the bait will be pulled out of the fish’s mouth. If the angler waits and the flounder should feel anything strange such as tension on the line or the hooks, it could spit out the bait, leaving the angler with nothing but a mangled sardine.
The key to hooking olive flounder is patience plus luck. If you feel what you think is a hit, drop your rod tip, let out a little line and start to slowly count to 40. When you reach the magic number, raise your rod tip high to set the hook. Flounder are not fantastic fighters but their peculiar shape can offer a lot of water resistance making it difficult to bring in a really large fish. A large olive flounder can weigh 10 kg or more, but the average size is 1-2 kg.
There are a number of ways to increase your catch. Be sure to check your bait often; if the bait is dead or damaged, change it. Keep your fishing pole in your hands so you can react more quickly to a bite, don’t put it in a rod-holder. If another angler on the boat gets a bite, be on the alert. When one strike comes, more are likely to follow. Using a luminous weight in the predawn hours can provide some fast early-morning action.
While fishing for olive flounder, anglers will often catch a wide variety of other fishes, such as yellowtail, houndshark, flathead, greenling and target fish.
Winter fishing conditions can be rough: Flounder fishing is not an activity for the fainthearted or weak-stomached. Take seasickness medicine before leaving the harbor, and bring a life jacket if you feel you need one.
It was during a flounder charter out of Choshi in Chiba Prefecture that I had one of my most memorable fishing experiences. An angler carelessly dropped his expensive fishing outfit into the 40 meters-deep water. About 10 minutes later I had a bite: A fish — along with the lost fishing pole. The once hapless angler got back his tackle plus a nice fish.
Flounder caught during the cold months are considered to be the best-tasting. The fish’s special texture and delicate flavor make it top table fare. Served as sashimi, butter-fried, poached or deep-fried, it is hard to beat.