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July 15, 2013

Boston Blackies

A blackback comeback leads to great winter flounder opportunities in Boston Harbor's rejuvenated fishery.

[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]

"Hey guys, I think you’ll want to check out this fish,” Vin Vettese called from the bow of his 25-foot Hydra-Sports. The soft-spoken Vettese, of Malden, Massachusetts, usually goes about his fishing in a quiet, workmanlike manner; so his summons, combined with the exaggerated bend in his light spinning rod, drew everyone’s attention.

Pete Santini, a Boston-area tackle-shop owner and nonstop source of onboard entertainment, peered into the water and gave a shout as I trained my video camera on the action. “Now this is a fish you want on YouTube!” he cried, carefully slipping a landing net below the brown, platter-size object undulating just below the surface.

Santini and Vettese had promised that I’d see some big winter flounder on our late-June trip in Boston Harbor, and here was proof beyond my wildest expectations — a 21-inch, 4-pound blackback!

“A phonebook with fins,” Santini declared, clearly proud of the local fishery and its remarkable success story.

A Rejuvenated Fishery

Winter flounder, aka blackbacks, have made an amazing comeback in the waters of Boston Harbor, marking a return to the type of fishing that drew busloads of anglers from as far away as New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Overfishing and pollution once decimated the fishery, but tighter regulations on inshore gill-netting and improvements to Boston’s sewage-management system have spawned a return to the glory days of flounder fishing.

“I grew up just outside Boston, and fished Quincy and Dorchester bays a number of times back in the late-1970s, but gave up when the water quality declined and the flounder started to disappear in the early ’80s,” recalls Barry Gibson, the former editor of Salt Water Sportsman magazine. “I’ve also fished this area numerous times since 1995, and I have watched the flounder action improve steadily as the water got cleaned up. My most recent trip was this past May, and I think the flounder fishing today is every bit as productive as it was 35 years ago. The fish are plentiful, and there are lots of big ones, bigger than I remember. Plus, you have a good shot at catching a black sea bass or maybe a tautog or fluke. These bonus fish never used to roam north of Cape Cod, but they now add some extra zing to Boston Harbor floundering.”

In a fitting tribute to the cleanup of Boston Harbor — once the most polluted waterway in the nation — Santini, Vettese and I were hauling in flounder just a few hundred yards from the giant egg-shaped tanks of the Deer Island sewage-treatment facility on the north side of the harbor. The massive plant, which went online in 1995, treats the effluent of greater Boston’s 2.5 million residents so thoroughly that you can safely drink the end product (the treated water is actually carried nine miles offshore through an underwater pipe).

Find ’Em in the Mud

The Deer Island flats, which extend south and west of the treatment plant, are perfect flounder habitat. With a depth of seven to 20 feet, the mud bottom hosts a smorgasbord of marine worms, shrimp, bivalves, tiny crabs and other flounder forage. Similar bottom can be found throughout the harbor. You’ll often find the fish stacked up in depressions or along the edge of a drop-off. Mud, of course, is the key to finding flounder.

Fishing for Boston blackbacks, which typically range from 12 to 18 inches, is relaxing sport, and the protected waters of the harbor make this fishery accessible to a variety of boats, from aluminum skiffs to 40-foot lobster boats. During our trip, we shared the flats with even a few kayak fishermen.

While many flounder fishermen like to anchor and let their quarry come to them, Santini and Vettese prefer to drift so they can cover more ground and present their baits in a natural manner. Blackbacks hold in different depths based on water temperature, so you often need to scout around a bit before you dial in the hot spot.