Flounder gigging near Aransas Pass puts writer in touch with roots

Frank Kurtz was a shrimper.

And a hunter. And a carpenter. He was also the gentlest rock of a grandfather and an unwavering dad in an era when love was expressed in a more stoic fashion. He was a lot of things, but I’ll always remember him as a shrimper.

That gene skipped me.

Paw Paw would take me and my sister out on the water occasionally. I have the pictures to prove it. But for the most part, my seafaring expeditions occurred on land. I’d slap on a floppy hat, sit in the boat stowed in my grandparents’ Pasadena garage, and my sister and I would honk the horn. We donned life vests for good measure. I could almost smell the ocean.

But I was more City Mouse to my cousin Billy’s Country Mouse. He and his dad went on the hunting and fishing adventures, while I spent my Sunday mornings doing my best impersonations of “The McLaughlin Group” cohort in an attempt to garner attention and laughs from my dad.

Hunting and fishing felt as foreign to me as the Spanish classes I started taking in sixth grade. I always felt like it was a part of me, but it was just beyond my grasp. Like a phantom limb or an invisible itch that needed scratching. I wanted to be on the water and wanted the camaraderie of the boat.

As I’ve aged, I’ve reconsidered the idea of fishing, considered it as both a way to slow down and disconnect from technology and, more importantly, as a means to form a closer connection with nature and my food. As a restaurant critic, it’s inexcusable for me to not have a healthier understanding of how the food I eat gets to my plate.

Now, I don’t wanna get carried away. I’m not ready to go reel in marlins or learn how to tie and cast a fly rod. But flounder gigging? That sounded like something I could wrap my head and hands around.

“How late do we stay out?” I asked Captain Dave Dupnik as we pushed off the dock at Aransas Pass and headed toward Redfish Bay.

“The company’s called Surrender at Sunrise,” he said with a straight face and piercing eyes. “We stay out till we get ‘em. I live up to my motto.”

The landlubber in me shuddered. The sun was just setting. Sunrise seemed like an eternity away. I needn’t worry.

Dupnik’s eyes told the story. They were the first thing I noticed when we met. I felt like he was looking through me. I worried at first that he didn’t like the cut of my jib. Once he got out on the water it made sense. This man makes a living seeing at night.

The Rockport native who grew up gigging with mahogany poles aboard a 16-foot skiff that he’d bail out with an old coffee can has the ability to look into pitch black water and spot flounder from 20 feet away. Where I see nothing, he sees dinner. And a paycheck. Dupnik, whom I met through noted hunter and fisherman chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due, has been fishing commercially for 23 years and leading flounder gigging expeditions for 12. He’s helped an 86-year-old man catch his limit and taken a 2-and-a-half year-old out on the water. If they could do it, certainly I could.

We sped out toward the bay as the sun set and cracked a couple of cold beers, a coolness still lingering in the late spring evening. Dupnik gave us the rundown on the flounder we were in search of (Southern and Gulf) and explained the seasons, rituals and reproductive traits of the fish like a college professor.

We were a few weeks past the beginning of the spring run, which stars in mid-April, and could expect two pounders mostly, and maybe a few sheepsheads. You find the biggest fish during the fall run, which begins in mid-October. Your limit is reduced from five to two flounder in November, when flounder may be taken only by pole and line, and the first two weeks of December, as a means to preserve the population, but those fish are at least six pounds each. Dupnik’s biggest flounder? 9.75 pounds.

Dupnik slowed the 22-foot custom flat-bottom boat, extinguished his cigarette and got down to business. We edged along mangroves that swayed in the dusk.

“Let’s get some flounder,” he said as he handed us our gigs. The long metal poles have pitchforks at their business end and weigh about 15 pounds each. Captain Dave used a loud air motor to gently navigate the boat in the three-foot-deep water.

“If you have to pee, do it off the side. That thing’ll take your arm off,” he said as he walked to the front of the boat. Duly noted.

He fired up the row of halogen lights attached to the edge of the boat, illuminating the hazy water. Then he pierced the water with those eyes. Within a few minutes, he alerted us to our first flounder.

The flat, oblong fish sat still as I perched my gig just over its body. Dupnik told us they wouldn’t move — “lazy fish,” he called them — but we had to thrust hard and direct. You want to pierce the fish around its gill plate, so it can’t writhe from the gig.

I slammed the pole through the fish, feeling in my hands the slight crunch of its weight. I swung the wiggling fish along the side of the boat and brought it aboard, banging the gig aside a steel bucket to loosen the flounder.

Wide-eyed, I turned to my buddy Rich and gave him a high-five. I felt like the gig and Dave did all the work, but it was still a rush. And, though I was jacked to find the next one, the flopping noises of the fish breathing its final breaths gave me some pause. It also made me thankful and appreciative of its sacrifice. But there was no time to be philosophical. More flounder awaited.

And we waited, as well. Dave had caught his entire commercial limit of 30 the night before by 10:30 p.m.We weren’t as lucky. The flounder came in bunches. We’d snag two or three and then navigate across the bay in search of more.

Dupnik could navigate the blackened maze of water with his eyes closed. He’d find a new spot, pull the motor and grab the gigs. If we went 15 minutes without a flounder, he’d retriever our gigs, reholster them, drop the motor and it was off to the next spot. A few times he spotted ones he deemed too small and we continued to search the dark shallows.

We gigged our 10th flounder around 11:30 p.m., which arrived about 30 minutes before my yawning and well before sunrise. Dupnik returned us across the bay to his dock and made quick work of the flounder. He cleaned and fileted eight of the 10 flounder (leaving two whole for stuffing) in record time, tearing through them like a delicate tornado.

We loaded up the cooler with about 10 pounds of fish. Lunch for the next day was secured. Frank Kurtz would’ve been proud.

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