California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Marine Sportfish Identification: Flatfishes

Last Updated October 17, 2013

Note: Please consult current fishing regulations for species presented in this booklet. To view information on safe fishing eating guidelines, please visit the OEHHA website.

California Halibut | Longfin Sanddab | Pacific Halibut | Pacific Sanddab | Petrale Sole | Starry Flounder

California Halibut


California Halibut
(Click to view larger image)

California Halibut

 

Family: Bothidae (Left-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Paralichthys californicus

Description: The body of the California halibut is oblong and compressed. The head is small and the mouth large. Although a member of the left-eyed flounder family, about 40 percent of California halibut have their eyes on the right side. The color is dark brown to black on the eyed side and white on the blind side. Their numerous teeth, very large mouth and a high arch in the middle of the "top" side above the pectoral fin make them easily distinguishable from other flatfish.

Range: California halibut occur from Magdalena Bay, Baja California, to the Quillayute River, British Columbia. A separate population occurs in the upper Gulf of California.

Natural History: California halibut feed almost exclusively upon anchovies and similar small fishes. At times they are observed jumping clear of the water as they make passes at anchovy schools near the surface. Males first mature when 2 or 3 years of age, but females do not mature until 4 or 5. A 5 year old fish may be anywhere from 11 to 17 inches long. Spawning takes place in relatively shallow water during the months of April through July.

Fishing Information: California halibut are pursued by anglers throughout the year, but the best landings usually occur in the spring. In central and northern California fishing is best in summer and early fall. At that time California halibut move into shallow water to spawn. Drifting for halibut is the most successful fishing method with anglers using live anchovies, queenfish, white croakers, shiner perch or Pacific mackerel as bait. Artificial lures work well at times although they are not always effective. California halibut are found over sandy bottoms.

Other Common Names: flatty, fly swatter (small), barn door (large), alabato, Monterey halibut, chicken halibut, southern halibut.

Largest Recorded: 5 feet; 72 pounds.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment

Return to Top of Page

Pacific Sanddab


Pacific Sanddab
(Click to view larger image)

Pacific Sanddab

 

Family: Bothidae (Left-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Citharichthys sordidus

Description: The body of the Pacific sanddab is oblong and compressed. The head is deep; the eyes are on the left-side and are large. The color is light brown mottled with yellow and orange on the eyed side and white on the blind side. Although three kinds of sanddabs live in the waters off California, only two are commonly used for food the Pacific and longfin sanddabs. The third, the speckled sanddab, is so small (only about 5 inches) that it is only important to the diet of other fishes. The Pacific sanddab can best be distinguished from the longfin sanddab by the length of the pectoral fin on the eyed side. It is always shorter than the head of the Pacific sanddab and longer than the head of the longfin. Sanddabs are always left "handed" (eyes on the left) and can be distinguished from all other left "handed" flatfish by having a midline that is nearly straight for its entire length.

Range: Pacific sanddabs occur from Cape San Lucas, Baja California, to the Bering Sea. They seldom inhabit water that is shallower than 30 feet or deeper than 1,800 feet. They are most abundant at depths of 120 to 300 feet.

Natural History: Pacific sanddabs eat a wide variety of food. In addition to such items as small fishes, squid, octopus, they eat an assortment of eggs, luminescent sea squirts, shrimp, crabs, and marine worms. During the peak of the spawning season, which is July, August and September, the females spawn numerous eggs. These fish probably spawn more than once during a season.

Fishing Information: If the depth is correct and the bottom suitable, it is extremely difficult to keep sanddabs off the hook. Sportfishing for sanddabs entails the use of small hooks. Small pieces of squid or octopus are good baits because they are tough and stay on the hook, but pieces of fish work equally well.

Other Common Names: sand dab, soft flounder, sole, mottled sanddab, megrim.

Largest Recorded: 16 inches; 2 pounds.

Habitat: Deep Sandy Environment

Return to Top of Page

Longfin Sanddab


Longfin Sanddab
(Click to view larger image)

Longfin Sanddab

 

Family: Bothidae (Left-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Citharichthys xanthostigma

Description: The body of the longfin sanddab is oblong and compressed. The head is deep; the eyes are large and on the left side. The mouth is large. The color is uniform dark brown with rust orange or white speckles, and the pectoral fin is black on the eyed side; the blind side is white. The longfin sanddab can best be distinguished from the Pacific sanddab by the length of the pectoral fin on the eyed side. It is always shorter than the head on the Pacific sanddab and longer than the head on the longfin. Sanddabs are always left "handed" and can be distinguished from all other left "handed" flatfish by having a mid-line that is nearly straight for its entire length.

Range: Longfin sanddabs occur from Costa Rica to Monterey, California. These flatfish are usually on sandy, muddy type sea bottoms from 8 to 660 feet.

Natural History: Longfin sanddabs eat a wide variety of food. In addition to such items as small fishes, squid, and octopus, they eat an assortment of eggs, luminescent sea squirts, shrimp, crabs, and marine worms. Females are larger than males and normally mature when 3 years old and about 7.5 inches long. They produce numerous eggs and each fish probably spawns more than once a season. The peak of the spawning season is July, August and September.

Fishing Information: If the depth is correct and the bottom type is right, it is extremely difficult to keep sanddabs off the hook. Sportfishing for sanddabs entails the use of small hooks. Small pieces of squid or octopus are best because they are tough and stay on the hook best, but fish works equally well as a bait.

Other Common Names: sanddab, soft flounder, Catalina sanddab.

Largest Recorded: 10 inches

Habitat: Deep Sandy Environment

Return to Top of Page

Pacific Halibut


Pacific Halibut
(Click to view larger image)

Pacific Halibut

 

Family: Pleuronectidae (Right-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Hippoglossus stenolepis

Description: The body of the Pacific halibut is elongate, rather slender, diamond shaped and compressed. The head is elongate and the mouth is large. Both eyes are on the right side of the body. The color of the body is dark brown to black with fine mottling on the eyed side and white on blind side. The Pacific halibut can be distinguished from the California halibut by looking at the end of the jaw. In the Pacific halibut, it extends to the front edge of the eye, while in the California halibut it extends beyond the eye.

Range: Pacific halibut occur from Punto Camolu, Baja California to Bering Sea and east to the Sea of Japan, at depths from 20 to 3,600 feet. In California, however, most are in nearshore areas from Fort Bragg northward, with the largest numbers being taken by anglers offshore north of California. They are rare south of San Francisco.

Natural History: The diet of the Pacific halibut includes fishes, crabs, clams, squid and other invertebrates. Females become mature at 8 to 16 years of age (average 12); however, males mature earlier. Spawning takes place along the Pacific Coast from December through March. A large female of 140 pounds may produce as many as 2,700,000 eggs. The eggs and young drift casually with the currents gradually rising toward the surface as development proceeds. When first hatched, the young swim upright; however, they soon start to turn to their left side and the left eye migrates to the right side. By early spring, the transformation is complete and the young settle to the bottom in shallow waters.

Fishing Information: Recreational anglers have caught Pacific halibut up to 346 pounds, but California anglers would be hard pressed to find a Pacific halibut that large. The fish are typically caught on crab, shrimp, squid, and other invertebrates.

Other Common Names: alabato, northern halibut, right halibut, genuine halibut, real halibut.

Largest Recorded: 8.75 feet; 507 pounds. Largest taken by a recreational angler in Alaska: 459 pounds.

Habitat: Deep Sandy Environment

Return to Top of Page

Starry Flounder


Starry Flounder
(Click to view larger image)

Starry Flounder

 

Family: Pleuronectidae (Right-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Platichthys stellatus

Description: The body of the starry flounder is broad, relatively short, somewhat diamond shaped and compressed. The head is relatively short and the eyes and mouth are small, the lower jaw slightly projecting. While a member of the right-eyed flounder family; the majority of starry flounders are left-eyed. The color is dark brown on the eyed side with alternating white to orange and black bars on the dorsal and anal fins; white on the blind side. Its name comes from the rough, star-like scales on the eyed-side.

Range: Starry flounders occur from Santa Barbara, California, to Arctic Alaska and the Sea of Japan. They occur over sand, mud and gravel bottoms in coastal ocean waters, bays, sloughs and even fresh water. Starry flounders are found from depths of a few inches to more than 900 feet.

Natural History: Small starry flounders eat mostly worms and small crustaceans. As they grow they eat progressively more crabs, clams, sand dollars and brittle stars. Large individuals also eat some fishes, among them sardines, sanddabs and surfperch. Females grow faster and attain larger sizes than do males. Males spawn at the end of their second year when they are about 14.5 inches long, and females in their third year at approximately 16.25 inches. The spawning season extends from November through February with greatest activity in December and January. Studies in California indicate that spawning occurs in water shallower than 25 fathoms. Like other flatfishes, the young are born with an eye on each side of the head. By the time they reach about 0.5 inches in length, both eyes are on the same side and they resemble their parents in all respects.

Fishing Information: Starry flounders are one of the most numerous fishes of central and northern California backwaters, particularly San Francisco Bay. They accept a variety of baits, including chunks of sardine, clams, shrimp, squid, and worms.

Other Common Names: rough jacket, great flounders, grindstone, California flounder, emery flounder, sand paper flounder.

Largest Recorded: 3 feet; 20 pounds.

Habitat: Shallow Sandy Environment

Return to Top of Page

Petrale Sole


Petrale Sole
(Click to view larger image)

Petrale Sole

 

Family: Pleuronectidae (Right-eyed flounders)

Genus and Species: Eopsetta jordani

Description: The body of the petrale sole is elongate, moderately slender and compressed. The head is deep, and the mouth is large. The eyes are large and on the right side. The color is uniform dark to light brown with dusky blotches on the dorsal and anal fins on the eyed side and white on the blind side. Petrale sole are often confused with California halibut because of their similar color and large mouths. However, petrale sole have an even, brown coloration and do not have a high arch in the lateral line. Length: Up to 29.5 inches.

Range: Petrale sole occur from Cedros Island, Baja California, to the Bering Sea. They are found at depths from intertidal to 1,815 feet.

Natural History: The diet of the petrale sole includes crabs, shrimp, and fishes such as anchovies, hake, small rockfish and other flatfish.

Fishing Information: Although this flatfish is not often sought by recreational anglers, its large size and excellent eating qualities make it a good sportfish. Probably the entire sport catch for this species is taken incidentally by anglers on rockfish trips aboard commercial passenger fishing vessels. These anglers fishing in waters from 100 to 300 feet deep catch petrale sole on the sand surrounding rocky reefs.

Other Common Names: sole, round-nosed sole, Jordan's founder, California sole, brill.

Largest Recorded: 27.5 inches; no weight.

Habitat: Deep Sandy Environment