There are two main species of sole which live in UK waters: Dover sole and lemon sole. Both are highly prized food fish, and therefore commercially important, but only Dover sole are commonly caught by sea anglers. The name sole was given to this species in Roman times and apparently comes from the fact that sole are the same shape as a sandal – solea was the Latin word for sandal (and Dover sole’s scientific name is Solea solea). Like most species of flatfish both Dover and lemon sole begin life as larvae which look similar to a roundfish, but one eye migrates to the other side of their head and they transform into flatfish as they develop. There are over 180 species which are members of the soleidae family of soles across the world, but only the two species featured on this page are commonly referred to as soles in the UK.
- Scientific name: Solea solea
- Also know as: Common Sole, Black Sole
- Size: up to 3ft and 7lb. UK shore caught typically 1 – 2lb.
- UK minimum size: 10ins/25cm
- UK shore caught record: 6lb 8oz
- ICUN Status: NE (Not Evaluated)
- Distribution: Generally favours warmer water, meaning it is more common in the south of the British Isles, especially the English Channel, Irish Sea and southern parts of the North Sea on sand and shingle seabeds. Does, however, sporadically show up in northern parts of the UK in limited numbers.
- Feeds on: Mostly marine worms, prawns and invertebrates, but will feed on other food sources such as molluscs and crustaceans if they are present.
- Description: Right eyed oval-shaped flatfish with very small tail and long, thin fins. Dark stripe or spot on the very end of the small pectoral fin. Eyes are small and set close together. Colour ranges from dark brown to tan/light brown with darker patches.
Dover sole tend to live in deeper water in the winter but come into shallower water to feed and spawn when the weather warms up in the spring and summer. Dover sole are mostly inactive through the day and tend to more feed at night. Sole scour the seabed and feed primarily on worms, although they will also take shellfish, prawns and crab baits. The name Dover sole is said to come from the fact that in the 1800s there was massive demand for this species from rich people in London. A regular and fast stagecoach service ran several times every single day of the year to speed the catches of this species from the ports of Dover where the fish was caught in abundance to the capital to meet the demand. Common sole is officially the correct name of this species, but the name Dover sole has stuck, and is widely used. With its oval body the Dover sole is rarely confused with other flatfish. See the article on flatfish identification here.
Dover sole is commercially important as the species has a mild, sweet flavour and is easy to fillet. The fact that sole tend to huddle together in deep water make it relatively easy for commercial trawlers to catch. The ICES (International Council of the Exploration of the Sea) states that sole are being fished outside of safe biological limits and sole are on Greenpeace’s redlist of species that are at a high risk of being fished from unsustainable fisheries. In the Irish Sea and English Channel stocks have been massively deleted but a slow recover appears to be taking place, so avoid eating sole taken from here as to allow the recovery to continue. Also avoid sole caught by beam trawling, (or even worse pulse trawling) as these methods wreak havoc on the marine environment. Also consider releasing any Dover sole caught during April, May and June as this is the breeding season of this species.
‘Fake’ Dover Sole
Due to the high reputation of Dover sole as a table fish some companies attempt latch onto the sole name to make the fish they are supplying seem more appealing. A species of flatfish which is caught in the Pacific and Baring Sea known by the scientific name of Microstomus Pacificus is often labelled Pacific Dover sole in an attempt to pass it off as the vastly superior (and tastier) genuine Dover sole. In US supermarkets this fake Dover sole is sold for around $10 per pound, whereas genuine Dover sole from European waters would cost double or triple this amount.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Dover Sole
Dover sole have small mouths so small hooks and small baits are necessary to catch this species – using hooks that are too large are the number one cause of anglers failing to catch this species. Anglers should use size 2 – 6 in long shanked patterns to aid unhooking, and allowing bites to develop and avoiding striking too early is a good idea. Baits should be fished hard to the seabed as this is where sole will be feeding. Avoid long snoods as they may lift off from the seabed in the tidal run and the sole will miss them. Some anglers even add additional drilled bullet weights to the hooklengths to ensure the bait is nailed to the seabed. Like flounder, sole will come very close to the shore during darkness, and casts as short as twenty yards, or even less, can locate the feeding fish. Unlike flounder and plaice, sole do not seem to be particularly attracted to sequins and beads added to hooklenths, no do they respond particularly well to a moving bait. Dover sole are known to move around in shoals, and double shots of them on multi-hook rigs are not uncommon if a shoal is located.
- Scientific name: Microstomus kitt
- Size: Up to 2ft in length and 7lbs. Not commonly caught from the shore.
- UK minimum size: 10ins/25cm
- UK shore caught record: 2lb 7oz
- IUCN Status: NE (Not Evaluated)
- Distribution: Commonly found throughout British, Scandinavian and Icelandic waters on stony, mixed and sandy seabeds.
- Feeds on: Marine worms, prawns, crabs and shellfish.
- Description: Oval shaped flatfish. Left eyed. Reddish to light brown in colour with speckles of orange and yellow. Has a white underside and lateral line is curved. Skin is quite slimy in freshly caught specimens.
The other main species of sole is lemon sole (Microstomus kitt). Lemon sole is thought to be named because its shape is (vaguely) similar to a lemon and it is a lighter yellowy colour than the Dover sole. It does not taste of lemon in any way. They are a rare catch by anglers as they tend to live in deeper water than the Dover sole, and the lemon sole has a tiny mouth, meaning that when they do come within range of shore anglers they are rarely taken on a hook. They are a species which is found in colder water than the Dover sole. They are distributed all around the British Isles and also found in Scandinavian and Nordic waters with their range extending as far as the Barents Sea off the coast of Russia.
Lemon sole are also a highly rated food fish. Unlike the Dover sole the stocks of lemon sole appear to be in pretty good shape, with Icelandic stocks apparently increasing. This may be because the quotas of lemon sole that can be caught by commercial vessels are set at sensible, low levels. Despite being named lemon sole they are not actually that closely related to the Dover sole – hence the completely different scientific name as they belong to a different family and genus.