How to catch big flathead in shallow water
I THOUGHT long and hard about whether I should write this article as it’s about a new method of catching big flathead that has revolutionised flathead fishing in my local area over the past year and will undoubtedly be very effective wherever big flathead are found. It is new, innovative, effective and clever and was a closely guarded secret for quite a while by a select few anglers.
Chris Metcalfe is one of the most innovative anglers in the country and in a previous life was a national champion bream angler, world champion Hobie Cat sailor and a builder of fabulous homes, which he still does.
Over the past few years Chris and his family spent a lot of time on his large catamaran anchored in the tidal lagoons near Jumpinpin. Chris fished from his inflatable tender in this area, mainly chasing flathead and mulloway. He’s pretty easy to spot, as the inflatable has an electric motor, a large sounder and a big poodle on board. Over this period of years Chris often observed big flathead in shallow water near his moored boat. These fish are often disturbed in the shallows and are very hard to catch. Most of these monsters are well over 70 cm long and they bury themselves in the shallows in water less than 30cms deep. It’s pretty easy to tell where the big ones lie, as they are easy to spot as they take off once disturbed. Over the period of a year Chris set out to find a way to catch these challenging big flathead.
Chris cast hundreds of more conventional lures at these fish with very limited success. In general, the only part of the fish that’s visible is the line of the dorsal fin and the eyes, and unless disturbed, these large flathead don’t get out of bed unless something really impresses them. Chris cast shallow hard bodies, poppers, bent minnows, dozens of plastics, vibes and blades and got no interest from the fish. Every week night he’d hatch new plans, rig rods and try again. The breakthrough came in 2015, and it unlocked a fishery that’s seen quite a few local anglers enjoy great success. My son has been onto it for a year now, and it took him over six months to show me. In horrible conditions in the 2016 Flathead Classic team Out for a Quickie, consisting of Chris Metcalfe and Franco Martinese, were the Champion two man team, and Franco, fishing in a moon boot with a broken foot, was overall champion angler. After this, the secret was clearly out in the open. If you want to catch big flathead, you need to perfect the Metcalfe Method.
The Metcalfe Method
The Metcalfe Method is still in evolution, but it’s all about using really large stick bait plastics like a 12 inch white Sluggo rigged on an 8/0 to 10/0 worm hook, with a rear stinger, and making it glide unweighted through the shallow with some careful rod work. I’ve been amazed how much fun this is. It’s sight fishing at its best. Seeing an 80 plus centimetre flathead line up your lure from 10 metres away and crash it in a surface strike is as good as flathead fishing gets, and this method turns sleeping slug flathead into attack mode like a switch. It’s that good I’m sure it will revolutionise the way we fish for flathead over the entire country. It works when everything else doesn’t.
While Chris has been the innovator a few keen anglers have also been perfecting modifications to lures and doing well. It couldn’t have remained a secret for too long. When you see a bloke and his dog in a small inflatable on a shallow bank, and then see a massive foot long lure in the air, you soon take note that something a little different is going on. In the recent Tackleworld flathead competition Dean Lapham, using large Silstar Slapsticks, blitzed the field and none of his fish were under 60 cm. My son and Stuart Grice coined the phrase “Nunya Shads” and wouldn’t tell me what the hell they were up to. Michael likes to get out of the boat and wade the shallows and is getting pretty bloody good at this method. He has always been innovative and picks things up quickly. He has caught a lot of 90 cm plus flathead but recently lost a fish that still hurts him. He hooked the unicorn (metre plus monster he reckons) in 30 cm of water on a Slapstick but it sawed him off on 10 kg hard leader. He was so devastated he packed up and came home absolutely gutted! I was a bit of a late starter and after Michael took me out for a session where he caught nearly all the fish, I went through my extensive collection of plastics and in the bottom of the pile found a packet of Storm jigging eels. These are a lot softer than the Sluggos and Slapsticks and have an excellent stinger hook. They require different rod work but in my limited time using them they have been really good. By removing the jig head and replacing it with a worm hook the eel is an absolute winner.
The key to the method, as Chris found out through a year or more of research and development, is to present a large long unweighted lure that glides through the shallows about 10 cm under the surface. This seems to be the only way to reliably get the monsters into a chomping mode. It is the only thing that gets them out of bed.
I went out for a fish yesterday and saw Chris and his mum casting the flats. He had caught a magnificent 94 cm fish that he saw and cast to, and four others all over 80 cm on big white Sluggos. In the two hours I fished I caught five, the best around 75 cm, all on the Jigging Eel.
The method is still in constant development, and when I saw Chris yesterday he was still experimenting with stinger hook arrangements. In practice, most of the fish are hooked on the worm hook at the front. I’m currently trying to design the perfect lure for this method, and there is a lot of subtlety in getting the lure to glide the right way. Unless the wind is cyclonic or the water deep, it seems much more effective to use the lures unweighted so they glide straight, just under the surface.
On most occasions, when you get it right, the bites are ferocious, and as a lot of the best fishing is in clean water on the top of the tide, and you can see the fish move in on your lure. The bites can be more like barra than flathead, with a lot of thrashing on the surface and head shaking as they try to throw the lure. It’s definitely the most fun way to catch big flathead, and one of the reasons I thought long and hard about writing this is that nearly all the fish are big ones and should be released carefully.
There are a range of lures that can be used for this method, but the key points are that they are long, large and unweighted. 12 inch Sluggos, Westerns Long Plastics, Silstar Slap Sticks, Storm Jigging Eels and the largest Squidgie Whip Bait all work. By rigging the lure on a light fine large worm hook at the front and running a treble or a single as a stinger at the back you have an effective large flathead lure. To get the bite you need to perfect the glide. The lure needs to lie straight at all times and not dip or rise. It needs a slow sink and a constant horizontal lie. Retrieves vary according to conditions, but in general a pull forward about a metre followed by a short pause and very small twitch, then another pull seems to work. The flathead generally strike very aggressively, as they seem convinced they are chasing a large prey that needs to be crunched. The hardest bit to perfect is the strike. When you see one monster the lure, the best way to hook up is to drop the rod back to the fish, then sweep strike forward hard. We are all constantly refining the hook-up. While you need a good hard strike to set a big worm hook, the same strike may pull a small stinger treble out of the fish. The jigging eel seems to have the best hook up rate in my opinion, its stinger hook arrangement is excellent.
The best way to find a likely spot is to drive your boat over the flats at high tide paying careful attention to where you see the fish leave cover. They are pretty easy to spot, tend to be in groups, and seem to go back to the same spots every tide. Areas of broken weed in less than a metre of water seem to produce the best results. Small gutters and snake drains, often only a few centimetres deeper than the main flat, often hold fish. Walking the flats in knee deep water can be a very effective strategy with this method and reduces the noise and shadows, letting you get closer to the fish. In general I find cloudy days seem to be more productive as there are less shadows and the fish are not spooked as easily. If you spook a big fish it will generally move back to deeper water, but if you wait a while, you will often see the fish sneak back to its original position about 10 to 15 minutes later. This method shows how big mature flathead hunt large prey and are fairly single minded in this pursuit. I’ve seen them cough up 40 cm eels, big whiting, bream and smaller flathead. Most of the time they want the main meal not the chips and lollies. When they’re in position they’re almost fully buried, and the easiest bit to spot is the straight line of their dorsal fin that leaves a quite distinct appearance that’s subtle but still visible.
White or natural colours seem to be the most effective. Dirty water makes things more difficult but you can still catch the odd fish if you persist. As the lure is travelling over the bottom it’s relatively weed free, and this opens up a method that can be very effective over thick weed beds interspersed with sand and mud. If you keep the lure about 10 cm under the surface the fish will find it. The average fish caught on this method in local waters is around 60 to 80 cm, but I’ve been surprised by the ferocity of smaller 40 to 50 cm fish at times. The method is quite flathead specific, I’ve never caught any bycatch in the shallows.
Rods need to be around 200 cm with a stiff tip. Loomis models 803 in NRX or GLX are ideal for this method of fishing, used with around 8 to 10 kg braid. You need a rod with a bit of grunt to cast these big lures and strike hard to set the big hook. Quality 3000 size threadlines are well suited to this method. Leader is a subject of much debate. These fish shake their heads a lot and getting sawn off in the shallows is common, but lighter leaders get more bites. I like 10 kg hard nylon. The attachment of the stinger hook to the main hook is another potential source of failure. Don’t use braid or dacron, the big monsters seem to chew this off quite easily. A short length of 10 to 15 kg hard mono is preferred by most, and I prefer to use a single hook rather than a treble. On most days the fish are hooked on the front hook, but sometimes when they’re shy they short strike a lot.
Chris Metcalfe deserves recognition for pioneering this great method in Gold Coast waters. He’s a highly respected angler and a great bloke and I’m sure this method will take off around the country wherever big flathead hunt the shallows. As a final point, look after these great fish. Treat them with great respect and release them carefully.