Monsters of the deep: How to catch big flathead in deep water
IN southern Queensland, flathead move towards the estuary mouths every spring in preparation for spawning. Most of the spawning beds are in quite deep water, and large females surrounded by smaller males move into these areas in huge numbers at this time of year. Catching flathead in deep water is a fickle business, and finding the fish can be a feast or a famine. In general the deep water activity lasts only a few months at the longest, and when the spawning run is over the fish move back to the shallower sections of the estuary. Spawning takes a lot of energy, and the big fish feed quite aggressively in order to put on condition at this time.
While this can be one of the easiest methods to catch a big flathead, it's important to remember that these big fish are ready to drop their eggs, and should be handled extremely carefully. There is considerable evidence that if they are handled poorly they may resorb their eggs, failing to spawn. In Queensland any flathead over 75cm in length must be released, and for many of us the ethics of targeting breeding fish is quite questionable. However, flathead are a very robust species and if you want to catch fish over 70cm, fishing the deep is a very reliable method. In addition, the by-catch of mulloway is pretty attractive too!
In the 2017 Flathead Classic held on the Gold Coast in late September, one team showed the rest of the field the effectiveness of specialising in deep water techniques. The Whyte brothers, fishing in a boat with more sounders than any boat I have ever seen, blew the entire field apart on the first day with a massive haul of big fish over 70cm long. These deep water specialists are dedicated to this type of fishing, and on that first day achieved the biggest single point score ever achieved in Flathead Classic history. It absolutely smashed and demoralised the rest of the field, in a competition with over 600 anglers. By effectively working a series of spots according to the phases of the tide, they deep jigged using both soft plastics and soft vibes, pulling in an amazing number of fish.
To catch flathead effectively in deep water and current you need the lure to be close to or right on the bottom. In my area the current flow is often very strong, and if you are using soft plastics you will need to vary the jig head size according to the current flow. In practice this can mean using jig heads from about 3/4 of an ounce up to 4 ounces. This also affects the type of rod you need to use to control heavy weights. The correct jig head weight will allow the lure to be on the bottom directly under the boat on a normal drift. The best jigging method in the deep is "tea bagging", and there isn't too much sophistication about it. Most of the soft plastics used in the deep for big flathead are at least 15cm long, and big shad tails and curly tails have a fair bit of drag as they sink so it requires a bit of weight to get them down quickly so they are directly under the boat.
The problem with heavy jig heads is that the fish rapidly rejects the lure when it feels the weight. Big flathead tend to inhale the whole plastic in an aggressive fashion, but will often miss or spit out a really heavy jig head. So while you need the weight to get down, use just enough so your lure is vertically presented. Smaller tides with less flow mean you can use lighter jig heads in the deep water, and this was the case in this year's Flathead Classic. The tides were ideal for fishing the deep, and very sub optimal for just about every other flathead method used.
USE YOUR SOUNDER, WORK OUT YOUR SPOTS
The Whyte brothers, comprehensive winners of the 2017 Flathead Classic, showed the value of using advanced sounder technology in deep water flathead fishing. The key is to find structure, depressions and bait. In the deeper sections of the river mouths and entrances, big flathead, and the smaller males that surround them, tend to lie adjacent to any structure in the nearest area of sand or mud. A log, a small piece of rubble bottom or a fallen tree are ideal habitat. The more open flat featureless parts of the channels hold far less fish. In between 5 and 20 metres of water, the key to catching is to position the boat directly over the fish and vertically jig so the lure is going up and down right next to where the fish are feeding. By concentrating your efforts on short drifts over structure you catch far more big fish. Some of these areas are difficult to fish, particularly where there are "lie down" trees, as the snags can make things difficult, particularly with soft vibes. If you can accurately work out the small slots and gaps using side imaging and a good down scan and mark the gaps in structure with your GPS it lets you accurately find the small fish holding slots and get the lure right to the fish. It is a tricky business to perfect, but by focusing your fishing on short productive drifts you will catch far more fish than simply drifting for long distances over flat mud.
Bait schools holding deep near structure are another key, and it's important to realise that big flathead like big bait. Schools of bream, whiting, luderick and herring are all on the flathead's menu, and in the deep water big flathead like big baitfish and big lures. They want maximum calories for minimal effort. If you see scattered flecks of smaller fish holding close to the bottom the big girls won't be too far away. JIGGING METHODS Unlike working a smaller lure in the shallows, there are only a few different jigging styles when you work the deeper water. With soft plastics you need a lure with constant kick and action that has good tail action at relatively slow speed. With larger shad tails the heavy jig head used allows the tail to kick as it drops back to the bottom, and most of the bites come as the lure sinks back down to the bottom. With larger curl tail grubs, the action is pretty constant at minimal speed. I like to use curl tails most of the time, but the main problem is having the tail foul up on the hook, particularly when jigging around structure. Shad tails avoid this problem but need faster movement to generate tail action. This can be improved by trimming the section just in front of the lure's tail. In general, the best jigging method for fishing deeper ware for big flathead is a vertical lift, with the boat directly over the lure. This keeps the lure in the strike zone, and "tea bagging" is an effective method. Simply lifting and dropping the lure works well. Make sure that when the lure is sinking back to the bottom it is on a slack line. This lets the fish suck in the lure properly, and with a bit of practice it is quite easy to feel bites on a slack line.
With larger soft vibes such as the Zerek Fish Trap, the method is similar. Lift the lure sharply off the bottom for about a metre and let it sink on a slack line. At times the soft vibes will out fish soft plastics by a wide margin, and they are also a great lure for mulloway. The key to using soft vibes in the deeper sections is to use models with sufficient weight to get to the bottom quickly, and lures with plenty of "kick" tend to be the most effective.
FIGHTING AND HANDLING THE FISH
Big flathead can fight really well in shallow water on light tackle, but in the deep they are generally just a heavy weight with plenty of head shakes. They may pull a few metres of line, but on the whole the fight in deep water is very disappointing. If the line screams off the reel, you have generally got a mulloway. When you get your big flathead to the top, treat it very carefully. Net all big fish and never lift them vertically by the jaw. Nearly all of these fish are full of roe and if they are distressed, bleeding or badly injured they may resorb all their eggs and fail to spawn. In Queensland all flathead over 75cm must be released, and while it is fine to keep the odd 60cm fish for a feed, I think it's very important to let all the big girls go. Try to minimise the time you keep the fish out of the water, keep them moist and release them quickly. Don't keep them in your fish holding or live bait tank, as they develop a condition called rhabdomyolysis in small tanks. The fish go hard and stiff in tanks under stress, which is why you don't see tournaments weighing live flathead very often.
LURES FOR THE DEEP
In general the most successful lures are soft vibes and large soft plastics. Don't be afraid to use large lures, for big breeding flathead, it seems nothing is too big! I prefer curl tails and shad tails for big flathead. While jerk shads catch a few and are a great lure for mulloway, flathead like a lure with constant slow speed action. The large 6-inch curl tail Gulps in bright green or white have caught us a lot of big flathead over the years, and large Squidgy Fish, Z Man shads and Western shads are also very effective in the deep.
As far as soft vibes are concerned, the largest Zerek Fish Trap is a standout lure that big flathead love. Soft vibes can be an expensive option when the snags are thick, but in general I have one rod with a vibe and a big plastic on the other and alternate between the two outfits. The key to soft vibes for deep water flathead fishing is to get sufficient weight in the lure and have plenty of vibration on the lift.
Deep watcr flathead fishing isn't for everyone, but it is a deadly method at certain times of year and can be quite challenging at times. Just remember to handle these big fish carefully and release them in good condition.