FLATHEAD have always been a favourite target of mine. They’re abundant, willing to attack lures, fight well on light tackle and make great eating. Flathead inhabit nearly every estuary system around the country, which renders them a primary target for just about all anglers.
Flathead species vary from state to state; however, there’s no doubting that the mighty dusky flathead of the east coast is by far the most iconic member of this bottom dwelling family. Duskies can be found throughout coastal systems, from the upper brackish regions to the salty coastal mouths. While most duskies encountered will measure between 40-55cm, they have the potential to grow to more than a metre in length.
Trophy fish of this size are a rare capture, however, fish between 70cm and the mid to high 90s are a surprisingly frequent capture for those who put in the time to target them. The most appealing factor of flathead fishing for me is the fact that flatties are available and accessible as shore-based targets. Although boat access will provide broader opportunities, you can enjoy some champagne flatty action simply by getting your feet wet!
Flathead are bottom dwellers and rely on ambush tactics to feed. While the average flatty will favour a sandy or silty bottom strata, they have been known to stake out among weed beds and snaggy structure such as oyster racks and timber debris. I’ve witnessed flathead lying up on top of submerged rocks, particularly around man-made breakwalls where baitfish are abundant. It’s not often that demersal species will leave the bottom to feed, however, flathead will attack prey close to or on the surface at times.
Due to their diversity in habitat, they are an ideal target for lure anglers, especially those who are new to the sport. While you’re likely to encounter the thickest flathead activity amidst the main flow of the estuary channels where the tidal movements transport prawns and baitfish, you can find some great action on fringing flats systems. Shallow “sun-warmed” bays are my favourite places to prospect on foot. Quite often, these areas are inaccessible by boat and can only be fished by the walking angler. Wading through shin-deep water is a relaxing way to fish, and can be quite productive too if you identify certain vital clues to aid your success.
Flatties will move into an area where a reliable food source is present, station themselves in a likely location and then pounce on anything that moves toward them. Favoured stakeout areas on the flats come in the form of patchy weed beds and sudden depth changes. Flathead will semi-embed themselves in the sand or silt adjacent to an ambush site while waiting for a meal. Flatties will push in with the rising tide over a flat, quite often to the extreme of the tide’s reach. I’ve seen flatties lying within half a metre of the shoreline, hunting small mullet. As the tide abates, the flatties will shuffle along and adjust their ambush positions with the draining tide while c ontinuing to eat anything that pushed from the flat.
Walking along your chosen flat at dead low tide may reveal tell-tale signs of this activity, as well as ambush sites known as “flathead lies” (an imprint of the flathead’s body left in the sand or silt). If your chosen flat is littered with flatty lies, there’s a good chance that this particular area will prove productive when the tide begins to flood again.
Identifying minor depth changes or “drop-offs” at low tide will aid success when prospecting the flats at high tide. Sudden rises or falls in the bottom strata or drains scoured from tidal flow provide premium ambush sites. Flathead will position themselves with their head facing into the flow. By studying the positioning of flatties lies, you’ll be able to determine the best approach when making your presentation to the fish when the tide returns. Of course, it helps if there is a healthy food source in the area. Key flattie food includes prawns, mullet and small crabs.
Most shallow running hard-bodied lures (40mm to 100mm in length) that dive a metre or less are ideal given the fact that the water you’re likely to be prospecting will be quite shallow; however, I advise you to carry a few deeper running varieties too. One of my favourite flatty lures dives to around 2m, but I will quite often work it in 1m or less. This particular lure suspends (which is great for keeping your presentation in the fish’s face) and I’m also able to twitch it into the sand or silt which stirs up the bottom … attracting the attention of any nearby flatties.
Flathead are not exactly “active” feeders in the shallows – they don’t zoom around hunting bait like a tailor or bream. Instead, they’ll stay put and rely on using their lateral line to detect vibration and movement from a possible food source … so it pays to bang your lure hard into the bottom during your retrieve.
One scenario that I really fancy is where tidal flow from deep water forces itself up and onto a flat. You’ll often find flathead stationed on the escarpment of the flat facing into the deeper water as the tide pushes onto the shallows. Working a deep diving lure up from the deep water into and over the shallow edge is a deadly tactic, and one that has produced good fish for me in the past.
Of course, this is difficult to do if your chosen edge is lined with fringing weed-beds; however, rigging a soft-plastic in a “weedless” fashion will work wonders in these scenarios. In fact, softies really hold their own through shallow water. Prawn imitations, curl-tail grubs and t-tail shads are all dynamite. While I favour larger plastics for flathead, I have also caught my fair share of crocs on extremely small plastics. Soft plastics within the 3” to 4” size range will reap good rewards.
Another great option (particularly when the prawns are running) is to work a surface lure. Flathead will explode all over a surface offering, with some of the hits resulting in the flatties leaving the water and taking to the air! Surface fishing may not be the most productive in regards to hook ups, but it’s by far the most exciting method of targeting these estuary sportfish. Walk-the-dog style lures work well but I find cup faced poppers are more productive as they provide more surface movement when worked slowly. You may need to leave your offering stationary after three or four bloops in order for the flathead to locate your popper, although some days the flatties will aggressively hunt your lure down.
I’ve been using an Atomic Semi-Hardz Minnow for flatties lately, and enjoying the success. These soft stick-baits have a natural feel and are well weighted, meaning they can be long cast distances, while sinking slowly with a shimmering action on the pause. I like to work the lure fast which forces it to break the surface … then allow it to shimmy slowly back to the sandy bottom.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to selecting a rod and reel for this caper, however, a 7’ rod with a line rating around 3-5kg will provide good diversity. The use of a graphite or carbon rod will enhance lure action and cast distance. When selecting a rod for wading the flats, opt for a two-piece model, as this allows you to dismantle the rod at its break-point to untangle your line in the event of a tip-wrap. This will ensure that your reel doesn’t get inadvertently dunked in the salt water while you’re reaching for your rod tip.
A quality 2500 sized spin reel spooled with either 6lb braid or mono is perfect for flatty fishing. You can fish lighter, however, it is difficult to shift a croc-sized flatty with light line if it decides to sulk on the bottom. Light-line battles also zap a lot of energy out of the fish during a prolonged fight, which is not ideal if you intend to release it (as should be done with all fish over about 60cm). Leader length is not vitally important – a rod length should cover most scenarios – however, leader diameter could mean the difference between a happy snap or a cranky chap!
You’ll get lucky with most of your hook-ups, but there is always that “one time” when that big bucket mouth will engulf your favourite lure. Instead of running a full length heavy mono leader, I prefer to run an 8lb to 10lb leader joined toaround 15cm of 14lb bite tippet via a Uni Knot. Long heavy leaders can hinder the action of your lure, whereas a short bite tippet will allow your lure to swim in a natural manner while providing you some insurance against a big flattie’s raspy teeth.
Remembering your observations from your low tide investigations, you’ll need to get your presentation right to ensure you don’t spook your target. You want your lure smacking into the faces of the fish, not their tails. Would you jump with fright if someone snuck up on you from behind? Your probably would … and it’s no different when it comes to fish. And if one flathead spooks, it could shut down that particular area of the flat. To avoid this, keep your distance from likely fish-holding areas and cast up or across current then work your lure with the tidal flow. All natural food sources will be transported with the tidal flow, so it makes sense to present your offering in a natural manner. If your chosen location is not affected by tidal flow, then you may want to fan a series of casts from one stationary position before moving 20m or so and repeating the process. Mix it up a little when it comes to retrieve speeds, and take note of exactly what took place prior to a hook-up in order to repeat your successful technique.
Working out what depth a fish came from or assessing temperature changes that you can feel with your feet may help you catch more fish. I had one session where all the fish I caught that day came from a cold flow of water. This intrigued me, as I figured the flatties would have preferred the warmer water. On closer observation I noticed a steady stream of whitebait being flushed across the flat within the colder current, which explained why the flatties were there too. It pays to be on the ball and constantly looking for vital signs.
Fishing the edges along a drop-off or a drain as the tide empties from the flat is a great approach, as the flatties will be waiting in the deeper water ready to pounce. The retrieve technique in this situation is fairly basic. I favour a “twitch and pause” retrieve when using hard-bodied lures because this technique imitates a stricken mullet or small whiting. If you’re short of time or wanting to cover more water, a “slow roll” (a steady retrieve with no puases) allows you to work an area relatively quickly.
When presenting soft plastics, I use a steady single hop/pause retrieve, although slow rolling curl-tail grubs works well too. Don’t be rigid with your approach and try different lures and methods until something works. It may come down to something as simple as a colour or profile change that scores results.
Get a grip
Securing a flathead in knee deep water is quite a handful … literally! I usually go for a bare-handed lip grip – however, my thumb usually ends up worse for wear. A pair of lip-locks or Boga grips are a good asset, and one that will certainly prove worthwhile investing in when attempting to secure a large specimen. A glove or small hand towel works well too. The best way to keep a flathead quiet when removing the hooks is to hold it belly side up with gentle thumb pressure on its lower abdomen. Always use a pair of pliers to remove the hooks as flathead can easily shake a set of trebles into your fingers … trust me on this! If you intend to release your catch, then it may pay to remove the hooks (if possible) while the flatty remains in the water. When posing for a photograph, always remember to support the fish with two hands if you intend on releasing it. Avoid holding them vertically by the jaw or gills.
The warmer months of the year are certainly more comfortable for dipping your bare feet into the water, however, flathead on foot are a viable prospect from October to April. Flathead become most aggressive around January through to March, which is my favourite time of year to wade the flats. I prefer to hunt flatties on the last of the run-out tide, but there are some locations that work well on the rising tide too. The low tides are great for family fun, providing a safe area for the kids to fish and fossick. The low tide drains and drop-offs also concentrate the flatties, making them easier to find.
Respect the big girls
Any flathead over the 60cm size is a breeding female, and it’s my belief that we need to return them to ensure our future stocks are healthy. It’s important that we respect the breeding females, as they are out-numbered by smaller males by 5:1. Killing a big breeding female flatty is something that most anglers will regret, and I speak of experience. In my youth, I killed a 93cm “croc” to make a fibreglass cast for a wall mount, and it’s an experience that still saddens (and embarrasses) me today. These days, most fish moulders have a range of moulds in all sizes, and replica moulds can be made of your trophy fish without killing it and providing the caster the fish. All you need to provide is the fish’s length, and an optional photo.
Like most fishos, I enjoy eating a feed of flatties and typically try to select those around the 45cm mark, as this size yields two beautiful fillets and doesn’t impact on breeding populations. If we practice sustainable fishing methods, and only take what we need for that day, there will be enough for tomorrow and there on. Check your local fisheries guides as legal lengths and limits differ in each state.