Trolling for flathead
CATCHING flathead on trolled lures was, to the best of my knowledge, first done by Gerry McDonnell in southern Queensland in around 1980. At this time Gerry and his mates trolled Bill Norman DR3 deep divers around the entrances of the Mooloolah and Maroochy rivers in spring and caught large numbers of big flathead. This was pioneering and innovative work.
It was considered extremely “left field” at the time, a bit like many of us felt when catching whiting on poppers was popularised some years back due to the pioneering work by Kevin Gleed. Since this time catching flathead on trolled lures has waxed and waned in its popularity. It is still an extremely popular method in southern Queensland.
While some consider trolling a “boring” method to fish, most of these critics haven’t invested the time, brains or finesse to appreciate the subtlety of the method. Nor do they understand how it is an effective aid to locking in on good casting territory. And plenty of the “I never troll” brigade have outboards and boats way too large to effectively troll, anyway.
The following is a guide as to how I approach flathead trolling. Like all fishing, the art is to put the right lure in the right place at the right time. For flathead, the lure should run on or near the bottom.
I spend most of my fishing time on the Gold Coast chasing two species of fish: flathead and blue marlin. There is obviously quite a difference between the two species, but the one thing that’s common to chasing both is that the more time you spend on the water, the better you get at catching fish. And I get just as much satisfaction from a 90cm lizard as I do from a 150 kilo blue marlin.
Most trips we both cast and troll for flathead. The general idea is that we troll when we think the fish are scattered over a large area. When we find a patch of feeding fish in a small area we drop the electric down and start casting. We generally catch between 500 and 1000 flathead per season, mostly from my 4.4m Quintrex. The current tally in early July is 217 from nine trips over the past six weeks. The early winter fish are generally a lot smaller than the fish we catch in spring, thus the biggest of this tally so far is only 75cm. The 80cm plus fish turn up like clockwork in August. Most of our fish are caught trolling.
There are some key points you need to follow when chasing lizards on the troll. They involve lure selection, using your side imaging effectively, understanding how the fish move on the tide and working out how to troll different contours and depths so you constantly get your lure in the strike zone.
There are hundreds of lures that will catch flathead on the troll. Contrary to popular belief, not all trolling is done with hard-bodies. Lipless crankbaits, blades and soft vibes are also extremely effective troll options at times, especially in water less than 1.5m deep. The key points are that a troll lure must vibrate hard and harshly. If you feel that little legendary flathead lure, the Lively Lures Micro Mullet, through the rod tip, you get an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s a tight high frequency vibration that’s very easy to feel.
Lure colour is important, too. Unlike bream (aka estuary cockroaches) which prefer natural colours and high detail in their lure finishes, flathead like hard solid colours like bright pink, pink and purple, fluoro green and white. A bit of flash also helps at times, but highly visible colours get a lot more bites than ornate bream style lure patterns. Dog’s dick pink is the go for flatties. In dirty water fluorescence can really help you get more fish as they seem to be able to see the lure from a greater distance and strike it more accurately.
In shallow water less than three metres my favourite lures are the Lively Lures Micro Mullet, the deep model Pig Lure (locally made on the Gold Coast by Shane Gartner) and the Zerak Tango Shad. I’ve used a lot of lures over a few decades but these three are reliable fish getters. We also troll Red Eye Shads and smaller soft vibes when the bite is slow. There are plenty of good small lures on the market that all catch flathead. For example, the smaller Tackle World Stradas are very effective. Look for a fast strong vibration, know the lure’s running depth and use solid hard bright colours. The big advantage of the Micro Mullet is its weed shedding ability. When it fouls a few shakes of the rod usually clears it.
In deeper water from 2.5 to 5m I like the Tilsan Bass, the deep diving small and medium Bombers and the 15+ Killalure Flatz Rat. These lures will bang the bottom in five metres of water. The Tilsan Bass is a truly versatile lure that works well close to the boat. We often put it only two to three metres behind the outboard leg! Reliable lures that you have faith in are the key to success. The above lures work well for me, but the list is in no way inclusive. There are always new lures to try. I retrofit all lures with small chemically sharpened Owner trebles.
One of the keys to flathead trolling is to find the right kind of bottom structure. Flathead are ambush predators and need to bury in the bottom in order to hide from their prey. In a metre of water I set my side imaging out to about 8-10m. What I look for is soft mud with plenty of holes, narrow draining channels and intermittent weed patches. These areas are easy to spot on a side imaging screen. Avoid areas of hard sand. These usually appear as distinct ridges, hold little bait and are more difficult for flathead to hide in. With a good unit it is easy to see yabby holes, small soft depressions and weed beds (which look like dark patches as the weed absorbs the sounder beam and gives a poor return echo).
In deeper water look for bait schools that hold their position close to the edge of drop offs. On some longer trolls you may find a few bait patches, and it pays to concentrate on these areas as flathead will move quite a distance following small bait such as white pilchards.
Once you “learn” your local estuary you’ll find you can catch flathead on the troll on any part of the tide cycle. The key is working out where the food source of the flathead is likely to be and to then chase the bait. On the bottom of the tide when all the drains are running off the flats you’ll often find small feeder channels only a few boat widths wide. These are very good spots to troll.
I like to mix up my trolling with my casting. Sometimes we do exploratory trolls up skinny drains and will quickly lock in on a patch of fish in a particular section of the drain. If we have a double or triple hook-up on the troll, we often drop the electric, put it on spot lock and start casting to a localised area full of fish. Trolling allows us locate the honey holes.
More often, however, the fish will be scattered along the drain and repeated slow trolls will pick off fish quickly over a large area. Trolling can always produce steady streams of fish where they’re scattered. I much prefer to troll with the current as the lures run deeper, but in shallow slower runs I am happy to troll into the flow.
A filling tide can be very productive to troll, but you have to spend a bit of time in your local estuary to work out where and when the fish will move up onto the flats and over the weed beds. Some of the best high tide trolling sessions I’ve had have taken place in less than a metre of water. On a filling tide flathead like to hunt the fringes of mangroves and weed beds. The water is generally quite clean, giving greater visibility to the lures. Some of our biggest flathead have been caught on the top of the tide trolling quite small lures. A good tip is to look for pelicans on high tide. They are often a very good clue as to where the best concentrations of bait are located. Trolling soft mudflats on the top of a big tide is a very reliable tactic that lets you cover a lot of water.
I find the toughest part of the tide cycle to troll is the middle of the run out. At this time the flats are still covered and there isn’t an “easy” feeding spot. It seems the feeding flathead often go off the bite as they wait for the tide to fall out further. On this section of the tide I often troll deeper lures in 4-6m of water along fast flowing channels. This produces some quality fish in the toughest part of the tide cycle.
In order to be successful, the lure should be hitting the bottom, kicking up mud and vibrating hard as it runs close to the sea floor. Lures that run too shallow catch far fewer flathead. You can increase the running depth of a lure significantly by using fine braid, a lighter, shorter leader and by trolling in the same direction as the current is flowing. It’s important to know accurately the running depths of your lures and watch your sounder continually so your lures are working the right depth contour.
It’s a good tactic to work a variety of depths. We may troll a contour of 1-2m for a few trolls using Micro Mullets, then move out to a three metre troll then change to deeper running lures and work out into five metres of water running a Tilsan Bass, deep running Bomber or a 15+ Flatz Rat. Sometimes a really big lure will crack a really large flathead on the troll. Years ago we spent a bit of time trolling Mann’s Stretch 30 plus lures in the Gold Coast Seaway and caught quite a few monster flathead trolling depths up to 12m. We now work the same areas with large soft plastics which minimises the horrible snags we used to get back then ...
Most of our flathead trolling is done using 4-6lb braid and a metre of six kilo fluorocarbon leader. When bigger fish start to show up we add a 15cm length of 16-20lb stiff fluorocarbon as a short “bite leader”. A small clip is useful to change lures quickly but clips pick up weed so I prefer to knot to the split ring or run a loop knot if tying to the lure eyelet. In deeper water towing bigger lures I use 10lb braid and 20lb fluoro leader.
A rod held in the hand outfishes a rod in the rod holder every time. I keep my lures at a variety of distances, but a lure close to the boat kicks up heaps of mud and can be very effective only a metre or two behind the outboard. I hold my rod across my body as I am generally on the tiller, and once I feel it kicking hard I slowly draw it forward and drop it back repeatedly so the lure is constantly slowing down and speeding up. This also lets me easily feel if the lure has picked up weed. A few quick shakes will often clear a Micro Mullet of weed – as mentioned before, the sharp vibration of this lure seems to kick the weed off.
All up, flathead trolling is a deadly method ideally suited to small boats and family fishing. While I like to cast as well, the two methods complement each other well and lead to very productive fishing. Give it a go!