URBAN FISHING: Big flathead, shallow water

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Sami with a monster-size 96cm flathead.

THERE'S something special about that first glimpse a trophy size flathead; they’re an impressive creature to behold and even more impressive are the strikingly mottled specimens that come from clear and shallow waters. I’ve caught plenty of fish over the years yet catching a big flathead on light line in shallow water would rate highly as a favourite form of fishing. Big flathead are relatively unpredictable; their fight, their behaviour along and even the colouration of two fish caught from the same location can be markedly different. Whilst big flathead won’t entertain you with a sustained blistering run, their erratic bursts of agility coupled with a dogged fight and hefty weight on the other end is enough to make any seasoned anglers knees a little wobbly. As with most species, it’s often a case of quality of quantity when chasing big flathead. A decent fish in my books is anything over 70 cm whilst anything in the 80s is memorable with any fish over 90cm being special and leaving a life-long memory. I’ve been fortunate enough to manage a number of fish in the 90s from the hard fished waters of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay along with a number more from some of the rivers and lakes up and down the east coast of Australia. Big flathead are never easy but are quite achievable when you dial in to their feeding patterns and likely habitats plus other tell-tale clues that might suggest a big lizard isn’t too far away.

Peak seasons for big fish
In waterways with reasonable tidal flow and access to open water, most of the bigger flathead will migrate downstream in preparation to spawn. This timing of this migration usually coincides with the months of October and November however the first spell of consistently warm water temperature any time after September is a good time to look for migrating fish. It’s worth noting that the bigger fish tend to stay dormant and slow down during the autumn and winter so you if you want to catch a big flathead in the shallows it really is best to target them during warmer months as the warm water not only triggers their migration but also elevates their metabolism. What I’ve also noticed over the years is the first batch of fish to take up residency in the downstream flats are usually far more aggressive, presumably trying to stockpile food and fat to make up for any dormancy through winter. Through late spring and summer, the numbers of large fish continue to increase but so does the fishing pressure and boat traffic so you’ll have to time any outings wisely.

 
When looking for a shallow water location you need to consider the dynamics of the location by studying which way water and baitfish with move at any given point in the tide.

Where to find them
A classic flathead location is somewhere with a soft bottom so the ideal spots to look for them are areas of shallow sand, silt and mud along with any areas that feature patches of kelp and weed. Flathead are an ambush predator and will lay in the shallows then shimmy themselves to partially submerge and camouflage their body. When looking for a shallow water location you need to consider the dynamics of the location by studying which way water and baitfish with move at any given point in the tide to anticipate the most likely spot for a big flathead to nab an easy meal. I like to fish the last portion of the run in and the run out and think through where the baitfish are likely to be concentrated due to the bathymetry of the location and current flow. Worthwhile spots include the base of mangroves roots as the water falls off a spring tide, small tributaries deep into the mangroves at the top of the tide along with sloping banks and channels into the main waterway on a falling tide. If a shallow area meets a rocky shoreline then you’ll often find a slightly deeper channel just out from the rocks; these areas can be dynamite when there’s a trickle of tidal flow, especially during the first push of clean water from a run in tide. On a large sand flat of uniform depth, any patch of weed or kelp would be the ideal spot to fish.

Follow the small fish
Small fish can be a distraction in most trophy fishing situations however with flathead, the difference in growth rates shows that almost all trophy sized fish are females with male fish are smaller on average. The key takeaway is that big flathead over 75cm are almost always likely to be female. Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern where many smaller males will often congregate around a large female during spawning season; keep that in mind next time you’re catching a stack of smaller fish about 30-50cm as they’ll be the males and usually a big female won’t be too far away. If you encounter plenty of small fish in a localised area, don’t be too surprised if all of a sudden the little ones are nudged out of the way and you find yourself connected to a much bigger fish!

Flathead have huge mouths!

Lures and tackle
Choosing the right lure is a subjective topic however in the shallows I tend to favour four and five inch soft plastics with the lightest possible jig head I can get away with. You can fish other sizes and styles of lures but by far the most productive technique I have found has been flicking around soft plastics on light tackle. The shallows I fish are usually no more than a few metres deep so I generally fish an eighth to a quarter ounce jig head with a suitable hook, usually around the 2/0 to 4/0 size. I’ll almost always use a natural colour regardless of condition. In the shallows and locations that I frequent, the water is generally clear enough to see the bottom and over the years I’ve experimented with many colour combinations but have found neutral colours to be most productive. Any partially translucent colour with gold glitter or gold holographic scale patterns will reflect well in both clear conditions and in discoloured water so is usually my colour of choice. My flathead outfits are mostly loaded with 8lb braid and 14lb hard fluorocarbon leader. A small, light reel in the 2000-3000 size matched to a 7 foot fast action rod suited to the lures I use rounds out the outfit. Rod choice is more critical than reel choice with my perfect flathead rod having enough tip strength to manage the total weight of the combined soft plastic and jig head without feeling overloaded or too soft when whipping the lure.

Fighting a big lizard
I’ve caught six fish that I’ve measured to be over 90cm and released quite a few more that would have been close. Fishing long and hard for them has also seen many fish in the 70 and 80cm range and without a doubt almost all of the big fish have stayed deep and slugged it out along the bottom. Large flathead have a big mouth and generally don’t muck around when inhaling a lure so more often than not you’ll find your leader passing over their raspy teeth during the course of the fight. Their natural swimming action sees their head and entire body move in a snakelike action along the bottom so you’ll feel erratic headshakes as the fish darts away. These headshakes can be quite taxing on lighter leader material so to preserve your leader you can reduce the angle of the line by lowering your rod tip or you can fish a lighter drag setting because most shallow water locations are usually snag free. In saying that, I’ve recently started pushing deep into large mangrove line bays and casting into passages of water that snake their way into the mangroves; these little sandy channels are bound by mangrove roots on either side and in this terrain I’ll up my leader to 20lb and fish as heavy a drag as possible! Catching a hefty flathead from a channel that’s no more than a metre or two wide with barnacle encrusted mangroves on either side is edge of your seat fishing and gives a thrill factor you normally wouldn’t associate with the humble flathead!

A trophy Sydney estuary flathead.

Landing your croc
A big flathead is can go off like a firecracker when you get them close and are not only unpredictable but can catch you out with their length and girth the first time you encounter one. They can frustratingly dodge a big net when green and full of fight so expect them to take off when they first sight you. Always avoid a situation where a big flathead gets its head out of the water and don’t try to muscle them into the net. Most big flathead gain their freedom when using an excessive amount of force when trying to land them with the leader either being shredded as they thrash about or the fish dislodging the lure after repeated violent headshakes on a tight line. Use the biggest scale safe net you can get and once they swim into the opening you can then scoop up the rest of the body and gently land your prize. Always respect a big fish by keeping the time they spend out of the water to a minimum. Never put your hands in their gills and if handling them you should use a wet glove to thumb grip their mouth with you other wet hand cradling their body.

Why you should let the big girls go
In NSW you’re allowed to keep one flathead over 70cm. At that size the fish will generally be a mature breeding female that can potentially lay hundreds of thousands if not millions of eggs annually. Interestingly, large females exponentially lay more eggs than smaller females with one research paper I read stating that a 76cm female flathead produces almost 43 times more eggs annually than a 32cm fish. To put that into perspective, that research showed that the big female could produce almost 4.8 million eggs annually compared to about 112 thousand eggs in the smaller female! Yes it might be legal to keep one above 70cm but these fish are the most productive breeders so it’s vital the we keep this in mind and educate other anglers on the importance of preserving the bigger flathead population – let the big girls go!

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