Abundant and accessible from boat, canoe or shore, dusky flathead are one of the main targets for the estuary angler.
The dusky’s body ranges from pale caramel to mottled dark chocolate brown (depending on bottom colour) and has a white underbelly, prominent lighter bars and pale spots on top, with a single large black spot on its tail or caudal fin.
They inhabit estuaries along the bulk of the east coast and frequent ocean beaches, bays and creeks right up to tidal limit.
These tasty, roving bottom-dwellers fail to receive the credit they deserve as sport fish. Flatties are good scrappers, with powerful sudden bursts generated by thick flanks of white muscle.
Muscle power aids their ambush tactics and what they lack in stamina they make up for in rampaging bulk. When a decent flathead engulfs your lure, you can feel it right through your rod and when the fish kicks off on a strong run, it’s exhilarating.
Most hook-ups on big flathead end in heartache within the first 20 seconds of the fight due to severed leaders from the fish’s raspy teeth and thrashing headshakes but these bigger fish can be subdued with patience and skill.
Although the average flathead is 30cm to 50cm, they can grow to more than 1m and 10kg. Most ‘croc’ captures measure around 80cm.
Drifting strip-baits and live poddy mullet seem to have taken a back seat as soft and hard lures drive much of flathead fishing over the past 10 years.
Lures are more effective than bait because a lure can be actively worked through more water by fanning casts to cover more territory a drifted bait could.
Heavy leaders are required when bait fishing because many fish are gut-hooked on unattended lines. With lures, finer fluorocarbon leaders can be used because most flathead will be hooked around the jaws or lips, limiting leader damage against those unforgiving teeth.
A fine leader allows your lure to work to its full potential and lip-hooked fish have a higher success rate for survival if you intend to release your catch.
Light leaders also allow the flathead to show its fighting ability, too.
The odd lure will still be engulfed down a flattie’s cavernous mouth but the ratio of caught fish to lost lures definitely weighs in favour of the angler.
Keeping bait alive or fresh, and having to deal with pickers and by-catch, also make lures more convenient. And there’s a real sense of satisfaction casting to a zone where you think a flathead should be, and coming up trumps.
Finding flathead in an estuary is relatively easy. Telltale flatty lies in the sand at low tide will indicate flathead activity at high tide. Walk or wade the flats at low tide or slowly cruise the shallows in a boat to see these distinctive marks.
I like to target steep drop-offs adjacent to shallow flats, casting soft plastics around the edges and then slowly hopping them along the bottom and down the slope into deeper water.
I also put a few casts up on the flats as well, because the flathead move right into the shallows to ambush baitfish and crustaceans.
I use soft plastic shads from 65mm to 100mm on jig heads heavy enough to make regular contact with the bottom. It won’t matter if you go too heavy, as the bottom is where you want to be.
Hooks should be larger because even a small fish has a big mouth. A good all-round size is No 1 to 2/0.
Other areas I like to target include bays with weed and sand bottom out of the main current.
Cranking diving minnows in these bays is also excellent and exciting. Choose lures that hover just above the bottom, occasional making contact with the sand.
The best place to target flathead will be in the main channels during the last two hours of the run-out tide. Flathead lie motionless on the bottom, saving their energy for one swoop on prey that ventures too close.
They often lie in fast current waiting for an easy meal to drift in.
Fishing these areas can be challenging but by selecting a heavy jig head, you’ll be able to drift your boat with the current while your soft plastic bounces along the bottom.
Add a few whips and hops into the retrieve and cast across the tidal flow rather than dragging your plastic behind you with the current. This allows the plastic plenty of hang time during hops as it sweeps across the bottom, looking more natural.
And you just can’t go past bouncing a plastic or vibe through a deep hole. It seems a better class of fish come from the deeper sections but the numbers are fewer.
The most exhilarating way to target flathead is on the surface. The strikes will be few and far between but the by-catch of bream and whiting will keep you busy in the meantime.
Surface poppers are the way to go; walk-the-dog lures just don’t seem to excite flatties enough. Cast the popper over shallows no deeper than 1.5m and slowly bloop it back. If you get an inquiry or a follow, pause briefly before resuming your retrieve.
The strikes will be explosive and the flathead’s runs across the shallows can be heart-stopping.
This style of fishing is mainly limited to the warmer months when the water is 23° or more. Nylon mono leader of 6kg to 8kg is recommended for this because the flathead really engulf the poppers and the leader provides a minor insurance policy.
The big breeding females come out to feed after Winter. The season really kicks into full swing over Summer and continues right through to May.
It is possible to catch flathead through the colder but some days can be tough.
I really enjoy walking along the river on a balmy Summer afternoon, soaking up the last of the daylight saving after work and casting a few softies around.
Flatties’ aggressive response to lures makes them good targets for youngsters and those just getting into lure fishing.
Take care when handling flathead; they are armed with some serious spines on their gill covers.
Remember that nearly all flathead 70cm or longer are breeding females. Most anglers are aware of the importance of releasing the big girls and do so without hesitation.
The current NSW regulations are: a minimum length of 36cm with only one over 70cm with a bag limit of 10 flathead per angler per day.
However, I strongly advise to take only what you intend to eat fresh, and release all flathead over 65cm. It’s a rule that I’ve lived by for years and I hope that it is contagious!
Don’t miss our deeper delving into flattie-luring next month when SHAYNE McKEE discusses low-tide tactics with soft plastics.
• Keep main line light to get the best out of a flathead’s fight – 4lb to 6lb braid, or 6lb to 8lb mono keeps it sporty
• Flathead won’t shy from heavy leaders but heavy leaders hinder lure action. An 8lb to 10lb leader will keep most lures safe and working to their full potential.
• A 2kg to 4kg 7’ graphite spin stick with a 1000 to 2500 size spin reel is perfect for tossing lures. The author uses a Starlo-Stix Tournament Pro 2-4kg 7’3”
• Big lures catch big fish – but small lures do to, and they catch smaller fish. I’d rather catch six average flathead to one big one that I’d release anyway. Smaller lures keep you in the market for a better range of by-catch, too.
• Useful tools for flattie fishing are a decent set of lip-locks, long-nose pliers, a sturdy glove and a camera for that pic of a fish of a lifetime.