When spring arrives, one of my favourite species of fish starts hunting for food and getting ready to spawn. Yes, I’m talking about flathead.
There are actually over 30 species of flathead in Australia, but only 15 are caught by anglers. The most common are dusky flathead, sand flathead and bar-tailed flathead, which can be caught right around Australia in rivers and estuaries, and even on the reefs.
These ambush predators are a bottom dwellers, which means they both live and eat off the bottom. When on the bottom, flathead bury themselves just far enough under the sand so no prey can see. When a prey item such as a whiting cruises past or even over the flathead, the flathead shoots out and grabs it before settling itself back on the bottom as it swallows its food.
Flathead are a lazy fish, only moving on tide changes and to find food. If you come across a flathead mark (the shape a flathead leaves behind in the sand, also called a ‘lay’), try throwing lures 15m around the mark. When I’ve done this I’ve often caught the flathead that left the mark, judging by the fish’s size.
In spring, flathead often hang together in small groups consisting of around four or so males and one big female. A lot of customers ask me (I work at Davo’s in Noosaville), “Why am I only catching little flathead in one spot?”
My answer is this: If you’re getting little fellas, there is most likely a big female lying a few metres away. Put on a bigger lure or bait – ‘big lure and bait equals big fish’, as they say – and luck might just come your way.
Flathead like to live and feed on shallow sand flats because a lot of prey swims by, such as whiting, mullet, herring and even garfish.
Another well-known flathead haunt is on mud flats. These fish camouflage very well with the mud, making them practically invisible. It’s the perfect place for them to launch surprise attacks on the resident mullet and gar.
I also like to throw lures and baits off sand and mud banks, as the flathead like to sit on the edge waiting for the bait to drift past, and also to stay out of the fast-flowing water.
If you’re struggling to get them off the flats, try something different such as flicking and drifting baits in small and big eddies. Eddies hold no current, which mean the flathead don’t have to use much energy to stay in one spot.
If you want a good chance to get a few flathead, fish on the run-out tide and the change of the tide. At these times the baitfish get washed down from upriver, giving the flathead an easy meal. Flatties also like to sunbathe in the shallow water and warm themselves.
Through the last weeks of winter, flathead feed a lot more to prepare for their breeding season in the spring. When flathead fishing you’ll notice that you’ll start to get slightly larger ones, hopefully one over 75cm, as they feed up.
When spring arrives you’ll catch many more bigger ones. Female flathead grow significantly larger than males do, so if you catch a large fish in spring you’ll know it’s a big girl with a belly full of eggs. To release her, keep her horizontal, gently supporting her belly while you remove the hook, and she’ll go back healthy to contribute to the next generation. Some of these big females can reach over 1m in length and weigh over 7kg. Now that’s a huge fish!
Flathead aren’t an aggressive feeders so longer the lure or bait is in the strike zone for the better. That’s unless you’re drifting, as it looks natural.
When using soft plastics make sure you let your lure hit the bottom before you start the retrieve. A flathead won’t discard its camouflaged ambush point on the bottom to come up 1-2m to have a closer look at your plastic swimming by.
After your soft plastic hits the bottom, do a double twitch with the rod tip and let the plastic sink back to the bottom for five seconds. Continue that technique back to the boat. You will find that the flathead will swim after your plastic and then, when you have paused it, they’ll grab it and sit on the bottom. Sometimes you won’t even realise this has happened until you wind up the slack.
If you have no success with that retrieve, try a slow roll with a paddle-tail, with no pauses. If you’re using a jerkshad, try a slow lift up and let it sink back, continuing that retrieve back to the boat.
If none of those techniques are working, there are several reasons why that could be. There could be no flathead in the area, or you’re fishing the wrong spot at the wrong time and tide and they’re not hungry.
When trolling for flathead, it’s all about speed. These are lazy fish, so the speed to be travelling when trolling for them is 3-5 knots, with a couple of twitches every 30 seconds or even a minute. The best lures to use are hardbodies that dive from 1.5-3m, such as gold Bombers.
When using plastics I tend to use a reasonable sized ones, starting from 65mm right the way through to 140mm. I have found that 140mm and 100mm Squidgy Wrigglers work well for bigger flathead, as these are larger plastics and have a long curly tail which will get the flathead’s attention and annoy them, resulting in a hook-up.
Another plastic that works well for me is the 4” Z-man SwimmerZ in pearl white colour. You will get all sizes of flathead on them as the SwimmerZ aren’t too big or too small and have a great tail action.
If you’re finding the flathead won’t take big baits, try the 3” Z-man MinnowZ in redbone. It glows underwater and looks natural, also it’s a perfect bait size to a herring, whiting and a poddy mullet. This plastic also works on a day if the flathead are being fussy on what they eat.
However, my all-time favourite soft plastic would have to be the Gladiator Smash Bait Prawn 8.5cm in gold fleck. It looks just like a prawn, and as anglers we all know that every fish eats a well-presented prawn.
When it comes to jigheads, I prefer TTs Headlocks and standard TTs jigheads as they are a strong jighead, built on a strong Gamakatsu hook. I use a weight ranging from 1/8oz right the way to 3/8oz with a 2/0 and a 4/0 hook, as I like my lure to get to the bottom quicker and keep it in the strike zone longer.
If you find the soft plastics aren’t working, try a soft vibe lure like a Jackall Transam 95mm in 13g. It closely imitates a fish when worked in the water correctly. The best way is to slow roll or give it one or two gentle hops off the bottom and let it sink back down.
Because flathead love big plastics and hardbodied lures, I use a 2-4kg rod with a 2500 size spin reel when I’m fishing my home waters around the Sunshine Coast. Down in NSW people tend to use a 3000 or even a 4000 spin reel matched with a 6-8kg rod, as the flathead are a lot bigger down there.
When it comes to braid selection, I go for the expensive stuff. It’s much thinner, more durable and has better knot strength. My picks are Daiwa Saltiga Surf 15lb or Sunline Super PE 15lb, as both are super tough, super thin and super abrasion resistant when nicked or frayed. Those two types of braids are all PE which means they have a very thin diameter and cast amazingly well and never fray.
With these thin diameter braids, you can run as low as a 6lb or even a 4lb leader, but for flathead I tend to run a rod length of 12lb right the way through to 25lb. My leaders of choice are Sunline FC Rock Fluorocarbon leader and Icon Fluorocarbon leader.
The top places to fish here on the Sunshine Coast for flathead would have to be the Noosa River and the Maroochydore River. These two rivers have great structure, banks and well created drop-offs which the flathead adore. These rivers also have great tidal flow which means more bait gets washed in, attracting large numbers of predatory fish.
I hope my article will help you land some quality flathead for the dinner table, as these are beautiful fish to eat crumbed or battered.
If you have any further questions about flathead, feel free to come in and have a chat to me and the boys at Davo’s Complete Angler Noosaville.
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