Dusky flathead of the Gippsland Lakes
  |  First Published: June 2015

I adore the common old flathead and I never get sick of catching them, big or little. I really admire and even worship the huge crocodiles that grow to a 1m or more. They have this ugly but somehow handsome, even stunning look about them and they remind me of some ancient fishy relic from the age of the dinosaurs.

The dusky flathead is one of the most sought after and rewarding estuary targets here in my home waters, the Gippsland Lakes, so let me share with you some tips on where and how to catch them. I will also explore their incredible and surprising movements and growth rates from my tagging experience.

Abundant duskies

There can be a rich and bountiful number of flathead within this huge Gippsland estuary of lakes and rivers. Over the last 15 years I've learnt that their numbers experience boom and bust cycles but there is always a good year to year background population to keep us all going.

Right now I reckon we are in a typical year if there is such a thing, where finding them can take quite a bit of work, depending on the time of year. The good news is that I believe the flathead population is slowly building towards another boom time and over the next few months and right into winter is going to be another prime time flathead season.

When you work out where they live most anglers can expect to find 15-30 flatties a day. About 10 years ago we had a massive growth cycle between 2004-2006 and it was nothing to catch 40, 50 or even a 100 duskies a day with most of them either side of 40cm! After the massive 2007 floods those flathead numbers crashed as some of them presumably got washed out into the ocean. I have no idea what triggers the boom times and I can only guess it must revolve around abundant food supply, significant spawning events, or perhaps both.

Finding flatties

There are some specific waters to chase flathead and where to start can be a daunting prospect within the huge Gippy Lakes area. An all year round place to begin any flathead search is at Metung and I would almost call this spot ‘dusky central’. There are acres of sand flats and deeper drop offs that provide a vast range of suitable habitat for hunting or hiding.

From this area you can travel east and explore the saltier and very tidal waters around Lakes Entrance and the North Arm that provide excellent sport during early and late summer.

From Metung you can also head west and search the Tambo or Nicholson rivers and the bays they feed into. The Mitchell River will often have good numbers of medium-sized duskies from the township of Bairnsdale down to Eagle Point and prime time here is from March right through to the end of winter.

The Nicholson River has fewer fish but some of these flathead can be huge. Over recent years large duskies have turned up there that have measured 70-80cm.

Then the mighty Tambo is the most well known flathead hotspot and I recommend you start your search around the highway bridge right down to the mouth. You can gain easy access on both sides of the Tambo River and it is the best option if you are land-based.

Seasonal migration

The most important factor when deciding where to find flathead is being in tune with their yearly movements. From November to January they will be off breeding down the Paynesville, Metung and Lakes Entrance end of the system before they gradually move right up into the western parts of the Gippy Lakes for autumn and winter.

The cooler months from April onwards see them travel up all the main rivers, into Hollands Landing or Seacombe and even right into Lake Wellington. In fact, the colder months can amazingly be far more productive for big numbers of flathead than over summer. The added bonus of this is fewer anglers on the water and the days might be cold but you often get beautiful calm weather. Even on the coldest days of winter I’ve had some of the best sport landing big flathead with a warm coat and beanie on.

The duskies migrate right up high into the rivers through to the end of August before they head back down into the lakes for the summer breeding season.

Lure fishing

Most anglers have caught flathead on soft plastics by now, so I won't expand too much in this already proven technique except to mention that very big plastics, up to 15cm, long may be required to get trophy flathead to bite. Smaller plastics can still catch big fish and you also get a better mix of by-catch like bream, perch and luderick.

In my opinion metal blade lures will outscore soft plastics about 5 to 1. Most anglers chasing flathead are too set in their ways and rely heavily on soft plastics but if those same anglers put in a greater effort with blades they would get a shock at the increased catch rate. You can work a blade really fast with short pauses and that way you quickly cover a huge amount of your target area. I suggest you compare a soft plastic against a blade and I'm positive you will see the worth of blade lures on dusky flathead. The by-catch is just as impressive with blades, and catches such as bream, perch, trevally, mullet, luderick, tailor salmon and even whiting are common.

Live and dead baits

The art of live baiting for flathead is very much ignored these days but I can assure you the old boys still catch monster fish with a mullet or a big prawn swimming around with a hook attached! In some places now it is the ONLY way to get huge old fish that are now very wised up to fake lures.

Be warned that flathead are not dumb! I have cast blades and plastics to dozens of big flathead and they have totally ignored lures for days on end. Then I have watched those same fish being caught by smart anglers using live baits.

Drifting with dead baits like prawns, fish fillets or bluebait can also be very effective and still accounts for a lot of flathead each year. Even fishing baits just chucked out stationary and forgotten about will hook plenty, but if you slowly wind and move those baits around then your catch rate will go through the roof.

Tagged flathead – secrets revealed at recapture

Well over 60,000 flathead, since the mid 1980s, have been tagged right around the country, and that equates to thousands of recaptures and surprising stories of how far flathead swim and their growth rates.

The funding for QLD taggers has far out stripped any monies received by other states and sadly our Victag program is now dead in the water. However, when Victag was alive and well a few years back I was heavily involved and we found out some incredible stuff.

In Victoria, about 4500 duskies have been tagged over the years, so let me now tell you some extraordinary facts and amazing data iabout the secret lives of flatties.

The big swim

Flatties are often thought of as being laid back, lazy and inactive ambush hunters. They have certainly evolved to sit on the bottom and wait for passing prey. Movement between tagging and recapture can vary quite a lot, but let me assure you, flatties are not the stay at home sedentary types we all think they are! They can make long oceangoing voyages and even inside estuaries they move surprising distances in a short time.

I remember one dusky I tagged was recaptured just 24 hours later and had moved over 2km. Another one swam out of the estuary I tagged it in and was caught three months later, 50km away near Mallacoota out in the open ocean in about 20 metres of water.

Nearly all flathead recaptures have shown some movement and it’s common for them to have travelled over 15-20km. However, as usual, some fish have broken those rules too. A 72cm dusky I extracted from out under a nice snag was recaptured 3 months on, (having grown to 74cm), from exactly the same spot. I also tagged a 35cm dusky and then 18 months later we were reunited, at the exact same bend in the Tambo River, next to the very same log, with the fish now 38.5cm. To catch this fish again, in precisely the same spot is quite incredible, especially when I'd caught dozens of other flathead on that same bend of the river, around that very same log during those 18 months.

Multiple recaptures

Some of the most outstanding recaptures have been those fish caught on more than 2-3 occasions and a few lucky flathead has been released 4 times now!

With the tag number of A69532, I first released a dusky at Lake Tyers back in 2005 at 35cm around a year later P. Cordingley hooked him again and returned it at 40.5cm. Then, just 3 months on, G. Wisewould caught the same fish and put it on the ruler at 41cm before release. Then, incredibly, on the very same day, along comes my good mate Peter Spehr and hooks it yet again! I think it’s fairly safe to say that flatty was a very slow learner.

I suppose my favourite recapture was of a big 4kg dusky flathead that I first tagged when she ate a soft plastic lure fished close to the bottom. About 4 months later in the same estuary, I was fishing a surface lure across the top of a very shallow sandy bay in search of bream. Suddenly a huge crocodile-like snout erupts out of the water and engulfs my surface lure. It was that same big flatty, and I released her yet again, with another tag! She had moved 2km downstream with no extra growth.

Another dusky I caught at Hollands Landing was 16cm and then 12 months later I pulled it in again about 3km away at 31cm. That's a very fast growth rate of 15cm in a single year. It seems some flathead can grow fairly fast indeed.

An 86cm flathead sadly died on me many years ago while I tried to release her so I got the fish aged via the ear bones and she was just 9 years old.

Good old flathead

How many times have you had a slow fishing day and then eventually relied on flatties to at least get a feed or to finally hook a few fish for the day.

They can be so common at some locations that anglers might even curse them when a procession of little ones steal bait or lures aimed at larger quarry. Some cruel anglers even call flatties dumb and stupid for their tendency to continually attack lures and baits with almost suicidal conviction. I prefer to think of the good old flathead as a veracious apex hunter that even after relentless fishing pressure, can bounce back from over fishing in nearly all of their vast range of habitats.

Let me assure you that the Gippsland Lakes are a real dusky flathead stronghold and we are blessed to have them.

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