Flathead Classic Q & A
  |  First Published: November 2015

Shallow Approach – Depth Not Desired

Danny Sands, an avid angler and member of Gold Coast Sport Fishing Club, took out the Champion Angler title at the 2015 Flathead Classic. Sands amassed 1560 points to narrowly secure the title. Fishing in a three-man team (which included three generations of the same family!), Sands stuck to his shallow water plan and found the fish to secure the Senior Angler victory, while also anchoring his team to fourth place in the event overall.

Sands’ pre-fish for the event was limited due to work commitments; nevertheless his experience of the tournament arena and knowledge of the conditions was never in question. Focussing on the two days prior to the event as key to identifying the correct locations and techniques, Sands quickly sketched a blueprint for the event and then put his plan into action. His key points were identifying bait in the location, and identifying the areas that held clean water.

“With big tides and northern winds on the forecast, the key was finding the clear water and the bait congregating in the area,” Sands explained. “I find that the fish are more active and bite better in the clear water.”

Other visual features of Sands’ key spots were pelicans actively feeding in the area.

The areas Sands focussed on are located between Sovereign Island and Crusoe Island. Tipplers and the Neverfail Islands were specific areas that produced fish during the event. Facing a run-in tide at the start of each day, Sands looked to make the most of each morning before the tide reached high.

“The goal was to fish hard for the first two to three hours as this was the most productive period for the team,” he said. “As soon as the locations we were fishing had the first push of the run-in tide, the bite started to shut down.”

Once the tide pushed towards high, the team relocated to Crusoe Island where they continued to target fish in the shallow water.

“At Crusoe Island there weren’t as many fish, but the ones we caught were of good quality,” Sands said. “We focussed our efforts on fishing the edge of the dirty water line in no deeper than 6ft.”

Sands’ technique involved making long casts into shallow water between 0.5ft to 8ft in depth. Using an aggressive presentation, with a focus on keeping the lure close to the bottom, Sands was rewarded with consistent bites throughout the tournament. He used only one type of plastic lure during the event: a Berkley Gulp 4” Minnow in chartreuse colour rigged on a 1/4oz 3/0 TT’s jighead painted pink (no scent was added to the lure). When a more finesse approach was required, he changed the jighead to a 1/4oz McCubbin football jighead. The McCubbin football jighead allowed him to fish the lure close to the bottom with the addition of a slower sink rate.

“When using this presentation I was looking to keep the lure in the fish’s face for longer,” he explained. “It is a slower presentation with the action being to aggressively shake the rod rather than lift the rod.”

When discussing the locations fished during the event Sands noted that the water remained reasonably clear, despite the dirty water encroaching around them.

“The locations we selected were away or sheltered from the main run of the tide, so the water remained clear in those locations for longer than it did in more open locations,” he said. “We generally had enough clarity to see weed and bottom structure, which aided our approach.”

The first two days of the event played out virtually the same, with the team finding early success fishing the start of the run-in tide before moving north to Crusoe Island. On the last day the team investigated Crab Island around the middle of the tide where they found fish. During the middle to high tide mark, the team focussed their efforts on identifying structure and weed beds where the fish were likely to be sitting in ambush. Trolling around the Aldershots and Crab Island provided only two fish for the team, with lots of waterborne weed hampering their efforts.

Sands’ tackle included a G.Loomis Shaky Head 6’10” rod paired with a 2500 Shimano Twin Power reel spooled with 4lb Berkley Fireline braid and either 10lb Sunline FC Rock or 10lb Berkley Vanish leader. The team fished from a 4.8m Galeforce boat equipped with a single Lowrance HDS9 sounder (some other boats ran up to four units) and an 80lb Minn Kota electric motor.

Sands said the first two days were similar, with a window of opportunity early, but added that Day 3 was different.

“Day 3, when the tides were better, the action was thick and fast for periods,” he said. “The team was concentrating on getting two to three legal fish per hour. When the bite slowed we would still be thinking one to two fish per hour, with the thought process that the better bite windows would make up for any shortfall later in the session.

“As a team we focussed on a particular area. This allowed us to move to nearby spots if a specific location wasn’t working, as well as reducing time wasted travelling. As a team we tried to help one another, communicating when a certain lure or technique was working. It was a good vibe on the boat, which always helps in a tournament situation.

“Fishing light definitely helped in the conditions, along with searching for the larger banks. If you think about it, the larger the bank is, the more bait has to come off it at low tide.”

Deep Approach – Rolling In The Deep

Nick Whyte, a key member of winning team Lowrance Whyte Boyz (3571 points), took time out of his hectic schedule to discuss the event and share some key points that have seen his team earn back-to-back victories at the 2014 and 2015 events.

The Lowrance Whyte Boyz have long been recognised for their skills when fishing deep water, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them into the ‘deepwater’ category. The strengths of the team lie in their knowledge of the tournament arena, their ability to adapt to the prevailing conditions and their joint understanding of whether a location is working and why. By using all these elements together, the team is able to place itself in the most ideal location at the right time of the tide, thereby maximising the boys’ chances of catching larger numbers of fish.

The pre-fish (practice) for the event began around six weeks prior, with the team aiming for four to five sessions out on the water in this time. Importantly, the team headed out the day before the event, focussing on what was happening on the water rather than confirming that fish were in selected locations. The boys cut the hooks off their jigheads to ensure fish weren’t stung (hooked), because a stung fish is unlikely to get hooked again for 24 hours or so afterwards.

The team focussed the majority of their efforts on selected locations between the northern boundary (powerlines at Russell Island) and the 6 knot zone (south of Crusoe Island). The decision to focus on this area was based on a number of factors including the team’s pre-fish experience. However, with the onset of dirty water in the system the team made the decision to largely remain in the clean water near the mouth of system (Jumpinpin). As a consequence, the team focused on edges in the deeper water and the large bait showings in the area.

“Our focus was deeper edges and secondary drop-offs in the area,” Whyte explained. “Come high tide we could be up in the shallows casting into 1ft of water, but regardless of the location we trusted in our approach and had confidence in the area we were fishing. The team operates very much under a majority rule situation, however just like in 2014, we didn’t encounter a situation where we were at odds with one another.”

One of the team’s strengths is that the members fish independently. Each team member fishes differently (aggressively/passively) and has their own nuances with retrieves (slow/fast). Team members rotate through their favourite lures, and if a certain lure or retrieve is consistently successful, the member tells the others. Within this framework each angler fishes to their strengths, maintaining confidence in their technique and approach and knowing their team mates are doing the same.

So what features determine whether a location is selected? Bait in the area and structure (edges and snags) are key to identifying where a flathead may be located. Being an ambush predator, these are important factors in determining where the fish might be congregating.

Once areas with fish are identified it was a matter of finding similar structure or locations that had the same features. By rotating between these locations during the same stage of the tide, the team maximised their opportunities to land more fish. Bait being present in the area always remained a key point.

The lures used by the Lowrance Whyte Boyz included the ZMan 5” scented PaddlerZ, 4” SwimmerZ and 4” and 5” McCarthys plastics. The standout colour in the ZMan range was sexy mullet colour. Jigheads ranged between 3/8oz to 1oz, with the weight altered depending on the strength of current. Coloured jigheads were used to either contrast with the plastic or to match the plastic (the latter makes the plastic look longer). When the bites became harder to come by, Procure scent was added to the lure and then reapplied every 10-15 minutes. Casting lures was the name of the game for the team, with the boys choosing not to troll lures during the tournament.

When the team focussed on deeper presentations, the standout lures were a 95mm Zerek Fish Trap and a 0.5oz TT’s Switchblade.

“In the dirty water we use lures that have a bigger profile or provide greater vibration so that the fish can better home in on the lure,” Nick explained.

“The team came into its own when positioning the boat when fishing deeper water. When an angler is fishing drop-offs and edges, positing the boat is key to be able to target the correct areas.

“When you are sitting in 40-50ft of water and fishing vertically, it’s a very different scenario from, say, targeting a secondary drop-off of a steep bank,” Nick said. “Position is key to effectively covering the area and working out where the fish are sitting.”

The team acknowledged the use of sounders to assist them while on the water. They used four Lowrance HDS 12 units on the 4.7m Attack boat used during the tournament.

“We use the sounders for multiple purposes including sounding of baitfish and positioning of the boat,” Whyte explained. “The side imaging is imperative to locating and maintaining contact with baitfish as well as identifying ledges. Keeping the boat in the correct position maximises the opportunity to secure the bites on offer. The Insight Genesis mapping system provides contour depths to 1m, which is ideal for the style of fishing we focus on. You can’t put your head underwater, which is why we rely on the technology to be our eyes on and under the water.”

With the team actively seeking fish in the high 50cm to early 60cm range, the tackle used is required to stand up to the test. The team members regularly used braid between 20-24lb with a 16-20lb leader.

“Snaggy ledges can quickly relieve anglers of multiple jigheads, especially if the leader is not up to the task,” Whyte said. “You can easily waste too much time retying leaders or trying to get your gear back off the bottom.”

The team acknowledged that during the event the bite was tough, with no day being a particular standout for fish quality or numbers. The addition of dirty water in the system largely determined the locations fished during the tournament, with the team fishing within sight of the Jumpinpin bar for the first two days. Come the last day the team also ventured to a number of positions closer to the northern boundary.

“It was a tough tournament with no day a particular standout,” Whyte said, “although the bite was actually tougher in the lead-up to the event.

“We had a solid first day and come the second morning our first two fish were 93cm and 84cm, so we thought we were on a roll. However, the northern wind came through and the fishing just became harder as we slowly ground it out. On the final day we hit a number of locations further up the system, confident that these spots hadn’t received as much pressure due to the abundance of dirty water for the previous two days. The fish that followed were quality and in reasonable numbers.”

Finally, I quizzed the Lowrance Whyte Boyz for helpful suggestions for anglers looking to emulate the team’s success.

“Without a doubt, experience on the water is the most important thing,” Whyte said. “Experience allows you to trust your approach and have confidence in an area, even as anglers are leaving the area around you. Bait is always a key indicator, and often it’s reflective of the numbers of flathead in an area.

“Finally, working out the pattern will give you a lot of confidence as you will be able to identify similar locations that offer comparable opportunities.”

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