New years goal – a flattie stomach
  |  First Published: December 2016

This month will see water temperatures reach their peak and knock all the season’s species into top gear, particularly the more resident species like bream, mulloway and flatties – the flathead metabolism is directly affected by water temperatures.

Flatties are well distributed throughout the harbour from the uppermost reaches to the heads. The lower reaches around the heads are dominated by the smaller sand flathead, commonly encountered offshore with the occasional dusky thrown in if you use larger live baits. Upstream is the exclusive domain of the dusky who, despite growing to considerably larger sizes, is comfortable in as little as 1ft of water.

Flatties have a reputation for being poor sportfish, which holds true for bait fishing techniques. This can be totally disregarded when they’re targeted with lures. The skill, thrill and anticipation involved in hunting flatties on lures are different to any other predatory species, including the tropical glamour fish. Although the fight from a lure-caught flathead bears little resemblance to that of the northern mangrove inhabitants, it’s a huge improvement to one caught on bait. In the clearer water often found in the upper reaches of Middle Harbour and Lane Cove River, there’s the added appeal of the visual thrill and seeing the hooked fish in action.

Some of the best areas in the harbour to lure fish for flatties include the shallows of Rose Bay, the upper reaches of Middle Harbour, the entire length of Lane Cove River, Iron Cove and the Parramatta River from Gladesville Bridge upstream. The best times to work these areas are the two hours before low tide and one hour after it starts to come back in. It’s even better if this tide occurs early morning or late afternoon.

Flathead congregate around channel edges, rock bars, weed banks and sand or mud bank drop-offs. Any area where water is channelled off mangrove stands or flats on a falling tide is well worth a throw. A single-handed spinning or light baitcasting outfit loaded with 3-4kg line will handle any flathead, provided you use a more substantial trace of around 10kg.

Flathead will hit almost anything that swims past their face. With the emphasis on presenting the lure close to the fish, depth capabilities are the major consideration when choosing a lure for flatties. You’ll be fishing depths ranging from 1-30ft, so you’ll need a large selection of lures should you opt for diving minnow style lures.

A more versatile and possibly more effective option is to carry two types of soft plastic lures. For the shallows (1-4ft) a stickbait like the Slug-Go is deadly on flatties, especially around weed. To cover all depths, it’s hard to go past a soft plastic on a jighead.

Until recently, I’d never thought of flathead as a snag dweller – I was canoeing down a tiny little creek at South West Rocks with my partner Kath and our two kids. For the most part the creek was not much more than ankle deep at low tide. When we got down to where the creek enters the sea, we paddled past a snag pile, a combination of a fallen tree and an entanglement of tree roots.

It was sitting in about 4ft of water and I noticed a couple of nice sized luderick and bream sitting around it. Blue water was pushing in from the sea on an incoming tide, so we decided to pull up and go for a swim. Kath put on a mask and snorkel and did a couple of passes of the snag. She reported seeing the bream and luderick, but added that she also saw what she thought was a school of flathead dash into the snag on her approach.

Of course, I had to see this for myself. I borrowed the mask and swam to the snag. Sure enough, sitting deep in the shadows were dozens of flathead. The highest concentration of them was one patch that had at least seven fish stacked on a space of sand not much bigger than a garbage tin lid, with some of them literally lying on top of each other. There were at least four other patches of fish that I could see and I’m sure more up the back of the snag in the reaches too tangled for me to safely access.

The fish averaged about 45cm, which perfectly matched the lines I had seen on the sandbanks at low tide. The snag also had a cloud of small glass perch, of which the flathead were showing no interest in. My guess is that the flatties take cover in the snag by day and move onto the shallows at night to feed. It was our last day of holidays, so I didn’t get a chance to revisit the snag with a flick stick, but I know where I’ll be dropping a few weedless stickbaits on my next trip.

The harbour has been alive with pelagics this season, including more salmon than I’ve ever seen before. Tailor and kings are in on the act and if you let your lure fall through the surface schools, there’s every chance a trevally will grab it. All the usual spots are worth a go, including Inner North Head, Clifton Gardens, Taylors Bay and North Harbour. You can probably add bonito to the list, but they’re notoriously less predictable than the others.

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