Flat out during Flathead Fever
  |  First Published: December 2007

The entire east coast of Australia seems to be in the midst of a flathead population boom. Not only are they being caught in droves just about everywhere, the average size seems to be on the make as well.

For a change, a big thanks is surely due to the policy makers within the Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries. Perhaps the slot limit on mud or dusky flathead (40-70cm) is at last having a definite and lasting effect. Perhaps fishers Statewide and beyond are at last realising that these fish are worth protecting and that the larger henfish must be released. And perhaps other States are following Queensland’s lead.

In NSW for example, dusky flathead must be at least 36cm in total length before they can be dropped into the esky. One fish above 70cm is allowed to sneak into the bag limit, which currently stands at ten fish. Whilst these rules are slightly more relaxed than those in Queensland, they are similar and the flow-on effect appears to be pretty much the same.

releasing flathead

Plenty of big flathead henfish along the coast will result in massive natural recruitment, which of course is self-perpetuating. Do yourself, your fishing buddies and your environment a favour and release flathead longer than 60cm. Of course, fish better than 70cm must be returned to the water in haste. It is very satisfying to trick a big fish, take some photographs for the brag book, gently slide it back into the water and watch it snake its way back into the depths.

Nevertheless, countless successful anglers are making major mistakes during this process and in many cases they are inadvertently killing the fish that they release. Flathead, and indeed any fish, must be handled with great care if they are to be released and survive. I have seen guides handle fish in the most inappropriate manner and then release the catch. The fish may swim away fine but they do not witness it die a slow death over the next day or so.

The biggest cause of post release death is hanging a fish by its lower jaw for the obligatory photograph. This is very common and unfortunately one that is promoted, albeit quite innocently, by makers of lip gripping-style tools. These great pieces of fishing equipment are not designed to hold fish vertically by their lower jaw prior to release. If you must use them, support the fish in a horizontal manner.

Keen local flathead angler, Lance McFayden, uses a glove to handle big flathead. He inserts his thumb into the mouth of the fish and the fish bites down firmly. His other hand supports the fish horizontally and after the photo the fish is released. Lance tells me that as soon as the fish is in the water it releases its grip on his thumb and glides back to the depths.

Another keen, and rather more senior, local demonstrated some years ago another very effective flathead handling technique. If pressure is applied to the fish’s vent it immediately becomes very sedate.

Having now completed my soapbox debate, it should also be known that flathead are quite resilient fish. At a competition some years back I was measuring a flathead in the low seventies and just prior to tagging the fish I dropped it after it delivered a violent head shake. The fish fell head first onto the ground.

The oohs and ahhs from the gathering crowd did nothing to hide my embarrassment and I felt that horrible burning glow as I turned bright red. The fish was duly tagged and released with background chatter mostly centred on the fact that it probably wouldn’t see the day out. Unfortunately I had to agree. However, low-and-behold the fish was recaptured six months later, and quite some distance from Noosa, apparently in very good order. This was evidenced by the anglers record of the tag number and the fish’s length – a centimetre or so longer than my measurement. Miracles do happen.

Mangrove Jack

Mangrove jacks will be terrorizing the tourists by now. Unwary anglers who are unceremoniously smoked into the sticks have probably been ‘jacked’. Even those that are well prepared suffer this fate from time to time and are often left trembling at the knees and speechless.

I can clearly recall a mate being jacked under a bridge a year or two back. We were both fishing from kayaks and flicking lures around the bridge pylons. My mate’s lure was belted hard and the ensuing battle lasted all of three seconds. The jack charged around a pylon, easily winning line and, of course, the result was inevitable. This stunned angler was utterly speechless, his eyes were as round as saucers and the initiation into jack fishing was complete.

Whatever species you chase, whether in the fresh or estuaries or even offshore, please do it safely. Ever Christmas holiday a period on the Noosa River seems to result in someone having an accident of some sort. Most involve speed and many involve jet skis. Please navigate with caution, show respect for others enjoying the river and your stay will be immeasurably more pleasurable.

Some very smart holidaymakers use a good local guide to show them the ropes and impart some local knowledge. The rest of their holiday can then be enjoyed with a good measure of angling success. If you would like contacts for local guides and charter operators drop me an email and I will happily deliver the goods.

Lastly, Merry Christmas to all QFM staff, writers and readers. Thank you to those kind and loyal readers that send me snippets of info and all those great pictures – they are very much appreciated.

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