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Flathead – the highs and lows
  |  First Published: February 2005



It’s fair to say the dusky flathead is one of the most commonly targeted of all the popular southern estuarine species.

There are very few anglers who haven’t caught a flathead or two on lures during their travels and the lizard is just one of those fish that seems to accommodate anglers of all skill levels. While they are fairly co-operative opponents there are quite a few handy tricks, techniques and key points in locating and tempting these fish in shallow and deep water.

Nowadays I tend to hunt flathead with several things in mind –big and small fish and shallow and deep water. And while it’s not uncommon to find big fish in shallow water and small fish in deep water, it’s possible to target either size class by just changing a few important things.

First is lure size. Big fish eat big baits so don’t be afraid to fish lures in the 100mm to 150mm class. Small fish naturally tend to hunt smaller prey so if you consistently want numbers of table size fish, tie on lures from 50mm to 80mm. Remember, elephants will eat peanuts so make sure your tackle and leaders are capable of messing with Mr Big.

WORKING TIDAL FLATS

Over the years many anglers have considered tidal sand flats as gun flathead locations and rightly so, particularly for the smaller class of fish. Don’t get me wrong, you can still tangle with big lizards in the shallows, it’s just they tend to be more frequent along the deep tidal walls.

I’ve seen flathead to 7kg come from shin-deep drains, so you can find some absolute monsters – it’s all a matter of picking locations that are likely to house any flathead, big or small.

Such spots usually hold good numbers of baitfish, particularly bigger baits like mullet and whiting. These locations are often the exit routes for foraging fish as the tide recedes so you need to be looking for the marginally deeper channels leading off the flat. These drains become natural bottlenecks and during the last few hours of the ebb tide it’s not uncommon to find terrific numbers of quality fish lined up for the kill.

There are few things more enjoyable than sneaking around a shallow estuary foreshore or sand flat flicking small lures in search of a flathead or two. I’ve spent countless hours working such locations with various soft plastic jigs and minnows and never seem to tire of it.

I guess it’s a combination of the tranquillity of simply being there and the heart-in-mouth action as a dusky flathead tracks your lure almost to your feet before pouncing on it.

Many of these tidal weed beds and flats are accessible to shore-based anglers with a decent pair of shoes and a keen sense of adventure. These flats often link up with the shoreline and those keen to wade out and fish a rising or falling tide will often find some very co-operative fish.

While I prefer the last few hours of the run-out tide, it’s debateable as to which tide is actually the most productive. Some areas best suit the run in and others fire even right on high tide.

You have to look at each location separately, picking out the prime ambush spots – usually those baitfish travelling routes I mentioned – and weighing up which tidal phase is best suited for lure fishing.

For example, on a rising tide you may find the fish working the edges hunting baitfish and prawns that are waiting for enough water to spill over the flats.

Fishing mid-tide on the flats could be tougher as both bait and predators may have spread out over the newly-covered grounds. That doesn’t mean you’ll struggle to find fish, it just means you’ll have to be more structure-specific, concentrating your efforts around nipper beds, prominent holes, areas of ribbon weed or shell grit.

As the tide ebbs again it’s time to start working any escape routes, such as marginally deeper fingers off the flats. Once the tide is all but off the bank, those small bays, fingers or patches of ribbon weed and noticeable drop-offs are prime locations again.

These places usually provide good numbers of fish on all stages of the tide although I do prefer the first of the run in, and the last of the run out.

Fishing the tidal flats certainly requires more stealth than working the deeper locations and the angler sneaking along, whisper-quiet, flicking small minnows and plastics into those productive tidal drains will usually score the most fish.

Those clouds of dust left from rapidly parting duskies are Nature’s way of telling you you’re being way too careless on the shallows.

By systematically working the lures back in the direction the tide is flowing will greatly reduce the number of spooked fish. Be thorough on the flats and be prepared to cast into some seriously skinny water and you may be surprised at the numbers and quality of fish encountered.

DEEP ROCK WALLS

Flathead grow into pretty impressive creatures over time, with a size, appearance and demeanour that command respect from anglers and the prey the fish feed on.

If you want to consistently run into monster flathead the prime places to look are those deep, rugged tidal breakwalls up and down the east coast.

Years ago I fished almost exclusively at such locations with live baits for mulloway and every so often I’d set the hook on what we thought was another nice school jew, to be stunned to see a 5kg-plus flathead hit the surface.

The biggest I’ve caught fishing for mulloway went just over 7kg and prompted some exploratory snorkelling along the walls. I must admit I was very surprised at the sheer number of big flathead adorning the bases of the walls, with dozens of fish over the magical 10lb mark along any given stretch.

Due to the sheer depth and rugged nature of many North Coast rock walls, fishing effectively with lures is not an easy proposition. But with a little forethought and some careful lure selection, you can expect to tangle with quality lizards virtually daily.

I must admit it took me several years to consistently pull big flathead on lures from the walls. Sure, I’d run into the odd big fish when flicking plastics around but the majority of fish encountered, while certainly larger than those found on the flats, was quite small compared with what I saw when snorkelling.

A combination of better boat positioning and more careful lure choice in size and weight has meant that many large flathead, plus quite a few nice mulloway, have taken my lures in recent years.

It always amazes me how often the little things lead to the biggest leaps forward in success.

By simply changing from traditional 60mm to 75mm twin tails to 100mm to 150mm shads, my success rate on big fish has jumped markedly.

But there’s a little more to it than that. In the old days I’d work the rock walls from the boat at near right angles, meaning I’d cast virtually straight to the bank and slowly work the lure out.

This method would eventually get the lure down deep but you had only a very narrow window before the tide began to race again.

Ideally, you’re trying to present the lure at a sink rate that looks non-threatening and tempting to eat, not plummet it on their noses like a rock. Too much lead while getting the lure down loses any subtleties in approach, leading to far fewer strikes.

ANGLED APPROACH

Solution? Work the lures at an angle, casting up-current and bouncing them back at nearly 45°. Not only does this present the lure from a direction the fish expect potential food to approach from, it allows the lure to sink much quicker due to less water resistance on the line.

Less water drag on the line equates to a far better feel for where and what the lure is doing in the water column. And when you’re consistently working areas 10 to 14 metres deep, feel is everything.

There’s no denying working jigs effectively in such deep water is quite difficult and many anglers simply won’t be able to gain a feel for where the jig is and either fish unproductive mid-water or consistently get snagged.

But once everything starts to fall into place you’ll be surprised at the regularity with which you’ll find seriously big fish.

In many forms of fishing good rod work is secondary to getting the lure in the right spot in the first place – and with flathead this is certainly the case.

Most of the takes are simply when the lure is sinking and it’s a matter of reacting quickly enough to set the hook.

Small hops down the wall should see the lure bounce seductively along. Stay vigilant and be ready for those often subtle deep ‘taps’ – they usually happen when you least expect them!

With deep-water jigging, feel and timing are vital keys for success.

Flathead are certainly not the only critters to jump on a well-worked soft plastic shad with mulloway well and truly on the cards. On the North Coast you can add estuary cod, mangrove jacks and various species of trevally and even kingfish.

I’ve also caught salmon, amberjacks and small cobia so the list of potential captures can get pretty exciting.

I mentioned earlier that casting at less acute angles largely increases your chances of success. The only way to effectively be in a position to make such a cast is with an electric motor.

There’s no denying that much of today’s super-effective lure fishing is largely due to the popularity of these motors and if you haven’t got one you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.

I’ve recently moved up from a standard tiller-steer model to a foot-controlled unit and I have to say my success on a wide range of estuary lure targets has nearly doubled again.

The ability to drift silently with precision and stealth, all the time keeping two hands on the rod and reel, adds up to more fish caught and, ideally, released.

Facts

GEARING UP FOR FLATHEAD

I’ve broken this article up into two parts, shallow and deep-water spinning – two distinctly different environments requiring slightly different tackle for consistent success.

• Smaller fish around the tidal flats are quite easily handled on light spin or baitcasting gear, with outfits sporting 2kg to 4kg braid line close to ideal. I prefer to use a 40-turn Bimini twist joined to about 1.5 metres of 8kg to 10kg clear mono leader with a 14-turn locked Albright knot.

• Bigger fish in deep tidal water require slightly heavier tackle, with light to medium threadline or bait casting outfits with 4kg to 6kg braid handling any flathead you’re likely to encounter along with the bonus mulloway and other species that occasionally come along. The leader set-up is similar to the lighter rig but I up the ante to a 15kg leader for longer-wearing battles against bigger and toothier fish.

Facts

LURE COLOUR

This is simply not a huge issue. Too many anglers get bogged down in exact lure colours and waste valuable fishing time chopping and changing lures rather than casting.

Flathead are one of the least fussy of all the common southern lure caught species and will usually pounce on any colour from jet black to hot pink, so it’s more a case of sticking to a colour you’re confident with.

If you’re new to flathead spinning and haven’t got a great deal of confidence about lure colour, tie on something perhaps a tad more natural, like white or olive green. Two of the most popular colours are chartreuse green and hot pink, which are old favourites for many seasoned flathead fishos.

Facts

DON’T GO OVERBOARD – LIMIT YOUR CATCH

While it’s fine to take a flathead or two home for the table, don’t go overboard and keep more than you need.

Sadly, there are still a few old-school anglers who take great delight in killing the large breeding females or racking up cricket scores of school fish and then going out the next day and doing it all again.

These ‘ramp heroes’ are thankfully becoming a thing of the past and today’s smart anglers are quietly slipping the bigger flatties back in the drink and admiring the photos when they get home.

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