Luring Flathead by Kayak
  |  First Published: October 2005

The three common species of flathead – dusky, bar-tailed and sand – inhabit saltwater rivers, creeks and bays throughout much of Queensland. They are lots of fun to fish for because they will aggressively attack various lures fished near the edges of channels, over shallow sandbanks, in mangrove fringes, around sandy points and in gutters beside shallow bay reefs.

By using a kayak, even an angler of average talent can greatly enhance the odds of catching fish by being able to access more prime flathead territory than you can by using a conventional boat or walking the banks. It’s amazing how far over normally exposed mud banks, into mangrove forests, or across drying reefs you can paddle in a shallow-drafted kayak with an incoming high tide. You can end up fishing in places where even very small motorboats could never go.

Incoming Tide

I have had excellent results on flatties by fishing the rising tide from about half-full as it works across the sand banks and into the mangrove fringes. In this situation, I use small shallow or medium diving lures such as Micro-Mins in pink, green/red and black. The objective is to have the lures working well and stirring up sand as they scoot along the bottom.

On calm or light wind days I sometimes go larger and use medium bibbed diving lures because the resistance they exert against the water during retrieval can be used to your advantage. By casting towards where I want to point, I can use the lure to pull the kayak’s nose around or to move towards structure. This technique can help you quietly pull the kayak into small inlets in the mangroves at high tide, which often results in a flathead or other predator.

Soft plastics of various styles also work and I’ve found 3” or 4” plastics in pumpkinseed, smelt and watermelon colours go well. Actually, I think movement is the most important factor when trying to attract a flattie and the colour of the lure is secondary. I’ve also had considerable success using unweighted 3” Gulp Minnows and, as these plastics are biodegradable, I feel much better about cutting the line to release the occasional gut-hooked fish.

The method I mostly use is to paddle over the shallows towards a channel or drain and then let the kayak silently glide towards the target area as I continually cast ahead and retrieve slowly. I find a kayak with a rudder gives best control of direction for this kind of fishing, although if I can use the wind and tide, I just position the kayak so that it will slowly drift towards the area of interest and merely cast ahead as I go.

By the time the tide is nearing high I am usually right up in the mangroves. If I’ve already caught a few fish at this stage, I usually call it a day because three to five hours is about my comfort limit for sitting in a kayak.

If I am fishing bay reefs on a rising tide I like to paddle over the shallow areas to get right into holes and sandy patches between the rocks. Because of the potential for snags, I prefer to use unweighted plastics in such areas. This technique has yielded quite a few flathead from areas where I previously didn’t expect them.

Outgoing Tide

Once the tide has turned I drift around the outlets of deeper drains emptying the mangroves and have had most success using unweighted or lightly weighted plastics worked slowly along the bottom in such locations.

On the last third of an ebbing tide I like to rear anchor on the edge of a deeper main channel in a location where I can get the kayak’s stern pointing into the wind and current. In this position I can cast in a 180-degree arc quite easily with the wind behind me. I then work around the arc with hard-bodied lures or plastics for up to half an hour before moving on to another similar location. This method has hooked more flatties towards the bottom of the tide when the water flow is slower.

In such locations I find small hard-bodied bibbed lures to be most successful when thrown into the shallows and retrieved back over the ledge and into the channel. Most of the strikes I get on this type of lure occur within a few metres of it leaving the sandbank and descending into the deeper channel.


When trolling for flathead I prefer to slowly troll medium diving lures along the drop-offs between sandbanks and deeper channels within a couple of hours either side of low tide.

If the water is very clear I find the edge of the channel or gutter and steer a zigzag course back and forth across the drop-off. This means that the lure is not always being towed directly behind the kayak and therefore I am covering a fair bit of territory where the kayak passing above has not spooked the fish.

I have also caught flathead by slowly trolling shallow running hard-bodied lures and soft plastics across sandbanks on an incoming tide using a similar zigzag paddling pattern.

Landing Fish

When I hook a fish I put the paddle across my lap and if it’s a small to medium sized flathead it is relatively easy to wind it to the side of the kayak and release it there or lift it onto a wetted deck or closed tackle box lid to remove the hook.

The safest way I’ve found to release a fish is to use a pair of long-nosed pliers to release the hook beside the hull without bringing the fish on-board. To make this easier I flatten the treble barbs on all my lures.

A large fish requires me to put in a bit more thought as I normally fish with 2kg fused gelspun main line and a 4-6kg leader when chasing flatties. With the fish properly hooked and rod in hand I use the rudder (if fitted) and/or move the tip of the rod towards the bow of the kayak, keeping it as low to the water as possible to turn towards the side that the fish is on. This has a levering effect that swings the kayak around so that it is pointed in the general direction of the fish. If the fish is big enough to tow me then I control the direction of the kayak (with rudder or paddle blade) so that I can follow the fish until I can get some line back and bring it alongside for netting or release.

A short rod makes this final process a lot easier as long as the fish is manoeuvred to the correct side of the kayak while there is still enough line out to clear the bow. I usually try to bring my fish in on the starboard side because I like to hold the net or pliers in my right hand with my fishing rod butt in the left hand. If I want to take a photograph before release I firmly grip the fish by the lower jaw with my left hand and carefully slide it out of the landing net onto a wetted deck or other flat surface. With bigger fish I recommend slipping on a protective glove first. On the few occasions when I haven’t bothered, the fresh blood showing in the fish’s mouth in the photos has actually belonged to me.

If I want to keep a few fish to eat then I often slip them into a heavy-duty, closely woven poly bag that I can roll up and keep moist within the cockpit area of my SIK (sit-in kayak). Alternatively, if I’m not going to be out for long, I just leave them in the landing net in my lap, making sure that the first one doesn’t escape while I’m netting the next one (of course I only do this when using a thick plastic net that protects my thighs from the spikes).

Keep moving

The secret to lure fishing from kayaks is to keep actively casting or paddling and trolling to cover as much potential fish-holding territory as possible. One advantage of doing this is that I end up getting much more exercise than if I was fishing from a power boat and am keeping myself fit simply by indulging in an activity that I thoroughly enjoy.

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