Flat out on flatheads

Al McGlashan | Volume 30, Issue 4
Flathead are one of the most popular and easy to catch species in the country. Better still, they taste great!
The first fish I ever caught was a flathead. To this day I still have fond memories of hanging on to it in Port Phillip Bay when, suddenly, it came to life in my hands. To this day I have never pulled a fish in so quickly.

Looking somewhat prehistoric in appearance, that poor little sand flathead certainly wouldn’t have won any beauty contests, but to me it was the coolest fish in the world – little did I realise how much that fish would set me on the most exciting career path ever. That is why, even today, with some of the biggest and best fish ticked off the list, I still have a soft spot for the humble old flatty.

It may surprise many readers, but there are more than 40 species of flathead found right around the country. They are in every state and live everywhere, from water just a foot deep to well past the continental shelf.

Despite the wide range and selection, only a couple of species are of real interest to sportfishers. The sand, tiger, blue spots, yank, and the most infamous, the dusky, are really the only species we target as a rule. At the other end of the spectrum there are bizarre and virtually unknown species like the ghost flathead or the absurdly named tassel snouted flathead – which, I am pleased to say, we have, in fact, caught!

The dusky flathead is the most highly prized of the flatty clan and it is no coincidence that it is also the biggest member of the family and can grow to more than 12kg in weight. However, fish over the 6kg mark are a rarity in most waterways.

Interestingly, as all big duskies are females, conservation-minded anglers naturally opt to release all the big ones. As a result, the trend has gone away from actually weighing fish to measuring them instead.

Today, a trophy is all about cracking that metre-long fish, which anglers affectionately refer to as an ‘estuary crocodile’. At this size, duskys can be more than eight years of age according to researchers – incidentally, males barely even reach 50cm in length.

Irrespective of the species you favour, all flathead share the same characteristically flat shovel-like head. And while they are certainly not the prettiest of fish, they are perfectly adapted as a bottom-dwelling ambush hunter. Concealing themselves in the sand or among weed, they wait patiently for prey to come within striking distance then explode out of cover and, with the element of surprise, snap up their meal.

Their gills actually extend right around to the top of their head, which means they can almost completely bury themselves in the sand with nothing more than their eyes showing and still breathe. Their ability to match the colour of their skin to their surroundings is nothing short of amazing and they can blend in so well, they are almost completely invisible.

Understanding these basic characteristics and making sure you get your bait right under their noses will dramatically improve your fishing.

Flathead are bottom-dwelling ambush hunters which favour terrain that they can blend into easily. Broken reef, weed beds and gravel, interspersed with sand patches, where flathead can partially bury themselves, are where they are commonly found.

In estuary systems flathead, especially the duskies and yanks, love to sit along the edge of ribbon weed, especially if there is a bit of gravel or soft reef to help break up their outline. Alternatively, small bommies, rock bars and ledges that disrupt the tidal flow are also prime real estate. The pick of the locations is where gutters and creeks flow back into the main system. On a run-out tide when the bait is forced back off the flats, it is flathead heaven.

Depth is irrelevant when it comes to flathead and a huge metre-long dusky will sit in water 30cm deep, just as happily as a barely legal tiger flathead will lie in 100m of water. The right terrain and presence of food is far more important than the depth.

If you are really serious about catching flatties, then going for a swim with mask and snorkel is worth its weight in gold. Seeing a flathead in its natural habitat will give you a much better understanding of where they like to sit and how they hunt.

If you don’t fancy getting wet, then strolling the flats at the bottom of the tide can still be very rewarding. Flathead leave a distinct diamond-shape mark in the sand, known as a lie. Not only can you see where they like to sit, but also during which part of the tide they were there. Flathead always face into the current (blunt end of a diamond), so if they are facing upstream then it’s the run-out and if it’s downstream it’s the run-in tide. Little observations like this will dramatically improve your catch rate.

Offshore requires a completely different approach. While it is impossible to read the bottom visually, you can still employ technology. Most anglers drift with baits bouncing over the bottom and once you get onto a patch of fish, mark the spot on the GPS so you can repeat the drift. Clever anglers zoom in on the seabed with bottom lock on their fishfinders, so they can get a more detailed picture and learn exactly what the terrain looks like on the screen, making it easier to find new spots.

Find the bait and you will find the fish – how often do we hear this term in the world of fishing? We hear it because it is the crux of finding predatory fish. It doesn’t matter whether it’s flounder or fingermark, they are never far away from their food source, but it is especially true for flathead. It doesn’t matter how good the terrain looks – if there is no feed, then there will be no flathead.

The good news is that flathead are not overly fussy about what they eat, so any concentration of bait is a magnet for these ambush hunters. In estuaries, it is all about concentrations of prawns and mullet, while in bays it’s yakkas and whitebait.

Not surprisingly, some of the best flathead spots are often associated with bait grounds. It is logical when you think about it but, ironically, very few anglers drop a bait to the bottom when baiting up. Sydney Harbour is a classic spot, especially because some of the best bait grounds have gravel bottoms, making it perfect for big flathead. I never used to flick a lure or drop a livey down, but now it’s mandatory.

The bait doesn’t always have to be on the bottom, though. In estuaries and bays, surface activity – be it a school of salmon or tailor working a bait ball – can attract flathead. Flathead may be ambush hunters, but they are also opportunistic in nature and will often congregate below the action, picking off the leftovers.

Water temperature is a major influence on the flathead in estuaries. Flathead activity is much greater during the warmer months, especially when the water starts to warm up in the spring, but they are active right through to May. The fact that this is the same time at which the bait, especially prawns, is most active is no coincidence.

When it comes to fishing there is no doubt that lures are all the rage for flathead these days. You can jig them, cast them, or even troll them, all to great effect. Irrespective of the technique it is imperative to get your offering down deep in the strike zone. Remember, flathead will not travel for their food so you need to get it right in under their nose to really tempt them into eating.

My favourite way to target flathead is to flick lures about. The beauty of this technique is that it is just as effective from the shore as it is in a boat, so literally anyone can do it. Any lure that gets down tight against the bottom is the go, be it a deep-diving Tilsan or a soft plastic, although I have to admit my favourite lures at the moment are vibes. Heavily weighted, they sink fast to the bottom and then with a stroke of the rod they come to life – I am sure that the vibration really stirs the fish into action.

Soft plastics are also great and have probably accounted for more flathead than any other lure. The beauty of soft plastics is that they are versatile and you can change the weight of the jig head to suit the conditions. If it’s really deep and the current is running, then upgrade to a half or even one-ounce head, but on shallow sand flats you can drop right down ensuring your offering has finesse.

One thing that is worth mentioning is that paddletail plastics seem to be more effective than traditional minnow or stick bait versions. I think it is the vibration that gets the fish’s attention initially – even when sitting on the bottom, the wagging tail is often too tempting for flathead.

It is probably for this exact reason that I have had so much success with vibes. Being slim metal lures, vibes sink fast and when retrieved they vibrate erratically. The basic technique for both plastics and vibes is to allow the lure to hit the bottom then bounce it back across the bottom on the retrieve. It is important to let the lure hit the bottom again so that it stays right in the strike zone. If it’s not on the bottom, you’re not in the running. Colour seems to have made little difference – instead, the key is just to keep that lure in the zone.

If you miss a strike, stop winding and just twitch the lure as though it has been wounded by the strike. To the fish this will appear natural – flathead are suckers for it, nearly always going in for the kill.

Alternatively, trolling can be highly productive. The trick is to pick lures that dive deep down and run within a metre of the bottom. Obviously, snags can be a bit of an issue, but large bibbed lures like Poltergeists actually bounce over obstructions a lot of the time. Speed is basically as slow as you can go and if you can work the lure with a stop-start action, you will definitely get more bites.

As good as artificials are, natural bait is still dynamite for flatties. Mini yakkas, poddy mullet and prawns have to be three of the best, but then even the humble old pilchard still accounts for its fare share.

There is no need for fancy tackle. Instead, a basic paternoster rig is perfect for drifting in estuaries or offshore. The only difference is that you should beef-up your leader from 6 to 8kg, to 15 to 30kg. The beauty of this rig is that it keeps the bait out of the weed and right in plain view of any flathead lying in wait. Wide Gape circles are the best hook and, so long as you give the fish a bit of line, you will hook up. These hooks will naturally hook the fish in the corner of the mouth so you can reduce the leader size.

If I am fishing with livebaits, I prefer to use a single hook. However, if I am fishing dead baits, then I prefer to use two hooks. Using two hooks means I can also run two different baits, which offers a bit more variety. When fishing offshore for a feed, I also often catch two flathead at once which makes dinner all the easier!

Just as I started out catching flathead, I suspect there are many other fishos who did exactly the same. There is no better fish to get your kids into fishing – they are easy to catch and, best of all, taste sensational.

Just be warned that you need to make the kids aware of those nasty spikes on the gill plates. Laced with anticoagulant, they will make you bleed for ages, which isn’t so much fun for the kids.

On the table, flathead are sensational – which is why they are 40 bucks a kilo. This makes them one of the most expensive fish around, but even at this price they are still prolific. This is thanks not to marine park lockouts, but it’s all about good fisheries management by the AFMA (Australian Fisheries Management Authority), which has managed the commercial sector outside state waters.

There is only one way to eat flathead, and that is beer-battered. You can fillet them so they are boneless and, with a side serve of chips and salad all washed down with your choice of beer or wine, it is pretty much the best way to finish off a successful day of flatty fishing.
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