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Fishing for flathead in winter


WHEN it’s cold a lot of fish tend to shut down and can get quite hard to catch. In SE Queensland, where I live, winter is generally very pleasant when compared to the southern states, but the nights are often cold and it gets a lot chillier than most Sydneysiders and Melbournites realise, especially when the winter westerlies blow. Catching flathead on lures in cold conditions can be quite a challenge. Over the years we’ve worked out a few tricks that have helped us get consistent catches, and I’ve used the same methods further south with quite good success. It’s all about finding active fish.

In SE Queensland flathead are most active in water temperatures of 16 to 19 degrees Celsius. In more southern estuaries they seem to adapt well to colder temperatures and good catches can be taken in water a lot colder than this. The key when conditions are cold is to find the warmest water. If you find a patch where the water is even just a degree warmer, you will often find more active fish. On sunny winter days the mornings are often a lot quieter than the afternoons. I know when a cold westerly is blowing and we are wearing beanies and jackets the fishing often starts off very slowly and it isn’t until the sun is high in the sky that the flathead will start to feed. In cold conditions they will just shuffle in the sand or silt and lie dormant in an almost hibernation like state. It is important to have a water temperature reading in these conditions. I find in winter that the run-in tide coming in from the ocean is generally a bit warmer than the cold run-out tide that has been chilled overnight in what is mostly a shallow estuary system. There isn’t too much point setting the alarm too early when targeting flatties in mid winter. They often don’t start to feed until around 9am – office hours fishing is often the most successful.

Shallow weedy flats that are out of the wind can save your bacon in cold conditions, especially on the last half of a run-in tide. In winter we generally don’t get too much rain and the run-in is often crystal clear. Also, in a shallow flat, every fish that moves up as the tide rises is there to feed. The flathead in sleep mode are still under a blanket of sand and mud snoring away in the deep water. In this clear water environment the fish can be easily spooked, so we generally work a flat with light braid and make long downwind casts under electric power using a variety of lures. I use three rods and do five casts with each until I crack a pattern. One rod has a Gulp Minnow or Swimming Mullet on a jig head, one has a blade and the third has a rattling lipless crankbait. When we find a patch of fish I generally pull up the electric and anchor, which reduces noise and lets you bring the flathead that follow the lure but don’t eat close to the boat. This puts them in range of the other types of lures. It is a great little system. At first you get most of your bites at the end of a long cast, then after 20 minutes or so you will nail fish almost right under the boat.

Trolling is another good alternative, and strangely doesn’t seem to spook the fish as much as I first thought. It seems that the fish get used to trolling boats, and while they may get out of the way, they seem to find the lures only 10m behind it without a problem. Flathead seem to be more paranoid about fleeting shadows rather than passing boats when they’re up on the flats. Perhaps this is because ospreys and sea eagles sometimes actively hunt them on the flats and they’ve learnt that danger can come crashing in on them from above. A shadow that passes over the top of them in clean water often makes them break cover, which is exactly how the eagles hunt them. The brave ones that hold position still are probably safer but bird paranoia is a common problem for the flathead in my area. For the above reasons flathead tend to be far less flighty on the flats when conditions are overcast.


Up on the flats the fish are active feeders and require different lure approaches than the deep-water sleepy bastards that can’t be stuffed getting up when it is cold. These ones require a “breakfast in bed” approach. It’s important to get an idea of what the flathead are feeding on as this generally gives a clue as to which lure styles and retrieves will be the most successful. When the flatties are chasing schooling baitfish like hardiheads, white pilchards, mullet and frog-mouthed pillies, they are much more likely to chase a lure for a considerable distance. When they are eating crabs, molluscs and brown slimy fish that live in the weeds they need a slower pattern or an option, such as trolling, where you cover a lot of water. Active chasing fish will find a lure cast up to five or so metres from where they are lying. Shut down sleepy ones almost need the lure dropped on their heads.

When the flatties are chasing fast bait they respond extremely well to cast lipless rattlers. I’m often amazed at how well these lures work. Last winter we caught hundreds of fish on them when the bait was around, and after a lot of experimentation I concluded that flatties love rattlers. These lures aren’t that easy to get the hang of and the best retrieve I’ve found is a fast horizontal rip followed by a sink and pause. There are lots of different bibless rattlers on the market so it pays to experiment. Happily, the cheap ones are often the most effective. I had one little gem that caught 85 fish before I lost it. It was a chartreuse baitfish Red Eye Shad in the ¼ ounce model. Using these lures requires a lot of practice to get the retrieve spot on, but the effort is worth it. You need a fairly long 2.2 to 2.6m stiff, light rod with a spiky tip. But when the bait disappears, the lure seems to stop working and goes from hero to zero very quickly.

Blades are a must have lure when chasing lizards in the winter. Small bright blades like the 1/8 ounce TTs in chartreuse can be deadly at times, and are best fished with a sink and draw retrieve. As these lures carry tiny trebles that can easily dislodge, the rod you need for blades is a lot softer than that used for lipless rattlers. Blades get a lot of fish but get fouled a lot on weed so need to be fished in cleaner areas. In the winter I use blades on two-pound braid with six-pound leader. I Albright connect a 10 to 15cm length of six or eight kilo mono to the end of the leader to give me a bit more protection from the flattie’s teeth. In winter most of our flathead are smaller fish between 30 and 60cm in length and there aren’t too many of the monsters we catch in the spring so you can usually get away with a lighter leader. Winter is a time of more but smaller fish when it comes to flathead in southern Queensland.

There must be a hundred different ways to retrieve a soft plastic style lure. When the fish are active and chasing bait, a fast upward rip followed by a drop and pause works well most of the time, especially with shad style lures. I like the four-inch white Gulp Swimming Mullet as a standard “go to” lure, but we also use a big range of others. What I like about Gulps is that flathead will grab them and then come back again if they miss the hook on the first bite. I think they like the taste. We’ve had plenty of flathead eat Gulps that were just sitting on the bottom for long periods. Whether these things are a bait or a lure is debatable, but you need them in your winter flathead kit.

When everything is cold and shut down and you know the flathead are around but inactive, you need the “breakfast in bed” method. It becomes a lot like bream fishing. When it is tough few lures beat a small pumpkinseed Gulp Swimming Mullet on a 1/8oz 2/0 jig head. Find an area where you know the flathead congregate and work the lure in very small hops and pauses along the bottom. This method is almost the total opposite to the rip and tear retrieve used to chase active fish. You can’t go too slowly with this method. While it does catch a lot of smaller fish and has a lot of feral spiky estuary cockroach bream as bycatch, at times it has been the only method to get flathead to eat lures when it is really cold and shut down. It’s a very good method to use around vertical structure such as bridge pylons and channel markers.

Don’t dismiss trolling in the winter. It has the major advantage of presenting up to four lures at the same time over a much greater area. If the fish are shut down nothing beats trolling for finding the few active fish about. I’ve found the side scanning technology on my Humminbird sounder an absolute asset when it comes to trolling for flathead. It lets you see the bottom composition and weed beds away to the side of the boat. While a lot of the subtlety in interpreting the screen takes a while to learn, this is fantastic technology that when mastered greatly improves results. I’m used to using an ultrasound machine in my normal work as a doctor, and have found side scanning sounders a pretty easy technology to adapt to. While you won’t see many flathead, the changes between mud and sand, finding structures out to the side of the boat and seeing the subtle baitfish patterns on the screen all help. Interestingly, big fish with post echoic shadowing look just like gallstones do on the machine at work!

I like small bright pink lures when I troll in winter. In water less than three metres deep the pink and silver Lively Lures Micro Mullet is a personal favourite based on many years of use. Chartreuse is another good colour. Trolling rods need to be quite soft as the fish hook themselves. Four-pound fine braid is all you need in winter, and sometimes we’ll go to two pound or even one pound when it is clear. Four to six kilo leader is adequate for most of the average winter flathead in this part of the world. Position one lure at about 50 to 70m back, another very close at less than 10m (Shane Gartner put me on to this one which is surprisingly effective at times but I’m not sure why) and the other lures staggered at around 30m. Work contours, flats and the edge of weed beds. Fouling the lure with weed is a part of the game, but some clean flats and creeks are surprisingly trouble free. If you hold the rod in your hand and work the lure you will usually get more bites than if you put it in the rod holder. This is a very good method in winter particularly working flats on the top of the tide. Windy conditions usually make trolling hard as you tend to foul a lot more weed when the shallow water is stirred up.

Flathead fishing in the winter can be extremely productive and is a great way to catch a feed. Every year we learn a bit more about these great little fish, and as things cool down we will be trying new retrieves, different lure styles and inquisitively watching and observing all the subtle things that lead to better catches in the future.

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