DUSKY flathead are one of the most popular estuary species in this country. The old flattie is a resilient species, surviving well in heavily fished waterways close to large populations of people. Over the years flatties have become one of the most popular lure fishing targets for Australian anglers. They are also a great eating fish, which makes their ongoing management something of a challenge.
In Queensland, anglers have a daily possession limit of five flathead between 40 and 75cm in length. Originally this was an upper limit of 70cm, but was changed a couple of years ago to 75cm for reasons unknown. Personally I’d prefer to see this upper size dropped to 60cm to increase the number of spawning females in the system.
What I find really interesting about flathead is that there are constantly new ways to catch them on lures in a wide variety of environments, and each season we seem to change and refine the lures on our favourite flathead outfits. It’s a constant path of refinement. Over the past year I’ve found a few new tricks that have increased our success, and after looking at flathead attacking lures on “flathead cam” I’ve come up with a few conclusions about the best way to approach these aggressive predators. Check out the “flathead eating lures” clips on fishingworld.com.au and you’ll see tow cam footage taken from You Tube that shows just how aggro flathead are, and how they take the lure head on.
Flathead fishing on the Gold Coast, where I live, can be in water 15cm deep or more than 20m deep. For this reason you need a wide variety of outfits and lures to target them. I enjoy chasing flathead in the shallows more than in deep water. It’s more visual, and the tackle is generally lighter. For these reasons the fish tend to fight better. In the deep the fish are often bigger, as is the tackle, but flathead just can’t fight as well in a vertical presentation. An 80cm fish pulled out of 20m of water takes less than a minute to land. In the shallows on the light gear you may be there for quite a while on the same fish.
1. The “3 by 5″: When we work a long flat it’s often hard to work out which lure will be the best on a given day. Like many fish, the bait lizards feed on varies, as does the colour preference and the preferred lure style. I usually have three similar outfits and rig each with a different lure. Usually we are working broken weed and sand flat areas between a metre and three metres deep, depending on tide. I generally work a soft plastic on one rod, a blade bait on the next and a lipless rattling crankbait on the third rod. Similarly, you can try three different soft plastics or throw in a shallow hard-bodied jerk bait. The principle is that you do five casts with each rod so all lures get equal water time until you unlock a successful pattern. While this sounds simple, it takes a bit of the angler’s inherent bias out of the system and can lead to the discovery of new patterns. For me, the last season showed me the fantastic flathead catching ability of lipless crankbaits when worked over weeds and sand.
This type of casting discipline all goes out the door when one angler cracks a pattern. Some days the flathead eat a wide variety of lures with equal gusto, but more commonly the best lure on the menu is only found by some disciplined “3 by 5” casting.
2. Anchors v electrics: From watching the underwater footage of flathead eating lures it’s clear that a lot more fish actually chase the lure than eat it. If you drift a bank under electric power you generally notice that most of the fish you catch are in the first half of the retrieve, and you get less fish in shallow water directly under the boat. Electric motors, while a lot quieter than petrol ones, still make a bit of noise, and that noise is magnified significantly under water. Electric motors are also incredibly common these days, and when the vast majority of fish are released, it’s highly likely that a flathead may be harder to catch the second time than the first. Also, fish become very boat shy in heavily fished waterways. What I’ve found is that by anchoring and keeping very quiet, it’s possible to stay in the one location and catch 30 or more fish from a spot that produced half a dozen or less under electric power.
When you anchor up, look for gaps in weed beds, small channels and gutters and examine how the tidal flow changes at each location. Place the anchor so your casts can reach as many spots as possible. What tends to happen is that you’ll start to catch a few fish on long casts, but if you stay quiet and wait, you will start to pin plenty of fish close to the boat or even under the boat in a metre of water. I think what happens is that a lot of fish follow your long casts in but don’t eat the lure. As they drop off the chase they settle closer to the boat, and if you’ve got three anglers casting roughly 40m each it tends to bring a lot of these followers closer to your anchored boat. Flathead are curious and aggressive, and the constant trail of lures all swimming back to your quietly anchored tinny brings most of the flathead in the area right into the area you are fishing. If all the anglers fish “3 by 5” all the following fish end up with a choice of possibly nine lures, and you will soon crack a pattern where fish that followed one lure eat another. To get maximum value out of a spot you need to stay for at least half an hour to let things settle and bring the fish to you. Be patient and quiet and never dismiss a spot until you have given it adequate time to settle from any disturbance you made.
3. Blades are your friends! Blade baits are deadly on flathead, but I’ve never had a lure so small constantly eaten by big shovel-headed monsters. I like to use small TT blades for flathead, and tend to use the chartreuse one in dirty water and the gold or silver in clean stuff. The good thing about blades is they are outstanding flathead catchers, but they have a number of problems. They aren’t weed friendly, have very small hooks and they get swallowed. The smaller models also don’t like heavier leaders and on big fish bite offs are very common. But despite these downsides, blades will often outfish soft plastics and are a fun way to fish. Blades deserve to be ranked in the top drawer of any flathead tackle box.
To fish blades well I’ve found I needed to change my outfit and terminals. With soft plastics we use stiff rods to get a better hook-up, as the fish tend to eat the lure as it drops and is then pinned on the next lift. With blades, using small trebles, the fish tends to eat the lures as it is lifted from the bottom, and with six hook points in a very small lure not too many get missed. A softer rod in this situation means less hooks are pulled. Thus we tend to use quite soft parabolic blanks with blades. On this rod I use 2-4 pound braid and 6-8 pound leader. Early on, this system was commonly sawed through by bigger flathead, so we started using a short shock leader, which works quite well.
Blades are simple to use. Make a long cast, let the lure sink to the bottom, and do a slow lift. You will feel the lure vibrate through the rod. This constant “sink and draw” retrieve works well on lizards. In areas of weed they can be worked by a straight wind so they go over the top of the weed without fouling. I’ve caught plenty of really big flathead to 86cm on blades now and rate them as extremely versatile lures.
4. Lipless Crankbaits/Rattlers/bibless minnows: We were fishing a “3 by 5” system a few months back and not catching much when my mate Kelvin (pictured opposite) put on a crap looking lure from the depths of the tackle box and caught 12 nice flathead in the next 15 minutes. This lure was a cheap rattler and was fished on a straight retrieve with a few kicks and jerks. The flathead loved it. Since then we’ve spent a small fortune trying all types of lipless crankbaits for flathead. My conclusion is that these particular lures are, at times, very productive. Over the past season I’ve found the secret to using these lures is in the retrieve. The best retrieve is a fast wind with the odd lift and pause, and it is vitally important that the lure you use flutters as it drops to the bottom. Cast it out as far as you can. Let it hit bottom and crank it back at a medium pace, with a few twitches along the way. These are a superb lure for working over the tops of the weeds. Sebile Flatz Shads, Cotton Cordells, Jackalls and cheap copies all work well at times. The way you retrieve these lures is the key, and it is a lot faster than most anglers think. Take it from me that flathead really slam these lures.
5. Chatter Bait Blades: Flathead lures that flutter often get more bites. When jigging soft plastics in deep water the amount of vibration you get into the lure will make it easier for the fish to find, particularly in dirty run-out tide water. Adding a rectangular chatter bait blade to the front of the jig head gives kick and flash to the lure, and this vibration transfers to the tail of the lure to magnify the inherent action of the soft plastic. In our experimentation by adding this blade to the jig head we have often improved our results, particularly in deeper water. These blades aren’t easily available locally but have a look on the Internet. They are also fairly easy to make.
6. Soft plastics: Soft plastics are still the mainstay of our fishing but we aren’t nearly as reliant on them as we were. The use of scents and additives in flathead fishing is well established. I definitely think both Gulp juice and S Factor do help, particularly when the fishing is tough and where you slow the retrieves right down to a crawl. So, in my opinion, your lure is definitely better off carrying some scent than none when it comes to flathead.
7. Fish light! The lighter the main line and leader you use, the more bites you will get. In the shallows you will land any flathead on four pound braid. Try using a 2m length of 6lb leader joined to a short 20cm “bite leader” of 12 to 20 pound. This downsizing definitely seems to get more bites, gives better lure running depth and a faster sink rate.
In conclusion, flathead are an “every man’s” fish. They are reliable, tasty and fun to catch. I hope the above tips help your success. Remember to release every big flathead you catch, as these breeding females are the future of this great estuary sportfishery.