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Rediscovering Trolling

THE Flathead Classic, held on the Gold Coast in the overlapping week of the NSW and Queensland spring school holidays, is one of the biggest catch & release tournaments in the country. The 2011 Flathead Classic, hosted by the Gold Coast Sportfishing Club, was the biggest in the event’s 18 year history, with 450 competing anglers in 185 different teams. This event takes place on the Gold Coast Broadwater and all its draining waterways, with a northern boundary around Russell Island in the southern end of Moreton Bay. As such, there are plenty of good fishing grounds to spread such a big number of teams over.

After a dismal performance in the wild weather of the 2010 event where we finished 14th and suffered a lot of electronic breakdowns and nearly sank the tinny, my team approached the 2011 event with a great deal of determination. What we learnt from this preparation was very interesting indeed. Catching flathead on soft plastics is now the most common method used by most of the serious fishos in this event, and is an incredibly popular way to fish. I remember back in the 2002 Flathead Classic, only nine years ago, we won the event fishing soft plastics exclusively when most anglers were trolling or casting hard-bodied lures.

Using three-inch Renosky Shads with a radical jigging action, we cleaned up the field that year and in the
subsequent four years. Now being a local (as I am) gives you a big advantage in such an event, and good knowledge of spots and conditions helps, but when you crack a new and relatively unused lure pattern it can win you such an event. But the interesting thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is that I don’t catch nearly as many flathead on soft plastics as I used to. I think these lures are probably not as effective on heavily fished populations of flathead as they used to be. Perhaps soft plastics are getting over exposed to a population of fish that may be caught and released several times before they reach maturity. Bream can wise up to a particular lure if it is over exposed, and flathead are probably the same.

In the lead up to the 2011 Classic we fished quite a bit, with 427 flathead being caught in the 10 weeks prior to the event. Interestingly, early on we caught more than 300 of these on an imported lipless crankbait. This lure, a Strike King Red Eye Shad, out fished traditional soft plastics in the early pre-fish period by a wide margin. The Red Eye Shad was a bloody beauty, our new secret weapon. Then about a month before the event, the lure stopped working! It went from hero to zero over two trips, and it took a while to work out why. So the secret weapon for the 2011 Flathead Classic had to be shelved, albeit temporarily.

A few weeks prior to the event I had to leave the Gold Coast due to a family illness, and in the time I was away the flathead fishing deteriorated greatly. Hot conditions raised the water temperature from a cool 17 degrees to 22 degrees, and there was a proliferation of “snot weed” in the local waterways. This mid water weed is thought to arise from an algae that grows on eel grass which blooms with a sudden increase in water temperature, and then breaks off in clumps making lure fishing very difficult.

Keen to troll

Catching an easy 30 flatties a session without much fuss changed to a hard day’s work to catch five. It was looking like the 2011 Flathead Classic would be held on a tough, dry track. When I came home the water was brown, lifeless and bait free. The few flathead I caught were full of crabs and brown gudgeons. The only effective method I found was to slowly work a small pumpkinseed Gulp Swimming Mullet on a 1/8 ounce jig head through the weeds.

If you’re in preparation for a tournament, sessions where you catch bugger all can be more useful in than those where you catch a lot of fish. We had half a dozen spots we wrote off as low yield. Then in the afternoon of one of these dud trips, we rediscovered trolling. We’d worked a few of the spots up around Russell Island for half a dozen small fish in about five hours hard work, which made us very wary about fishing these spots in the event. On the way home my son Michael was keen to troll. It was high tide and we moved to the top of a big flat, and trolled a pair of pink and silver Micro Mullets about 40m behind the tinny in a metre of water. This produced seven reasonable fish in a bit over an hour up to 72cm long, with only one fish
under 40cm.

We kept a couple for a feed, and on cleaning them, found they were once again full of small crabs and brown gudgeons that are found in the weed beds. Flathead are opportunistic predators, but when they’re eating crabs it generally means the pickings are thin and there isn’t much bait about. So the lesson was that the feeding habits of the flathead had changed, and the fish were scattered over wide areas chasing fairly limited food. In this situation, trolling meant we could effectively cover large areas of water, improving our chances of running into a feeding fish. So with this information at hand, and putting the clues together, it made sense to explore the option of trolling a lot more.

In a couple of pre-fishing sessions prior to the event we worked on our trolling tactics. The catch rate didn’t vary at all between trolling with the Minn Kota i-Pilot or the 60hp Yamaha four-stroke, which was interesting, and the fish we caught trolling averaged about 7cm longer than what we caught casting, which made a huge difference to our potential scoring when the event began. I fished spots I used to troll 15 years ago and the fish were still there. Our game plan was unfolding, but with 185 competing teams it is a very tough comp to win. For us, this was very much a “retro” game plan. We would be using the same lures I used in the same spots we fished in the mid 1990s. Everything old was new again! We were keen and hungry when the event began.

Fishing begins at 6.30am on the three competition days. It seemed really weird to troll after such a long absence. We were all using the same lure, pink and silver Micro Mullets made by Al Dolan of Lively Lures. I pulled an old warrior out of a tackle box that had lain dormant on the garage shelf for a decade. It was scratched and scarred from a lot of flathead teeth, but it came out of retirement for the event. I threw it out the back on the first morning and it soon had a nice 75cm lizard thrashing in the net. We worked the first day over grounds that most of the other 185 boats drove past.

Quality catch

Most of the reports were pretty poor. There were plenty of boats in the deep and very few fish, the casters were generally doing it tough and most anglers were a bit downtrodden, particularly when it started pouring rain and blowing a 30 knot northwesterly. Despite this, our plan of “chase fish where the crabs live” really seemed to work. The quality of what we were catching was pretty reasonable as well, with nearly all the fish over 40cm making them good point scorers. We covered a lot of ground, caught a few fish here and there but kept ticking fish over consistently in horrible conditions. We did an hour of casting but the size dropped and we went back to “old school” trolling and ended the day with 32 flathead to 75cm for around 1400 points. That was OK, but we needed to refine things the next day and use the little clues we had found along the way in a more focused way.

Some flathead spots in deep water see the tide go up and down yet the fish can stay in the same spot throughout the tide cycle. This works fine if the fish have a reliable food supply, but such spots don’t work in a Flathead Classic very often as 185 boats tend to make these resident fish gun shy quickly. In a Flathead Classic you need spots where the tide goes “in and out” rather than “up and down”. Big sand flats, draining channels and gutters all see a lot of fish movement, and fish that move up on to the flats do so to feed.
Areas such as this force a lot of fish movement as they are constantly adjusting to avoid being left high and dry, and if the baitfish pantry is pretty bare and there are only brown slimy fish and crabs on the menu then the flathead move to these areas to find the feed.

Our day two and day three plans worked well. We caught 31 fish on the second day to 74cm but with quite a few bigger fish achieved 1700 points. The final day’s fishing produced 16 fish in a session that finished at midday, so we ended the competition with 79 flathead to 75cm.
Sixty-three were caught trolling and 16 casting. Only seven of the 79 were caught on soft plastics, the rest were on hard-bodies. We won the overall Champion Team, which was satisfying as we hadn’t had a win for five years. We only dropped two fish for the comp. I lost a big one on the last morning that may have got me Champion Angler, but overall the hookup to landed percentage was 97 per cent, which was excellent.

The take-home message for me is that old established methods should never be discounted, and in a way all the old lessons came through to work well on the new populations of Gen Y flathead that are probably educated more in the way of soft plastics than hard-bodies. Secondly, our game plan came into being by examining the gut content of the fish we caught prior to the comp and fitting it into the environmental factors that were unfolding at the time, and then using the best method to exploit the feeding habits of the fish. This allowed us to effectively fish large tracts of water when fish were scattered. Never be dismissive of trolling as a method of effective lure delivery, as many modern anglers do. In the 2011 Flathead Classic, trolling was clearly the best method. The champion angler, Shane Gartner, also trolled exclusively using his beautifully made Pig Lures.

From a technological point of view, things that greatly aid in the new wave of trolling include side scanning technology, the beautiful 60hp Yamaha with EFI and troll speed adjust, my 440 Quintrex Hornet that is just the right size and shape without much windage to troll, and using two pound braid, very light leader and a short 20cm eight kilo “bite leader”. And the best flathead trolling lure I’ve ever used is a Lively Lures Micro Mullet, especially an old scuffed up mongrel one that sat in the garage for a decade!

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