How to

Shallow Water flathead

DUSKY flathead are one of the most popular species in Australia. Big flatties can be found in most coastal waterways and estuaries. At times, big fish can be caught along beaches and even offshore. Smaller flatties are reliable, tasty and are considered an “everybody” fish, which is perhaps why captures, stories and photos of monster-size fish are so revered.

At full maturity, dusky flathead are impressive creatures. Featuring a prehistoric looking head, big jaws, tough, leathery skin and impressive markings; it is not surprising big flatties were coined “crocs”. Studying how big flathead sunbake, ambush and attack their prey at high tide on sand and mud flats adds further merit to the all-encompassing moniker, “croc”.

Like many anglers, I have fond memories of chasing flatties as a kid. Early on, I spent most of my fishing time chasing them. I caught stacks of flatties on DOAs, Mister Twisters, Attack Minnows and Mann’s Stretch divers. While I’ve never stopped fishing for flathead at some point throughout the year, it wasn’t until recently that a fulltime passion for chasing flatties was stirred again. Admittedly, I was taken up in the “big bait” craze and was keen to give the “Metcalfe Method” a go. David Green exposed the Metcalfe Method in Fisho a few years back. Greeny’s article centred around his mate Chris Metcalfe – who was nailing big crocs with consistency – using 20cm+ long, slender soft plastics on the flats.

It wasn’t long into my first Metcalfe Method session – throwing an unweighted 12 inch Slug-Go across a sandflat – that I caught a thick 75cm flattie. Since then, a whole host of “big baits” have proved effective on big flatties in the shallows. Turns out, big glidebaits, swimbaits, XL soft plastic paddle tails and surface lures are all effective at raising crocs off the bottom, too.

Interestingly, it’s something that many anglers know would work in their local waterway but haven’t yet pursued. Personally, I never thought chasing big flatties would be so damn fun, which I suspect is why it’s not exactly booming… South of the Gold Coast, anyway.

Starting out

At certain times of the year and in certain conditions, big flatties will venture onto shallow flats and lie-up. Historically, spring and summer has been preferred for chasing crocs in the shallows. This time of year coincides with an increase in water temperature along with an increase in prawn, whiting and garfish activity – shallow water flattie staples! However, I’ve seen and caught big flatties in shallow water in all months of the year now. Not surprisingly, April and May are key months for crocs lower in the estuary. Their intentions are quite clear this time of year, often laying around schools of spawning sea mullet travelling in and out of river mouths. When a flattie is nudging a metre long, it’s after a proper feed! Admittedly, the warmer days with less wind are the pick in winter months.

Knowing the flats where big flatties like to sit in your local system is critical to success when starting out. Where I live, on the Mid North Coast of NSW, big flathead are relatively plentiful. Early on, I concentrated my effort on the flats I knew big crocs frequented and have slowly expanded on those areas. If you’re unsure where to start, wait for a decent low tide and systematically work up the river searching exposed sand and mud flats looking for the calling card of a big flattie – the telltale flathead “lie”. The spearhead shaped divot of a flattie that has recently laid in the sand or mud should be relatively easy to identify. This is what makes targeting big flathead in the shallows so effective. Quite often, flathead will return to the same spot, tide after tide, day after day. Switching them on with a big lure is the last piece of the puzzle.

If you struggle to find consistent clusters of big flathead lies, look around the edges of sand flats where sand meets a mangrove edge or weed bed, patches of isolated mud, or my favourite areas: oyster piles. Oyster piles can develop naturally or grow on old oyster racks and other structures on top of a tidal flat. At high tide, these can be hives of activity for mullet, bream, luderick and whiting. Consequently, crocs lie close by, waiting for an easy meal. In my local waterway, the biggest crocs have all come from flats featuring oyster piles or old oyster encrusted structures.

Once you have a few spots in mind, aim to fish them on the last of the run in tide, the slack and the first hour or so of the run out. This will give you a few hours to cover water a couple of feet deep, which is about optimal. For narrower, smaller river systems, the fishing “window” is shorter.

Putting in the casts

Once you have identified flats where crocs like to frequent, it’s time to put some thought into your approach and lure presentation. Like all shallow water/flats fishing: stealth is key. If you’re in a boat, keep noise to a minimum and set up the drift so as to rely as little as possible on an electric motor. The same stealth approach goes whether you’re fishing out of a kayak or wading.

Depending on the flat and your drift, work out which angle your casts cover the most water. Picture your lure as a minesweeper, the flat as a minefield and the crocs as the mines – try to put a cast over them before you or the boat travel near. Long, well thought out casts are required. Remember, though, covering ground thoroughly comes at a cost of time. Make sure you work your way upstream with the run in tide, maximising your fishing “window”.

The above can all be thought out and mapped ahead of your trip with minor adjustments – depending on conditions and boat traffic – made on the fly. This is another reason why targeting big flatties in the shallows can be so effective. The technique relies on their overwhelming predictability of returning to the same area.

Getting the bite

Flathead respond to a huge variety of lures. But there’s no denying big lures are incredibly effective for trophy-size flatties and it’s clear to see that flathead have evolved to eat big prey. Like other Australian species that respond to big lures – like barra, jewies and Murray cod – flathead have big gobs.

Like all developing lure techniques, chasing crocs in the shallows can require some experimentation with lure rigging (particularly soft plastics). However, there are suitable lures out there which are ready to fish straight out of the packet.

Suspending and slow sinking lures are preferred when chasing crocs in the shallows. My top four lure types (in order of preference) include:

1 Unweighted soft plastics: I use two types of soft plastic when fishing the shallows. One is a 200mm+ paddle tail soft plastic (Pro Lure XL Shad, Keitech Easy Shiner 8 inch or similar). Big paddle tails are rigged unweighted with a custom made single strand wire harness that is attached to a screw-in tow point. This harness allows the use of two free-hanging trebles – a system of rigging adapted from the European pike fishing scene. The other soft plastic I use is a 9 or 12 inch Slug-Go. These long, slender plastics are rigged with a worm (weedless G) hook and an additional “stinger” treble tied to the worm hook with a short length of 50lb mono. This is the lure made popular by Greeny’s exposé on the “Metcalfe Method”. The retrieve with these lures consists of a very slow roll or rod lift (moving the lure 1-2m) before a subtle flick or twitch of the rod tip and a 3-4 second pause. Ideally, you want the lure to rise, glide and kick before sinking slowly and resting on the bottom before moving it again. When rigged correctly, these big plastics are deadly and the hook up rate is also quite good.

2 Jerkbaits: Catching flathead on hard body lures is nothing new. In fact, Fisho has documented how to use hard body lures for flathead in-depth over many years. However, today’s ultra-realistic suspending hard body jerkbaits are very effective flathead lures. A few lures worth particular mention for shallow water use are the Rapala RipStop 120, Daiwa Double Clutch 95 and the extra-long Duo Tide Minnow 175SP. The retrieve with jerkbaits should consist of a series of twitches with extended pauses. The shallow diving RipStop is a good option to fish over shallow, weedy areas as it will rise on the pause very slowly. The Double Clutch is better for slightly deeper, sandy areas as it will dive deep and kick across the bottom. Generally, if I am seeing big fish but not getting bites on big unweighted plastics, I will switch over to a jerkbait or glidebait.

3 Glidebaits: These rather peculiar lures can take a while to get used to. They have a very subtle action and you can feel very little “feedback” through the rod on the retrieve. Two glidebaits that I use are the Molix Glidebait 178 and the extra-oversize Zerek Affinity 220. A slower lift and “glide” with occasional twitches and pauses is effective with glidebaits. Much like using big slender plastics – like the Slug-Gos –  you want the lure to rise, glide and kick before sinking slowly and resting on the bottom before moving it again. The realistic look and action of the glidebaits seem to trigger a bite when the crocs are rather lethargic.

4 Topwater: Topwater flathead fishing is a specialist technique, but it can be effective in certain scenarios. My preferred topwater croc lures are the Bassday Sugarpen 120 and the OSP Bent Minnow 130. These lures can be effective for flatties in knee to ankle deep water using a variety of retrieves. I like to fish surface lures slowly for flatties. Using twitches and pauses, I am trying to imitate a baitfish or leader prawn on its last legs. Surface strikes from big flathead range from ultra-aggressive to painfully slow. I will generally resort to fishing surface lures when the water is too shallow to effectively fish big plastics and glidebaits.

Most often, the strike from a big flathead – on all lure types – will come on the pause. If you’re spooking flathead (big or small) and you suspect your lure has travelled over them, then it’s time to try a different lure and/or mix up the retrieve

Croc tackle

The bite from an 80cm+ croc in shallow water is aggressive and fast. React too slowly, and you will miss bites. A firm initial strike followed by a relatively light drag setting during the fight has landed me most fish. I find Murray cod and American bass swimbait rods too lethargic and slow actioned to set the hooks on big flathead. A fast action spin rod – like that used for casting plastics for snapper and jewies – at least 2m in length and capable of casting weighty lures, is ideal. I like using 6-10kg braid on a 3000-4000 size spin reel. This may seem a bit excessive, but it’s required to work bigger lures comfortably and effectively. This outfit will also easily outcast a conventional baitcaster swimbait combo, especially in strong wind.

Despite what some might say, big flathead will put up a decent fight in the shallows. Quite often, big fish will thrash around on the surface and occasionally jump out of the water upon hook up. Some of these big girls can get up and scream across the flats! I prefer using 6-10kg fluorocarbon leader in “gin” clear water, but occasionally step this up to 15-20kg fluoro when fishing around oyster piles and racks. Buoyant, nylon monofilament leader is sometimes preferred when trying to slow the sink rate of lures or fishing topwater.

Targeting big flatties in the shallows with large lures is by no means groundbreaking, but it can be unexpectedly exciting for those who have never given it a go. The horizontal, highly visual method offers anglers an insight into the power and aggression of a trophy-size flattie; a stark contrast to the paradigm usually applied when fishing vertically for the species.

Patrick Linehan is a professional fishing guide at Castaway Estuary Fishing Charters based in Port Macquarie, NSW. Get in touch here:

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