Capital City Crocs!

Dusky flathead would have to rate  as the east coast’s most popular species.

With a distribution spanning from Queensland to Victoria and predominantly inhabiting enclosed waters, it’s little surprise these fish enjoy such a devoted following.

Despite the angling attention, the quality and the quantity of these ambush specialists remains high, in even the busiest and most densely populated waterways.

I never tire of the sight of a large mottled beast emerging from the depths. Unfortunately this is all many anglers ever get to see.

Big lizards have an uncanny ability to evade capture. Stories of broken nets, fish too large to be netted, bust-ups, thrown hooks, chafed leaders … you name it and it’s certain a croc has escaped one way or another.

Some of my fondest fishing memories are of catching flathead in a little waterway on the NSW South Coast called Minnamurra River.

Many a Sunday was spent working the sandy drop-offs and drains on the back of the flats on the outgoing tide.

Marabou bucktail jigs, Rebel Crawdads and Blue Fox Vibra Tails were the gun lures back then. They’d doubtless all still work … Lure refinement has, however, come a long way since. Now there’s a plethora of styles, brands and colours designed specifically for flatties.

While a trophy sized croc is on every estuary angler’s bucket list, there are some locations that have built a reputation for producing exceptional fish.

Travelling to such areas will obviously increase the chances of an encounter with a shovel-headed beast.

Given that, it will probably come as a surprise to many as to the size and quality of the flathead available in some of our biggest metro waterways.

I’ve been guilty of the “grass is greener” syndrome and have travelled to famous big lizard locations such as Mallacoota, St Georges Basin, Lake Conjola and Jumpinpin.

While I caught flathead, including a sprinkling of larger models, from each of these locations,
it seems somewhat ironic that my last three personal bests are from metro waters near my home in southern Sydney.

While not the magic metre mark, at 92cm, 96cm and 98cm these are great fish from urban waterways.

It is not all about the big fish either. Most sessions in my home waters yield a healthy bag of quality eating sized flatties; they’re pretty damn tasty in that 40-60cm bracket.

One thing has become blindly obvious during my various flattie exploits. The big crocs and their smaller brethren have distinctly different feeding habits. Truth is, the big ones don’t hesitate in eating the smaller fish.

This is probably why the run-of-the-mill lizards seem to go out of their way to avoid the big mommas, apart from during breeding season.

Where & When
Every accomplished flathead angler will have a preferred scenario as to when and where those big girls hang out and what makes them tick.

Everything I’d learnt in those early years worked flawlessly for South Coast fish. Once I moved to fishing the more urbanised waterways around Sydney I had no trouble applying these skills to score some respectable fish.

But the croc-sized fish seemed very few and far between. I put this lack of fish down to Sydney waterways being overfished with few trophy fish remaining.

That mindset changed some years later when I got a job at Shimano. The lunchroom brag board was adorned with thumping lizards. So they did live up here after all?

I went back to the drawing board and fished hard but the results remained disappointing. My focus soon turned to jewfish. Lo and behold, the larger flatties became more prevalent. Soon the pieces of the metro puzzle began to fall into place.

The recipe that played out so well in my youth was pretty simple: fish the last few hours of outgoing tide and work the edges of extensive flats, creek mouths and drains.

This worked extremely well for both small and large fish in the South Coast estuaries. Doing the same thing in Sydney, on the other hand, only really produced small and mid-sized fish.

Why this was the case is anyone’s guess. Intense boat traffic could see the fish avoid shallow water? Also, I noticed baitfish seemed less prevalent in Sydney shallows compared to southern estuaries.

As mentioned, my quest for jewies unlocked pretty impressive crocs lurking in the depths of some metro estuaries.

The recipe that has worked time and time again is opposite to what I’d learnt in my youth. Countless hours probing Sydney estuaries have led to the last few hours of run-in tide being the most productive.

Location may also play a significant factor here; most of the fish have come from deeper channels and holes.

The last few hours of the run in tide sees these deeper sections receive a serious influx of fresh bait, in turn spurring the big crocs into action.

Finding the prime deeper areas to fish obviously takes some time. Modern electronics can help identify the deeper sections in a river or estuary.

Deeper sections adjacent to large bays and flats are good places to start; also look at significant points or bridge pylons that hold bait and make a good break in the tidal push.

One tip is that big flathead are a year round proposition. I actually find the cooler parts of the year to be more productive than the warmer months.

In winter they can be hard to find but once you’ve located a few fish you’ll find most of the bigger specimens will be in that same stretch of water.

In the cooler months you’ll find fish from the mid to upper sections of a system while in summer the fish tend to be in the lower part of rivers and bays, usually within the first few kilometres of the entrance.

If time is short, don’t despair, some true heavy weight crocs feed under the cloak of darkness. Find areas like bridges or wharves that illuminate the surrounding area. Lights attract all manner of baitfish and the big predators will follow.

Jewfish frequent similar areas, which is welcome bonus.

Tackle & Techniques
Tackle for big flathead doesn’t need to be overly complicated or expensive.

A light pokey 3-5kg graphite rod in the 6′-7′ length is ideal. Match this to a 2500-3000 size reel loaded with 6-10lb braid with 12-16lb leader and you have a serious fishing tool capable of more than just flathead.

Make sure to have a glove, pliers and knotless net to aid in landing and handling a large fish; brag mats are also handy for laying the flathead on for a quick measure – just be sure to wet it down before use.

Besides location, possibly the most crucial factor in the big lizard puzzle are the lures used. In years gone by my No.1 choice would have been a homemade green marabou bucktail jig of about 10 grams.

I don’t even own any of these classic lures any more – the advent of quality soft plastics has all but negated the need to make my own jig heads.

If you’re new to the lizard game, a quick browse of your local tackle stores will have you baffled as to what soft plastics to choose.

To be honest, I’m sure most will work on any given day. At times, flathead will eat most soft plastics if presented correctly.

It’s the times when they won’t, which seem to coincide with most times out on the water, that the “right” plastic is required.

I almost exclusively use Fish and Shad style plastics in the 80-100mm range, but curl tail grubs work well at times with a more subtle retrieve.

Water clarity also has a bearing on what colour plastic I choose. In dirty water I go for brighter contrasting colours like pinks and chartreuse; clearer water sees me go for more natural tones.

Jig head size and weight depends on the strength of the tide and also the depth. Generally speaking, weights from 3/8 oz to 5/8oz in a hook size of 3/0 to 5/0 will cover most bases.

Select a hook with reasonable strength as you’ve got a chance of a jewfish while probing the deeper sections for flathead.

The technique for these plastics is quite simple. Firstly, cast up current and allow the plastic to reach the bottom.

There are two retrieve styles to employ: either a double aggressive whip covering around 50 to 80cm, or a single moderate lift of about 50cm.

Then allow the plastic to sink back to the bottom on a controlled slack; be wary of any bites or movement in the braid and quickly strike firmly to set the hook if that happens.

The bite from a flathead is often quite distinct and strong, but don’t be put off if at first you can’t detect this as flathead tend to hang on to the plastic, meaning lightning reflexes aren’t a necessity.

If you do hook a fish or get a hit and for some reason it doesn’t hook up properly, keep retrieving as they’ll often have another go.

Be sure to work the area over methodically – big flathead don’t move far; generally you need to bring the lure across their nose to get a bite.

One lure that has been revolutionary in flathead fishing has been the vibe, most notably the soft vibe. They remind me of the early days of soft plastics; they’re absolutely dynamite and flathead can’t help but belt the hell out of them.

Initially I came across these through an ex-girlfriend who knew Harry Watson of Jackall fame; he’d brought the Transam models into the country for bass. They proved to be deadly, especially in the Queensland impoundments where bony bream was a predominant food source.

When I saw those first samples I instantly thought flathead. Several months later was the first St Georges Basin Flathead Classic and, well, you guessed it. The soft vibe took the honours for biggest flathead and longest aggregate length. My team-mate also took out second place with the same lure.

These days there are quite a few lure options. Some work better than others and price is a deciding factor. The cheaper lures work, but nowhere near as good as more expensive models.

While the originals are costly, fish them on 20lb and keep a Tackle Back aboard to minimise losses.

The models I’ve found to be dynamite are the Jackall Transam 95, Spanyid Sniper Vibes and Shads Lures Soft Ons.

The technique is quite simple: Cast them up current, allow to sink to the bottom and then apply a lift and drop. Lift them about 30-60cm and allow to fall on a semi-tight line. Strike instantly at any hit and then play the fish with a light drag after hook set. Big flathead have a tendency to throw the smaller trebles on these lures.

Release Them
Big breeding flathead are too majestic to kill just to show off to your mates.

As a kid I used to camp at Lake Conjola which had a famed tree with mighty croc heads nailed to it. Sadly this isn’t a thing of the past. A minority of thoughtless anglers still needlessly kill big breeding flathead.

Thankfully, conservation ethics are more advanced now and this sort of thing is far less common. While it’s great to see more people releasing the big females, we also need to ensure the fish are handled correctly for the best chance of survival.

Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Knotless nets such as an Environet ensure the fish doesn’t lose any slime or is damaged; mesh nets cause considerable damage, especially to a fish’s fins.

2. If you wish to get a photo, cradle the fish by supporting the belly – don’t hang it by its neck. The weight of a big flathead can’t be supported by its throat.

3. Lip grippers are great tools for controlling fish but exercise caution as they can punch a hole in the fish’s lower jaw. A glove or wet rag is a better option for mouth gripping.

4. Avoid lying the fish on a hot deck and or carpet. Use a wet brag mat instead.

5. Take the time to swim the fish before release, making sure the big girl has had time to recuperate.

So if you’ve got a hankering to catch a big croc, or just want a feed of smaller fish, don’t be put off by living close to the city – you’ll be happily surprised at the quality of the fish lurking in our busiest estuaries.

This story was first published in the Fishing World February 2014 issue.

What's your reaction?

Related Posts

Load More Posts Loading...No More Posts.