The dusky flathead (Platycephalus fuscus) better known as a flattie, croc or lizard can be found along the Eastern Coast of Australia. There are a many other Flathead species found in our waters, however the dusky being the largest of the family.
The easiest way to distinguish this breed from the rest of the flathead family is by the marking on their tail fin, which is usually represented by a large black dot or blotch. Generally you would catch these fish ranging between 40-60cm however they can reach lengths well over a metre weighing around 10kg.
By design the flathead is a predatory fish. They have a wide low profile body, with colouring that changes to reflect their surroundings. From a light brown matching the sandy bottoms to dark brown & green tinges in muddy and weedy areas.
Without doubt one of the most common areas you will find these fish is within our estuaries. This environment has but a few predators and is a place where they can find an abundance of unsuspecting prey to satisfy their needs. They can also be found in bays, coastal lakes, off shore banks/reefs and across many of our beautiful beaches.
Flathead have a reputation as a lazy fish. Facing the current, they bury themselves in sand, watching the day go by until their prey swims along and it’s at that moment that they make their move! Because of this, most anglers will not specifically target Flathead and it tends to be caught as a bye catch whilst targeting other fish.
Through my experience of targeting flathead, at the right time in the right place the myth of being a lazy feeder is blown away and you can find them actively targeting bait fish, even striking aggressively on the surface to get their daily fill. It’s situations like these that the experience not only becomes visual but also makes the sport of catching them a lot more entertaining simply for their pure aggression.
Estuaries and Tides
Anglers that target flathead will often work an outgoing tide. As the water recedes from the shallow flats or mangroves, the fish tend to move towards the edges/drop offs and deeper channels. Trolling with hard bodies along these areas can yield good results but you really need to put the lure in the strike zone as the flathead will lie there in waiting to ambush, although as effective as this is, there can be a lot of time between strikes. Even when working these same locations flicking hard bodies or plastics, you need to be on the move constantly peppering casts to find that first fish!
Taking the fight to the shallows on an incoming tide is where the fun really starts. With a bit of practise working out the signs in your local estuaries you too can plan your assault accordingly and be one step ahead of the fish!
In my local estuaries I like to target flathead in areas where there is significant change in water levels with the incoming and outgoing tide. Firstly, a low tide allows me an opportunity to study the surroundings, to the unsuspecting eye people are just looking at large sandbanks and it still feels like we are looking for a needle in a hay stack and yes it common to find imprints of flathead and stingrays at low tide but, that may just signify a place of rest not necessarily a place for feeding. These imprints should not be ignored, however, there are many more signs we can use to hone in on these fish.
Once the tide has completely dropped, we have an open landscape to discover – from this point I try to find carvings made by the outgoing tide, tiny little mouths opening up or creeks where the water is most likely going to trace back over the flats. My favourite is when a small channel is formed basically herding bait in to a concentrated area. These are our gateways to helping you find where the bait is likely to return and swim back across the flats, to hold in the shallow water and mangroves.
When you fish locations where exposed sandbars can stretch for kilometres, these techniques allow you to narrow down your search. Take note of a few different spots for if the bait is not where you are located or very sparse, check out your other marks to find were they are gathering in numbers. Keep an eye out for small disruptions or ripples on the surface, which will provide a sign that bait is nearby. This will increase your chances of finding our target species.
Understanding your local estuary and knowing the tidal changes is very important, it’s not just about when the high and low tide is occurring but the measurement (Range) of the tide rising and decreasing.
There are many websites you can use to search for your local waterway tide times and charts to help you plan your trip. The moon phase plays a large part in tidal change, I will not go in to great detail about this however I will provide you with a basic understanding to help you pick your days.
The following 4 points represent the Lunar cycle:
1. Full Moon
2. Last Quarter
3. New Moon
4. First Quarter
Spring Tide: When the moon is full or new, this will result in high tides that are very high and low tides that are very low. Spring Tides are very strong.
Neap Tide: This is the period during the moons quarter phases, this will result in very little change between high and low tides. Neap tides are quite weak
Why did I talk about tidal change? You may have found that some locations have produced well targeting Flathead in the shallows, however if the there is a Neap tide compared to previous trips that may have been a Spring Tide, perhaps the sand flats you once fished are not as exposed thus reducing your window of opportunity on the rising tide covering the flats again. My friends & I have been caught out a few times not factoring this in… which can be disappointing.
Catching Flathead and Techniques
As the tide starts to turn with the water rising, the bait returns and is quite eager to find shelter. This is what you have been looking and waiting for. Instead of Flathead sitting motionless in the sand waiting to ambush its prey, they tend to become extremely aggressive chasing and herding them against the bank in very shallow water, devouring at will. In these situations it’s not uncommon to see the water erupt with strikes and big tail whips on the surface as they hunt down their prey!
All of a sudden targeting Flathead has become a visual adrenalin pumping experience, similar to chasing Trevally or Tuna in open water, except were not looking for birds as tell-tale signs but instead we apply the knowledge of what we have found at low tide.
When a feeding frenzy occurs you can adopt a few different techniques to catch these beauties, predominantly I will use soft plastics but a shallow diver or even a surface lure is a great alternative.
Typically when using soft plastics for Flathead, the jig head may have a bit more weight (3/8 or even 1/4 ounces) to ensure it’s hitting the bottom, stirring up the sand or mud. When targeting them in shallow water I prefer to use lighter jig heads (1/6 or 1/8 ounces)
Because Flathead are actively feeding from the bottom to the surface, presenting various retrieves is quite effective. It’s no longer about stirring up sand or mud but presenting your lures as a panicked or wounded bait fish to entice the strike. My favourite technique is using a paddle or shad style soft plastic with one or two rotations of the reel followed by two or three twitches, pause for a few seconds and repeat. I also like to mix up the angle of the twitch working it vertically on some retrieves but also horizontally to work the water column. Don’t rush your retrieve; many hook ups have come from the pause or the start of the retrieve.
When casting at the bank keep your distance, you should just leave enough room to just be within casting distance to the edge of the bank. This gives you plenty of space to work the area without spooking the fish with your boat. Using your electric motor is paramount as it will allow you to manoeuvre yourself into the right position with little noise. If you don’t have an electric motor try to use the wind and current where possible to drift by your location.
When casting , aim for the edge of the bank or just short of landing the lure in a few inches of water. Don’t be too complaisant. sometimes you will have a Flathead pressed up right against the bank and strike the lure on impact. It’s quite an amazing experience to see an eruption on the water of a Flathead taking your lure and then make its run for freedom. If that technique is not producing, start working more of an angle to the bank or even try to make your cast land and retrieve parallel off the bank, the key here is to vary your cast and retrieve to find the right formula.
One great tip about Flathead, again the perception of the lazy feeder or even the fact that they don’t have much heart in the fight changes. In this environment they tend to fight differently, some of the bigger fish tend to strike hard but it may not feel like a large fish when still swimming in the shallows, it’s not until they get near the boat or deeper water they realise what’s going on and make that last ditch run. It’s at this point I have seen many pulled hooks and snapped leaders from not being patient or having the drag too tight, don’t under estimate some of the fish you will catch as they may be bigger than you expected.
If you land a Flathead or two in the one spot don’t be too hasty to move on, be persistent and keep working the area as most likely there will be many more in the vicinity. It’s not uncommon to pull out 5 – 10 fish out of the same spot in a short session.
Gear & Technology
The beautiful thing about this style of fishing is that it doesn’t require specialised gear, you don’t need a great fishing boat or expensive sounders, you can dust off the Bream gear and still land some great fish.
Rods and Reels: Anything between a 1000 – 2500 series spinning reel matched with a 1-3kg or even 2-4kg rod is perfect for this style of fishing and will easily handle fish around 60-70cm’s.
Line/Leader: Anything from 4lb – 10lb braided main line and leader is going to be fine. In most cases you’re not dealing with too much structure so getting snagged or bricked is highly unlikely. You can afford to go light however you need to consider the line rubbing and wearing away from the Flatheads razor sharp teeth or spines.
You can also opt for a heavier setup or use a bait caster if that’s your preference, you definitely need a bigger outfit for the larger girls but again even on the light gear if you are patient and take your time you most likely will land her.
Lures:When it comes to lures there are probably 3 categories for this style of fishing, however Flathead are not always fussy eaters so I encourage you to mix it up and try new things. Flathead have large mouths and are not afraid to swallow larger lures whole so don’t be afraid to go big every now and then to land an XOS fish for even some of the smaller ones will have a go.
Soft Plastics:I think the perfect size is around a 4” paddle style plastic, colours we’ve had success vary from your common watermelon seed to a more natural clear/silver plastic mimicking baits like mullet.
Hard Bodies: Remember you are working fairly shallow areas so you really want something that is only working down to a couple feet in depth, suspending or floating minnow style hard bodies ranging from 45mm to 100mm are great, twitching with slow pauses can be very effective.
Walkers & Poppers: This one takes time and a lot of persistence, once you start to hone your skills and understand these habits a lot better; throwing a walker or popper is well suited. Its definitely a lot more challenging yet can be very exciting seeing a Flathead strike the surface! I have had some strikes and soft hook ups but this technique has still eluded me to landed one. Persistence will pay off, however I would love to see some pictures from readers who may have applied this technique and succeeded.
This can be fun addictive fishing so grab your mate load up the tinny and hit your local estuary for some shallow water fun. Do some research and with a little bit of time and patience it won’t be long before your landing these fish on the flats.
Above all get out there & have some fun, bringing in a feed of Flathead for home made fish and chips is awesome.