The evolution of animals, with their unique features to cope in the environment they live in, has always been a fascination to me. Most particularly, the thousands of varieties of fish that cohabitate in the same area, all with a different shape and set of feeding or survival habits.
Who would have ever thought that flounder, sole and halibut would have a migrating eye that, through their growth to maturity, would end up on the same side of the head with a body flatter than a pizza? Another flatfish of great interest to anglers around Australia is the flathead. The estuary systems are full of dusky (also called mud or river) flathead, which is one of the most sought-after species right along the east coast.
Flathead, despite the urban myth, don’t change sex as that grow. Fish over 60cm are mostly female and those under that size could be a mix of both male and female. Evolution has declared that the larger fish – females – can carry more eggs and logically produce more of the species to sustain the balance in any given area, while smaller, fast-maturing males do their bit in the breeding cycle. On the mid-coast of NSW breeding takes place from late October through to April; the females take up station in the lower estuary, where they are surrounded by numerous male fish waiting for their chance to spawn. If you ever hit a patch of flathead where you catch a few from the same spot, the chances are there will be a big ol’ girl in the area.
While some anglers target big crocs or lizards they are, mostly, a catch and release option only. The social condemnation that comes with photo of a gilled and gutted big female is something else and their eating quality is questionable in comparison to their smaller peers.
You have only to look at the price of flathead in the market to realise their eating quality. I rate them as one of the best eating fish in our estuaries and they have a meat yield upwards of 60 per cent of the overall fish weight. The thin fingers of fillets from a flathead are ideal for small children because from the anal vent, or the end of the first dorsal fin, to the tail there are no bones to concern to kids. Filleted correctly, over the rib cage, you should end up with clean, boneless fillets and belly flaps and a transparent rib cage. The head and frames make ideal crab trap baits, too. The best of the flathead fishing coincides with summer crabbing and I’m a great believer in returning frames to the system from which they were taken, so the frames are frozen or used fresh in crab pots through the summer months.
While flathead are considered a summer species they still have to eat year-round. Ask any tournament anglers who fish the winter months what the by-catch is and a resounding response will be flathead. In summer the warmer water encourages fish to congregate in areas of the lower estuary and provide a captive target. During winter many of the flathead move into the tributaries and rivers where they take up residence on the muddy flats and riverbed and are easily targeted on bait or lures.
As a youngster the widespread practice was to drift fish the run-out tide for flathead with an assortment of baits such as ganged pilchards or live yabbies pumped from a nearby sand flat. It wasn’t until later that I realised the same flats that produced the yabbies could be waded, knee-deep, and produced even more fish.
Silt and sand flats that are perforated with yabby holes are ideal locations to stretch the legs and cast a few lures. Flats that are interspersed with patches of weed with a gradual slope into deeper water or a channel make perfect hunting grounds – even at night. The nature of flathead is to ambush their prey by burying themselves in the soft sediment and watching for passing prawns or fish. Their upturned lower lip prevents too much sand being drawn into their gills, while a thin membrane of skin precludes sand or sediment entering as they purge the water through their mouth.
Not being active hunters that swim around looking for a meal, you will need to find the fish. Their stationary hunting style often means you need to make a lot of casts and target likely spots in any given area. From a boat, over the shallow flats it is important to cover the drift or travel direction first. Too often you’ll see fish blast off from the sand and into the distance directly in front of the boat, which is why you should adopt a 12 o’clock to 2 o’clock and 12 to 10 o’clock casting pattern. That way you cover your approach and increase your chances of covering plenty of area without spooking feeding fish.
Flathead depend on the food chain, as most fish do, and as such will be hiding close to weed patches. It not only provides added cover but also stray prawns and fish that utilise the weed as a food source and protection. Any deep holes or recessed depressions are good spots to cast, as are around the fringes of the patchy weed beds. Where weed is the predominant feature of the flats the reverse applies, in that you target the sand patches amongst the weed. The sand is the only opportunity the flathead has to bury out of sight and while they will settle on weed, they are far more comfortable concealing themselves in the sediment.
It is a general rule that flathead fishing is best on the last of the run-out, where the fish have retreated from the shallow water into the channels and deeper water. When fishing shallow bays and flats in a boat or kayak, it is often necessary to fish on a higher tide from an access and clearance point of view. Some of the best flats fishing I have experienced has been on a full tide where the water was still less than 0.5m.
On foot the tidal stage is not an issue, but you have a limited target area and likely locations. From a boat you can find out-of-the-way places and fish areas that may not see as much fishing pressure because many assume it is too shallow to be worth fishing. Look for sand and weed expanses between islands or sand drifts created by structure, such as oyster leases. With a good bow mount electric motor it is good practice to cast up-current and allow the tidal flow to do much of the retrieve for you; you are also less likely to spook fish on your approach.
Perhaps the best period for chasing flathead over the flats is during the new moon, where there is a likelihood of prawn movement and a greater range of high and low tide. Obviously with greater water movement there is an increase in current, so bays and backwaters that have no direct current flowing into them are perfect locations. The flood-fill areas, and higher water, allow the fish to get closer to the shoreline and the fish don’t need a lot of water coverage to feed. The low water is when you can check out the area you intend to fish for flathead lies, which are long, kite-shaped depressions in the sand or sediment. Many of the lies are made during the evening when the flathead move even further into shallow water to hunt the shoreline, foraging for fish such as poddy mullet and juvenile whiting. As the tide recedes, so do the fish, leaving their shape as a depression in the sand and a good indication as to the viability of the area.
By far the best method of chasing flathead in shallow water is with lures. With soft plastics, natural colours are not overly important – in fact, crazy colours such as hot pink, chartreuse and white are amongst the best. The single most important thing is to get your lure on the bottom so jig head weights of 1/8 to ¼ oz are the go. Bouncing your lure across the sand adds the attraction of sediment disturbance, just like a prawn would make flicking out of its hide. During daylight prawns bury themselves up to the eyeballs in the sand and emerge only when disturbed.
One of the best-shaped lures to use in and around the weed and sand flats is a prawn profile, for obvious reasons. Gulp! Shrimp, Zerek Live Shrimp and Jelly Prawns can be rigged weedless to minimise fouling, so they can be drawn through weed patches without affecting the retrieve. Another soft bait that works particularly well is the Gulp! 4in Nemesis with a baitfish profile and long, curly tail that seems to incite reluctant fish to bite.
Hook sizes for soft plastics should be around 2/0 or 3/0 to cover any big bream that often turn up as a by-catch over the flats. Bream are active hunters and where there is an opportunity to snatch a prawn, they often will. Flathead are not renowned as a smart fish, but they can be completely frustrating. They will make numerous attempts to eat your lure and, as a response, it is important to fish the lure slowly over the flats. If you get a hit without a hook-up, just stop the retrieve and twitch the lure a few times and often the fish will come back for it. Patience with every retrieve will allow the lure to reach the bottom more regularly and give the flathead a better chance of intercepting it.
Hard-bodied lures should have a deep vertical profile and anything that looks like a mullet or whiting is perfect. Articulated or swimbait styles are good and if they can hit the bottom to make a trail of sediment behind them, even better. A heavier leader allows a loop knot to be used on the tow point and will allow better action from your lure in the water. This is especially true of the lighter prawn patterned lures.
What rod and reel you use is a matter of personal choice, though spinning reels and 8lb braid will enable longer casts and reduce the risk of the fish being spooked by the boat or your body profile should you be wading. Leaders of fluorocarbon can be around 12lb (5.4kg) for soft plastics and even heavier for hard-bodies, depending on how expensive your lure is. One hazard you will encounter over the flats is the numerous, and often large, long tom. They have needle-sharp teeth for holding their prey but can sometimes pop a leader with their violent head-shaking once hooked.
Handling small and legal-sized flathead can be a dangerous event, sometimes for the angler and sometimes for the fish. I loathe seeing anglers swinging fish in and clamping them tight under their arm against their dry clothes, or a foot stamped on their head on a hot deck. It is far better, for the health of the released fish, to net each one and extract the hooks and flip it back into the water with a minimum of handling. Where you intend to take the fish home it isn’t much of an issue and to preserve the quality of the fish it should be kept in a well circulated live well or plunged into a saltwater and ice slurry. Handling small fish while wading the flats poses its own challenges.
A pair of long-nosed pliers goes a long way to reducing manhandling of the fish, and hooks can, generally, be removed without taking the fish from the water. Where there is no other option but to hold the fish while you extract the hooks, there is a technique you can use that immobilises the fish and eliminates their characteristic thrashing. It is a method I wrote about more than 25 years ago and I called it thumb-on-bum. By inverting the fish on its back and putting light thumb pressure on the anal vent, the fish will arch its body, with its mouth slightly ajar. It keeps your hands away from the razor-sharp spikes of the gill covers and allows a quick and painless removal of your hardware before release. We are ultimately responsible for the proper handling of any fish, no matter how pesky or plentiful they are, and the less we handle them the better their chances of surviving infection.
Words and Images: Dave Seaman