Yahoo! Wide open flats, favourite fly outfit, plenty of flathead and no motor to maintain. This article is a simple guide to getting started on your own flats flathead adventures.
There are numerous species of flathead spread around our Australian coastline. Our target is the dusky flathead (Platycephalus fuscus) which is the largest member of the flathead family. Duskys can grow up to 15kg. but the common range caught is from 500g to 4 kg. They inhabit coastal flats, bays, estuaries, estuarine lakes and beaches along much of the east coast from Cairns in Queensland to the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria. When fishing the flats it’s not uncommon to come across other types of flathead, however the dusky can be distinguished from other flathead by the black spot at the caudal end of the tail.
Duskys are not too fussy about what they eat and mostly anything they can fit in their mouth is on the menu at some time. Some of their usual prey is fish, prawns, yabbies, worms, and small crabs. Being an aggressive ambush predator it will launch a lightning speed attach from its concealed possie on the bottom at any food within range.
Exploring the flats first at low tide when they are dry is invaluable in understanding what’s happening at all stages of the tide. Look for the distinctive flathead shaped lies where they were lying on the bottom waiting in ambush on previous tides. Some of the places to start looking are the patches of sand between rocky or rubble areas, shallow mangrove roots and also where their outer edges meet the sand, sloping bank drop downs, close proximity to any structure, and different types of sand patches covering the flats as they will sometimes prefer a particular type. It is also worth knowing where muddier patches are when planning your best route back across the flats as the tide rises. If you don’t have the time to explore first or fish a specific tide then here are a few pointers to finding flathead.
The good news is that they can be found from beyond the low tide mark right up to the shore at full high tide, so what stage of the tide to fish is open. However there are a few distinct patterns that have emerged which are common to most flats, tuning in to these patterns can save a lot of time and yield better results.
Starting on the bottom of the tide when the flats are dry and exposed, look for a place along the waterline where there is a natural drainage from the flats and preferably close to slightly deeper water. It’s best to look for water depths ranging from 10cm to 1mtr. Some fish can be caught on the last of the run out but the hot bite is immediately when the tide front starts to move in. The flathead are keen to move up onto the flats and start feeding and will usually respond eagerly to a well presented fly. Don’t be afraid to fish in shallow water as some of the bigger fish can come from less than half a metre of water particularly when light levels are low, the water is a bit murky, or there is some wind chop. As the water gets deeper the fish feeding front will rapidly move further onto the flats so when things start to slow down move to shallower water.
Yeah well, that’s a lot of flats I’m looking at which can be a bit daunting at first. So to make things easier follow the natural drains towards shore, watching for signs of agitated bait fish. Look for key features like small rock bars, old snags, and mangrove islands which attract baitfish and predators. Fishing these areas on your way in can be productive as the water level rises.
High tide close to shore is a great time of tide to fish. Most of the fish can be very close to the shore and there is often more cover such as mangrove roots, rocks, logs, concrete walls and pipes, for them to shelter in. Depending on whether the tide water heights and underwater terrain is suitable I prefer to fish from the water towards or parallel to the shoreline, – no foul hook-ups on the back cast and the wind is usually from behind you. Fishing from the shore is also productive according to the area and conditions you are fishing. I prefer to fish the shore at high tide on my home flats and the bottom of the tide edge at the flats in the next bay due to different flats structure. The biggest tides in the month usually produce the best results.
As far as rods to use I find it hard to go past a 6 weight -9 ft. rod (generously given to me as a birthday present by good mate Greg Carter). I have used 7/8 and 8weight outfits but found them to be an overkill and just extra weight when walking distances. The 6 weight handles the bigger flatties with ease, is light and easy to cast, and handles the larger sized fly’s and small poppers that they sometimes prefer. Fly reel selection isn’t critical. A small light reel and 6 weight floating line is perfect. Floating line works best when wading shallow water as it sits on top of the water and you won’t need a stripping basket. Most of the water fished will be under 1mtr. so it’s no problem to put fly’s in the hit zone.
Clouser style with weighted eyes or bead chain eyes work well. Unweighted fly’s can be fished effectively in very shallow water and in deeper water flathead will rise off the bottom to take it as it drifts down. A hook size 2 Stainless is a good all rounder as it also takes whiting, bream, and other species that you will most likely come across. Some fly colours –1 prawn/white+brown, – 2 yabby/ bright pink+yellow+ white, and – 3 fish/bright white with crystal flash.
Fishing the flats on foot doesn’t require a lot of gear; just keep it light and simple. I’ve found over time I carry less with a basic kit now comprised of an ultra light back pack containing a short landing net, camera, and trace material. It also has room for water and sunscreen, etc. if needed. Most of the sun protection shirts have plenty of pocket space for a small fly container, pliers, scissors, mini sharpening stone, sunnies, and scent container. After having sunspots and various sharp objects cut out of me there are 2 items that I reckon are a must for fishing the flats. A good hat, one with a brim right around and chinstrap is great and good water friendly footwear. I found neoprene reef walker zip up boots with hard soles are great as they don’t come off in muddy patches and are comfortable to walk in.
Fishing Different Weather Conditions
Flathead are around throughout the year but tend to be more active in summer with some of the biggest fish coming on in winter. Weather conditions for hooking onto one vary from fine, still and sunny to windy and rainy. Water clarity can be crystal clear to so muddy it’s a wonder they can see the fly. In very clear water they can easily spook and are often more cautious about what they feed on so casting longer casts is a definitely advantage. Clear water is best fished early in the morning with the sun behind you or in low light levels. Fishing with a finer or longer leader is also a benefit with the finer your comfortable with the better. The lightest I use is 9ft.of 2.2kg leader with a 10cm trace of 9 to17 lb. fluorocarbon from the fly. Natural coloured fly’s like prawn, fly’s without weighted eyes fished slowly, and small fly’s come into their own in clear conditions. Although clear water can be a bit more difficult to fish it is a real blast when a good flattie erupts out of the bottom and nails your fly in plain sight and you can watch the action right up to the landing net. If the water is a bit deeper they can also be seen stalking fly poppers for some distance before striking. Often the cue for them to strike is when the popper stops with just a few small wiggles on the spot being enough to get a hook-up. Clear water also shows you where the fish are that you spook when you move about, so next time you’ll have a better idea of where to target.
Dirty water – bring it on. Some of the most aggressive bites have been when the water is dirty/discoloured from being stirred up by the wind, particularly along the high tide shoreline. For these conditions I prefer bright coloured fly’s like the yabby and fish fly’s mentioned earlier. The leader is usually 17lb fluorocarbon straight through to the fly. Casts can be kept short as much of the action is around structure and this decreases snagging up and fouled back casts while most of the fish will be less spooky and at closer range. When you hook up on big fish even in dirty water its exciting watching the fly line arc past you and race for open water against reel drag. The sight of a big flattie side on at close range in the water with all its fins up is awe inspiring.
Spawning usually occurs in late September or early October, the large females can be accompanied by up to 4 smaller males. This is good to remember as large females are great to catch but even better to let go unharmed to continue breeding. I flatten the barb of my hooks to limit damage and make for an easier release. Another reason is that if you are working over an area and catching a few smaller fish it’s possible that there is also a much bigger fish in the area. On a number of occasions while hooking up to average flatties’ I’ve had much bigger flathead race up and try to eat its hooked mate. So if you are catching smaller fish in the same area work it over well or even come back to it later.
With flats fishing like any other type of fishing there are a few things that it’s best to be aware of. Dusky flathead have very sharp preopercular spines on each side of the head which should be avoided when handling them. It pays to scan ahead where you are about to walk to avoid standing on stingrays or stone fish. In the far northern regions the possibility of estuarine crocodiles and stingers will strictly dictate where and how you fish. Always be alert to incoming tides and giving yourself enough time to plan a safe path back across the flats to dry land.
Fly fishing the flats on foot is a simple, exciting way to fish with minimal costs. You don’t need a boat, expensive gear, or to be a great fly caster as often just a couple of rod lengths is enough to get you connected. It is highly visual with it all happening in front of you. Being a bit slack as far as routine exercise goes I find it gets me out walking, sometimes for kilometres without even noticing, and with minimal preparation you can be out fishing in quick time. Another great spinoff is all the other species of fish you can encounter on the flats. I have been totally blown out by seeing threadfin salmon over a metre in length smashing bait in less than half a metre of water. But that’s another story.