There are several Australian fish species that could be labelled iconic, with barramundi, Murray cod and snapper all regarded as prized targets. However, the humble dusky flathead might just be top of the list thanks to its distribution and accessibility for anglers along east coast estuaries. It has great sport fishing qualities and, of course, a unique shape and features that make it an outstandingly efficient predator. On top of all that it’s a uniquely Australian species.
It’s an amazingly efficient predator, growing to over a metre, and thanks to its accessibility and the various target methods it can be caught with, it has dramatically increased its popularity over the past five years. It’s perhaps the first ‘big fish’ many anglers encounter while fishing calm and accessible estuaries. Everything from dead baits and live baits through to trolling and casting topwater presentations are all effective techniques when targeting the dusky flathead. Catching them with bait is relatively simple – a running ball sinker and a bit of pilchard will get the job done – but targeting them on lures is way more fun and gives the fish you need to release (those outside the slot limit – check for your state) a better chance of survival.
While it’s easy to get excited by all the amazing tackle associated with flathead, you need to know the basics of where they’ll be and why they’ll be there before you start targeting them, so let’s focus on the where and why first. After that, you can target them with any technique you find exciting.
Without doubt one of the most common areas you will find these fish is within our estuaries. This environment has few predators for the flathead, enabling them to grow to huge sizes, and is a place where they can find an abundance of prey. Dusky flathead can also be found in bays and across many of our beautiful beaches. Always take the time to cast lures along surf beaches near river mouths as this is often where you’ll find some big flathead hunting.
Tides and locations are a big part of targeting any fish and flathead are no different. You can successfully target them right through the tide cycle and throughout the day but dusk and dawn are always prime bite times.
Working an outgoing tide can be an extremely productive time. As the water recedes from the shallow flats, the fish tend to move towards drop offs and deeper channels and lie in wait, ready to ambush the small prey coming off the flats. This is a great place to target them using lures that can get down to the strike zone, and soft plastics are often the best choice here. Depending on the system these areas are often less accessible to land-based anglers but anglers in boats and kayaks can take great advantage of this part of the tide.
Taking the fight to the shallow flats on an incoming tide is also a productive and exciting way to fish. You can work a variety of lures and baits and it provides a lot of visual engagement with fish – the fish you’re catching and the ones you’ll inevitably spook. These areas in many systems are accessible for land-based anglers as well as boats with shallow drafts. While a shallow flat may seem just that – a flat – if you get the opportunity to explore a flat at low tide you’ll find there’s more to it and you’ll note areas that flathead are more likely to inhabit and feed in.
A low tide allows you the opportunity to study the surroundings. You’ll find lays (imprints of flathead), which should not be ignored as there is every chance a fish may come back to the same spot or nearby.
If you do have the time and the system your fishing allows it, it’s always a good idea to explore the system at low tide and look for likely fish holding areas. Any channels in the sand, steep drop offs, weed beds and structure are likely areas where a flathead will lay in ambush of prey. It will pay dividends as the tide starts coming in if you already know where to focus your efforts.
The other spots you can focus your attention on are banks, rock walls, river mouths, and edges. You’ll catch flathead throughout a system but the bigger fish will require bigger presentations and you’ll likely find them on the flats, on channel edges, in the channels and along the bank edges.
Keeping your eye out for bait activity on the surface and on your sounder is another great way to find spots where flathead will be actively feeding.
If you’re targeting flathead it doesn’t require specialised gear, a 2-4kg rod and a 2500 size spinning reel spooled with 12lb braid and a 12lb leader is perfect for this style of fishing and will easily handle fish up to 60-70cm. However, if you’re targeting big fish you’ll need to fish heavier. For every big flathead that has been landed on light gear there are five that have been lost and flathead aren’t shy of heavy braid and leaders, so don’t be afraid to fish heavier.
Setting up an outfit to target big flathead will depend on the size of lure you’re casting. Flathead will eat huge lures and many have been caught on 200mm big baits, however, 90-170mm lures seem to be the sweet spot for catching big fish and not turning off the smaller fish. The most important thing is to match the abundant prey in the system, if the fish are feeding on larger mullet and tailor – then use a lure that matches the profile of the bait in the system. With polarised sunglasses and by paying good attention on the water you’ll quickly note what bait is moving about. Some of the most common prey for flathead in an estuary are garfish, tailor, mullet, salmon and prawns and the profile of your lure should match accordingly.
There are four lure types I’ll always take with me when targeting flathead and I’d recommend the same to anyone else: soft plastics, wakebaits, jerkbaits and glidebaits. These four lures allow you to fish all depths and various structure types. Keen anglers will have four outfits rigged for each lure type so you can easily switch between them, and you can work towards this as you progress in your fishing and budget allows. However, it isn’t essential, and you can buy one outfit to handle all four within certain limits.
I find baitcast outfits to be far superior when targeting flathead as they provide far greater casting accuracy, are more comfortable to use over a long day fishing and there are more rods on the market suited to casting larger lures. I like a 7ft 2in baitcaster rod rated 10-20lb, matched with a quality reel with 30-40lb braid and a 40lb leader. You don’t really need to fish this heavy to land the fish, but you need it to cast the larger lures. If you’re casting lures that weigh 1oz or more, you’ll find you get bust-offs during the cast and you won’t be the first angler to watch an expensive lure rocket off into the horizon.
If you want to use spin, that’s fine, but you’ll be more limited in the outfits you can use and how comfortable they’ll be to cast with.
Wakebaits are an amazing lure to use across shallow flats. They don’t snag up on weed, have a great inbuilt action and catching flathead off the surface is just awesome. Flathead love them and as they imitate bait up on the surface as they make a commotion. The Shimano Bantam BT Force, Evergreen Noisy Dachs, Megabass SuWItch (reviewed this issue), Megabass i-Loud, Megabass Anthrax, Evergreen Stream Demon and the Phat Lab Nekosogi are all great wakebaits that have accounted for a lot of big flathead. Some of these lures are very expensive, but they catch fish and you don’t tend to lose them thanks to the fact they float. They are worth the investment.
Soft plastics are obviously a big one and paddle tails in the 5-7in size range are dynamite, especially when rigged unweighted across the flats. When fishing deeper water with jigheads, 4 and 5in plastics are highly effective. Squidgy Fish, Squidgy Wriggler, Molix RT Shad, Keitech Swing Impact, Keitech Easy Shiner, Biwaa Deus, Megabass Hazedong Shad, Samaki Mega Bomb Shad and the Molix RA Shad are all great plastics to have in your kit. They are all available in that 4-7in size range.
Glidebaits are extremely effective and fun to use, as their wide gliding action catches the flathead’s attention and perfectly imitates many prey species such as tailor, mullet and salmon. The Evergreen ES Drive, Sea Drive, Sea Drive Rattlin’ Bone (reviewed this issue), Gan Craft Jointed Claw, Molix Glide and the Fish Craft Dr Glide have all accounted for many flathead and are all worth having on board. Again, some of these aren’t the cheapest lures but are fun to use and highly effective.
Jerkbaits: It doesn’t matter what style of fishing you’re doing or where, the jerkbait catches fish and is still the most effective and versatile lure design ever. It’s the best lure for imitating garfish, so essential for any flathead angler. There are many on the market in that 80-100mm size that are perfect flathead lures but some stand-outs are Daiwa Double Clutch 95 & 115SP, Daiwa Current Master, Shimano Strong Assassin (reviewed in the next issue), Megabass OneTen, Smith Cherry Blood 90MD and the ZipBaits Rigge 90F. All these lures swim very well, and flathead love them.
That should give you a bit to go off – the where, when and how and some great lure choices to take out with you. The next three months will offer some outstanding flathead fishing so get out there and get into it.
Words: Kosta Linardos Images: A Full Crew