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Targeting Dusky Flathead

Words & Images: John Cahill

Humble is the most common word I see associated with flathead, but to me nothing about them is humble. In fact, when I have big dusky on the line, be it on finesse bream gear or something more appropriate, it’s not uncommon for my leg to get the shakes until it’s secure in the net. I just love the big girls and have experienced plenty of heartbreak with pulled hooks or – more commonly – a snipped leader.  Not to discriminate on size, though – all duskies are amazing critters.  With their flat heads, binocular vision and a very fast turn of speed over a short distance, their superior camouflage blending into sand or mud completes the perfect estuary ambush predator. 

Dusky flathead are an east coast-only species and limited to estuaries and coastal bays.  They range almost from Cairns in Queensland but are more common in the southern part of the state, throughout New South Wales and in Victoria to the Gippsland Lakes, but no further west.  Whilst they are a saltwater / estuarine species, they will travel upriver in systems to the limits of the salt, which in some systems is many kilometres inland.  In my opinion, one of the best management practices for duskies has been to create a slot limit (in Victoria it’s 30cm to 55cm, Queensland 40cm to 75cm) and moves are afoot to remedy the situation in New South Wales, which still allows the taking of one fish over 70cm.  The beauty of a slot is that the right-sized fish can be kept for the table while trophy, big breeding females must be returned to do their business and provide other anglers with the chance of a sensational trophy fish experience – and that’s a big win-win.  Being one of our most targeted fish on the east coast, everyone wants to catch a big frog or at least take home a feed of great-tasting fish.

Duskies eat a lot of 7-15cm baitfish and prawns as their primary diet, with mullet featuring heavily.  It will be no surprise, then, that they will readily inhale live baits (or dead) of pretty much any fish species but I’ll argue that the best, most sporting and 100% most enjoyable way to target duskies is without doubt lure fishing, in a number of different forms to suit the situation and your style.

When and How

In terms of targeting duskies, no one will dispute that the best time to be on the water is in the warmer months from October to April; in winter they can be a lot harder to find and are certainly less active.  In terms of tides, flathead will use the falling and rising water to position themselves best to ambush bait movement and it’s not hard to work out the small adjustments that they make, as often they won’t move far at all.  My favourite time is a falling tide as predictably they will be at the very edge of drops.  Duskies prefer a soft sand or mud bottom but quite often hang around patchy sand, rock and especially weed bed.  I love shallow banks that are littered with seashells as they camouflage so well with their spots that I am sure they are keyed into those areas.  As a general rule, focus your activity along the edges of channels, drop-offs and around weed beds on sandbanks – you won’t go wrong for too long if you do.  Land-based casters will usually wade to within casting distance of drop-offs but will frequently spook the bigger fish on their way out, so there is a lesson here. From a boat I like to get set up in the channel and send my cast long over the bank.  When that area has been exhausted, I move up onto the flat and repeat the search all the way to the shoreline. The biggest fish are usually on the edge but frequently you will find different size classes as you go from the channel edge right through to the skinny stuff.  If the tidal influence is strong, flathead will often face into the current for obvious reasons that suit a fish that ambushes bait for a living.

Best Lures

Duskies will attack just about anything artificial. Plastics, vibes and blades work well and so do shallow-diving hard-bodied minnows on the sand flats.  My personal favourites are floating glide baits and crank-down wake baits, mostly because most of the time they can be worked slowly over the shallowest of water without fouling on weed, and not all lures can say that.  If you like to fish soft plastics, it’s so important to rig the plastic on the hook properly. The bait must lie straight and not be bunched up or it will interfere with the action and not swim correctly. Take the time to measure it alongside the jig head, taking note of where the hook will need to exit the body and this will form the point where you need to guide the hook upwards to exit the bait. Start the hook point in the centre of the nose, thread it round the hook and bring the hook point out through the centreline so it lies straight.  I tie a small loop knot on all my flathead lures to allow them to swim freely in the water, and this can be essential for them to work properly – in particular for smaller glide baits.

Casting distance is an advantage to covering the water across the flats, which will tend to dictate my rod length.  7ft 3in to 8ft is my range and a 2500-sized spinning reel with 6 to 10lb braided mainline is perfect, providing nice feel and more than adequate strength.  I would never run less than 10lbs fluoro leader and would happily up that to 20lb.  You need to decide if you are prospecting for other species such as bream or dedicating your casts at a big frog.  If so, 20 is the go.  When I get the bite I like to make sure the hooks are in, especially if fishing larger soft plastics, which are notorious for dropping out. I find that a super-smooth and well-set drag is vital to staying connected to bigger fish, so certainly don’t try to force the issue.  Big flathead are often well behaved until the moment they aren’t and can turn on a dime and speed off. If you muck up at this point through being heavy-handed, or a sticky or tight drag, you will quickly part ways.  I find that working a big flathead slowly is key, and again make sure that the drag is smooth and well set. It’s also super-important to not lift their head from the water, especially with a light leader, as the violent and aggressive shakes will very likely cut you off; I’ve been there more times than I care to recall.

Baits

Duskies will eat anything. But remember big baits help catch big fish! Some of the better baits include live poddy mullet, fresh strip / fillet baits, live prawns, frozen prawns, whitebait or squid strips.  100% fresh is best and tailor or salmon strips are right up there.  Larger duskies will usually engulf livies whole so please use a circle hook or the release prospects will be poor.  Select as small a sinker as possible, running freely above the leader to a swivel allowing the bait to swim around naturally but not anchored in one place.  Other baits, be it a cut bait or a prawn, will benefit from a half-hitch around the tail and can be fished on the same rig.  Flathead of all sizes will comfortably be pinned on a 2/0 circle.

Final Word

The record spring and summer rains have seen many systems open for the first time in ages and most of our estuaries are in amazing health.  I’ve noticed in the two main systems that I fish, the seagrass beds are back with a vengeance and the flathead population appear to have been reinvigorated in line with that.  It’s a great time to get out there and enjoy some flathead success. I do encourage people to limit their catch of duskies if they want to continue to enjoy good fishing, as some systems can cop an absolute flogging over summer, so do your bit towards sustainability.

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