Think like a fish – techniques for finding flathead
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted commotion on the surface. As I turned my attention to it, a small mullet leapt clear of the water. As it was returning to its domain, as if in slow motion, I witnessed the water beneath it erupt in a spray of foamy whitewater. ‘Boof’! Placing a cast on top of the receding ripples, I let the plastic sink slowly towards the bottom. About halfway down I felt the telltale thud of a hungry fish. The rod loaded up and I was on! After an initial spirited run it became apparent what this fish was. At fist I suspected it may have been a tailor or salmon, based on the explosion of whitewater, but after feeling the slow steady throb getting trasferred through the graphite I knew it was a good dusky flathead. A few seconds later it was in the net.
As we enter the warmer months of the year, many anglers around Australia’s beautiful southern coastline will be looking to scratch the dusky flathead itch. And understandably so – flathead are one of those fish that have it all. They are great fun to catch and can be caught using a variety of techniques. They have specialised habits and habitats and can require considerable skill to catch at times. They grow to large sizes and at the upper end provide the chance at a real ‘trophy’ fish. In addition to this, up to about 55cm in length they taste great! What more could you want in a fish?
In this article I’ll go through some of the techniques for finding flathead. First I’ll cover off on the basics and then move on to some of the more advanced strategies. As the title of the article suggests, your flathead catches will increase markedly if you learn how to think like a flathead. In order to do this, it’s important to understand a bit about the fish.
Dusky flathead are a flat-bodied species that spends most of its time on the bottom. Often half buried in the sand or mud, flathead are built for ambushing small prey items such as fish and prawns. Their big, upward facing eyes are designed to spot prey before their powerful tail unleashes a quick burst of power. Their cavernous mouth filled with small, sharp raspy teeth leave little hope for their target. Flathead anglers use this knowledge to their advantage. The fundamental rule to catching them is to fish on or near the bottom, whether you’re using bait or lures. Flathead prefer the warmer months of the year, although they can still be caught in good numbers in the depths of winter if you apply the appropriate knowledge.
In terms of habitat, which is what you’ll need to understand in order to find them consistently, this is strongly influenced by the variables I’ll discuss below. But just to recap what you may have read before, they generally prefer areas where shallower water drops off into deeper water. This could be around the edge of an estuary, either side of a shallow reef, off the edge of a sandflat or near a headland that slopes off into deeper water. If you can find an area where tidal influence is causing food to be washed from shallower areas into deeper areas, you’ll be in with the best chance. With these basics out of the way, we can get into some more serious thinking about why flathead prefer certain areas on some days and other areas on other days.
As alluded to above, temperature is probably the key determinant in finding where flathead will be congregating on any particular day. This is because temperature will generally be the key thing influencing the fish whether or not to feed. If the fish needs to use more energy to feed than it will get from the prey item itself, the fish will be extremely hard to tempt. They will still be there, looking at your lure or bait as it drifts past, but nature tells the fish that in order to feed, the benefit needs to outweigh the cost.
Applying this variable to flathead fishing is simple. On cold days, flathead will prefer warmer water. Warmer water can often be found easily. Try fishing shallower or focusing on an area where water may have had longer to warm. For example, a shallow, north facing bay would be my first place to try on a crisp winter’s morning. If this doesn’t work, try focusing your efforts on the outlets to creeks or rivers that flow into the estuary. Often this water has had longer to warm and flathead may congregate in these areas. If this doesn’t work, wait until after high tide, when the estuary temperature may start to become warmer than the temperature of the water flowing in from the ocean. This can sometimes flick the switch and turn the flathead on.
Sometimes you will encounter situations where the water is too warm. Once again, manipulating this variable is simple. Try fishing in deeper water. If you’re not catching them in 1 metre, try 2 metres. If they’re not in 2 metres of water, try 3 metres and so on.
Water clarity is another key variable influencing where flathead will congregate. I have found the best water clarity conditons for catching flathead are when the water is slightly discoloured. Catching flathead in muddy or gin-clear water seems to be far more difficult. Water with a bit of opacity is usually a good indicator that it contains lots of little bits of debris-including food items.
As with temperature, you can manipulate water clarity quite easily by moving around. If you’re fishing gin-clear water, try moving further back in the system to find some dirtier stuff. As with temperature, you can also wait until the tide starts running out. This will mean the water has had a chance to accumulate lots of little bits and pieces of food, in addition to being slightly warmer than on an incoming tide. If the water you are fishing in is too dirty, try moving closer towards the front of the system, or fishing the run-in tide.
Other variables that affect water clarity include wind conditions and physical features of the lake such as inflows. Windier sections of a lake can often be more discolored, while sheltered sections can be clearer. Often where tributaries or creeks flow into an estuary, the water will be more discoloured, particularly after any rain.
Your eyes and ears are two of the most valuable tools you can use to find flathead, which is a statement applicable to all forms of fishing. If you are in-tune with your environment, you’ll start to notice things that will help you catch more fish. The presence of birds is always a good place to start. Pelicans will almost always be found where there are baitfish present, meaning that if there are some pelicans nearby there should be some flathead. Terns and seagulls are often excellent indicators of baitfish. If you see terns and seagulls swooping and picking up baitfish on the surface, you can bet there will probably be a flathead nearby. If you can find schools of salmon and tailor busting up on the surface, try throwing a plastic underneath them and you may be very pleased with the results. Often flathead, bream and snapper will all be caught beneath these schools, picking up any scraps that get through the hungry predators.
As mentioned at the start of this article, baitfish skipping around on the surface can also be a dead giveaway to the presence of flathead. Combined with a boof here and there, a well-placed cast can often turn up the goods. I’ve learnt that it pays to cast to any commotion you notice on the surface.
Another good indicator of the presence of flathead is spotting the fish themselves! Keep your eyes on the water and look for the fish as they take off from under the boat or particularly when you’re wading the flats or walking the edges of an estuary. I can remember a few occasions when I’ve been wading the flats and seen huge numbers of flathead take off from right in front of me. Often you’ll only see the puff of sand that they leave, which is an excellent indicator. This reminds me of a wading session when I had been fishing in about 1m of water all day, getting a few fish here and there, but nothing too exciting. As I was returning to the bank, I noticed good numbers of fish in no more than 20 cm of water. I realised that most of the fish were sitting right up on the bank, warming themselves in the sun. By being mobile and using my eyes, I turned an average session into some awesome shallow water fishing.
Matching the hatch
While perhaps more suited to flyfishing, matching the hatch is important in almost any fishing scenario. If you see poddy mullet skipping around the weedy margins, try a lure that looks like a mullet. If you hear that 7cm prawns have been getting caught, try a lure that looks like a 7cm prawn. When they are switched on, flathead will smash almost anything they can fit in their mouths. However, during the cooler months, it can really pay to match the hatch. Try a few different sizes, patterns and colours and you will find a definite preference on some days.
In order to fish all of these different scenarios, I use a medium action 7 foot graphite rod coupled with a 2500 sized reel. I usually run 6lb braid and a 10lb leader, and find that I don’t get many bust-offs. This will also subdue the hungry salmon and tailor you may encounter, and isn’t too heavy so that you can’t pick up the odd bream, trevalley and snapper. I usually run about 1 metre of leader, but some people prefer to go a bit longer.
Time of day and tides
Time of days and tides are not as important as some of the other variables I’ve discussed when flathead fishing, but they do strongly influence the variables, so it’s important to consider them. In many fishing situations, morning and evening are great times to fish, but I have noticed that it will sometimes take the flathead a while to wake up when the water is cool in the morning. Evenings are generally much better.
As mentioned earlier, the tide plays and important role in where the fish will be sitting. As the tide is running out, it concentrates food items in certain areas. These areas will hold more flathead. While time of day and tides are important, don’t let it stop you fishing! It’s when you fish in tougher conditions that you can learn the most, a lesson that is applicable to all forms of fishing.
Mobility is the key to finding fish. Generally if there are flathead present, they will attack a lure the first time they see it. If you’re casting to a particularly fishy looking spot, it might be worth three or four casts, but if you don’t catch a fish by then it’s time to move on. If you catch one flathead, chances are there will be another one close by. The reason is that there is probably a good reason why that first flathead was where it was. This is usually due to the presence of food or females. If you catch three or four smaller, male flathead-generally up to about 45cm in length you can start to get excited, because they are often hanging around a much larger female. This is when it pays to have up to 10 casts in the same area.
The big girls generally prefer deeper water, although I have seen some incredible fish taken in less than 1 metre. To target the bigger fish, upsize your lures. Don’t be afraid to try something BIG, for example a 12-15cm plastic. I have been winding in decent trevally only to have an 80 cm flathead come up and engulf the entire thing. The laws of cost/benefit apply to big flathead fishing. The big fish need lots of energy to feed, so sometimes it is only worth their while if they prey is also big. Deeper channels and holes adjacent to weeds or rocks are favoured haunts of big flathead, and you might be lucky enough to pick up some nice bycatch in the form of jewies. It’s pleasing to see that big flathead have increasingly become catch and release only. I let go anything bigger than 55cm.
When targeting the bigger fish, it can pay to upgrade your mainline to 10lbs and up to a 12-15lb leader. The extra abrasion resistance is important as the big fish can really engulf your lure.
I hope this article has given you a few tips to help you find more flathead. I firmly believe that they can be caught right throughout the year if you apply these relatively simple principles. Just to recap, the most important lesson is to learn to think like a fish and figure out why the fish are in a certain area. Temperature and food are the most important variables. You can maximise your chances by being mobile. Persist with these basic lessons and you’ll soon be catching these awesome fish right throughout the year.