Dusky Flathead, the saviour of the wet weather blues

The old prod

Rod Harrison holds a well-conditioned dusky flathead.

  It occurred to me, on that wet, miserable Thursday at Port Hacking, that wet weather gear is a godsend – right up until the point at which you need to use it. It was a thought in keeping with my mission that day: to test, in the company of Shimano fishing tackle boss Colin Tannahill and another willing Shimano staffer called Chris Cleaver, a new range of the sort of wet weather gear you would wear only on those days on which you should really have stayed in bed. This was such a day.

Perfect weather, for ducks

Our arrival at the boat ramp was greeted by perfect conditions … for the test. Chris had launched his centre console boat earlier and, as we waited for a break in the downpour, Colin and I sat in the car watching Chris. Wet weather gear is an even more significant godsend, I concluded, when you don’t need to be in the rain to put it on. As an aside I always think it looks at its best when it is being worn by someone else. Port Hacking is made up of many smaller bays – in some of which, I am assured, it does not rain every day. Multi-storey houses that hang alarmingly from steep embankments dominate the northern shoreline and most bayside homes come with boat sheds, mooring jetties, or both. When the rain finally eased, we donned our wet weather gear – a curiously perverse thing to do, but I was rolling with the punches – to join Chris in his boat. First stop was across the bay at Bundeena. Colin and Chris said it was a hot spot for squid however they were not to be seen that day. Soiled water caused by heavy rainfall was blamed. I suspected the squid, unlike us, may have misplaced their wet weather gear. Finally, after giving up on the sooky cephalopods, we motored back to Gunnamatta Bay where we lobbed soft plastic lures along the edges of the channel flanked by weed beds, about 30m from shore. When a squid rose to a lure, Colin was quick to cast a jig over the weed and hook up. Chris, however, was chasing bigger fare. He is one of a small number of anglers I have met who possess a talent for working small lures on light tackle. I saw Chris in action on the Gold Coast. On a day when most anglers were bagging out on donuts, Chris went against the flow and caught fish after fish, including an 80cm dusky flathead. On this day at Port Hacking, between downpours and shifting winds, Chris was again in fine form and cleaned up. He fished a 2kg outfit and started out with a small Squidgy soft plastic with a wriggle tail. On successive casts, he managed to pull a 60cm dusky, several small snapper, and then hit on a school of silver trevally. When his lure was chewed out of recognition, he changed to a metal vibe, cast and hooked a bigger flathead of about 70cm.  But for the rest of us mere mortals, it was a tough, damp day in the office.
Rod Mackenzie with a good average dusky flathead from Mallacoota Inlet.

Rod Mackenzie with a good average dusky flathead from Mallacoota Inlet.

There was an area almost directly out from the boat ramp where the water was deeper, and edged along a shallower sand bank. Chris was certain it was a good spot to pull a jewie. This didn’t happen, but it proved the top spot for big flathead, and he caught a solid 85cm specimen. The catch was more meritorious given he was using 3kg breaking strain leader. His explanation for his success was that finer lines bring results, it’s hard to argue with a man holding the proof. Few fish lend themselves as readily to all methods as does the flathead, the biggest and best being the dusky. Under any evaluation of sportfish, the dusky flathead is right up there. What makes this fish special is that it can be caught in shallow water, will take a live bait, lure or fly, and is one of the few southern saltwater species that offers the angler the chance to sight fish. Big specimens put up a tough, head shaking fight, and can test anglers working light outfits. What more is there?

Duskies, up there as one of the best

Duskies are common in most east coast estuaries and bays from southern Queensland to Victoria’s Gippsland Lakes. Such is the attraction of this species that some anglers specialise in catching them. Big flathead lurk along the edges of drop-offs, or lie in ambush on the shallow flats among the weed. On low tide these lairs often become visible as flathead can leave a teardrop-shaped indentation in the sand. Surveying a flats area at low tide can give you a fishing edge. Even though you will sometimes spot them lying part buried in sand or mud, often along the edge of a weed line, facing into the current with only their eyes distinguishable, there is another state of play: flathead don’t always rely on camouflage to ambush their prey. Establish a fine mist berley and flathead will come into the trail, and lay in wait. When small baitfish move into the berley, this sparks the flathead to feed. Instead of hiding, flathead sometimes rise on their pectoral fins ready to pounce. As you watch, their dorsal spines become erect and, at the right moment, the flathead shoots off the bottom up to a metre, and engulfs a small fish. In this latter scenario, a floating minnow lure stopped on the retrieve and allowed to float upwards, a soft plastic on the drop, and even a fly drifted past on a floating line, will encourage a strike.

Tackle tips for flathead

Chris Cleaver with his first dusky flathead for the day.

Chris Cleaver with his first dusky flathead for the day.

Light tackle, about a 3kg outfit, best suits flathead whether spinning or bait fishing. A threadline reel, and rod balanced to suit and capable of casting unweighted baits or small lures is the way to go. Big flathead are well endowed with teeth, and the side to side, headshaking action when hooked will cut through fine lines. Many anglers use leader material of about 8kg breaking strain, or even a fine gauge wire leader, for this reason. Fly fishers will favour a six to eight weight outfit. On shallow flats, a floating line can be used, but an intermediate or sink tip is sometimes preferable along channel edges and deeper drop offs. Use a minimum 3kg breaking strain level leader of no more than two metres long. Fluorocarbon material works well, and this can be used up to 10kg if you are concerned at a big frog wearing your leader. This doesn’t happen often as most hook-ups are in the side of the jaw.

Lures

Most of the soft plastic varieties produce flathead. The best are those impregnated with an attractant, and have been known to attract a bite even when allowed to lie on the bottom, unmoved. Chrome spoons and small hard body lures will produce results.

Flies

The top flies for frogs include the Clouser minnow, Skinners frog, Lefty deceivers and the woolly bugger. Fly colours seem less important than the time the fly is in the water.

And bait

Prawn, nipper, pipi, squid, fish fillets, pilchard, bluebait and live mullet all produce flathead. Use a 1/0 to 3/0, Suicide pattern for the live bait, and a No.2 Baitholder pattern hook for dead bait. The rig should be a running sinker, with a small ball sinker to suit conditions.

Best methods to dupe big flatties

A neat frog on light tackle caught by Chris Cleaver

A neat frog on light tackle caught by Chris Cleaver

If spinning or working a fly the key to success is often to put the lure on, or just above the bottom. Dark coloured lures are best as the flathead will be looking upwards and darker lures offer a better silhouette against the surface light. Land based anglers do well wading and casting baits, lures or flies along the edges of gutters, weed lines and across open sand patches surrounded by weed, and then retrieving slowly. If the area being fished is relatively weed free, allowing bait or lure to kick along the bottom can initiate a strike.
Releasing a flathead

As with the vast majority of species it’s always wise to release flatties to breed and fight another day.

As prolific as flathead may be, the trophy fish won’t come along and bite you on the big toe. You have to seek them out and this is what offers the real challenge to the sports minded angler.                          
Steve Cooper

About Steve Cooper

Cooper is now a freelance travel and fishing writer with no fixed abode - his home being his cleverly appointed Jayco caravan which is packed to the pop-top with fishing gear. He has has towed the rig the length and breadth of Australia behind his diesel-powered Toyota Landcruiser which of course is topped with a small, flexible fishing boat.

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