Flathead Tactics – Jamie Robley’s pro advice

Robley flathead 02Those Problematic Flathead

If we rated various species of fish on how difficult they are to catch, the humble flathead would be somewhere towards the easier end of the scale. It generally doesn’t take huge amounts of money, time or effort to head to your local estuary and pin at least a couple of flatties for fun or the dinner table.
Solid flathead like this are the perfect target during the cooler months.

Solid flathead like this are the perfect target for the ‘yak based angler during the cooler months.

On the other hand, all types of fish can be hard to find and fool at one time or another and along the eastern and southern fringes of Australia, winter and early spring are notoriously difficult periods. Inshore and estuary water temperatures are at their coldest and it’s often quite windy, so even if the fish may be feeling hungry it may not even be possible to get out on the water when it’s blowing too hard. Thankfully though, estuary dwelling flathead are a year-round proposition and despite their reputation as a summer species, mid to late winter and into early spring can actually be pretty good. As is the case when chasing other estuary favourites like bream or whiting, some minor adjustments need to be made through this demanding time of year in order to firstly find the fish and secondly, catch them.


Like a large percentage of keen anglers, I’m a lure fishing addict who rarely touches bait when targeting estuary dwelling fish. While I certainly won’t deny that good bait is hard to beat when chasing flathead or others like bream, we do have an enormous variety of excellent lures available to us these days and when it comes to flathead, soft plastics reign supreme. Ask ten different flathead specialist what their favourite lures are and it’s quite possible that you’ll end up with ten different answers. However, a few themes will probably be common.


Robley flathead 03

Flatties simply love plastics – the most popular colours for these fish are shades of white and pink.

They are; plastics in the 80 to 150mm range, lighter or natural colours and those that have some resemblance to naturally occurring flathead food like small baitfish, prawns or squid. Some of the best brands to consider include Berkley Gulps and Powerbaits, Squidgies, Atomics, Storm and Z-Man. Plenty of fantastic flatty plastics exist in their ranges, but some of my all-time favourites are the 4 inch Gulp Minnows, 5 inch Gulp Jerkshads, 4 inch Powerbait Minnows and 100mm Squidgy Wrigglers. As for colours, if I could only choose one it would definitely be white, no question about that. However, I’m perfectly happy to use other colours ranging from natural baitfish or prawny looking plastics through to bright pinks, yellows, orange and chartreuse. Overall though, I’m more confident with lighter colours.


Of course, a vital key to using plastics for flathead or any other species is to match the plastic with a suitable size and weight jig head. It’s also important to factor in the depth and current strength, as well as the size of fish you hope or expect to encounter. As a general rule, smaller plastics from 60 to 100mm attract smaller to average size fish and larger models from 100 to 150mm appeal to big flathead. When fishing tranquil lake or bay waters you can get away with a lighter jig head than what’s required for tidal rivers or channels where the current would simply push a lightly weighted plastic along and be too difficult to use effectively. As a very rough starting point though, try a size 2/0 jig head around ¼ oz or 7 grams for a 100mm or 4 inch plastic and if it sinks if feels too heavy or falls to the bottom like a rocket, go a bit lighter. If the current seems to push it along too much then go a bit heavier. It’s all a balancing act.


The author, Jamie Robley, with another classic catch.

The author, Jamie Robley, with another classic catch.

As mentioned, good old ‘real’ bait, as well as other types of lures also work well on flathead and occasionally some of these could be a better bet than plastics. Live baits such as prawns, small mullet and herring rarely fail to entice flathead. However, there are two downsides, which are firstly you need to put in the time to catch these baits and secondly, flathead will often swallow them deeply, so releasing fish in a healthy state is less likely.


Robley flathead 08

An enormous variety of plastics will tempt flathead in our estuaries. Lighter colours are very reliable.

Vibes or metal blades can be quite attractive to flathead and these lures have the advantage of being able to cover more water faster than the slower techniques associated with bouncing soft plastics along the bottom. Possessing more hook points than a rigged plastic, they’re also prone to damaging a flathead’s mouth or throat, adversely affecting a fish’s chance of survival after release.


  Being a lot more expensive than a softy and jig head combo, it can also be more painful to lose a vibe or blade to a snag or bite off, which is another reason I prefer plastics most of the time. The last type of lure worth mentioning is the diving hard body. Small, bream sized hard bodies work exceptionally well on shallow water flathead during the warmer months and still entice fish at this time of year. For the same reasons mentioned about using blades for flathead, I prefer not to hook flathead on small hard bodies. Both small and larger hard body lures are quite useful for slowly trolling along drop offs and channels. The bigger models that dive right down towards the bottom certainly fool fish, including other species like tailor and jewfish. The main advantage of trolling is that a lot of water is covered quickly, so it’s a good way of locating fish if other methods are failing. Consider all of the above mentioned options, but through the cooler month a soft plastic, slowly and methodically worked down deep is still going to be the best thing to tie on the end of the line, most of the time.


At this time of year the majority of flathead, big or small tend to prefer deeper water. So any deep edges, holes, drop offs or channels are worthy of attention. If deep water exists close to any major points, weed beds or structure like bridge pylons or rockwalls so much the better and flathead will probably be present. Of course, fish need to eat and considering the size of a flathead’s mouth, they certainly do like their food. So once a suitable looking area is located, the next step is to look on the sounder screen or scan the adjacent shallows or surface for signs of a food source. Patches of whitebait are quite common in many waterways through the cooler months and aren’t too hard to spot. Arrow squid, small mullet or herring may also be present in some spots. If you can’t see any bait it may still be worth a few casts, but mostly it’s better to try and find some potential flathead food before putting in too much effort.


A landing net is a must when fishing for big flatties.

A landing net is a must when fishing for big flatties.

While they don’t have the pulling power of kingfish or other brutes, flathead tend to reserve a lot of energy to escape just when we think they’re ours.


The problem is their rapid head shaking and explosive antics as they break the surface and this easily throws hooks or breaks the leader, winning them freedom. The bigger the flathead, the more problematic their volatile behaviour is, although the little ones certainly rattle around a lot too. The first part is getting them out of the water, then secondly trying to avoid being spiked. For kayak anglers like myself, these problems are magnified significantly. So over the years I’ve developed some simple tactics that greatly improve the chances of getting flathead in the kayak, big or small. Of course, the same principals come in handy for those fishing from a boat or the shore.


By far the most important thing is to remain very calm and play a flathead in a casual, relaxed manner. Winding the fish in quickly then attempting to flick it aboard is asking for trouble. If a big ‘croc’ sized specimen can be seen under the water don’t try and rush things, fearing it may get away. Just allow it to use up as much energy as possible and get the landing net or lip grips ready.
As a big flathead comes up towards the surface take things slowly and back off the drag a bit. A relaxed approach works best when dealing with fish like this.

As a big flathead comes up towards the surface take things slowly and back off the drag a bit. A relaxed approach works best when dealing with fish like this.

Another valuable tip at this stage is to back off the reel’s drag so line slips off with minimal effort. This is a safeguard against last minute lunges which big flathead commonly do. Bear in mind that the leader or trace may be scuffed by now and at half strength. Many coastal yak anglers are using small landing nets designed for fish like bream or bass these days. Such nets are fine for little flatties, but not practical when bigger fish come along. So when specifically targeting flathead bring along an oversized net. Some anglers may prefer lip grippers, but I prefer nets, as they help keep a big fish under control on the floor of my kayak.


When fishing reasonably close to shore, where there’s a sandy beach nearby, it can also be an idea to slowly head towards the beach, with the flathead in tow. Then jump out of the yak and carefully pull the fish up onto the beach. I’ve had to do this a few times with extra-large specimens which would have caused too much drama in the cockpit of my kayak! Once a big fish has been successfully landed, consider releasing it, as a lot of conscious anglers do these days. Flathead over the 70cm mark can produce a lot of baby flathead each year, so allowing them to swim off is a good measure for future fishing.
‘Of course, the mid-sized fish are exceptionally good on the dinner plate, so don’t feel too guilty about keeping one for food.’
Jamie Robley

About Jamie Robley

Based on the New South Wales Central Coast, less than two hour’s drive north of Sydney, Jamie Robley started fishing around his local lakes at an early age. Bream, flathead and tailor were the main source of entertainment for a young Jamie but of course, like many other kids who’ve been bitten by the bug, he quickly became interested in other species and more advanced styles of fishing.


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