Well, summer is here and Christmas is just around the corner. What better time to dust off the fishing gear, and brush up on some new skills? While we mainly focus on four-wheel drive content, we also know that you use your vehicles to get out to remote fishing locations. As well as great camp spots. We wanted to help you out and offer all the information you’ll need to catch a delicious feed of flathead. Here we go!
There are numerous flathead species of significant importance to recreational anglers in Australian waters. The king of this ‘depressed-head’ clan is undoubtedly the dusky flathead. Also regionally popular are the sand flathead, tiger flathead, marbled flathead, rock flathead and blue spotted flathead.
Flathead are hugely popular due to their widespread abundance. Uninhibited feeding habits. And the fact that they are accessible to all anglers. Either land-based or boating.
Dusky flatheads have by far the largest growth potential of all the flathead species. They are reported to grow to almost 15kg and 1.2m in length. While most commonly taken at under 1kg in weight, they are quite regularly encountered up to 5kg. Especially in NSW and southern Queensland estuarine waters.
The other flathead species mentioned have a maximum growth of about 3kg. But again, are more common up to about 1kg in size.
Where to find flathead?
Wherever you reside or travel in Australia you will find a flathead species. The largest growing and most widely distributed is the dusky flathead. Flathead can be found along the east coast of Australia from about Cairns in north Queensland to the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria. They reside mainly in estuaries and large coastal bays, but can be encountered in shallow coastal waters. They will range well upstream to fresh water at times.
Sand flathead are found from Wooli in northern NSW down the east coast and across the bottom of Australia to about Lancelin in WA. They range through Bass Strait and Tasmanian waters. Sandies inhabit shallow coastal areas seaward to about the 100m depth range and prefer similar bottom structure as dusky flathead. When sandies venture into estuary systems it is usually only in the larger, more open systems.
Blue-spotted flathead can be found from Moreton Bay around the bottom half of the country to Kalbarri in Western Australia. Similarly to the sand flathead, this is a species that prefers offshore waters, however it may enter large open harbours or bays.
The tiger flathead is endemic to the waters of south-eastern Australia. It ranges from Coffs Harbour in NSW to Portland in Victoria, including Bass Strait and Tasmanian waters. They are predominantly an offshore species to be found in water depths from 10-400m, but more commonly in water of half that maximum depth.
All flathead are bottom dwellers, generally living on sand, mud and gravel substrates. They utilise their shape and colouration to ambush prey. Small fish make up the bulk of their food source, however they will eat a range of food items including molluscs, crustaceans and marine worms.
Best tackle to catch flathead
Flathead can be caught on a wide range of tackle from the humble handline to hi-tech fly gear. Probably the most popular tackle for estuary fishing for them would be light to medium weight spin (threadline) rod and reel combinations. Reels from 1000-2500 sizes loaded with 3-6kg line are perfect. Rods from 1.7-2m with soft tip sections are well suited.
Surf and coastal rock based anglers use longer rods in the 3-4m range and often slightly larger reels and 6-8kg mainlines. Alvey side-cast reels are very popular for the beach and rock crew due to their hardiness in that environment.
Flatties have incredibly abrasive rasp-like dentistry and have a habit of delivering a series of savage head-shakes once hooked. Combined, these traits can lead to mainlines wearing through quite quickly. For this reason, abrasion-resistant monofilament nylon or fluorocarbon leader of 6-10kg breaking strain should be employed for some insurance against this. If using bait, long-shanked hooks are often used to offer extra protection to the trace.
Small live fish are exceptional flathead baits, but they will also readily eat marine worms, crustaceans and molluscs. The flatties aggressive feeding behaviour ensures that virtually all lure styles will fool this fish. Soft plastic lures are a definite flathead favourite because they can very easily be worked along the bottom in most environments, depths and conditions.
How to catch flathead?
Flathead rely predominantly on ambush-style feeding tactics, so a moving bait or lure will dramatically increase your chances of success over a bait or lure left at rest. It also allows a great deal more area to be covered in search of a hungry specimen.
For dusky flathead work drains and channel edges of estuaries during the dropping tide. Give special attention to perimeters of ribbon weed, rock and across gravel and shale patches. Late and early in the day and particularly after dark, duskies will come right up into the shallows on a flooding tide, so don’t exclude ankle deep water as prime flatty habitat. They will even take surface lures in skinny water.
A walk over exposed sand banks in estuaries at low tide will often give a good indication of the presence of flathead. They leave a tell-tail ‘lie’ in the sand that indicates good areas to target when the tide comes in.
When targeting sand, tiger and other species in offshore and large bay situations, drifting is often the most productive option as it keeps baits moving and covers plenty of ground. Flathead often group, so be sure to keep working an area when a fish is encountered.
It is often best to ‘play out’ a flathead away from the boat or area to be landed in order to have them tired rather than fresh for landing. When the flathead is near the surface, do not attempt to lift its head out of the water – it usually causes the fish to wildly shake its head and many good flatties are lost due to this. Netting is the safest landing practice.
Can you eat flathead?
Flathead in the 40-70cm range make for exceptional eating. Filleted, skinned, boned and quickly fried in beer batter, they offer a distinct and delicious flavour. Avoid killing larger specimens (in some states they are protected over a certain size) as they tend to become a bit dryer with age and size, and the larger fish are important breeding females.
Words and Images: Fishlife’s Scott Amon