Author: Nige Webster
Flathead. Flatties. Frogs. Lizards. Regardless of what you call them, it’s hard to argue the popularity of these fish among recreational anglers around the country. They can be found in abundant habitats, from shallow inlets, estuaries, bays and brackish water, while just at home in the deep. Flathead will also happily feed on dead baits, live baits and lures.
Tidal stages have an obvious effect on the appetite and hunting strategies of flathead and will definitely dictate the best approach to implement for maximum results. So let’s take a look at some of the most effective strategies you can employ to maximise your time on the water when chasing these popular fish.
Tournament fishing has grown in popularity in Australia over the past decade. Regardless of whether you like the idea or not, it is hard to dispute that tournament scenarios teaches us plenty about some of our local species.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to fish with a mate of mine for flathead. Troy Dixon, a.k.a ‘Dicko’ was part of the team that fished in the latest Flathead Classic. Wilsons entered two teams into the competition and the teams finished a very respectable 3rd and 14th.
Prior to our trip, I spoke with Troy about flathead strategies and he recounted a neat approach that accounted for plenty of flathead throughout various tides. The idea of tournaments such as the Flathead Classic is to score as many points (or centimetres of captured fish) throughout the day as possible. Developing a pattern that enables you to catch fish across the tides is therefore a valuable weapon. Intrigued by the methods employed, I snared Dicko for a day on the water and took a closer look at how his team used three different lures and as many approaches to tempt a flathead bite throughout the flooding and ebbing tides. It taught me a lot and I have gone on to achieve plenty of success during my own flathead pursuits.
Choosing flathead lures
In contrast, Dicko and his team chose to carry a few tackle boxes with several lure options which allowed them to mix things up a little. The real key in their way of thinking was to be able to match a lure and technique to the tidal phase and how and where the flathead might be found to be feeding.
There was a larger and baitfish profiled soft plastic with a reflective finish. It was the Zerek Flash Minnow. This lure is made from tough plastic and with the reflective belly material looks very much the part of a wounded baitfish. The lure is flexible in that it can be weighted with a variety of jigheads and fished at any depth.
Other good minnow options can be found in the Z-Man, Gulp, Squidgies and Savage Gear.
A small profile and bibbed hardbody lure could be found among the selection of lures. The Zerek Tango Shad comes in 40 and 50mm sizes, dives to 2m and with a great colour selection from AYU to brighter yellow and orange options, is perfect for trolling or cast and retrieve methods. The lure made the cut due to its tight shimmying action and importantly, because it matched a lot of the baitfish sizes flathead encounter daily. These days, many flathead anglers are trying to fish larger lures, but when speaking with Troy he reminds you that you can’t ignore how many XOS size flatties have been caught on 2 and 3 inch lures.
No flathead tackle box should be without some form of prawn imitation lure and Dicko’s tackle trays are no exception. The Zerek Live Shrimp Hot Legs is a great imitation of a prawn. The lure is easily rigged on a jighead and comes equipped with plenty of leg-like appendages. This gives the lure a seductive look and vibration when falling or sitting in current. The legs are highlighted with colour and the lure can be rigged on weedless style jigheads or a specialised option that promotes an upright stance when perched on the bottom of the estuary.
Fishing the run-out tide for flathead
Flathead are classic ambush feeders. The design of their body depicts that it will hide in a good position and dart out to grab unsuspecting prey that encroach on a ‘holding lie’. They will very rarely swim hard for an extended period to hunt down a fleeing piece of food.
This means that during the run-out tide, flathead become very predictable. They take hold in prime locations where food will continually drift over their ambush spot. Ledges, channels and drop-off areas that experience focussed flow are all highly regarded spots by feeding flathead.
The last stages of the run-out tide ensure that feeding hits fever-pitch levels. All that food that was once harder to get in flooded reaches suddenly finds itself pulled within easier reach of would-be hunters.
If you are a flathead die-hard then you typically love this stage of the tide. Outside of these times, the nature of flathead fishing starts to change. The more water that flows into an estuary system, the more the fishing can become challenging.
During my time on the tournament scene, I observed some of the best anglers and teams adopting a three-pronged strategy, which I too have implemented to good effect. Here is what I learnt:
- The last half of the run-out tide was spent fishing around significant drop-off areas. Ledge and bottom structure in 5 to 15m of water were all high on the hit-list. These areas were focussed upon right through the tide-turn and into the first stages of the run-in tide.
- As the water began to flood into the estuary and cover weed beds, sandflats and yabby beds, the team targeted shallower channels that sat adjacent to expansive shallow flats. The thinking was that the slightly deeper water around areas that held plenty of bait would hold good numbers of average size (but valuable point scoring) flathead.
- The transitional parts of the tide were noted as those where the bite was starting to slow in any particular area. The team used these periods as a guide to start fishing the in-between zones. This included shallow water on top of the weed beds and flats, or the ledges that ran alongside the really shallow water.
The final key to success was then selecting the best lure and retrieve to suit the type of bite available in areas where flathead were starting to concentrate and feed.
Fishing with light to medium weight spin gear made it easy to obtain the sensitivity and finesse to best fish a variety of lure techniques. I recommend rods in 3 to 6kg and 4 to 8kg range. Matched with suitable sized spinning reels (2500 to 4000), 8lb braid and 6 to 12lb of leader, these outfits make chasing flathead a pleasure.
Late stage run-out tide
An effective method of targeting flathead during the last stages of the run-out tide involves targeting deeper water, specifically the areas where the bottom noticeably dropped into deeper structure.
The approach can involve either drifting or holding position along likely looking areas while jigging plastics along the bottom. The tactic is aggressive and can be used with heavier jigheads combined with soft plastic minnows. When combined the presentation hits the bottom relatively hard.
Minnows looks the part of a dying baitfish, so to have it slapping down on the bottom before being jigged up again and drifting with some current, makes it irresistible to ambush feeders like big flathead and jewfish.
- Cast the lure up-current of the location you believe to hold flathead
- Engage the reel, keep the line tight and let the lure sink towards bottom
- The moment line slackens; it indicates you are on the bottom
- Employ a few short sharp lifts of the rod to agitate the lure up and off the bottom
- Drop the rod tip while quickly retrieving slack line and let the lure sink back to bottom. This is where most bites occur and they include a short sharp tap and loss of weight. You have to strike immediately to set the hook should you get the bite
- Repeat the process throughout the area you wish to fish.
The action and often reflective qualities of these lures as they are jigged along the bottom is a catalyst for reactive strikes. The key to fishing the technique effectively is to ensure line management and that the best jighead weights are used at all times.
Line management involves maintaining good contact with the lure throughout the whole retrieve. This ensures that you effectively work the lure along the bottom and most importantly, feel the moment you get a bite. As the current is always changing, so too should the jighead weights.
Try to use a jighead weight that ensures the lure is always getting to bottom without it becoming too heavy and sinking unnaturally. The rule of thumb involves getting it to bottom without making the lure becoming a bomb or anchor.
Fishing the run-in tide for flathead
As the waters rise with the tide and ground is covered, flathead tend to spread out. They will try to feed still but the manner and position in which they do will change.
Trolling is a great option for covering lots of water and finding those concentrations of fish. A solid approach I came familiar with during my time on the tournament scene involves looking for channel waters around food concentration zones.
Channel waters and small gutters immediately around shallow water flats are a great place to troll during a rising tide. Target water depths that suit the depth of the lure you choose to run; the aim is to have the lure hitting the bottom as long as possible.
Trolling speeds should be approximately the rate of a slow walk and braided lines will help monitor the way in which the lure is swimming. If a lack of vibration is detected, the lure is most likely impeded by weed and should be retrieved, cleaned up and then put back to work.
Try to keep moving until you get a few bites. Once you have caught a few flathead, stick to the area, as these fish are there for a reason and there are very likely more of them around.
Tidal transition stages
The point at which the tide starts gathering momentum signals a transition of the bite. At times when you find the bite starting to dwindle, it indicates that it’s time to adapt.
In between jigging the deeper sections and trolling beside the shallows, try fishing prawn imitations in varying depths of water to locate patterns among migrating flathead.
The tidal push often signals to fish that it is time to feed in new places. As the fish move from shallow to deep water or vice versa, there can be plenty of bites if you can fish the transition zones effectively. These include the immediate edge of the shallows and up into the shallower waters.
Light to moderately weighted prawn imitations are a great option in this case because the fish are expecting to see food such as prawns in such areas, and, the lure can be fished in so many versatile ways.
On days where big fish are hunting in really shallow waters, such a lure type will produce some amazing results. The key to fishing with these lures is to keep on the move and try to locate the pathways where fish are migrating between waters of varying depth.
Bouncing a shrimp along the bottom or slowly retrieving it through the shallows and edge waters will quickly tempt migrating flathead should they be in the area.
The flathead wrap
I have often been caught in the mindset of trying to focus my flathead attention on the latter stages of the run-out tide. Having new approaches to fishing throughout the day has provided a certain level of confidence that is now resulting in many more fish in the boat. The approaches are not complex or highly technical but when the fish are found, they certainly do work.