When I get a break from my bream tournament schedule, a fish that I love to target on my home waters of St Georges Basin is the Dusky Flathead. Dusky’s have a huge distribution range on the East Coast from Cairns in Queensland to the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, but it’s here on the South Coast of NSW that these fish have become iconic, with anglers travelling from far and wide for their chance to land the fish of a lifetime. Fish 90cm and larger are no longer a myth, which is testament to the great fishing that the region offers.
Location, location, location:
When examining the body shape of a Dusky Flathead it is easy to recognise that they are a bottom dwelling fish. The huge mouth, full of sharp teeth suggest an ambush predator capable of inhaling quite substantial sized food. Dusky’s can be found all over estuary systems, from the shallows to the deep, and in the salt to the seemingly fresh water– they can be hooked absolutely everywhere. Larger fish however, will tend to congregate on the many drop-offs and deep holes that are common in coastal estuaries. It is here that the large fish will lie in ambush waiting for food to come off the flats and other structure with the tide. In tidal estuaries and rivers, I like to target bends, deeper holes and drop-offs adjacent to a food source such as a shallow flat or rock wall. The last of the run out seems to be the most productive feeding time, when baitfish and prawns become concentrated in less water volume. The receding tide also allows for easier boat positioning and lure retrieval due to the slower water flow. In deeper basins with less flow such as St Georges Basin, and Wagonga Inlet, fishing for these big fish can become a frustrating and time consuming affair with fish being hooked in what seems like the middle of nowhere, out in the deeper water. You need to remember though, that the fish will always be there for a reason, so it pays to keep a close eye on the sounder and target the deeper drop-offs and holes adjacent to structure such as flats which are full of bait. It may take you a few trips to establish a pattern, but persistence definitely pays off.
Catching flathead on lures is not an advanced skill, but if you want to land big fish consistently on relatively light gear, your tackle becomes very important. As with any lure fishing, use the best quality gear you can afford. Luckily, to catch flathead consistently on lures you don’t need gear that will cost the earth. A good quality graphite spin rod around 7’ in length and anywhere between 2-5kg line rating will be sufficient to even stop the biggest of flathead. For the reel, I choose a 2000 or 2500 size loaded with thin braided mainline. In the past I used fused braids of 4-5lb breaking strain, but nowadays I prefer to use quality PE braid mainlines that are 0.6-0.8PE in diameter. These lines feel smoother, cast better, have higher breaking strains for their diameter and are generally a pleasure to use. When it comes to leader choice, a high quality fluorocarbon is an absolute must. 1-2 rods lengths of high-quality 8-12lb fluoro will offer protection against the Dusky’s sharp teeth and ensure enough ‘finesse’ to provide a natural presentation.
Lure Choice and Retrieve:
Flathead are not fussy when it comes to lures; they will take everything from small bream hard-body divers, blades, vibes, hard bodies to huge plastics. I’ve found however, that big fish tend to regularly take lures around 80-105mm in size. I prefer using a paddle tail lure, as the action attracts fish from a wide area. Where I live on the south coast of NSW, natural colours such as Pro Lure’s Brown Bass, Midnight, and Mangrove Gold are my go-to options. Rigged on a 1/4oz 4/0 or 5/0 jig head, I can fish depths ranging from 3m to 9m with ease. If conditions get too windy I may up the weight to 3/8oz, but I find the 1/4oz a perfect size for casting and retrieving comfortably all day. With the retrieve, a single or double hop is all that’s required. Experiment with your retrieve, alternating between slow gentle lifts and strong ‘rips’ to see what the fish are prefer on the day. Flathead will sit in ambush on the bottom, so between each hop, allow your lure to settle before commencing your next ‘rip’. Watch for ticks in your line at all times, and strike hard to set the hook if you detect anything which resembles a bite.
Landing big fish requires high levels of skill and patience. Once you’ve hooked up to a big fish (sometimes as much as 6kg and bigger!) you may be forgiven for thinking that you are snagged. A big dusky will feel like dead weight until she starts making the big, low, grinding runs that these fish are famous for. It’s important to set your drag correctly to ensure that the fish can take line, but you can still lift the fish when you have the opportunity. Allow the fish to run if she wants, and make smooth slow lifts to bring the fish to the boat or shore when you the run stops. Often you will feel like you are going 2 steps forward, then 1 step back, but patience and keeping calm during the fight will see you land that trophy fish. Lastly, once the fish comes to the side of the boat, make sure you are prepared with a large enough net to land the fish comfortably.
Releasing big Dusky Flathead:
There’s huge support for ‘catch and release’ these days and thankfully most fish in the 60cm+ range are being released, thanks to great education and increased attention on social media. When handling the fish, use a towel or glove and grip the fish firmly in the mouth. I prefer this method of handling rather than using a lip grip which can injure the fish’s mouth. Another important tip is to wet down your brag mat to protect the belly slime of the fish before placing her down to measure. When releasing the fish, hold and support the weight of the fish in the water for a few minutes to allow her plenty of time to recover. Placing the fish in a large Environet style of net to allow lactic acids to settle next to the boat initially after capture and again before release is recommended if available. So if you do happen to land that fish of a lifetime, follow these release tips and make sure you practise CPR or ‘Catch, Photo, Release’ to ensure that generations to come can enjoy catching these iconic fish.
By Anthony Kalsow