You'd really have to strain your brain to think up a fishing scenario more exciting than fishing the tropical flats. Watching packs of shadows move across a shallow sandy bottom is a sure way to get your casting arm twitchy! How many other situations can you find where you get to see nearly every fish before you hook them, or can watch the strike in full view? The flats really are a slice of heaven if you're a lure fisho!
Fishing the flats of northern Australia provides opportunities on a wide spread of species. The diversity of fish which are prepared to push into meagre water depths is regularly surprising. Golden trevally, giant trevally of all sizes, permit, giant herring, barra, queenfish, pikey bream and nearly any other inshore and estuary species you care to mention can be found in this environment. We've even seen quite large Spanish mackerel happily feeding in hardly a metre or two of water, so things can get freaky!
To be successful fishing the flats you need to be in tune with the tides and the various points you're likely to best intercept fish. Most tropical flats on low tide are literally high and dry and besides a half-cooked crab or two you're not really going to find a whole lot of substantial marine life. As the tide turns to come in however this is when the party gets started!
With a rising tide, firstly you'll notice the smaller baitfish start to become active and they'll push up on top of the flat using any available water, and as the water gets deeper again you'll find predators start filing in. What will amaze you is the lack of water that even quite large fish require. In fact, much of the better flats fishing tends to occur in the first half of the run-in before the water gets too deep and fish spread out.
In the early stages of the tide positioning yourself in a prime casting position can literally mean you can anchor up and watch fish swim past within casting range. Often if you sit near a prominent channel or other early entry point onto the flat, you won't have to do a lot of moving around. A keen eye to spot fish before they get too close to your boat and spook is a prerequisite here.
You can also take the active approach to fishing the flats from your boat. Slowly making your away around the flats under electric power, or even using a push pole, near mangrove edges or any structures on a high tide for instance can reveal all your favourite fish lazing about on the flats. Water clarity can be a concern with this fishing in some areas and it is best to attempt it during smaller tides in the NT for instance. On the clearer flats of northern WA and QLD water clarity and large tides is less of a concern, however this fishing is undoubtedly easier when the water is calm and clarity is reasonable.
While boat based efforts are great and give you height above the water to spot fish, there's still something relaxing about grabbing a rod, bare minimum of tackle and going for a leisurely walk along a sandy beach. When the tide is up high walking the shoreline and flicking lures along the way will cover ground and turn up all the species mentioned.
Knowing when to exit a flat is just as important as knowing when to enter them with your boat. It's easy to get caught up with the fishing and lose track of time and suddenly find yourself stuck on sand. The pull and push of water happens quite quickly after all. Overall, each area is different and will have localised hot spots, and wiring a flat to its full potential is something that takes time.
What I like most about the flats is that's there's not a whole lot of structure to be cut off on and your biggest worry is being spooled, which is a very real possibility if you're hooking monster goldens and the like that only have one way to run - large fish really do sizzle in shallow water!
Most flats fishing in tropical parts is done using lures, with shallow running hard-bodies, poppers, stickbaits, soft plastics, soft vibes and metal slugs all having their place in your attack. I think key traits are that your lure casts well, with long and accurate casting often needed, and that it presents well in shallow water. Slow to medium sinking presentations are preferable, although I never leave home nowadays without a few metal slugs in my kit like Raiders - if you need distance, accuracy and a flat-out retrieve these win out.
I like to use fairly natural lure colours when on the flats. This shallow and clear environment is perfect for fussy fish to scrutinise lures. This being said, if you encounter a pack of hyped-up queenies or goldens they will literally butcher anything you can twitch in front of them at times. These fish are here to feed and cash in on the shallows while they can and most fish will respond to your lure aggressively. Outside of lures, fly fishing is also highly popular in these zones.
A 4-6 kilo threadline outfit, or medium baitcast and fly tackle is about right here. Make sure your gear is balanced and it casts well as mentioned, as every metre can count on the flats where you'll be punching lures in all directions, over a variety of distances to reach any visible fish.
There's something special about the flats and casting to moving shadows. The next time you head north make a point of giving it a go, and you'll be hooked on each shallow encounter I'm sure!