Dusky flathead are one of the most popular species in Australia. Big flatties can be found in most coastal waterways and estuaries. At times, big fish can be caught along beaches and even offshore. Smaller flatties are reliable, tasty and are considered an “everybody” fish, which is perhaps why captures, stories and photos of monster-size fish are so revered.
At full maturity, dusky flathead are impressive creatures. Featuring a prehistoric looking head, big jaws, tough, leathery skin and impressive markings; it is not surprising big flatties were coined “crocs”. Studying how big flathead sunbake, ambush and attack their prey at high tide on sand and mud flats adds further merit to the all-encompassing moniker, “croc”.
Like many anglers, I have fond memories of chasing flatties as a kid. Early on, I spent most of my fishing time chasing them. While I’ve never stopped fishing for flathead at some point throughout the year, it wasn’t until recently that a fulltime passion for chasing flatties was stirred again. Admittedly, I was taken up in the “big bait” craze and was keen to give some big lures a go.
Since then, a whole host of “big baits” have proved effective on big flatties in the shallows. Turns out, big glidebaits, swimbaits, XL soft plastic paddle tails and surface lures are all effective at raising crocs off the bottom, too.
At certain times of the year and in certain conditions, big flatties will venture onto shallow flats and lie-up. Historically, spring and summer has been preferred for chasing crocs in the shallows. This time of year coincides with an increase in water temperature along with an increase in prawn, whiting and garfish activity – shallow water flattie staples! However, I’ve seen and caught big flatties in shallow water in all months of the year now. Not surprisingly, April and May are key months for crocs lower in the estuary. Their intentions are quite clear this time of year, often laying around schools of spawning sea mullet travelling in and out of river mouths. When a flattie is nudging a metre long, it’s after a proper feed! Admittedly, the warmer days with less wind are the pick in winter months.
Knowing the flats where big flatties like to sit in your local system is critical to success when starting out. Where I live, on the Mid North Coast of NSW, big flathead are relatively plentiful. Early on, I concentrated my effort on the flats I knew big crocs frequented and have slowly expanded on those areas. If you’re unsure where to start, wait for a decent low tide and systematically work up the river searching exposed sand and mud flats looking for the calling card of a big flattie – the telltale flathead “lie”. The spearhead shaped divot of a flattie that has recently laid in the sand or mud should be relatively easy to identify. This is what makes targeting big flathead in the shallows so effective. Quite often, flathead will return to the same spot, tide after tide, day after day. Switching them on with a big lure is the last piece of the puzzle.
If you struggle to find consistent clusters of big flathead lies, look around the edges of sand flats where sand meets a mangrove edge or weed bed, patches of isolated mud, or my favourite areas: oyster piles. Oyster piles can develop naturally or grow on old oyster racks and other structures on top of a tidal flat. At high tide, these can be hives of activity for mullet, bream, luderick and whiting. Consequently, crocs lie closeby, waiting for an easy meal. In my local waterway, the biggest crocs have all come from flats featuring oyster piles or old oyster encrusted structures.
Once you have a few spots in mind, aim to fish them on the last of the run in tide, the slack and the first hour or so of the run out. This will give you a few hours to cover water a couple of feet deep, which is about optimal. For narrower, smaller river systems, the fishing “window” is shorter.
Once you have identified flats where crocs like to frequent, it’s time to put some thought into your approach and lure presentation. Like all shallow water/flats fishing: stealth is key. If you’re in a boat, keep noise to a minimum and set up the drift so as to rely as little as possible on an electric motor. The same stealth approach goes whether you’re fishing out of a kayak or wading.
Depending on the flat and your drift, work out which angle your casts cover the most water. Picture your lure as a minesweeper, the flat as a minefield and the crocs as the mines – try to put a cast over them before you or the boat travel near. Long, well thought out casts are required. Remember, though, covering ground thoroughly comes at a cost of time. Make sure you work your way upstream with the run in tide, maximising your fishing “window”.
The above can all be thought out and mapped ahead of your trip with minor adjustments – depending on conditions and boat traffic – made on the fly. This is another reason why targeting big flatties in the shallows can be so effective. The technique relies on their overwhelming predictability of returning to the same area.
Flathead respond to a huge variety of lures. But there’s no denying big lures are incredibly effective for trophy-size flatties and it’s clear to see that flathead have evolved to eat big prey. Like other Australian species that respond to big lures – like barra, jewies and Murray cod – flathead have big gobs.
Like all developing lure techniques, chasing crocs in the shallows can require some experimentation with lure rigging (particularly soft plastics).
Suspending and slow sinking lures are preferred when chasing crocs in the shallows. My top four lure types (in order of preference) include:
#1 Unweighted soft plastics: Big paddle tail softies like the Squidgies Fish 150 are rigged unweighted with a custom made single strand wire harness that is attached to a screw-in tow point. This harness allows the use of two free-hanging trebles – a system of rigging adapted from the European pike fishing scene. A slow wind with the Squidgie Fish 150 is often all that is required to get a big flattie to bite, the seductive paddle tail and slight body roll of this lure is deadly. The odd "twitch" with the rod and pause can be effective, too. When rigged correctly, the hook up rate is great on these lures.
#2 Jerkbaits: Catching flathead on hard body lures is nothing new. However, today’s ultra-realistic suspending hard body jerkbaits are very effective flathead lures. The retrieve with jerkbaits should consist of a series of twitches with extended pauses. Generally, if I am seeing big fish but not getting bites on big unweighted plastics, I will switch over to a jerkbait or glidebait.
#3 Glidebaits: These rather peculiar lures can take a while to get used to. They have a very subtle action and you can feel very little “feedback” through the rod on the retrieve. Glidebaits employ a gliding side-to-side "S" action – a result of the two-piece, hinged design – and require little rod work. In fact, a slow wind is often all that is required to make glidebaits work. The realistic look and action of the lures seem to trigger a bite when the crocs are rather lethargic.
#4 Topwater: Topwater flathead fishing is a specialist technique, but it can be effective in certain scenarios. Topwater lures from 80-150mm can be effective for big flatties in knee to ankle deep water using a variety of retrieves. I like to fish surface lures slowly for flatties. Using twitches and pauses, I am trying to imitate a baitfish or leader prawn on its last legs. Surface strikes from big flathead range from ultra-aggressive to painfully slow. I will generally resort to fishing surface lures when the water is too shallow to effectively fish big plastics and glidebaits.
If you’re spooking flathead (big or small) and you suspect your lure has travelled over them, then it’s time to try a different lure and/or mix up the retrieve.
The bite from an 80cm+ croc in shallow water is aggressive and fast. React too slowly, and you will miss bites. A firm initial strike followed by a relatively light drag setting during the fight has landed me most fish. I find Murray cod and American bass swimbait rods too lethargic and slow actioned to set the hooks on big flathead. A fast action rod – like that used for casting plastics for snapper and jewies – at least 2m in length and capable of casting weighty lures, is ideal.
My two preferred combos are the 2020 Zodias 175HA paired with a Chronarch G 150 baitcaster. and the Dialuna 706M matched up to a Sustain FI 3000HG. I like using 15lb PowerPro braid and 20lb Ocea fluorocarbon leader, but occasionally step this up to 30lb Ocea fluoro when fishing around oyster piles and racks. Buoyant, 20lb Tiagra nylon monofilament leader is sometimes preferred when trying to slow the sink rate of lures or fishing topwater.
Despite what some might say, big flathead will put up a decent fight in the shallows. Quite often, big fish will thrash around on the surface and occasionally jump out of the water upon hook up. Some of these big girls can get up and scream across the flats!
Targeting big flatties in the shallows with large lures is by no means groundbreaking, but it can be unexpectedly exciting for those who have never given it a go. The horizontal, highly visual method offers anglers an insight into the power and aggression of a trophy-size flattie; a stark contrast to the paradigm usually applied when fishing vertically for the species.