The Humble Flathead

Shane Bretz introduces a perfect target for beginners

What more could a saltwater fly fishing beginner want than a fish species that will willingly eat anything in your shiny new fly box and will give you a decent fight on light gear. Allow me to introduce the beginner’s friend, the flathead. When non-fly fishers quiz me about what I catch in salt water on fly, their eyes begin to glaze when I start to wax lyrical about the exotic foreign species I’ve caught. All I answer now is, “Ah you know, flathead, bream and the usual suspects.” Yes, most people are keen to come fly fishing if there’s a chance of catching a few flathead. I usually release most of my catch, but one for the plate is always welcome. The chances of finding flathead in almost all Australian waters is fairly high. They have a wide distribution and there are a couple of different species to mix it up a bit. Location, Location Flathead can be found in most tidal waters on bottom types that vary from rock and mud to sand and shell grit. Anywhere they can hide in plain sight is a great spot to start looking. If you can get to your intended spot at low tide, check the sand for the ‘lies’ that flathead leave as the tide recedes. These lies are where the fish have partially buried themselves on the making tide and waited for food to come to them. Flathead are creatures of habit and if they’ve been in one area last tide, they should be back in that same area again on the next tide. They are one of the best camouflaged fish in the ocean and you will not be the first to be startled as one erupts in a blast of sand at your feet as you wade the flats. They can also be found lurking in and around weed beds, and any clear area in a weedy patch should be cast to more than once. The edges of the weed bed should also receive special attention as the flathead lie in wait for baitfish and crustaceans to wander away from the weed’s protection. If you can get the weather gods to cooperate, then take advantage of periods of light wind and low surf to fish the ocean gutters. Find a shallow gutter at low tide and cast weighted flies to the edges of the gutter, working your way into the deeper water. Ensure that you fish your fly all the way in, as many a fine flathead has been caught from the last couple of feet of water on the edge. When you’ve cast to all parts of the gutter, then try parallel to the beach in behind those small beach break waves and work your fly along the edge of that first drop off before moving on to the next gutter. Feeding Patterns The standard feeding pattern for flathead involves lots of lying around and waiting for food to swim to them. They will bury themselves in sand/mud on the bottom and wait for dinner to be funnelled past, so they can ambush it. With this in mind, it makes it relatively easy to find the hotspots in all that water on the flats. Start by looking for the deeper channels that baitfish will use to move into deeper water when the tide starts to recede. If you can locate a backwater or eddy on the edge of one of these feeder channels, you’ll increase your chances of locating a flathead waiting in ambush. At night I’ve caught flathead regularly on the making tide over a sandbank by fishing the deeper pockets of water as they fill up with small foraging fish. The need for stealth is greater as there will not be the same level of noise and wind to hide your movements. I’ve had greater success on the larger tides on the new moon when there is less light and more tidal movement. You will need to do some research on the area in the daylight to avoid having to swim home if you get caught on the sandbank on a full tide. The joys of getting carried away and not paying attention to your surroundings do not outweigh the cold shock of swimming back to the bank with all of your gear above your head. Flies The question is not what will they take, but what won’t they take. I’ve caught flathead on everything from micro poppers and worm patterns to the standard Clousers and shrimp patterns in a multitude of sizes and colours. I’ve even had them take a bread fly fished on the drift when chasing bream off the rocks at night. In general, shrimp and Clouser patterns will increase the odds in your favour. Hook size can be anywhere between #8 and #2/0 depending on the location. Small lightly weighted Clousers fished over shallow water at night will account for as many fish as do larger versions fished in deeper water in the channels and gutters on the edges of the flats. The only real difference is the size of the fish you encounter, with larger specimens normally found in deeper water, although it can be hard to get your fly down in the water column with a floating line. But don’t be too surprised when a larger fish nails your fly in a foot of water and takes you for a joyride over the flats. My personal favourites are Clousers in chartreuse over white or yellow over white in a variety of sizes and weights. And don’t forget the all white Clouser — I’ve taken more than my fair share of fish on this pattern and it is dead easy to tie. A good starting point would be a handful of these flies in size 2, with a mix of lead eyes and bead chain. Start with the lighter pattern, and if you’re not getting to the bottom, switch up to the heavier eyed fly. The beauty of the Clouser is that it will ride hook point up, reducing the chances of fouling on the bottom or on weed. Shrimp patterns of any type will also entice a reaction from flathead as will crab patterns allowed to drift across the bottom. Techniques/Gear A good starting point for beginners would be a 6-weight rod with a weight forward floating line. You will not need to spend a fortune and this outfit will serve you well for a variety of fishing types and places. If you were to get a second line, I would suggest an intermediate or a sink tip. A good way to start an argument is to ask whether fly-line colour makes any difference in spooking fish. Who knows, but I use clear lines whenever possible as a personal preference. It is important to ensure that your flies are on or just above the bottom when targeting flathead. If you are fishing in knee-deep water, then a floating line with about nine feet of fluorocarbon leader will be adequate to get down. As the water deepens you can either lengthen the leader, cast further up-current to give it more sink time, or go to a fly with heavier eyes. In deeper water you can use an intermediate or sink tip line to get down to your target depth but these can be a little more difficult for beginners to cast and to manage. As for a stripping basket, I find I can manage well without one, but if it makes your life easier then by all means use one. I work a likely looking area with a series of casts in a fan pattern starting up-current and working my way along the edge of the gutter. Remember to work the fly back to you with the current as the flathead will be facing into the tide and looking for food to come to them. Casts do not need to be long to work these areas effectively, but you still need to be a little delicate. Try not to splash flies and lines into the water, as any undue noise will alert fish to your presence. You will need to experiment with your strip rate and length to find what works from one day to the next. The fly will need to make contact with the bottom between strips to ensure it is in front of the fish, so allow enough pause between strips to achieve this. If you’ve worked an area thoroughly then move on. Keep moving from one likely spot to the next and keep working up into the current. If you are catching lots of smaller fish, then keep persisting in the same area as the larger females could be present. The smaller fish are likely to be attendant males and it is only a matter of time until you put the fly in front of the female’s nose. Getting There A lot of the areas you can target to find flathead will be accessible on foot but may be heavily fished. Access to areas less frequented will need some sort of transport or the willingness to get wet doing some deep-water wading. Many anglers utilise small kayaks to move stealthily from flat to flat and these can be launched almost anywhere. Likewise, I use a stand up paddle board quite efficiently to paddle around from sandbank to sandbank and stow all of my gear in a milk crate to keep it safe (FL#74). The benefit of these smaller craft over a boat is that it is easier to drag/carry them into deeper water if you get caught a long way from the water’s edge as the tide recedes. It happens. The choice of whether to fish on foot or from your boat is largely dictated by water depth. If it is shallow enough to wade I will always get out and wade. This gives me a better feel for the current and the bottom structure so I can adjust flies and presentations to suit. It also allows me to daydream a little about wading some foreign flat chasing permit or bonefish. My kayak and SUP are both stable enough for me to stand and fish. This gives you a much better view of the area you’re casting into. You will be able to see where gutters and drains are and ensure your fly is reaching those areas. Flogging for Flathead This phrase refers to fishing for un-sighted flathead with repetitive casting required to find fish, as opposed to sight casting. Whilst the phrase is descriptive to a certain extent, if you are a beginner it is far more enjoyable to be on the water casting than standing in a park somewhere getting weird looks from the locals as you refine your oval cast or roll cast. All the casting instructors I’ve spoken to have always said that you should cast at something every time. Don’t be lazy and just aim anywhere because you can’t see the fish. Pick a spot and cast to it. It could be a leaf in the water or a shell on the bottom, but always cast mindfully. So if you have recently been seduced by fly fishing and want to have a go in the salt water, you only need a basic set up with some simple flies and you can get out there and have a go. Use your trout gear if you have any; just remember to wash it all well in fresh water when you’ve finished. If your kids ever want to have a go at fly fishing, this could be your answer. Nothing to get caught on in the back cast, nice open water with a sandy bottom and no need to be able to cast super accurately. A true beginner friendly fish, the humble flathead can be found almost everywhere and is a sucker for a well presented fly.

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