Flathead are one of my favourite species to target for a few reasons; they love eating lures, they are readily available, even if you only have a short window of time to fish and you are every chance of catching a good size one... even right next to the boat ramp. Here's a few things that work for me when targeting flathead in my local waters.
Where & When
My favourite time to target flathead is the last two hours of the run out tide and first hour of the run in as they hold on the edges of the channel, sand banks and weed beds, waiting for the bait to move off the flats with the falling tide or back onto the flats with the rising tide. By working these edges and covering area you are a fair chance of locating fish. If you are land based you can walk the edges and work your lures back to the bank. If you are in a boat, kayak or other vessel, cast in close to the edge and work your lure back out again.
If you are fishing when the tide is higher and you can't take advantage of this edge bite, then you want to cover ground and find fish. Working along the edge of the mangroves will produce fish, as will working the edges of man-made structure, such as rock walls and jetties. Fish will be spread out across the broken weed flats and sand banks, so targeting any structure, such as rubble, timber, weed and even deeper depressions in the flats can produce fish.
Rod & Reel
A good starting point when targeting flathead in the rivers and estuaries is a 7' 2-4kg or 3-6kg rod, with a 20-30 size reel. A graphite rod is a good option as it is a little stiffer and more responsive, making it easier to use the rod tip to impart additional action into the soft plastics, such as twitching and hopping.
In terms of combos, below is an entry level, mid-range and higher end combo for targeting flathead and other river, estuary and impoundment species. All three are excellent value for money and the Cerros / Epixor XT combos have served me well.
Entry Level - Okuma 7' ML or M Competition Spin Rods with an Aria or Alaris 20 or 30 size spinning reel.
Mid-Range - Okuma 7' ML or M Cerros Spinning Rods with an Epixor XT 20 or 30 size spinning reel.
High End - Okuma 7' M Helios Spinning Rods with an Okuma Helios SX 20 or 30 size spinning reel.
Line & Leader
Braided line is best when it comes to fishing lures for flathead. It has minimal stretch and in turn more feel in terms of bites and whether your lure is swimming correctly. It also makes it more effective when it comes to driving your soft plastic, as a hop with the rod tip transfers to a hop of the lure.
Braided line also has a finer diameter for its breaking strain, which transfers to longer casts and a quicker sink rate, while also staying in touch with the lure more effectively. In terms of breaking strain, 6-10lb is plenty for the fishing that I do and most general river and estuary fishing, while those fishing in deeper water (4m+), with heavier jigheads (3/4-1oz), chasing monster fish may fish 15-20lb.
As flathead have raspy plates in their mouths that are capable of destroying leaders, I will fish 10-12lb leader. Again, those fishing areas that have many large fish may increase their leader breaking strain. Fluorocarbon leader is my preferred option as it has the same light refraction qualities as water, making it virtually 'invisible' in water, it sinks so that you can stay in touch with your soft plastic more effectively and it has excellent abrasion resistance. The only time I switch to monofilament leader is when fishing lures on the surface as mono is more buoyant.
Flathead are regarded as not the most fussy feeder and many of the ZMan plastics will work effectively, including 2.5" and 3.5" GrubZ, 4" and 5" StreakZ Curly TailZ, 3.75" StreakZ, 4" Scented Jerk ShadZ and 3.5" EZ ShrimpZ. For me though the go-to plastics are ZMan paddle tails, with my favourites being the 2.5" and 3" Slim SwimZ and 3" MinnowZ.
If I only have two rods rigged then one will have a 2.5" Slim SwimZ on and the other will be rigged with a 3" MinnowZ. The 3" MinnowZ has long been a favourite for flathead anglers and it has proven itself on fish of all sizes, right through to trophy catches. It is a realistic baitfish profile, with a lively paddle tail and being ZMan it is 10X Tough - allowing you to catch more fish per lure, buoyant - so it stands up off the bottom and attracts fish even when you're not moving it and it's super-soft and flexible - so fish keep biting and hold on longer. This plastic has produced plenty of BIG flathead for both myself and other anglers.
When the bait is small, the bite slow or there's also a chance of landing some bream, I switch to the smaller ZMan 2.5" Slim SwimZ. The Slim SwimZ has revolutionised small paddle tail plastics as it has always been difficult to get a lot of action and large thumping tail in a small plastic made of traditional stiffer materials. ZMan have achieved a crazy tail action on this little plastic by two means; 1. The ElaZtech material and 2. The unique under hooked tail design. This little plastic has caught me plenty of flathead to 75cm and bream to 40+cm.
When it comes to jigheads, below is a basic guide to how I rig these two plastics.
ZMan 2.5" Slim SwimZ - TT Lures HeadlockZ Finesse or DemonZ jighead in 1/4oz 1/0.
ZMan 3" MinnowZ - TT Lures HeadlockZ Finesse or Demonz in 1/4oz and 3/8oz 3/0.
If you like to fish heavy lines and heavier drags then you can also look at the HeadlockZ HD jighead which is built on a brutally strong Mustad, heavy duty hook.
I generally fish fast and cover lots of water, so I fish heavy compared to some anglers who prefer to fish 1/8oz and 1/6oz. For me flathead are on the bottom and I want that lure getting down there quick and making contact with the bottom during the retrieve. The exception can be when fishing weed as lighter jigheads will sit on the weed rather than sinking straight into it, however in that case check out the section further on about weedless rigging.
I will fish a 1/4oz on the flats and in water to about two metres deep. On the deeper channel edges and drop offs I will fish a 3/8oz and have a few 1/2oz in the kit just in case.
There are plenty of good lure colours out there, with 40+ colours in the ZMan 3" MinnowZ alone, and all will work at some point in time. A theory that has worked for me over the years involves carrying at least 3 colours, a light / natural colour, a dark silhouette colour and a fluoro colour.
Light / Natural Colour - These colours are dynamite in clear water and especially on bright days. They are extremely natural and realistic looking, so even under close inspection they look very much like a real baitfish in the water.
Example Colours - Opening Night, Pearl Blue Glimmer, Pearl, Bad Shad and Bloodworm.
Dark Silhouette - These colours excel in low light, dirty and tannin stained water as they offer a better silhouette in these conditions. I have had sessions where the run in tide brings in clean water and the light / natural colours get the bite, then the tide turns, water gets murky and I need to switch to a darker silhouette colour to keep getting bites.
Example Colours - Gold Rush, Motor Oil, Mood Ring, Calico Candy and Midnight Oil.
Fluoro Colours - If the other two aren't working then I will switch to a fluoro colour and this has often lead to some hot sessions. Many anglers prefer to start with a fluoro colour and at times I will do this, changing back to one of the other two if these aren't working.
Example Colours - Electric Chicken, Pink Glow, Space Guppy, Sexy Mullet and Chartreuse Glow.
By carrying at least one each of these three different styles of colours I believe that you maximise your chances of getting fish to bite.
When retrieving lures for flathead you need to ensure that your lure is making contact with the bottom, where flathead lay in wait ready to ambush. The exception to this is when fishing heavy weed and snaggy areas, where it is important to fish your lure as close to the bottom as possible. There are three main retrieves that I use when targeting flathead.
Hopping - The most common retrieve that I use is a hopping retrieve. Cast and allow the lure to sink to the bottom. Use the rod tip in an upward motion to hop the lure twice and then as you drop the rod tip back down wind up the slack line and allow the lure to fall back to the bottom. It's a balance between allowing the lure to freefall and staying in touch just enough that you can feel a bite as the lure drops back to the bottom. Repeat this hop, hop and pause and be ready to set the hook as flathead will often grab the lure as it sinks back down or as soon as you begin your hop again.
Burn and Kill - This retrieve consists of a burn (series of winds) and then a kill (pause). The burn brings the lure up off the bottom and the kill allows the lure to sink back to the bottom once again. You can vary the speed and duration of the burn and duration of the kill until you find what is working. This is a great retrieve for teaching kids as they can wind the handle of the reel and say "wind, wind, wind" and then pause and count "1, 2, 3". If they are getting excited and going a bit quick, just slow them down or use one weight heavier jighead to assist in keeping it down near the bottom. When the "wind, wind, wind, 1, 2, 3" starts to drive you nuts, just tell them to say it in their head.
Slow Rolling - Slow rolling is simply slow winding. Cast the plastic out and wind it slowly so that it drags along the bottom or swims just above the bottom. A tip for knowing when your lure is near the bottom is to cast it out and count it down. If it takes 6 seconds to hit the bottom you can count to 5 and then start your slow roll. Pausing every now and then to ensure your lure is close to the bottom is also a good idea.
Land Based Fishing
You don't need a boat or even a kayak to catch flathead. Walking the banks in your area on the last couple of hours of the run out and first hour of the run in can produce plenty of flathead. I like to cast up current and bring my lure back with the current as this presents more naturally and also stops the drag of the current from lifting your plastic up off the bottom.
Make your first cast along the edge of the bank and then make four or five casts, fanning them from the edge gradually out deeper, without casting straight out in front of you as the tide will drag this cast away from you and lift the plastic up in the water column.
I then take about ten steps up current and fan my casts out again, continuing along the length of the bank. If structure is located it's a good idea to spend more time working the area and likewise if you catch a fish spend more time in the area as flathead will often school up.
Fish love hanging around weed and structure, it provides an ambush point, attracts food and offers a break from the current. The problem for anglers is that this weed and structure can foul or snag lures and many anglers will look for clear open water to fish. This is great news for those of us that have some weedless jigheads in our kit as we know that fish love to hang around the weed edges, broken patches of weed and other structure and we can effectively fish these areas with weedless jigheads.
The TT Lures SnakelockZ weedless jighead is ideal for chasing flathead and I generally use the SnakelockZ Finesse (fine gauge hook) when using my go-to 2.5" Slim SwimZ and the standard SnakelockZ (heavier gauge hook) when fishing my go-to 3" MinnowZ. Below are the sizes that I carry in my kit.
2.5" Slim SwimZ - TT Lures SnakelockZ Finesse jighead #2 in 1/8oz and 1/6oz (it is not designed to clip onto the 1/4oz size head due to wire thickness... but on the quiet I also run it on this head if I need a little more weight.
3" MinnowZ - TT Lures SnakelockZ jighead #3/0 in 1/4oz and 3/8oz weights.
When the bite is tough or the fish aren't taking the lure with conviction, adding scent can make a massive difference. Pro-Cure Super Gel, being a gel based scent, sticks to all types of lures well, so I apply it about every 30 or so casts whenever I am fishing lures. You don't need to use a lot, I like to put a little squirt on each side of the soft plastic, near the jighead and use my fingers to wipe the scent down each side of the plastic and right to the tip of the tail. To my wife's disgust I then wipe my fingers on my pants... so a rag can be handy. If you don't want to touch it just use the nozzle to spread it around a bit.
Which is the best flavour? Ask five anglers and you may get five different responses, however for me it's Mullet and Pilchard flavours when fishing land based, SUP or kayak and you'll also find Bloody Tuna and Inshore Saltwater flavours added in the boat, where there's room for more gear.
Landing & Handling Fish
Flathead have raspy plates in their mouths that make grabbing them difficult, along with a spike on top of their head and one either side of their head. Handling them is best done with a landing net and then lip grips, while supporting their belly. I often wet my hands, to minimise damage to the fish's slime coating and then it is possible to hold them from the underside, thumb on one side and fingers on the other, using their large fins on the side to shield you from the spikes. If you're not sure though, safety first using the net and grips.