Words: Matt Perdrau Images: A full crew
A Firm Favourite
The humble flathead, also known as the frog, lizard, croc, or flatty, is one of the most recognisable and popular eating fish species in Australia, and for this reason they are readily targeted by recreational anglers.
Of the various flathead species found in Australian waters, the dusky flathead is a prized jewel among lure anglers from Cairns in Queensland to the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria. For as long as I can remember this notoriously abundant species, and the estuaries they inhabit, have been the testing ground for nearly every lure type (and associated techniques), including a new method that is gaining momentum.
Whilst the popularity of glide baits in coastal waterways has arguably come off the back of anglers targeting large predatory species such as barramundi and Murray cod in the sweet water, this seemingly ‘boutique’ method has some distinct advantages over many of the traditional techniques employed on the ol’ flat chap… especially the bigger models!
The Perfect Predator
Without a doubt the dusky flathead is the ultimate predator. I know other large fresh and salt water species have physical girth and weight in their corner, but centimetre for centimetre I’m sure the dusky flathead would be at the top of any baitfish’s most feared list. After all, what other metre-long predator would have the gall to hide and ambush its prey in less than 20cm of water?
The flathead’s dorsally compressed shape gives it a distinct advantage and, coupled with the ability to shuffle into the sand (creating lays) and camouflage its body colour to suit the surroundings, it has one of the best hunting strategies of any fish species. Having both eyes positioned on top of the head (giving them binocular vision) allows them to see their environment as a three-dimensional image and, due to their flat shape, they can see equally as well to the front, back, right and left of their body.
They possess a large, wide mouth that is capable of fitting prey items up to a third their own length and accounts of hooked legal-size bream and flathead being chased and engulfed by larger flathead are not uncommon at boat ramps and fishing clubs. Unlike other large predatory species, flathead rely more on ‘ram feeding’ than ‘suction feeding’. Having a flattened head (less internal mouth volume) doesn’t allow flathead to create enough pressure difference to suction-feed like barramundi or Murray cod. Instead, they need to move towards their prey (ram feeding) in order to swallow it successfully.
Whilst all these traits are impressive and illustrate what a fearsome predator the dusky flathead is to anything smaller in an estuary, fortunately for us anglers it aids in their undoing as it provides so many hints on how best to target them.
Why Go Glides?
Primarily used in Japan and the US to successfully target large-mouth bass for a decade, glide baits have become increasingly popular with Australian anglers over the past 12 months.
A glide bait is a single-hinged, two-piece bait (lure) that lacks any lip, bib or bill to ‘trip’ or impart action. They range from 100mm up to 300mm long and vary in shape from slender minnow models through to deeper-profiled shad imitations.
Glide baits naturally exhibit a wide, side-to-side ‘gliding’ action when retrieved. As it moves forward, the alternating water pressure on the face of its hinged body causes the joint to open and close, thus giving it an ‘S’ gliding motion. The faster you retrieve, the tighter the action; the slower you retrieve, the wider the action. However, the single biggest factor that enables a (quality) glide bait to perform unlike any other lure is the precision weighting, which allows it to suspend and present in such a balanced life-like manner. They are a visual lure designed to be used in shallow water where you can alter the frequency, direction and length of the gliding action by varying your retrieve and incorporating jerks and twitches.
Listed below are some attributes I look for in a glide bait, why they are important, and how they can improve your hook-up rate.
Shape – Glide baits come in variety of bait-imitating shapes and as a general rule I opt for the longer, slender minnow-shaped models for flathead as they more closely resemble a herring or mullet. However, if I have seen big flathead in the area or they have followed a smaller hooked flathead or bream, I will confidently upgrade to a deeper-profile glide to resemble a larger prey. Remember, flathead have binocular vision so lure shape is important and can be the difference between a fish committing or just following.
Colour – This will always be a controversial topic but I’ll let you in on my results-based selection process. When I’m fishing an estuary for flathead, regardless of their exceptional vision, if I see a lot of baitfish on the flat then I go with a hi-vis colour such as hot pink, chartreuse or white. If I’m not seeing many baitfish on the flat, then I’ll go with something natural. My theory is simple. When the baitfish are abundant, I want my lure to stand out from the pack and get the attention of a selective flathead. When I’m not seeing many baitfish on the flat then I assume conditions aren’t favourable and using a lure that closely mimics something natural (a baitfish that has wandered from the shoal or is injured) gets me the bites.
Any bait in the 130mm to 200mm class is on the money. For me a couple of things come into play when considering bait length and weight. Firstly, I’m targeting a trophy so I want a lure that is going to offer the fish a substantial reward for the energy expended. A larger bait will also have more drawing power, by which I mean it will be more visible and detectable to the fish’s lateral line. From an ergonomic perspective the bait also needs to be manageable for the angler to cast for long periods and I find most baits in this length class can be easily fished on a medium spin or baitcast outfit.
Action – This is where I firmly believe glide baits excel over all other lures for flathead. They are like a ‘choose your own adventure’ novel when it comes to flathead fishing. A quality glide bait can be manipulated in so many ways by the angler, making them both fun and rewarding to use. I mentioned before the many attributes that make the flathead such an effective predator but one disadvantage they have – similar to any animal with binocular vision – is blind spots. I’m serious… how many times have you had a flathead strike or boof your bait or lure and completely miss it? This is because they actually lose sight of the bait up-close. Some fish will compensate by moving to the side to get a better view but most will literally ‘guess’ strike in the hope of engulfing it. A glide bait, however, is nearly always in full side-on view (due to its 90 degree gliding action) ensuring a high percentage hook-up to strike ratio.
Buoyancy – This is the second-most important attribute a glide bait has over other conventional lures and it excels for flathead. Their ability to suspend perfectly when paused plays seamlessly into the flathead’s ‘ram feeding’ behaviour and ensuring a slight pause at the end of each glide or retrieve sequence will increase the bait’s effectiveness. One thing I have found with most quality glides is that they are designed for use in freshwater and – without getting too geeky – you must remember that salt water is more dense than freshwater so a sinking lure will be more buoyant and therefore sink slower in salt water. (It also depends where you’re fishing – in an estuary the density will sit somewhere in between.) I’ve actually found this to be more of an advantage as being able to fish the bait slightly higher draws fish up, encouraging more commitment and the slower sink rate helps naturally ‘hover’ the bait for longer when a fish is in pursuit.
Minor Mods – Here are a couple of tips I employ when using glide baits to make them more versatile and easier to see. I carry three strength classes in the same size treble hook. For example, if I’m using a glide bait that is matched with #2 trebles I ensure I carry spare 1x, 2x and 3x gauge replacement trebles for that bait. That way I can adjust the buoyancy or sink rate of a glide by simply changing the treble hooks on my bait (trust me, a gram makes a big difference on a precisely weighted 150mm glide bait). I also use hi-vis sticker markers on the top side of the bait (lure) so I can track its progress during the retrieve.
The Power Of Observation
The biggest tip I can offer any angler wanting to chase dusky flathead is to be observant. Flathead are best targeted on the glide bait method in water less than two metres deep, which in most estuaries is a depth where the bottom can be seen. I have had more encounters with big flathead in less than ankle-deep water (usually me spooking them, and them bolting past) than I’d like to remember whilst the lure is clipped to the rod and I’m wading back to the shore after a land-based session. If the water is deep enough to hold baitfish, then you can bet a flathead will be in proximity.
When prospecting new areas (generally first found on Google Maps or Google Earth) I will visit the location on a low tide and walk the flats looking for ‘lays’ left behind by burrowing flathead on the previous high tide. If you see ‘lays’ then you can be confident flathead frequent the area on the high tide and retreat to the drop-offs within proximity on the low tide.
Once on the water, whether I’m wading flats on foot or drifting across them in the boat, the main things I look for are the presence of patchy weed and/or a drop-off to deeper water or pockets of deeper, green water. Weed not only gives the flathead an added dimension of camouflage but it also contains smaller plankton and zoo plankton for baitfish to feed on. And those drop-off edges or little pockets of deeper water are perfect ambush areas for flathead to hunt cruising baitfish.
Also pay close attention to your bait during the retrieve (this is where hi-vis sticker markers work well), tracking its path and watching for any movement or shadows peripheral to the bait.
Going For Distance
When it comes to an outfit the market is wide open, but I always make my selection (rod, reel, line and leader) based on the lures I’m casting and not the fish I’m targeting. Remember, this isn’t a finesse application – you’re using big baits to target a large predatory fish that isn’t shy, and you want to land the fish comfortably as quickly as possible (to minimise lactic acid build-up) to ensure a successful release or quality fillets for the table. Another important thing to remember is distance is key. Flathead aren’t generally easily spooked, but if they sense the baitfish are skittish from your presence then they will become cautious.
Regardless of your outfit preference – baitcast or spin – a long rod helps with casting distance and something in the 7ft 6in to 7ft 9in range is perfect. Big glide baits are generally weighty (anything from 20g to 100g) so a finesse stick is not required; instead you’ll want a rod with a moderate action and medium power, so something in the 4-7kg or 5-8kg area. Flathead aren’t overly dirty fighters, but they do make short powerful bursts and headshake frequently so a rod with a soft tip helps absorb this aggression and keep those trebles secure. A reel with a good drag and high retrieve rate is paramount. The drag doesn’t have to be excessive, but it needs to be smooth. A high retrieve rate (i.e. centimetres per handle rotation) is important to work the glide bait effectively and maintain direct contact during the retrieve. Depending on your outfit preference, look for a 3500-4000 spin reel or a 200-sized baitcast reel with a retrieve rate of 85cm to 105cm.
Again, mainline and leader choice should be based on the bait weight and needs to be able to help ‘manage’ the technique and balance the outfit. I like the 20/20 approach (20lb braid to 20lb leader) but anything from 15lb to 30lb braid tied with an FG knot to a rod length of 16lb to 30lb leader (loop knot to the bait) will get it done. I generally use a mono leader to help maintain some buoyancy and keep the head of the glide bait tracking slightly upwards, as opposed to fluorocarbon, which can drag the bait downwards.
Remember, flathead have sharp teeth and operculum spines that can make short work of an under-gunned leader. Although the chances of a flathead’s pointy bits getting past the 6 to 8 inches of your bait are minimal, the last thing you want is to leave a quality glide bait lingering like a jewellery accessory in a big flathead’s mouth.
Seriously, as cliched as it sounds, what are you waiting for? Like several species caught up in the growing big bait whirlwind, autumn is the prime time for flathead. The water is still warm, daylight still extends into the evening, the big girls will start feeding up for the onset of winter and – from bank, kayak or boat – anyone can do it. So hit your local tackle store, check out the range of quality glide baits and chat to your local in-store flathead guru about fast-tracking your way to big flathead success.