FLYING FLATHEAD

With the growing interest these days in fly fishing — especially in saltwater — I thought I’d have a close look at one of the more readily available estuarine and inshore species, and one that represents an ideal starting point for a bit of “swoffing”. That fish is the humble flathead. But first, a few thoughts on fly-fishing in general:

Flathead are a perfect target for fly fishing and don't require fancy, specialised gear.

Flathead are a perfect target for fly fishing and don’t require fancy, specialised gear.

WHAT IS FLY FISHING?

Fly-fishing has a reputation for being a mysterious and difficult art, mostly practiced by crusty, pipe-smoking old toffs in tweed jackets resplendent with leather elbow patches… But the times have indeed changed! These days, fly-fishing has largely been de-mystified, and it’s also no longer solely about catching trout… nor even fishing only in freshwater.

The biggest trick to breaking down any remaining misconceptions surrounding fly fishing is to accept that it’s really no more than a specialised form of lure fishing, in which the “lure” is too light or too wind resistant to be cast any serious distance using conventional spinning or baitcaster tackle… Simple as that!

Flathead don't have to be big to be fun.

Flathead don’t have to be big to be fun.

Flies are just artificial baits, exactly like any other lure. However, being made from fur, fibres, tinsel and feathers lashed to a hook with thread, they’re virtually weightless. This presents a challenge from the casting perspective. Through the centuries, that challenge has been overcome by incorporating the necessary casting weight into the line instead of the lure. So, a fly line is effectively no more or less than a long, skinny sinker or float! Its weight or mass is used to deliver that lightweight lure to a fish.

The best way to throw such a long, skinny casting weight is to swish it back and forth through the air in order to form a travelling loop that can be extended and then unfurled onto the water, presenting the fly at the end of a thinner, less obvious leader that’s attached to the thick, highly visible fly line. Often (but not always) this leader is tapered, or incorporates a couple of step-down in thickness to smoothly transfer the wave motion generated during the casting process, thus allowing it to unfold and straighten out rather than collapsing in a heap.

"Got 'im on!" Jo sets the hook in another fly-eating flathead.

“Got ‘im on!” Jo sets the hook in another flathead.

Get it into your head that this is the real crux of fly-fishing… not the generations of tradition, nor the reams of literature surrounding this branch of the sport. While this description may offend some “purists”, fly fishing is no more or less than lure fishing with ultra-light lures that would effectively be impossible to cast any other way.

 

MULLET TO MARLIN

While fly-fishing originally developed in the Old World to catch trout and salmon, it’s equally applicable to any other fish — in fresh or salt water — that will eat a lure. I’ve literally targeted everything from mullet to marlin on fly!

The gear needed to cast flies is obviously a little different to standard lure casting tackle. Fly rods are generally quite long (2.5 to 3.5 m and even more) and have a slow, progressive taper. And that fat fly line, along with some backing (in case you hook a whopper), is best stored on a simple, direct-drive centrepin reel with either a basic drag or at least a clicker to stop it spinning too freely and spewing out line.

A #6 yo #9 weight outfit with a floating or intermediate line is fine for shallow water.

A #6 to #9 weight outfit with a floating or intermediate line is fine for shallower water.

Fly lines come in varying weights (designated from #0 to #20-weight) and fly rods are made to match those weights, just as our spin rods are best suited to casting a specific range of lure or sinker weights. Heavier fly lines are intended for casting large, bulky flies, especially on windy days. But the majority of fishing you’re likely to do (in fresh or salt water) will be easily covered by outfits in the #4-weight to #9-weight range. For the flathead that we’re looking at here, outfits as light as #6 will work, while a #7, #8 or #9-weight rod is ideal.

As well as coming in different all-up weights, fly lines also have differing densities so that they either float on the surface, or sink through the water column at varying rates. An “intermediate” line (which sinks quite slowly) is a great all-rounder for anything other than dry fly fishing for trout, and perfect for chasing flathead in water shallower than about three metres. With a #7 or #8-weight outfit carrying an intermediate line you could happily target bass, redfin, carp, bream, whiting, trevally, mullet, luderick, tailor, Australian salmon, garfish, pike and a whole bunch of other readily-available targets… including flathead.

So, if you’ve been put off having a crack at fly-fishing because of all the hype surrounding it, think again! It’s no more than another way of skinning the same old cat… and it’s also great fun! In my opinion, one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable is that it’s extremely tactile. Because the line is held in your hand and “stripped”, or pulled to impart action to the fly, strikes and hookups are felt in a way that’s best equated to handline fishing. It’s all very “hands on”! There’s also a lot of pleasure in beginning to master the unique process involved in casting a fly line… and I say “beginning to master” advisedly, because I don’t think most of us ever fully master it. But it sure can be a rewarding experience to improve your performance in this regard.

We might all aspire to catch a "crocodile" like this 90 cm beast on fly, but don't expect it to happen the first time you try!

We might all aspire to catch a “crocodile” like this 90 cm beast on fly, but don’t expect it to happen the first time you try! Starlo put in a lot of groundwork and research to crack his “PB” on fly.

WHY FLATHEAD?

You’ve got to love the humble, abundant and almost always willing flathead clan. There are more than 30 different species of these ugly-but-tasty bottom dwellers living in our salt and brackish waters, and at least a couple of varieties are available almost anywhere you might care to cast a line, right around Australia’s vast seaboard. Up north and over in the West you’ll mostly catch bar-tails. Along the east coast we have sandies and tigers offshore, along with the jumbo member of the clan — the dusky — lurking in our estuaries. Down south there are blue spots and rock flathead, plus even more sandies and tigers. In short, wherever you go, there’s no shortage of flatties! And they’ll all eat a fly if you can get one in front of them.

Flathead of one type or another are found right around Australia.

Flathead of one type or another are found right around Australia.

Most of the time, flathead are not a particularly difficult fish to catch. They’re opportunistic predators and occasional scavengers, spending much of their time lying motionless and well camouflaged on the sea floor or riverbed. However, if something that’s seemingly edible happens to swim, crawl or drift by, these reptilian fish are incredibly quick over a distance of a metre or two. They also have an over-sized mouth lined with small, sharp teeth: a mouth designed for one-way traffic.

Flathead fight surprisingly well on fly gear and often carve up on the surface in shallow water,

Flathead fight surprisingly well on fly gear and often carve up on the surface in shallow water,

Favourite tucker for flathead includes all sorts of little (and not so little!) fish, as well as prawns, crabs, octopus, squid, yabbies or nippers and various marine worms. But they’ll eat bits of dead animals, too, as bait fishers will attest.

The biggest trick to catching flathead is to remember that they’re almost always more likely to grab something that’s moving. These fish really do seem to be attracted and excited by motion and action. This makes them suckers for lures… and flies!

It’s no accident that a flathead is often the first saltwater species racked up by any newcomer to lure or fly-fishing. The only real trick to success lies in ensuring that your artificial bait stays within a metre of the bottom at all times. Closer to the bottom is even better, and making occasional contact with the sand or mud is best of all.

Jo with an average shallow water dusky flathead on fly.

Jo with an average shallow water dusky flathead on fly.

Perhaps the deadliest method yet devised for catching flathead on rod and reel is to throw out a 7 to 12 cm long soft plastic (a shad, T-tail or curly-tailed grub will do the job) rigged on a 7 to 14 gram (1/4 to ½ ounce) jig head, carrying a 1/0 to 4/0 hook. Let this lure sink all the way to the bottom, then give it a reasonably sharp flick or two, retrieve the slack line generated and repeat… all the way back to the rod tip. Keep doing this — making sure the lure regularly falls back to the seabed — and you WILL catch flathead, I assure you… It’s honestly as simple as that!

What we need to do with our fly gear and flies is to emulate that killer soft plastic strategy by placing a fly of a similar size or shape in that same strike zone and move it in a similar manner.

Exactly how best to do this varies depending on water depth and current strength. In water shallower than about 1.5 metres (where a lot of flathead spend a lot of their time), you don’t even need sinking lines or heavily-weighted flies to achieve the desired result. A floating or intermediate line, a leader around three metres or so in length and a fly that sinks at rest (even fairly slowly) will get the job done. Make the cast, wait a few seconds for the fly to sink, strip line five or six times, pause to let the fly sink again… and repeat!

Flathead are masters of camouflage.

Flathead are masters of camouflage.

As the water gets deeper or the current strength increases, we need to consider moving to sinking lines, shorter leaders and weighted flies. In my opinion, the efficiency of fly gear in this role diminishes rapidly as we move beyond depths of three or four metres and current speeds above a slow walking pace. In deep, fast water, I’d rather revert back to that jig head and soft plastic. But up in the skinny stuff, fly gear is right in its element and can be at least as effective as conventional lure fishing tackle!

There’s really not a lot else I can tell you in a basic, how-to piece about targeting flathead on fly (and I’ve summarized what we’ve covered so far in point form below). Certainly, there are nuances we can move onto down the track, but for now I simply want you to consider the possibilities of having a crack at catching a flathead on a fly. It’s really not that hard, but it is enormously satisfying. Are you up for it?

 

THE BASICS OF FLATHEAD ON FLY

ROD: #6 – #9 fly rod, ideally around 9’ (2.75 m) long.

REEL: Fly reel with simple drag or clicker, ideally corrosion resistant.

BACKING: At least 50 m of 10 to 15 kg braid (GSP).

LINE: A WF (weight-forward) intermediate (slow sinking) fly line to match rod (a floating line is okay in the shallows).

LEADER: 2 – 4 m, consisting of a 15 kg butt, 4 – 8 kg main section and short (25 cm) “bite tippet” of 15 kg nylon or fluorocarbon.

FLIES: Clousers, Bendbacks, Deceivers, Whistlers, Game Changers and a host of other streamers and baitfish or crustacean imitations, ideally tied on No. 2 to 1/0 hooks.

All manner of baitfish and crustacean-imitating flies will work on flatties.

All manner of baitfish and crustacean-imitating flies will work on flatties.

METHOD: Identify likely areas for flathead to be lying in ambush in water shallower than 3 m. Cast, allow the fly to sink and begin stripping. Pause regularly to allow fly to sink again. Vary the length and speed of your strips and the duration of your pauses.

Catching flathead on fly is satisfying and not too difficult.

Catching flathead on fly is satisfying and not too difficult.

Articulated flies like this Game Changer from Ammo Flies have a fantastic action, but you don't need anything quite as sophisticated as this.

Articulated flies like this Game Changer from Ammo Flies have a fantastic action, but you don’t need anything quite as sophisticated as this.

The distinctive tail markings of the dusky flathead.

The distinctive tail markings of the dusky flathead.

We'd all love to catch a flattie a third as long as our fly rod! Keep working at it and you're in with a chance!

We’d all love to catch a flattie a third as long as our fly rod! Keep working at it and you’re in with a chance!