The ‘Humble’ Flathead – Is the dusky flathead copping a raw deal?

Soft plastic caught dusky flathead.
Dusky flathead of all sizes are suckers for a well presented soft plastic. Image: Pat Williams

Alright, its pond scum complexion might not garner any bonus points in the looks department. And sure, its garbage guts habit of wallowing in the mud and mire in hope of scoring a low-effort feed probably doesn’t help to cover Team Flathead in glory either…

But is it really necessary for us to sink the boot in, to officially tag the poor old flattie after his unfortunate stepped-on mug?

Maybe duskies have been shackled with the ‘humble’ epithet for too long. Perhaps it’s time to cast off the yoke of suppression. To celebrate these majestic, if vertically challenged, mud dwellers. Flat lives matter!

In estuaries engorged with gorgeous demersals flaunting gossamer fins and fine-boned craniums, projecting unrealistic body expectations, the flathead is a stoic battler. Surely an underdog we can all get behind? It must be high time for the good old flattie to hold its broad, if somewhat misshapen, head high!

Look, you wouldn’t enter one in a beauty contest… but if you’re doing so with any fish you’ve got some hard questions to ask yourself. Hooked up on the end of a line or sizzling on a campfire hotplate, either way it’s a firm yes from us.

Viva la flattie!

 

WHERE TO FIND ‘EM

Lizards, crocs, frogs… however you know them, dusky flathead are distributed virtually right up and down the eastern seaboard, as well as splattered across a few outposts further north and west.

Not to be confused with their sandy, blue spotted, marbled, spiny or tiger-like brethren, duskies are sworn river lords. Mid to upper echelon contenders in estuarine ecosystems, duskies know their place in any given food chain.

By design, they’re well equipped for ambush hunting. They’re opportunistic feeders that lie in wait anywhere from the surf zones fronting tidal lagoons and river mouths, through to brackish tributaries way upstream of primary tidal water bodies.

The key to tracking flatties effectively is to get to know the extremely predictable factors that drive their feeding cycles. As a demersal species, their metabolic rate is influenced dramatically by changes in the climate.

Through the cold winter months their metabolism plummets. They’ll generally lose a fair bit of thickness and condition through winter as they’ve barely got the energy to hunt and ambush moving prey.

As soon as spring and summer roll around, the script gets flipped. Flathead will start to feed opportunistically and will position themselves along sand banks and the edges of weed patches in order to gorge on baitfish and prawns swept past in the tide.

Flatties will seek out the warmest water in a system, so will generally feed most actively later in the afternoon in shallow water that’s been warmed by the sun all day. Focus on the edges of mudflats, sand banks and weed beds in shallow water on a dropping tide and the action won’t be far away.

Good sized flathead taken at low tide.
This solid dusky nailed a pink wriggler tail plastic on the bottom of the tide. Image: Pat Williams

HOW TO HOOK ‘EM

Live bait or soft plastics. You can certainly catch a good amount of flatties on various dead baits, hard-bodied minnows, vibes and other setups, but the most effective methods of landing a haul of duskies, by far, is to either deploy a livie or bounce a soft plastic lure across the bottom.

If you want to use livebait, poddy mullet are the go. Again, other baits work, but poddies work better. They’re finicky little things to catch, so it’s worth allocating a good half hour at the beginning of your sesh to securing a good stash of mullet.

You can burley them up with bread and try to catch them using a tiny Sneck pattern hook with a little bit of bread squeezed onto the hook point. This method can be effective on larger mullet over about 15cm, but for the smaller poddies, a clear plastic trap baited with a few chunks of bread and suspended in ankle deep water is best.

Keep your livies in a 20L bucket and use an aerator to oxygenate the water. Pin your poddies lightly through the back using a single fine gauge octopus or circle pattern hook with a small sinker to keep them in the strike zone.

Soft plastics work at least as well as livies, and you don’t need to muck around catching them and keeping them kicking. Three to four inch shad, wriggler and paddle style tails work best in all sorts of colours.

You want to rig your plastic on a fine gauge jighead with a hook around 1/0 size and the lightest head you can manage casting. I used to use 1/4 ounce jigheads, but have started catching a lot more fish after dropping down to 1/8 and more recently 1/16 ounce heads.

The lighter jigheads impart a much better action on the lure and seem to account for a better strike rate, particularly on the drop. You’re generally fishing in only a metre or so of water so can get away with really lightweight lures.

Dusky flathead from local estuary.
A pair of estuary flathead taken just before dusk. Image: Pat Williams

HOW TO COOK ‘EM

A lot of the flatties I catch are released to fight another day. Anything below about 45cm goes back as there’s hardly enough meat on them to bother with. Any flathead much over 60cm has a get out of jail free card too, as these big fish are all female breeding stock and killing one of them means wiping out potentially thousands more little flatties that’ll populate the waterway.

Any flathead between 45-60cm might as well have a big red X painted on its dome. It’s most likely getting swiftly dispatched and taken home to be filleted, skinned, showered in egg wash and panko breadcrumbs before a hot date with the frypan.

Fresh skinned and crumbed flattie fillets lightly seared in rice bran oil and butter on an ultra hot pan, seasoned with a squeeze of lemon and a little salt and pepper is about as good as it gets, I reckon. You’ll even forget about their rude heads.