How To Catch Flathead From Piers, Beaches & Estuaries

The Australian Flathead. Affectionately known by  Aussie fisho’s as “lizards.” They’re not hard to catch. They’re abundant and they are a load of fun too!

Not everything you read about catching this popular species online is always completely correct. Hard and fast rules aren’t nearly as rigid as some folks will have you think.

Some people will tell you to keep moving after a few casts.  Others will tell you only a running sinker works.  Others will assure you only the running out tide is the best time.

I’ve caught flathead at high tide, low tide and even slack tide.  I’ve used bright shiny lures.  Whitebait, Bluebait, Pilchards, Prawns, Pippies and squid.  I’ve used soft plastics.  I’ve used running sinkers, paternosters and even floats.

Before we get into the details on catching this popular and tasty fish – a quick word on conservation.  Please obey the local size and/or bag limits of the state you are fishing in.  They are there to help make sure the species continues to be there for the future.

Some fisho’s state that you should not take specimens over 70cm.  The intention is a good one.  The theory is these are the females that will spawn.  The science, however, doesn’t back this up.  Midsized females between 50 to 60cm reproduce.  Females over 70cm are past reproduction – kind of like menopause.

Patience Is A Virtue In Fishing

In fishing, I pretty much adhere to the principle that patience is a virtue.  If after a few casts you’re not getting bites you’ve got to ask yourself.  Am I using the right bait or lure?  Is my tackle right?  Should it be on the seabed and running?  Paternoster style?  Floating?    Bait kind?  Am I using Berley (chum) or just hoping a fish will swim by at the right moment?

Suffice to say, hard and fast rules are limits we place on ourselves, not the fish. Experimentation is key.  I’ve caught flathead in a boat with a bare hook.  Causing some of my friends to dub them “Kamikaze Fish.”

The flathead is a carnivore.  So they hunt by sight, vibration and smell.  So experience shows the more you can appeal to each of these senses the better your chances of catching fish.  This is why I use a variety of baits, lures, rigs, berley and attractants.

Understanding Flathead Behaviour

The Flathead is an ambush predator.  They do tend to lay buried in the sand, just their eyes showing, waiting for food.  Logically the outgoing tide is a great time for them to feed this way.

However, this doesn’t mean they do not cruise for food.  Because they certainly do.  So while many flatheads are going to be caught on the bottom it’s not uncommon to catch them midwater.

Indeed you can often see flathead rising to the surface, during calm conditions, kissing the surface and ripples moving outward.

Polarised sunglasses are a great way to observe behaviour.  Particularly in clear conditions.  Polarised sunnies allow you to see into the water as they reduce light refraction.  In some conditions, you’ll see the flathead.

In other conditions, you can see the impressions where they’ve been.  Literally, flathead shapes in the sand.

You’ll also get a better sense of the environment.  Scanning the water surface and identifying gutters, sandbars and in some instances reefs.

I can’t overstate the value of a decent pair of sunglasses, with a polarised treatment, as part of your tackle kit.  They protect your eyes from UV glare and reduce eye fatigue.  They also offer this excellent ability to peer into the water mentioned above.

Naturally, if the conditions are turbid and choppy this visibility is not going to be apparent.  But in good light conditions, they are indispensable.  Allowing you to almost get right into the fish’s environment.

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Berley & Attractants

In my experience, fishing not using berley (aka “chum”), is like going to a party and hiding behind the bushes the whole evening.  You might get the odd glance. But your chances of hooking up aren’t high.

Berley is a broadcast.  It’s a way to call fish to where you are.  It appeals to the smell and taste senses of fish. In clear conditions, I have been able to see flathead move in and take up position near my berley pot.

The berley is just as attractive to small bait fish.  So this makes perfect sense for the flathead.  Free food.

What it means to you is you’re bringing the fish to you.

I nearly always use berley.  Whether it be a pier, a beach, an estuary or even a boat.   Whether I’m spinning hardbody lures, soft plastics or bait fishing.

I don’t understand why so many people fishing are so resistant to it.   Certainly, you’ll hear anecdotal evidence of “…I’ve used berley and nothing happened.”  But fishing isn’t black and white.  There’s a lot of factors going on.  Tides, sun, rain, wind, pollution and food availability.

Use it consistently and over time you’ll see the difference it makes to your fishing.

Berley Consistently Works

The difference between catching fish and not catching any at all I often put down to not using berley.  Fisho’s who use berley – just enough mind, not a smorgasbord – know it can be the deciding difference.

As to what to use as berley.  There are several commercial berley products available from local tackle shops.  These include the kind that looks like chicken feed pellets.  These are often impregnated with tuna oil, aniseed and other “flavours” known to attract fish.

You can also make your own.  Leftover bait from the last fishing trip is a great source  A meal you had where you had left over prawn, crab or lobster shells.  Shells from a shellfish meal such as mussels etc.

Basically, you grind the leftovers up.  I use an old-fashioned metal grinder.  You can use a hammer on the harder shells like crab, lobster and shellfish.  I then mix it with regular “layers pellets” made for chickens then add tuna oil and aniseed myself.

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Using Attractants And Scents

Again, this is something I always use.  Appealing to the sense of taste and smell.  A good attractant, however, will encourage the fish to swallow the bait, rather than pick at it.

The fact that attractants have now become staples used in fishing tournaments attests to their value.

There’s a lot of them on the market.  Some, I think it’s fair to say, are questionable.  Others are absolutely outstanding.

Whenever possible I like to choose tools that appeal to a wide variety of species.  So while this article is about flatties, a good all-round attractant/scent is always preferable.  This is why I use and recommend wholeheartedly Squidgy S Factor Scent.

I use it on hard body lures, soft plastics, frozen and freeze-dried baits.  While you can overuse these products I find smearing some between your index finger and thumb, then rubbing that liberally on the bait or lure is all that’s needed.

It lasts several casts, too.  If there’s fish in the area you’ll be amazed at how fast they start smashing your line.

When I first started using soft plastic lures, like Gulp, I was surprised the results I was getting didn’t match those reported overseas.  Adding S-Factor scent made the difference.  As it was designed in Australia I do wonder if it was the missing ingredient needed to get the mouths watering of Aussie fish.

Note, this isn’t a substitute for berley, discussed earlier.  Rather it’s a tool to use in conjunction with berley.  Get the fish into your zone with the berley.  Then the S-Factor to get them to choose your bait or lure.

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When I first purchased a tube of this scent I admit I was cynical.  Decades using fishing tackle have made me wary of manufacturers claims. I was wrong.  It really does work.  Incredibly well. The manufacturer states it causes a "feeding frenzy."  I have experienced this first hand.  The only…
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Flathead Baits & Lures

While most fishing is still done with traditional natural baits the use of artificial lures and lifelike soft plastics has increased in the last decade.

Hardbodied lures have been around for centuries, in various forms.  Soft plastic lures, however, are a relatively recent innovation.

Some soft plastics are made of biodegradable materials.  Others, particularly some cheaper imports from China, are literally lumps of plastic.

While I find it a great deal of fun to use soft plastics their use concerns me in regards to the possible longer-term impact of plastics in our oceans.

Berkley Gulp lures are made of a combination of oils that break down in the water over time.  This affects their longevity as a lure, however, it reduces their impact in the oceans.  I’m inclined towards using Gulp soft plastic lures when using “soft plastics” simply because they are water-based resin and not PVC, to begin with.

We’ll take a closer look at soft plastic lures a little later on in this article because I am an avid user of the Berkley Gulp range. We will take a look at why they’re a safer, better alternative to cheap import “knock-offs for the fish and the environment.

But to start with let’s take a look at fresh and frozen “natural baits.”

Fresh & Frozen Bait For Flathead

The best bait is hands down, fresh bait.  Fresh usually means “live” or recently “live.”  The biggest issue with this is its use can be construed as cruel.  There’s no doubt, to my mind, live fish and crustaceans suffer live baited on a hook.

I’ve used live bait and admit I’m not a fan, despite their effectiveness in catching fish.  Indeed it’s the single most important reason, for me, that quality, lifelike, quality soft plastic lures are so appealing.

The good ones look like real water creatures.

Harvesting of live baits also concerns me.  That’s because it’s often done with little regard to the environmental impact the harvesting wreaks.  Please, respect the habitat when harvesting live.  Take no more than you need and replace overturned rocks etc.

Farmed frozen – and more recently freeze-dried – baits, however, are more environmentally friendly.  I say this with two caveats…

  1. Frozen bait can include diseases that survive the freezing process.  So this can be a vector for spreading a disease to local fish stocks.
  2. Frozen and freeze-dried baits are only sustainable if they are farmed – and not ripped out of the environment willy-nilly.

Freeze dried baits are safer, compared to frozen, because the process of freeze drying kills disease that may be present on the creatures being packaged up and sold.

Freeze-dried baits also contain more of the natural enzymes of the original organism than frozen bait alone.  This is because of how the freeze-drying process works.

Freeze dried foods are considered nutritious and can form part of a balanced diet for dogs, cats and even humans.

If you’re using natural baits I recommend freeze-dried over frozen (which is often stale in my experience) and if collecting bait do so responsibly reducing your environmental footprint as much as possible.

If you have no choice but to use frozen bait then keep in mind you’re going to have to keep it cool because it goes off really fast in the hot Australian sun.  Rotting, putrid bait isn’t going to catch you any flathead.

While flathead will eat a wide variety of fleshy foods, from shellfish to crustaceans to small fish one seems to stand alone. Prawns (aka shrimp.)  Prawns seem to consistently attract these fish.  More so than squid and pilchards in many instances.   At least in my experience.

Failing prawns I’ve found smaller baitfish like whitebait to be effective.

When it comes to berley, particularly if you’re fishing with frozen or freeze-dried baits, try and use something the same as your bait.  So if you’re using prawns – prawn shells or even some prawns in you berley is the way to go.  Same goes for the likes of whitebait.

Having said this.  Flatties are opportunists.  They will eat a wide variety of foods.  Even chicken breast!  Often the tastes of a fish species will vary according to where they’re found and what the locally available foods are.  So, as always, there are no 100% hard and fast rules.

Experiment!

As you might have guessed, if you’ve been reading the whole of this article so far, I recommend the use of attractants, even with natural baits.  It certainly seems to enhance them.

Using Soft Plastic Lures

I’m going to say it upfront.  I love fishing with so-called “soft plastic lures” but they’re not all made the same.

The vast majority are made from polyvinyl chloride – aka PVC.  Products like Berkley’s Gulp, on the other hand, are made from water-based resins.  So, for the most part, they’re biodegradable where PVC remains in the environment – as PVC.

So while I do use them I avoid the cheap bulk packs you see on eBay, AliExpress and Alibaba.  First off the vast majority of these hardly work – if at all.  They are literally just lumps of plastic.  Sticking lumo-beads and fluff isn’t improving much at all.

There’s a difference between quality soft plastic fishing lures – and the cheapies beyond the price tag.

The quality ones are indeed dearer, but they also consistently catch the flathead we’re aiming for.  They are based on research.  They are designed to perform in the water.  Some are biodegradable because they are made from water-based resins.  Others are combinations of PVC but are more durable and more effective.

If you’re going to use a lure, that’s not biodegradable, it makes sense to ensure it’s at least effective.  There’s something disgusting, in my opinion, to be casting lumps of cheap useless lures into the ocean and catching virtually nothing at all, snagging them, losing them – and starting all over again.

If we’re using PVC it’s got to actually catch fish and stay intact as much as it’s possible to do so.  Otherwise, we’re not only wasting our time but putting unnecessary, useless plastic into our oceans.

Just holding a quality soft plastic in your hand allows you to quickly see the difference.

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Spinning, Retrieving, Make It Look Alive!

When I see most people using soft plastics I see them cast, retrieve, cast retrieve.  Often over a fan-like area.  Incrementing the direction each time, starting at nine o’clock and finishing at the 3 o’clock mark.

Each cast they let it sink, pull up, let it sink, retrieve a little etc.

Occasionally I see them cast, retrieve fast, cast, retrieve fast.

While the first method is a good technique, the second is questionable because by the time a fish notices your lure – you and your lure are gone.

In both instances, however, I often see them move on after quickly using this method.  Indeed in recent times, I’ve seen people cover an entire 400m pier, both sides, in under 30 mins.  At which point they leave – empty-handed.

No berley.  No scent   No studying the water.  Barely any technique.  I doubt they even consider the species they are targetting.

You might get a bream to smash a lure this way, or a trout in freshwater.  But you’re not going to be catching a flathead too often.  So, yeah, when I’ve asked, imagine my surprise when they told me they had heard “…a lot of flatheads are caught off this pier…”  and that they were hoping to catch some.

Your Entire Focus Spinning: Make That Lure Look Alive!

It seems a lot of people watch videos online – a good thing – of fishing pro’s catching fish.  Due to editing the “pro’s video” appears to show the pro casting, quickly retrieving and catching a flathead.

This isn’t really how it goes down, of course.  Editing means the part that requires patience is removed from the video.  Understandably it’d be hard to watch a video where the real effort and time is put in.  It’d be “dead air.”

So, what some folks seem to do is copy what they see happening on the video, not fully grasping the editing – or even the contrived ‘action” where a flathead is placed on a hook in order to be “caught” for the camera.

For flathead, you’re generally going to need to slow down.  Jerks are more likely to pay off than madly spinning your reel.  Jerk, let it sink, jerk.  Retrieve a few feet.

Slow Down – Flathead React To Wounded Creatures

You’re trying to make your lure look like a real creature.  Predatory fish, like flathead, react to what appears to be a wounded creature, more consistently.

Wounded creatures are less effort to catch and consume.  In the water, as in the jungle or the outback, an effort takes precious energy. Conserving energy is a major survival factor.  The less expended the better.

So, like most predators, flathead are hardwired to react quickly to something that fits into their mouth, that isn’t too much effort to overpower.

This is why the technique used to retrieve is so important.  Healthy sea creatures are generally pretty fast.  Something that’s wounded tends to expend energy in short bursts.  Movement tends to be up and down over shorter distances.

That’s the combination that’s deadly when trying to get the interest of a predator, such as our flathead.

Use berley – and let that smell do its work.  That means let the berley bring the fish into the range of you and your lure.

Use a good Scent or attractant to make your lure taste better than a lump of plastic.  Because flathead will often gently chew a bait.  If they don’t like it they will spit it out.   They don’t always slam things.

In fact, it’s not always entirely apparent you have one on the line initially.  They’re don’t put up the biggest fight when reeling them in.  Often feeling more like lumps that jerk, when compared to other sportfish.

So we need to use this knowledge to our advantage – and make sure our lure is the best thing that’s come past them all day!

How To Use Soft Plastic Lures For Flathead In A Nutshell

  • Use berley and bring the fish to you.
  • Slap some attractant or scent onto the lure.
  • Cover a 180-degree area.  Start at 9, move across to 3 each cast.
  • Let your lure sink to the bottom, all the way.  Pause.
  • Lift your rod tip a bit.  Let it drop.  Repeat.
  • Retrieve your line a few feet.  Jerks are good.
  • Combine short retrieves and raising your rod tip.
  • Make sure you’re giving the flathead an opportunity to strike

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Soft Plastics & “The Bait & Wait” Technique

When I was younger, which according to my kids, was some time long before Noah and his ark – and a little after the Jurassic epoch – I only spun lures.  In those days they were all hard body and chrome flashes or red propeller spinners were “hi-tech.”

Failing that I’d use the “frozen bait, sit and wait” technique.  Sometimes called “dead sticking.”  It’s no consolation, but none the less true, that the quality of “frozen bait” hasn’t really improved over the years.

Indeed, it seems to have become less fresh.  I think it gets left in the freezer, for some reason, even longer than it once did.  I also don’t think it’s handled properly.

I suspect it’s often partially defrosted and refrozen at a lot of outlets.  Which results in a stale bait.

However – if you like this style of fishing.  The “bait and wait” approach, using modern soft plastics, berley and attractants, means it can be very productive and relaxing.

So this exactly what I do for a lazy fishing session:

  • I choose a lure, like the Berkley Sandworm or Shrimp (prawn).
  • I use a paternoster rig, sometimes with different lures on each hook.
  • I berley up the water.  Berley pellets, breadcrumbs, crushed prawn shells, tuna oil.
  • I apply liberal amounts of attractant onto the lures.
  • For flathead, I use a sinker to get the bait down.
  • I sit and wait.  Occasionally twitching one of my rods.

 

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Choosing An Ideal Rod & Reel For Flathead

There’ several things you need to consider here:

  • The conditions you’ll be fishing. Beach, Pier, Boat, Estuary.
  • What other species you might target to get value for money.
  • How long the rod is going to last you and how well it performs.
  • If the reel is going to last and not let you down, over-spool etc.

While I own many brands of rods, my first ever fishing rod being made of Rangoon cane, my favourites are the Shimano.  Shimano rods vary in price, from entry level to professional.  They are dearer than the cheap Chinese imports and a little dearer than the ones you’ll find in KMart etc.

However, even an entry level Shimano is going to give you better service, a more sensitive “feel” and performance.

The same can be said for Shimano reels.  Often their entry level reels include many of the features of their more expensive brothers and sisters in the range.

So while there are a great many good rods, a great all-around fishing rod, for starting out, is the Shimano Eclipse Combo, in my opinion.

The Eclipse combo is a well-balanced reel and rod combination.  It will serve you well on an estuary bank, a pier and even a boat (choose a shorter rod for boats usually) if you choose a shorter rod length.

For the estuary and pier around the 8 to 9-foot length is perfect.  For light beach and pier, 10 foot is ideal.

This Shimano series will get you started with quality gear, that is affordable.  It’s suitable for flathead, King George whiting, pinky snapper and even larger snapper if cared for.  It will also work well for bream and squid jigging while working work perfectly for inland freshwater species.

 

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As with all my articles we recommend you check out the Tackle Box resource page.  It’s a list I keep of the gear I use and feel I can confidently recommend to you.  The things I believe will help improve your fishing experience.


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