by Justin Willmer •
If there was one species that has been designed with kayak anglers in mind, it would have to be the humble flathead. They are easily accessed by kayak anglers, inhabiting rivers, creeks, estuaries and bays, and they love to get up and feed in the shallows. They respond well to all types of lures and are easily handled in the kayak with a landing net and lip grips.
As a bonus, for those that like a feed of fish, they are also a favourite table fish for many. One of my favourite techniques for targeting flathead from the kayak is fishing soft plastics and in this article, I hope to pass on some of the tips that I have picked up over the last 20 years in the kayak seat.
Flathead are a year round option, with many anglers choosing to chase other species in winter, while I still record some of my best catch rates and make the most of the glassy winter days. The size may not be there when compared to the spring breeding period, however, if you go looking for flathead in winter you will find them. Although flathead are often caught in deeper water in southern parts of Australia, I have successfully used these shallow water soft plastic techniques from Townsville in North Queensland all the way down the coast to Coffin Bay in South Australia.
Where and When
The prime time to target flathead is around the last two hours of the run-out tide and first hour of the run-in. At this stage of the tide flathead are concentrated on the edges of channels, drop offs and sand bars. Here they lay in ambush, waiting for the bait to be forced off the flats and banks with the last of the falling tide.
There are a few options for the kayak angler when targeting these fish. Firstly, you can position the kayak a cast distance from the bank. Cast slightly ahead of the drift and almost onto the bank, and then hop the plastic down the drop off. Hits will often come within the first 5m of the retrieve and depending on the speed of the drift and steepness of the bank, you may wish to wind the second half of the retrieve in quickly and cast again.
In saying that, persistence in hopping the lure into deeper water can often lead to a mixed bag of other species, including mulloway, snapper and trevally.
A second successful technique is to position your kayak on the edge of the drop off, in a metre or so of water and cast up current, bringing your lure back with the current, so that it presents more naturally. You can fan your casts from the shallows to the deeper side of the drop off, effectively covering that first 5m where many of your strikes come when sitting a cast distance out and casting toward the bank. The downside of this technique is that you are drifting over the water that you are fishing and when the water is clear, you can spook a few fish. If you notice a few puffs of sand and flathead heading for deeper water, revert to the first technique.
Finally, if you are in a pedal kayak then you have the advantage of being able to slowly work your way into the current while using the second technique. This means that you are hopping the plastic back with the current, covering that key section of water, with the advantage of fishing water that you haven’t drifted over.
When the tide is higher, I have still had success chasing flathead and the key has been to get up on the flats, targeting areas that hold bait as the flathead that are here have moved up with the tide to hunt. Casting to the edge of the mangroves and retrieving with a few quick hops and winds, keeping the lure above the spiky and snaggy mangrove roots, before allowing the lure to sink to the bottom near the edge of these roots and then hopping it back will produce a range of species. Some big flathead patrol the edges of these mangrove roots in search of baitfish, crabs and prawns that stray too far from cover.
Other prime high tide structure includes the edges of rock bars, drains depressions on the flats, and the sandy sections that can be found dotting broken weed and rubble flats. The kayak holds advantages over other vessels as it allows you to traverse extremely shallow flats to reach drains and deeper sections of water, while also accessing the flats first and remaining on the flats longer than the boat anglers.
A few things to remember include, giving the area additional attention once a flathead is landed, as they commonly school. Something else to try is to mix up your retrieve until you find what the fish want, while still ensuring your lure is on or near the bottom. Finally, keep an ear and eye out for baitfish flicking in the shallows as this often signals that there is a predator in the area.
Anchoring and Walking
If the wind is blowing or the current I too strong to position your kayak, don’t be afraid to anchor your kayak along a fishy looking edge or near a sandy patch on the flats. I use an anchor running rig (anchor trolley), so that I can swing the anchor to the front of your kayak and fan casts in front of the kayak. This helps with hopping the lure back with the current and covering the area thoroughly.
If you land a fish, then give the area more of a work over before upping the anchor and moving a cast distance further along the bank. Dropping and retrieving the anchor can be a little tedious, however this systematic approach can produce plenty of fish in tough conditions. A drift chute is another option for slowing your drift in the wind.
Another option is to slide your kayak up on a good-looking bank on a dropping tide. Make sure you anchor it securely, and then can walk the bank flicking soft plastics. Again, it is important to cast up current and hop the plastic back with the current, with strikes often occurring right at your feet. I usually fan 4-5 casts, slowly casting further out from the bank without going beyond about 60° to the bank, or my lure gets swept down current and I l lose touch with it.
After I have covered an area, I usually take 10 steps and fan my casts again. This methodical approach will produce results and your kayak allows you to reach banks that aren’t pressured by shore-based anglers.
Rods of 6’6”-7’ in length and 2-4kg rated are a popular option, fitted with a 2500 size spin reel, loaded with 6-10lb braided line. Leaders vary from 6lb when the fish and plastics are smaller and the bite is tougher, through to 10-12lb when larger fish are more common and structure is likely to be a factor in the fight.
A landing net is a good idea, as flathead have raspy mouths that can wear through leaders and spikes on each side and the top of their head that should be avoided… you don’t want them in your lap in the kayak. Lip grips are handy for handling fish for photos.
Soft Plastic Selection
My go-to plastic is 3” paddle-tails rigged on a 3/0 jighead. Most realistic baitfish profiles with a lively paddle-tail action have proven themselves on flathead of all sizes.
When the bait is small or the bite finicky, I downsize to a smaller paddle tail in the 2.5” size range. This also produces a lot more bream by-catch than the larger plastic. Paddle-tails have proven deadly in both Queensland and NSW waters. I have found a jerkbait profile in the 3.75” size range comes into its own further south, especially when twitched across the top of weed beds.
Colour can also make a difference. Try fishing natural, lighter colours when the water is clear, and change to a darker colour that offers a better silhouette when the water is dirty. If neither of these colours are working, a switch to a fluro colour like chartreuse or pink may save the day.
Adding scent can make a difference when the bite is tough. It seems to create a more aggressive bite and encourages the fish to hold on a little longer, in turn giving you more time to set the hook.
A 3/0 jighead is popular for 3” plastics, and I usually downsize to a 2/0 or 1/0 as I decrease the size of my soft plastic. A 1/8-1/6oz is a good starting point for the shallow flats and mouths of drains, and you can step the weight up to 1/4oz for fishing the edges and 3/8 or even 1/2oz when fishing down the drop off into the channels.
Launch the yak
If you haven’t given lure fishing a go, flathead on soft plastics is a great place to start and once you catch a few, it all clicks and it becomes easier to locate them. If you’re a lure and flathead fishing tragic like me, I hope I have given you something to try next time you’re out on the water.
On those days when the wind is blowing or the tides aren’t great and you’re still keen for a fish, don’t forget the fish that has been designed for the kayak angler, the humble flathead.
See you on the water!