Fun on Fraser’s flats

Dusk and high tide is time to fish around the mangroves.

by Sean Thompson •

For the past decade the western side of Fraser has become increasingly well known for its sight fishing on the flats for tailing golden trevally. These fish can be sight cast to while feeding in the shallows in summer. Hervey Bay fishing gurus such as Scott Mitchell, and guides from Hervey Bay Fly and Sportfishing and Fraser Coast Sportfishing (amongst others) have opened anglers’ eyes up to this. However, fewer anglers realise the variety and quality of the flats fishing over winter, despite some excellent articles by QFM’s own Fraser Coast writer Phil James. Around 20 years ago I read the advice of Phil, and I’ve been putting that into practice ever since.

While it is possible to access Fraser’s flats by boat from Hervey Bay, many anglers are put off from fishing the western side due to the trip involved. Depending on where you are staying, places such as Wathumba Creek, Woralie Creek, Awinya Creek, Moon Point, Kingfisher Bay, Ungowa and the southern tip of the island around Hook Point can be a full day trip there and back, plus fishing time. It’s worth it though! As well as great fishing, you’ll see the incredible sights of the island’s changing landscapes, a vast array of wildlife (especially at night) and you’ll regularly have the place to yourself.

It’s actually only a 50-minute drive across the island in many parts. Provided there has been a bit of recent rain, the road has been graded and/or the overgrowth from the trees has been cut back by the rangers, the tracks can be quite an easy drive. Still, even if they aren’t in top condition it’s well worth the trip.

Species on offer

You’ll be amazed by the species on offer on bait and lures on the western flats of Fraser over winter. The most common species are summer whiting (to 39cm), bream and flathead, but for some reason the last few years have seen increasing diversity amongst our catches. This has included dart, grunter, trevally and even a couple of small spotty mackerel – and last year a 50cm snapper took a yabby in 3ft of water!

I’ve found that the more diverse species move into the shallows of the flats (out from the deeper ledge that runs along the island’s western side) after a south-easterly has blown for a couple of days. This does a few things. The discoloured water provides safety from overhead predators and also brings the baitfish in close to shore. The added wind chop also dislodges food sources from the sand/mud flats. Statistics from my fishing diary strongly support the case that after the southeast winds blow, the variety of fish on the flats increases significantly.

Best moons and times

One of the big advantages of using a fishing diary is the ability to spot patterns year after year and across seasons. Having kept statistics on our club catches over 20 years at Fraser – recording the catch along with moons, tides, water clarity, cloud cover, best baits and wind speed and direction – a pattern has developed. All it took was to plug these numbers into a spreadsheet and produce a pivot table with the results.

Without a doubt, the quality of the fish, particularly whiting and flathead, has been best for our social fishing club in the four days leading up to the full or new moons. Once you pass these moon phases, the quality in particular drops away. The number of fish declines gradually in the first couple of days after a new or full moon but drops away further after that until the next cycle starts.

Interestingly though, in terms of tide, both the rising and falling tide have been equally as successful for whiting, although the top or bottom hour or so of the tide is always very quiet with very little water movement. For flathead it’s a different story – by far the best tide is the falling tide, or the first two hours of the rising before the fish become too dispersed.

Bait fishing the flats

Bait collection

When it comes to bait, you’ll have the most success with fresh and live (for details on catching live bait from the beach or flats refer to my July QFM article on bait collection). The two best local baits for use on the western side of Fraser are beach worms and yabbies. While we have caught beach worms at some of these western locations, they’re not as common as they are on the eastern beaches so it’s best to bring some with you. We always use a mix of yabbies and beach worms when fishing the flats, as some days the fish prefer the worms (particularly whiting), while other days they will prefer yabbies. At other times both baits work equally well.

In terms of yabby collection, one point I mentioned in the July article was pumping yabbies in the vicinity of the mangroves in the small melon holes and potholes that hold water at low tide. This is a great place to return to on the high tide as the fish come in to feed over those flats around the mangroves. Big whiting will move right in here in the shallows, particularly around dusk.

When and where

You have two options when fishing the flats with bait. The first option is to arrive with your live beach worms and fish the falling tide (starting about an hour after the turn to miss the quiet top of the tide period). The second option is to arrive two hours before the low, pump some yabbies to supplement your worms or as a standalone bait, and fish the rising tide. One of our favoured plans is to arrive, pump yabbies, then have our packed lunch at the dead turn of the tide period then fish the rising tide in the late morning/afternoon.

Once you have your bait, depending on your location and tide you could have either a long or short walk to the creek mouth or edge of the water. If it’s near high tide and you are around either mangroves or the tree-lined water’s edge, you should start at these locations. Once the tide starts to drop it’s a big advantage to use a quality pair of polarised sunglasses to spot the melon holes and small channels, and fish those as the water retreats. I use to use cheap servo sunnies or even $50 models from tackle shops, but it wasn’t until I tried photochromic lenses from Spotters that I realised the huge difference that quality sunnies can make. Before I owned good sunglasses, cloud cover made it too dark to spot the melon holes. Photochromic lenses, however, adapt to different light conditions and allow me to spot these key fish zones even on a dark overcast day.

If it’s low tide when I arrive, my first target is usually an elevated sand spit by the water’s edge, or to polaroid the water and look for melon holes or channels in front of me. On your walk out over the flats at low tide, take a note of larger melon holes/channels that are dry but will fill on the rising tide. Sometimes it’s even worth taking a large stick to mark them, or take a portable GPS or use your phone’s GPS. Be aware that a portable GPS isn’t great if you’re wading some distance. It’s an added weight you can do without as you’ll be standing for long hours, already burdened with a good supply of water, tackle essentials and hopefully a few fish as well.

A hook-up on the flats!
Pup with a good flattie. Note the drain and weed beds in the background.
Pool noodles are great for carrying spare whiting rigs.
Sometimes surprises such as this snapper turn up!
The ripple effect on the edge of a sand spit.
A good size whiting from the flats.
A feisty trevally caught using the tackle described in this article.
Glassy conditions can still produce good fish with the right gear.

Another very good location, especially from around mid-tide, is be the ripply water found at the edge of a relatively high sand spit which is being covered with water. The water will make its way around the peak of the spit (where you should be fishing) and come in from two different directions, in front and to the side of it. This can create a ripple effect over the covered section of the spit, especially when there’s a little chop on the water. The fish will often sit and feed at the edge of this spit and it’s a great spot to target whiting right on the edge. These high sand spits are often the best spot to pick up grunter, bream, trevally and possibly even a snapper in the deeper water just off the edge, especially if the water is discoloured after a blow.

A great spot for flathead on bait is the edge of the sand/mud and weed banks or even spot casting using your polaroids to pockets of sand amongst the weed. Some parts of the island also have rocky outcrops close to shore and these too can be great places to target flatties when the tide is full. But by far my favourite place for targeting flatties are the entrance to creek mouths, or even small drains running off the flats. They are top spots on a falling tide because the flatties sit at the entrance or edges of them waiting for the baitfish to flee to the deeper water as the tide rises.

A tip if you do happen to hook a big flattie is to keep its head below water while you play it so as to avoid it shaking its head and cutting the line with its sharp gill rakers. If you don’t have a portable landing net, use a sideways sweeping action on the rod as you lead the fish towards the dry sand to limit the chance of the hook being pulled from its mouth. This will eventually allow you to slide the fish up sideways onto the dry sand.

Techniques

Depending on your target species, there are two main bait fishing techniques you can adopt. There is the cast, sit and wait technique which seems, from nearly 20 years of experience on the Fraser flats, to appeal more to bream. However, if you’re like me and your number one target is whiting, the cast and slow retrieve technique is best.

The Alvey 500 size (5”) reel range (e.g. 500BC) is perfect for a slow, even retrieve technique, and it has the huge advantage of not getting ruined by saltwater. When you’re using an Alvey and you land a fish in thigh deep water, you simply drop the butt of the rod, reel and all in the water while you remove your fish. No trying to juggle rod and reel under your arm while you extract a flapping fish. If you were unfortunate enough to drop a spinning reel in the water your session would either end early, or you’d end up paying a premium Fraser Island price for a new reel soon after.

Rigs and rods

A perfect whiting rig for the slow retrieve technique is an 80-90cm fluorocarbon trace, a no. 4 blood red Tru-Turn hook and, depending on wind, a no. 1 or 2 bean sinker. If you’re using an Alvey for bait fishing be sure to run the sinker between two swivels to help prevent line twist.

Above the hook I like to use three or four pieces of 1cm long red tubing (rather than one single piece) with a bead sitting on top of them. This acts as an attractant to the fish. If you’re using a worm, make sure you thread the worm up and over the eye of the hook onto the line.

Be sure to also make a few spare rigs and wrap them around a piece of pool noodle and place it inside a medium snap lock bag so the water doesn’t get to it. There’s nothing worse than your mates being on a hot bite and there you are making up a new rig!

In terms of rods, I like to use something around 10’6” to 11’4” for distance casting, and which is light enough to fish with all day. I also like a flexible tip for the fish to pick up the bait and pull the rod down gradually – and not a stiff, unforgiving tip which will create resistance to the fish and cause you to lose fish. I see this problem time and time again when I fish side by side with anglers using stiffer rods. I like to use either a 11’4” Snyder Glas Crusoe Island or Gary Howard 10’6” Happy Hooker rod in fibreglass, or a 11’ Lox graphite surf rod.

Tricks and pitfalls

One trick I have learned from my previous experiences in the early 2000s fishing the flats of Narooma and Tuross in NSW is what I call the ‘wading shuffle’. We often fish in waders out on the western flats in winter, and the thick soles on the waders are very effective in creating a cloud of sand/mud by dragging your foot in the sand. I like to do this particularly as the tide is rising and I then fish back into that cloud as I slowly retreat with the rising tide. It has a similar effect but on a much smaller scale to the wind stirring up the water, attracting fish to investigate the disturbance.

A less desirable disturbance to the water is what I call the ‘claim jumper effect’. This is when your mates spot you catch fish after fish, so they decide to hastily wade over to where you’re fishing! This generally involves loud splashing and a direct path straight across the melon holes you planned to cast to on retreat with the tide. Claim jumping generally shuts the fishing down for at least 10-15 minutes as the fish retreat elsewhere. All I can suggest is that you call out to your mates to wade over quietly and come from behind where you are fishing. If they respond with “no thankyou” (my mates use less polite words to that effect) I suggest you move yourself, but in a much more quiet, subtle fashion to the next spot and hope they don’t follow!

Lure fishing the flats

Lure fishing the flats can involve throwing poppers or walk-the-dog style lures for whiting, or small minnows or soft plastics for flathead, trevally, bream, grunter and even whiting. Much has been written recently about the throwing surface lures for whiting phenomenon and it’s worthy of an article of its own, so I’ll save that for another time. My focus here is on chasing flathead using soft plastics and small minnows on the flats.

Rods, reels and tackle

In terms of rod and reel, the lighter the better when you are walking and casting for a few hours. A 1000 size reel and 8-9’ high modulus graphite rod is light and perfect for this situation. The extra length (compared to 7’ boat rods) comes in handy particularly on days where there is a bit of wind. On those days a 7’ rod is just too short for making longer casts on the expansive shallow Fraser flats.

Why graphite? Although fibreglass rods will catch fish with soft plastics, they don’t deliver the same sort of sensitivity and therefore action to the lure. This is especially important when you’re using braided line, enabling you to feel every bump on the lure. If you feel a tap on your line transfer up the rod, strike! That tap is usually the fish closing its mouth on the lure.

On sunny winters days on Fraser’s flats the water can be very clear so it’s important to keep your terminal tackle down to a minimum. I find that a reel spooled with 4lb fluoro braid and 8lb FC Rock fluorocarbon trace with an 1/8-1/4oz jighead (depending on the wind strength) is more than enough. The coloured fluoro braid lets you follow your line every cast, knowing not only when it hits the bottom (see lure action below) but also to spot gentle hits often only transmitted as twitches in the line as it is sinking, particularly in deeper water.

Furthermore, at the business end you should use a clear fluorocarbon leader of about 2.5m in length. The refractive (light bending) qualities of fluorocarbon line make it extremely difficult to spot underwater, especially when it has a really thin diameter.

The lure action

When working your lure you need to make sure it’s always on or near the bottom. Flathead like to bury themselves in the bottom, waiting to ambush any unsuspecting prey that comes within range.

After you cast out, wait for the line to hit bottom and you will notice a big bow form in the line as the jighead digs into the bottom. You should then pause. Take up the bow in the line by winding your reel, then impart two or three gentle hops before letting your lure settle back down to the bottom and waiting for the bow in the line to form. Again pause, take up the slack, then hop, hop hop. Make sure you use your wrist to impart this lift and hop action, not your shoulder or whole arm, or you will end up very sore at the end of the day.

The strike is very important when using a soft plastic. When you strike you need to lift the rod straight up. The aim of the strike is to hook the fish in the top jaw. Strike, then keep the rod up and stay tight to the lure. Do not lift the rod up then loosely drop or it will pull the lure out of the fish’s mouth like a spring.

When fighting the fish make sure you keep a nice bend in the rod to ensure the line is tight. You don’t want the fish to get any loose line or slack, which might allow it to shake the lure free. Finally, check your leader for any scuffs after EVERY fish and replace it when necessary.

Lures and other add-ons

Throwing small minnows (such as the legendary Lively Lures shallow diving Mini-Micro Mullet) and soft plastics can largely involve fishing similar territory with similar gear. These places are outlined above in catching flathead on bait.

The technique for fishing hardbody minnow lures is pretty simple. Once the lure has landed, pull down quickly on the rod to get the lure working the bottom straight away. It’s then a case of a gentle wind with some downward twitches thrown in to imitate a wounded baitfish. Make sure you wind all the way back to your feet; I’ve had fish hit lures in slightly discoloured water less than 2m in front of me just when I was about to quickly wind in to cast again. I love Lively Lures Mini-Micro Mullets in pink and grey ghost on the flats.

When it comes to soft plastics, your choices are endless. There are all manner of plastics to use, but Gulp 3” Minnows have a habit of catching a lot more by-catch (such as bream, whiting, grunter and trevally) than the tail type lures and some of the other fish shape lures. Zmans in fluoro colours also work well on the flats and have the advantage that they are much tougher and more flexible lures.

In fact, with all the new lures on the market you might be surprised to hear the old Mister Twister double tail lure (probably the original plastic) still works on Fraser’s flats. These lures are still available online and I’ve caught fish on many of the colours in their range. I like to experiment on the flats and yep, those fluttering double tails still appeal to 21st century flathead! The only thing I change is adding some scents.

When choosing a lure colour the rule is clear water = clear lure, dirty water = dark lure. Dark lures create a silhouette in dark water so they’re effective in dirty water and at night, provided there is a bit of moonlight.

Tackle accessories

Out on the flats it’s important to be well organised and keep your gear accessible but to a minimum. The Alvey Premium Wading Bag is handy for carrying your fish measure, long-nose pliers, spare rigs and a small tackle box of hooks and sinkers. And of course your fish go in the main compartment, which also has drain holes.

If you are throwing lures, Lox have a brilliant shoulder bag that has a few compartments for a small wallet to fit your lures, tackle box for jig heads, braid scissors, spare fluorocarbon trace and a scent for the lures (and to mask smells on your hands such as sunscreen). The Lox shoulder bag can easily swivel around your body to give you easy access from the front when you need it, but swivelled around to your back to have it out of the way when you are done.

Jroc Tackle also make a fantastic 3-in-1 lip grip (with electronic scales and measure) which is a great device for taking some quick pics holding a big flathead before releasing it. It’s relatively light too.

I also like to have a rod bucket around my waist when bait fishing, and on the belt I carry my knife, Alvey Dry Pack (for my phone/camera inside another waterproof bag) and small Alvey Bait Bucket with air holes in the top to help keep the bait alive. Also don’t forget to carry a wet rag to handle the fish with. And of course you should make sure you wear light sun protection clothing, including a long-sleeve shirt and hat, and don’t forget some water!

Finally, wading the flats often means you’re a long way from an icebox. You can fit a light supermarket chill bag inside your shoulder bag with a small bit of ice to keep your catch cool. At the very least, keep your wading bag wet so that any catch stays as cool as possible. Either way, it’s wise to bring some ice over in an esky and leave it in the 4WD to take your catch home in. Be sure to add some saltwater to make it an ice slurry to keep your fish chilled and firm ready for filleting by the time you get back to your base on the eastern beach.

And one last thing – don’t forget the midgie spray! They can be bad, especially at night.

For more tips and up-to-date reports, and some fantastic fishing gear giveaways, look up Ontour Fishing Australia on Facebook.

Until next time, bag your mates, not your limit!

If you’re going to Fraser from August to September this year, be sure to take part in the Fraser Island Annual Tailor weigh-in at Fraser Retreat (see their Facebook page). Entry consists of a $5 donation per fish and there are some awesome prizes on offer. The money raised goes towards the Careflight helicopter service.