• Stephen Booth (first published January 2022)
I’m lucky that I get to hang around really good anglers most of the time and this gives me the opportunity to learn new ways of doing old things and that is exciting.
Last month I got a late call up to fish the Gold Coast Flathead Classic with gun flatty anglers Troy and Darren Dixon. To say I was keen to hit the local waters I’d fished for years with such talent was an understatement.
I know Dicko (Troy) does things vastly different from how I fish my local waters for flatties and that had me excited! His brother Darren also fishes similarly to Troy and seeing two good anglers go about their work, both fishing the same areas made it even better.
The fact we were fishing a competition meant little to me at the time, I was just pumped to be fishing with some really talented anglers knowing I would be doing things I’d never done before!
We’ve all fished shallow for flathead over the years. Angler guns, like David Green, have preached about big fish in less than a metre of water for years and the swim/glidebait and surface luring for mega-flathead has taken shallow to a new level, often as shallow as 0.5m. The difference with the tactics I’m going to discuss is that we were working on the elephants eat peanuts theory, where you are finesse fishing to 2-7kg fish with lightly weighted paddle-tailed plastics!
Over the course of the competition, we fished in water from 30cm out to a maximum of 1.6m and landed 85 flathead in the three days. We didn’t troll a single metre as it’s challenging to troll with a 200hp outboard and 21ft bass boat, and spent the entire competition casting various soft plastic lures into skinny water filled with weed and fish!
Looking back on the statistics from our three days, more than 90% of our fish came from less than a metre of water, with the three biggest fish (and another two beasts we dropped) all hooked in less than 70cm of water. That’s getting really skinny, in fact so skinny that we were locked in over the low tide on the final day and had no choice but to catch oversized fish in ultra-skinny water.
Pot Holing and Channel Bashing
As in the property market, this tactic is all about location, location, location.
There are kilometres of flats to fish in the Classic’s arena, and truth be told, there are probably flathead on all of them, however this tactic required a few simple pieces to come together.
On any given flat there will be areas where the weed clumps and is not simply a vast weedy flat or a featureless sand flat. This clumpy weed is the areas you are looking for as it provides a range of targets to cast at from the one boat position. By definition, the clumpy weed means there will be patchy sand and mud areas, and these cleaner areas provide the perfect casting target and the perfect ambush areas for big flathead.
The other advantage of clump weed is that it tends to create draining channels. Now these channels are not like the amazing snake drains you see in tropical barra creeks, they are simply slightly deeper (often as little as 10cm) sandy runs between the weed clumps. If the weed is particularly vibrant, and depending on wind and current, the weed can literally overhang the deeper channel creating a perfect undercut that any good trout angler would recognise as a hot spot!
In my mind I can see a flatty with its nose and eyes sitting out of the weed clump, or buried beside the weed edge just waiting for a baitfish or crustacean to come too close. By the time the bait realises the danger, it’s way too late. If you can make your lure be that unsuspecting bait, well it’s game on!
Lighten up Old Mate
The biggest lesson for me was the entire finesse approach. I’m more familiar fishing a jerkbait-style plastic on a 3/8oz (10g) jighead and whipping the rod hard. To see how Dicko and Darren shook and jiggled their lightly weighted paddle-tailed plastics was a real eye-opener. Sure we’d used paddle-tails plenty of times, but there is nothing quite like seeing it first hand to work out where you’re deficiencies are.
To achieve the results in amongst the weed that was often littered with snot weed, the boys fish very light jigheads. 7g was the heaviest we fished all comp, but the majority of the time we fished 5g and 3g jigheads on either 3.5” Zerek Flat Shads or 4” McArthy paddle tail plastics.
The beauty of the lighter jighead is that the plastic doesn’t plummet into the weed or the mud. It’s not really a slow fall either, but the lighter jighead certainly allows you to manage your lure around the weed with ultimate confidence.
A typical cast would see the angler targeting a sandy patch or a channel at full casting distance and really concentrating on where the lure was in relation to the weed. The lure is jiggled and coaxed toward the weed edge or along the channel, with the lure allowed to settle in prime positions. This is where the Zerek Flat Shad is brilliant as it sits tail up at rest because of the high floating TPE plastic it’s constructed from.
If there’s no action, the lure would be worked over the weed edge, jiggling and shaking the lure to keep it above the weed until the lure reached the next weed edge. The lure was then allowed to drift to the bottom again. This process was used for the entire retrieve, meaning a cast could last for a minute or two, with the lure in harm’s way pretty much the entire retrieve!
Setting the hook
One thing that stood out like the proverbial was the need to really strike hard. With the slower and more deliberate retrieve, the flathead do not always eat the plastic like they do a quickly whipped jerk bait plastic. The classic line tick does happen, but more often the take is far more subtle as the lure simply disappears into fish’s mouth without much fuss. With the lures being small at 3-4”, the need for the flatties to really belt the lure just wasn’t there. Add in the fact the lure is moving relatively slowly and the fish are generally unwilling to chase these lures down and it all equals bites that take a bit of getting use to.
This is where the ‘feel’ for the way you are fishing comes into it. It is also the area of most concern for me being new to the tactic. Troy and Darren had the ‘feel’ and would strike hard and into fish, whereas I would more feel a weight before striking – sometimes it was weed, sometimes it was a fish! It took the best part of my three days fishing to start to distinguish the bites from the weed with any real confidence.
If you give this tactic a try, just strike hard at everything at first. The worst that can happen if you strike is that you hook into some weed or snot weed. The best thing that can happen is an oversized flatty comes to the net!
As much as the casting and retrieving is a very deliberate approach, so to is the positioning of the boat.
Troy was very particular about ensuring the boat was sitting in the right spot and to achieve this he used a mix of Spot Lock on the electric and also trimming the main motor down into the soft sand to act as a rear anchor. A Power Pole or Raptor would be a great option here if you’ve got one on the boat.
When the boat was settled, we’d fish the immediate area for about 15 minutes or so. Usually we would get some interest in the first 10 or so casts and the interest would slowly wane. After 15 minutes, we’d move the boat, sometimes as little as 10m, so we were targeting new weed clumps and new fish. Sure enough the fish would hit in the first few casts and we’d be putting points on the scores again.
This is a very deliberate tactic and one that is foreign to me. I am used to moving along a bank, fishing far more quickly through an area. This method saw us fish for about 6 hours straight in less than a kilometre on the last day and the last day was easily our best scoring day for points with 16 legal fish coming over the side including an 80 and 79cm model for Troy.
It really did open up my eyes to an entirely different way to target these fish and I am hooked!
A lot more to learn
The entire competition left me excited to learn more about this approach and to see if I could master some of the skills the Dixon boys had on display.
The skill difference was clearly evident on the final day when I fished a Bone Focus 130 glidebait while Troy and Darren continued to fish shallow with peanuts. The Dixons stuck 10 legal fish in the bag including a 69, 79 and 80cm fish while the Focus put four fish on the score sheet from 40-62cm. It was a great plan to have the two best shallow anglers doing their thing while I tried to hit the trophy fish with the big lure! And it worked an absolute treat, if only the donkey that ate the Focus had stayed hooked… if only!
This method takes some dedication, but the rewards are clear. Big fish do eat peanuts and we had 5 fish over 70 eat small plastics during the comp and get landed with another genuinely big fish hooked and lost. Add in that even the 35cm fish eat the small plastics and you really are giving yourself a chance of catching fish all session long.
Gear for the Job
Zerek 3.5” Flat Shad
4’ McArthy Paddle Tail
PML Flathead Jigheads 5g, 7g
Blade N Tails 6’10” 6-12lb spin RLFBT18
Blade N Tails 6’10” 4-8lb spin RLFBT17
ATC Virtuous Carbon Fibre 2000
ATC Virtuous Carbon Fibre 800
10lb, 12lb, 14lb Wilson FC leader