Flathead Fly fishing tips and tactics

Before we start the following is just a guide to get you started. Don't use the concepts presented here as absolutes, mold them to suit your needs, skill level and equipment.

The key to a catching a flathead is understanding their habits. Most predators in this world hunt their food. They head out into their marked territory and find their prey, stalking their prey and then attacking at the opportune time. Alternatively a few predators wait for the game to come to them, one such predator is the Flathead.

A flathead is a unique hunter as most times it will bury itself slightly under the sand facing into any current that might exist. The only thing showing is it's eyes and the occasional puff of sand as it breathes. As food items get carried along by the current or as small baitfish, prawns and such feed along the bottom sub-strata. All it takes is a quick lunge and there's the first course for the day.

You can see the places a flathead lies in wait to ambush its food at low tide. Usually at drop offs from the mud/sand banks or junctions of currents. I suggest having a wander across the sand/mud flats during the low tide for possible casting spots for later during the rising tide or even alter on the dropping of the tide.

Another place to find their bunkers is at the head of weed beds. Most small baitfish and prawns know they can find refuge in weed beads. A flathead knows this too. So that clearing just inside the edge of the weed bed is the spot a flathead has cleared for an ambush location for anything swept along by the tidal flow looking for a bit of refuge and safety amongst the weeds.
The advantage of these ambush predator traits to the fly fisherman makes flathead almost a too easy of a target. Almost every estuary system along the east coast will have multiple locations easily seen to those who know what to looks for. The inner and outer drop-offs of beach gutters also are locations flathead will haunt, hidden by a thin layer of sand. Cast up onto the high sand bar and strip over the drop-offs, even to the point of wading out into the surf and casting back onto the beach and striping the fly out to sea (easier from a boat, if the swell is small then much safer for the boaties)

I prefer very shallow water situations for my flathead fishing, it is so much more visual. I normally wade up the current looking for likely flathead ambush points. Casting lightly weighted flies (if weighted at all) past (or up current) of a suspected lie and give the fly a slow, just faster then the current, pause/strip retrieve. The sudden lunge out of the weeds, mud or sand is always a rush. The fight on the fly is far better that any other fishing method and like all species some are more vibrant in their struggles than others.

If you get a lunge or a follow, quickly roll out the fly and bring it back through the same area of the lunge or swirl. This due to the flatheads habit of dropping down to the bottom straight after its attack on your fly. After a cast and retrieve over a dark weed patch, I have had large flathead follow a fly and having come from a dark substrate it was dark in colour. After it broke off the attack on the fly, it sank to the bottom. Due to its dark colour it stood out against the sandy bottom ten feet in front of me, though it was gradually lighten its colourings to match its surroundings. I roll cast the fly just past it and letting it sink, as it neared the depth of the flattie I gave the fly a twitch or two and the flattie lunged up and opened its mouth (it is amazing how large they can open their mouths) to take the fly - all this ten feet in front of me in gin clear water. Visually fantastic! Still in my minds eye I can perfectly see it swirl and take the fly on the second pass, after missing on the first cast.

The equipment you will need can be very basic and not anything special or different from what you are currently using. There is always a lot of discussion on the type of line to be used amongst SWOFFERS (Salt Water Fly FishERS - the "O" just makes the acronym read better).
A full sinking line gets your fly down and disturbs the bottom strata attracting scavengers to the mud clouds caused by the line stripping along the bottom. The negative of this, is all the flathead the sinking line lands on may not (most likely) enjoy a fly line being dragged over them and vamoose. This limiting the potential number of flathead who may see the fly during a retrieve. I started with a full sinking line and still caught fish so they do work if that's all you have.
If the water is really shallow a floating line and a long leader will work. But if a fast strip is required your fly could rise off the bottom (were it should be for flathead) and never go into the strike zone. Also this fly line option is not too helpful in water deeper then five or six feet, where you have a higher chance of a larger lizards.
There are still other options so not all is lost, like a clear intermediate line, which has revolutionized some estuary swoffers fishing approach. The negative of these lines is the need to strip it all in before your can cast again (same for sinking line). You may be able to roll cast the last 20 or so feet then cast the full line or just do a water haul cast but then you take the chance of missing that lazy window shopper fish following a few centimeters behind your fly. All the fast sink or intermediate line stripped in sinks around your feet so a stripping basket can help when wading, not as major a problem for boat based swoffers.

The last option to be discussed is a ghost tip line. These are floating lines with a 9 -10 foot clear sink tip. Combining with an AIRFLO clear intermediate sink leader and you have a great option for estuary flathead fly fishing. Great for deep and shallow presentations and due to the main part of the line - the floating part, easier to pick up and cast without having to pull the line out of the water first.

Rods - anything from 4w - 8w can do the job effectively, anything larger and it's a bit of overkill. Reels not really that important, a 100 -150m backing just incase you get some pelagics come through close enough to cast to. If you a bit slack on cleaning your gear after a saltwater outing you may want to get a reel that doesn't rust like the Loop graphite reel I use ($165 or there abouts, some stores supply a spare spool so shop around).

You must remember that saltwater fishing is a lot different then freshwater trout. When trout fly fishing at the most you could expect to come across a couple of fish species in a day on a river, a few more maybe in an impoundment or lake. In the salt you could come across ten or more species in a morning session and you will need a setup that can change quickly to suit the conditions and available species. Add that flathead are a very tidal related enterprise, you need a versatile fly fishing setup to maximize your time on the water. This is why on any flathead outing I will have three lines on me, a floating line for shallow water, a sink tip for weed bed and medium water approaches and a sinking shooting head for the deeper water. This so at any stage of the tide I can target the flathead and any other species that might pop up during the day.

If you had to choose one line for the estuary applications I would go for the ghost tip type fly lines. I am quite enjoying mine, a Cortland 444 tropical ghost tip, also not too bad a line for target Australian bass along the edges of weed beds in impoundments.

One of the ways estuary fly fishing is the same to trout fly fishing is you sometimes need to have just the right flies, though flathead will be a bit more congenial in taking flies that would be outrageous to a trout. For example I once had a six inch flathead take a six inch monster fly meant for its great grandmother.

Flies to use range in type, material and colours as much as any other species. I think Flathead fly fishing is more a presentation thing rather than a specific fly, remembering that if the fly doesn't get in front of the flatheads face it matters little what it looks like or what colour it is. For you it may be a plain old clouser (people don't use these for their looks, its because they work and work most of the time). Other flies to use include prawn flies, crustacean flies, baitfish flies and pure attractors flies (Spinster or Coyote flies) - all have their place. If your tying skills are just being nourished, stick to the good old clouser pattern. Colours are again a large discussion point but pink over white and chartreuse over fluoro yellow or white, both with a touch of pearl Krystalflash or Flashabou, will be good basic starting clouser fly. Hooks sizes from 4 to 1/0 should suit most situations and flathead sizes.

I prefer imitative flies as although they are harder to tie, give me a touch more enjoyment in the development, tying and using of such. One fly I developed was a baby whiting fly for flathead that travels along with its head down and tail up. Corsair body tubing, a bit of lead wire in the nose and some bean bag balls in the tail, yellow hackle fibres for fins in the right places. Travelling along just like the real thing, burrowing away at the sand as it moves along with the current.

My favourite flathead fly, at the moment, is the "Estuary Critter" fly we tied in the September club tying afternoon. Very light weight and a real "eat me quick" crustacean pattern, which is great for covering shallow weed beds You can find an article with full tying steps on my website - http://www.fishnet.com.au/flyswap/articles/estuarycritter.html

Other flies :-
Australia own Pink Thing, also in a red collar with white elsewhere, all white etc. Deceivers in all colours
Surf candy type baitfish, Eyes flies etc. Crustacean patterns - Reverse Silicone Hackle Prawn, MOE and MOS type flies. Not forgetting Crazy Charlie patterns of many types (the "Gotcha" a good one). Or the Emu Squid also found at my web site.

Here's a pattern to tie yourself:-
M.O.S. tying instructions (Mother Of Silicone).
Based on the original Mother of Epoxy (MOE) fly, but uses silicone as a body base due to MOE and it's body base of epoxy which is a real hassle. This when dicking around with a large, very fluid lump of epoxy that never seems to set until its not in the right place. This fly style is a great crustacean type pattern that can be tied in all sorts of colours from pinks to light tans to clear head/white tail to all black. The action and placement of this fly is the key, though contrast of the colour of the materials is also a factor.
Stage one: Preparing the head/body of the fly

Take a heavy gauge size 4 or 2 hook. One third of hook shank from eye tie in a set of large beadchain or lead dumbbell eyes. Tie off thread.

Take a dollop of silicone and shape it around eyes into a diamond shape. Leaving room at rear of hook shank to tie in tail materials. Make the silicone diamond a touch smaller then you need.

Leave 24 hours for the silicone to set.

After which colour the silicone with a marker pen to the colour desired or one that matches the tail materials you will be using.

Now coat the silicone with a thin layer of five minute epoxy.

Twist about till dry and epoxy won't sag or use a rotating dryer made for the purpose. Give the epoxy plenty of time to cure, as we don't want any fingerprints on the epoxy. If you do get some, a quick brushing of nail polish will refresh the surface of the head material. You could also use a hot glue gun and coloured glue sticks to make this style of fly too.

Stage two: Adding the tail materials

Tie in your thread behind the silicone/epoxy body. Tie in a clump of marabou or ostrich herl on top of the hook shank.

Tie in some flash 4 or 5 strands -of Krystalflash or Flashabou

Tie in splayed a grizzle hackle tip on either side of the hook shank.

Tie in a grizzle saddle hackle by the tip and form a collar behind the silicone/epoxy body. Tie off thread behind silicone/epoxy body. Trim top of hackle collar.

This small flathead loved his Green M.O.S. fly so much it was stuck half way down its throat

Tactics and application.
Fishing from a boat makes the job a lot easier. What you do is get to the up current side of a sand/weed/mud bank area and as you drift along with the current cast out the side or 45 degrees towards the front of the boat retrieve in a stop start manner (or the best style suited to the flies and fly line setup you are using). Bouncing that fly on the bottom will see more results than not. Once you have drifted the length of the flats area, motor around and back up to the starting point or 20 or 20 feet to either side of the last starting position and start you drift again. Be careful not to drive through the area you will be casting over next, as you disturb the fish you hope to cast on the next drift.
If walking the flats, walk into the current, casting in a fan approach in front of you. Then taking a few paces forward and repeating the casting fan - one at forty five degrees to the left, adding a 10 or so degrees to the right of the last cast on each next cast till forty five degrees to the right.

Whether using a boat or wading, work your flats thoroughly. Specifically target potholes on the flats, the joining points of clear water - dirty water currents, the edges of weed/sand/mud banks and especially the cleared patches in the weed beds. The potholes I mentioned are areas of darker water that are two to twelve or more inches deeper than the surrounding water. These potholes attract food items and thus the predators that prey upon them. The clearings in the weed patches mentioned earlier have more than a high chance of containing a flathead, so cover them a few times before moving on.

On the dropping tide I especially like targeting flathead sitting at the entrances of run off areas of mangrove swamps and the like. The run off rivulets can only be a few inches across (up to several feet) but flathead will be there just inches from the mouth of these small waterways, waiting in the main channels for any morsels to get drained off the mangrove swamp. I love this sort of fly fishing, getting a casting length from the shore line (boat, kayak or canoe required), floating line, long leader. Then casting the fly (like shrimp patterns best for this type of application) into the running water, avoiding the overhanging mangrove trees (not easy either) and stripping out the fly into the deeper water at the pace of the water flow. Always expecting the crash tackle on the fly but never really ready for it. Great fun!

Remembering too that most, if not all, the larger flathead (55cm - 60cm+) are female so treat them with care, take a photo and release them quickly. They can lay several million eggs a season, so they can produce more of our potential future fly targets. The smaller males are better eating anyway, if that is your thing. So go tie some flies and then go flathead fly fishing, as its always flathead time! (late spring to summer the best).

Long casts, tight lines and fast fish
Richard Carter