Finding flathead fish

John 'Bear' Willis — 18 May 2017

Flathead, ‘frogs’, ‘lizards’ or the Ol’ Bucket Mouth – it doesn’t matter what you call them, flathead are one of Australia’s favorite fish.

There are around 40 different species spanning the entire coast of the country, so flathead are readily available to almost everyone. There’s no mistaking their individual looks, nor their excellent eating qualities.


Flathead are a terrific target for the whole family. You can cast a line with a variety of baits, tempt them with soft plastics, excite ‘em with all sorts of lures, or entice them with liveys. They are often an unexpected by-catch when fishing for other species, and can be found in very shallow water, or right out past the 100m depth mark off the coast. Their colours can range from big black estuary fish, right through to very light sandy specimens with bright blue spots reflecting the sands they lurk on.

My favorite method of flathead fishing is throwing soft plastics whilst wading through the beautiful river mouths and lower estuaries feeding to the sea, where vast sand flats are interspersed with deep holes.

These sand flats are the lifeblood of the estuaries, where all of the sand dwellers form the lowest denominator in the marine circle of life.

There’s sandworms, fleas, nippers, crabs, shell, shrimp, prawns and a wide variety of micro-organisms, all falling prey to the juvenile whiting, mullet, bream, garfish and a host of other species.

Flathead will feed on any and all of the above, and spend much of their time buried in the sand fully camouflaged with their beady little eyes keeping watch for an unsuspecting morsel that may swim by. I’ve had great success over many years with soft plastics in these environments, originally with early ‘Mr Twisters’ and now with a huge array of variations.

There’s twin tail, paddle tail, worms and grubs, and exacting replicas of natural species in a vast array of brands, scents, colours and sparkles, all as tempting to the fisho in the tackle store as they are to the fish. I tend to like to match the colour of the lure with the background. In light sandy areas on bright days, most of the marine organisms will reflect the lighter hues so try white, translucent or maybe a contrast with some fluoro and reflective speckles to attract flathead. Further up in the deep tannin stained waters and dark sand, mud and gravel I generally go darker.


Flathead will often hunt in very shallow waters camouflaged in the sand waiting for prey. You will often see flathead “lays” or imprints in the sand where a fish has burrowed in. Surprisingly large fish may give you a shock as they erupt in a flash of speed, sending a sandy cloud in the clear waters. They also love drop offs, the edges of weed beds and scattered bottom structure where they can blend undetected with their surroundings. They may hunt on newly covered flats on high tides and lay in the drop offs as the tides fall, waiting for the inhabitants of the intertidal zone to tumble back into deeper water.

Further upstream, flathead will cruise the river banks and drop offs, often around structure. There’s generally much more life in these areas than the flat, almost lifeless bottom in the middle of a river. It can be comical to watch shore based anglers cast out to the middle, while switched on boat fishermen sit their craft in the middle and cast back to shore.


Offshore, I don’t think there is any great trick to finding flathead, except by chance when drifting. Try a paternoster rig, where the sinker bounces along the bottom, with bait suspended above on dropper loops.

Drifting for flathead is also a terrific method in sheltered waterways with small tinnies and kayaks, and the healthy populations right around the country make them a highly targeted species for travellers. Don’t be afraid to use quite large hooks for these spotty bucket mouths. Hooks up to 4/0 are quite common, however the hook size should match the bait. The rule of thumb is that you will often catch a big fish on a little hook, but not so often catch a little fish on a big hook.

Baits can include any natural species with prawn, live mullet, white bait and pilchard being some favorites. A large hardy slab bait will certainly attract great interest form crabs and baitfish and the excitement will then attract the larger predators that are your targets.

Flathead are easy to clean and fillet but beware of the razor sharp spikes on the gills – they have been the very painful downfall for many of us. Nets or Boga Grips (lip grips) are almost essential for handling them. Many flathead species have very sharp beaver-style teeth in the front of the jaw, so some abrasion resistant fluorocarbon trace is certainly required. You may also be very surprised by the strength of the fight when a big girl takes off with your bait, so hang on. Speaking of the big girls, flathead stocks are generally very good considering their availability and commercial value. To maintain their viability many states have introduced ‘slot limits’ where there are both maximum and minimum sizes as well as bag limits. Most of us release the big girls to breed another day ensuring these terrific fish will be available for our future generations.

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