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DRIFTING FOR LIZARDS
by Steve Starling

Lizards, frogs, yanks, flatties - call them what you will, these great Aussie fish are a firm favourite with offshore anglers, and provide reliable, year round fishing in many areas.

Drifting for flathead

Drifting for flathead is something of an institution amongst Australian offshore anglers, particularly around the south eastern corner of the continent. On any sunny Sunday off Coffs Harbour, Crowdy Head, Forster, Ulladulla, Tathra, Eden, Marlo, Bicheno or Pirates Bay, you’ll encounter a colourful collection of trailer boats, crewed by an equally colourful collection of average Aussie anglers, all dangling a baited line in search of the humble flattie.

You’ll find Italian-speaking crews drifting off the runway extensions in Botany Bay, blue-singletted Ockers crossing the Moruya River bar after a big night on the turps, second generation Greek-Australians launching their tinnies at St Kilda, and expatriate Pommy charter skippers taking parties of hopeful wheat farmers out of the harbour at Lady Barron, on Flinders Island.

The ultimate pay-off for all of them is a fish tub full of brown, slimy, spiky fish with flat, ugly heads that will ultimately be processed into flaky white fillets and consumed in the suburbs, cities and country towns of middle Australia. The flathead is truly every-man's fish; the piscatorial equivalent of the meat pie, the stubby, "Australia's Funniest Home Videos" and the Saturday racing guide!

And why not? Flatties are plentiful, widespread, not particularly hard to catch and they taste like our best childhood memories of fish 'n' chips; back when that weekend treat still came wrapped in Herald or Age broad-sheets and was ceremonially doused with salt and vinegar before being devoured hungrily from greasy fingers, washed down by a milkshake, a Coke or a beer... What more could you ask for?

In fact, I reckon catching flathead is a skill imprinted in the very genes of most Australians. It comes as naturally to us as ice skating does to Canadians, or watching baseball to Americans. It's a kind of shared cultural memory; born of a million family holidays by the seaside and a billion packets of frozen prawns, skewered awkwardly on hooks and trailed from beer bottle, cork and plastic hand casters by every Bill, Barry, Bruce and Don, every Kylie, Kim and Narelle, every Mario, Con, Nguyen and Ahmed who ever clutched a limp length of nylon, stared fixedly at a tilting horizon and tried not to chunder their breakfast over the gunwale while waiting for that familiar tug-tug-tug on the line.

Drifting for flathead really is pretty easy... Anyone with access to a boat can do it. So, what's the point of this article? Quite simply this: Send any 10 boats out of any one port on any given day in search of the humble lizard, and one or two will always come back with significantly better catches than the rest... Bigger flatties and more of them.

"Luck, I hear you say, and on the basis of a single experiment, you could well be right. But repeat the process for a full season, or a even a couple of years, and chances are you'll keep getting the same result — excluding the occasional statistical glitch or abnormality. Some people simply catch more flathead than others. The reason for this article is to help turn you into one of those people!

Know Your Target

The feeding behaviour of offshore lizards is very similar to that of the estuary-dwelling dusky flathead. These fish are all opportunistic, short-range ambushers and occasional scavengers. But, less like duskies, sand and offshore flathead often form large, loosely organised schools on sand, gravel or mud bottom strata.

Offshore flathead feed on all types of small fish, as well as prawns, crabs, squid, octopi and cuttlefish. They will also scavenge on scraps, including dead fish, trawler trash and the like.

They spend much of their time lying flat on the sea bed, their upward-facing eyes keenly peeled for any passing prey, and these morsels are typically seized in a quick burst from the cover of the sand, mud or gravel, where the flathead's mottled colouration provides excellent camouflage.

Get the Drift?

Not surprisingly, the most productive fishing method for these offshore flathead involves the use of natural baits fished right on or very near the sea bed, ideally from a drifting boat.

Fishing on the drift allows a much greater area to be covered and keeps the baits mobile. Moving baits are almost always superior to static offerings when chasing flathead, and the easiest way to keep a bait moving over the sea bed is to simply allow the boat to drift with the wind, tide or current.

Of course, there's a bit more to it than simply heading out to sea a kilometre or two, switching off the motor and beginning a drift. That kind of haphazard strategy will occasionally produce fish, but generally speaking, a little more science is required to ensure consistent success.

As already mentioned, most of the offshore flathead species prefer to live and hunt on seabeds composed of sand, fine gravel or mud. Sure, you'll catch a few lizards over rubble and broken reef, but the best results and most trouble free drifts usually occur out in the "paddock", rather than on rough, broken ground.

Preferred depths vary from place to place and between the different flathead species. The various sand or spotted flathead and ocean-going duskies favour shallower grounds in the 10 to 50 metre band (five to 25 fathoms), while tigers are usually found in somewhat deeper water, beyond the 40 metre (20 fathom) contour. Exceptions certainly occur, particularly in the cooler southern seas of Bass Straight and Tasmania, where a mixed bag of several species may often be taken in quite shallow, inshore waters.

Areas adjacent to beaches, bays and harbours are good places to start looking for lizards. Nutrient outflows from estuary systems increase the appeal of these localities, although the offshore flathead species are not overly keen on flood-time discharges of really dirty, fresh water. Big floods will sometimes push quantities of dusky flathead onto offshore drifting grounds, but as a rule of thumb, the best sand flathead bags will be taken in cleaner water adjacent to the flood "plume", or around river mouths after the main flush of fresh water has diminished in volume, and salinity levels are on the rise again.

 

Flattie Features

Away from estuary mouths and their changing discharges of brackish water, flatties will be found in varying concentrations right across the sand, gravel and mud grounds previously described. However, to increase catch rates, anglers need to look for more specific and defined areas where the number of flathead per hectare is higher than average. These are most likely to be found around structural features and near specific concentrations of food.

These heavier aggregations of flathead typically occur adjacent to reef edges, in areas of current eddies or current interfaces, under bait fish schools and along drop-offs or stretches of seabed with localised bottom features such as ripples, gutters, pot holes, depressions and weed beds. Generally speaking, flat, featureless bottom strata provides the lowest concentrations of flathead, although there can be exceptions; notably due to the presence of bait fish schools or seasonal spawning concentrations of flathead.

Obviously, a modern depth sounder is invaluable for pin-pointing these more productive features, and a model with split screen or bottom zoom capabilities makes it easier to spot the relatively minor lumps and bumps which sometimes produce surprising numbers of good fish.

Beyond identifying likely drifting areas, the job of finding flathead concentrations becomes a matter of research and data gathering. In other words, drift until your catch rate climbs, take careful note of landmarks or GPS co-ordinates, and then methodically repeat the most productive drift patterns.

Likewise, keep your eyes and ears open at the launching ramp or local pub for tidbits of information on prime flattie drifting zones. These may be vague, and could include references to spots "off the surf club" or "with the three pine trees in line", but they can all be vital clues in the detective work required to consistently catch quality bags of flathead on our offshore grounds.

Baits and Rigs

Rigs for flathead drifting should always be designed to keep the baits on or very near the sea bed while drifting.

The most popular of all flathead drifting set-ups consists of a reasonably heavy snapper lead or similar sinker at the lower end of a paternoster, with two hook droppers above. At least one of these droppers should be long enough to ensure that the baited hook drags and trundles across the sea bed behind the sinker.

Recently, I've been playing around with the use of wire booms, arms or spreaders, based loosely on the "French Booms" so popular with British and European wreck fishers. I've made mine from old coat hangers and they work like a charm!

Backing these rigs up with one of the new generation gel-spun polyethylene lines (either braided or fused) allows lighter sinkers to be used and greatly enhances both bite detection and hook sets. Personally, I'd find it hard to go back to nylon in these deeper water bottom fishing scenarios — and the deeper they are, the greater the advantages of gel-spun.

Offshore flathead are not usually fussy feeders. Their large mouths and greedy feeding style suits generous hooks and unsophisticated rigs. Most exponents of the art use 2/0 to 5/0 hooks, and while standard "French" patterns like the traditional Mustad 540 and its many clones are fine, increasing numbers of flattie drifters are opting for newer hooks with chemically sharpened points. My absolute favourite in this application is Mustad's relatively new wide gap Big Mouth pattern. This red anodised, wide gape, fine gauge hook is absolutely deadly on lizards, as well as many other species.

Favourite baits run the gamut, from squid strips and tentacles, bottle squid, strips of ocky, prawns and whole or cut pilchards to various strips, chunks and fillets of fish flesh. Oily, blood-rich fish like tuna, bonito, slimy mackerel, mullet or tailor are all good choices, but where it's legal to do so, lots of flathead are taken simply by knocking the fillets of the first little "spiky" lizard to be landed and turning these into finger-sized baits.

Fish flesh strips with tough skins offer some advantages, and it is sometimes possible to land three or four flathead in a row on a single, tough-skinned offering. Those fish flesh baits with flashy, silvery skin also provide added visual appeal.

A major mistake many less experienced flathead drifters make is to overload their hooks, cramming the bend and point with great wads of bait folded back on itself again and again. This can dramatically reduce hook-up rates. It's much better to use long, flowing strips of bait, pinned just once or twice with the hook. Add a half hitch of line around the top of the bait for security if you like, but don't worry if there are several centimetres of flesh hanging beyond the point — any halfway serious lizard will suck the whole thing into its cavernous gob in the twinkling of an eye!

Another trap to watch for is allowing scales or tough fish skin to obscure the hook point. This can be a real problem with baits such as mullet fillets, and these should always be scaled first. However, even something as small and seemingly inconsequential as a pilchard scale can deflect a hook point at the critical moment and result in a missed bite.

 

Tricks of the Trade

More sophisticated flathead drifters are constantly adding new tricks to their armoury, and these can really pay off on tough days or in hard-fished waters.

One of the most widespread wrinkles involves the use of a sea anchor or drogue to slow down and control boat drift rates. This is particularly handy on breezy days.

Some method of marking hot drifting zones is also highly advantageous. Once, this involved taking some quick landmarks or dropping a small marker buoy with a long length of line and heavy sinker attached. Today, it can be as easy as hitting the event marker button on a GPS unit.

Locally, some gun flattie fishers have even taken to anchoring on the hot zones rather than drifting. This sounds counter productive, but at times, especially when small clusters of fish are present, it can spell the difference between missing out and bagging out.

Fine tuning your terminal tackle will also pay off in the long run. This could include painting sinkers red or adding strips of reflective prism-light tape to them, or running luminous beads on your hook droppers. Those who tinker with these seemingly inconsequential things and constantly think about what they're doing tend to be the ones cleaning the best bags of flatties back at the ramp.

Just one last word of advice... Check your local bag and size limits for flatties, carry a measuring board or tape at all times and please do the right thing. Our flathead stocks are copping enough of a hiding from the pro’s already. The last thing they need is further abuse from the recreational fraternity. Catch what you need, then go and chase something else. That way, our kids and their kids will be able to go on enjoying that great Aussie angling tradition Drifting for lizards!

 

WHAT FLATTIE IS THAT?

Something like 30 species of the family Platycephalidae - better known as flathead - are found in Australian waters, and at least a dozen of these grow large enough and are sufficiently common to be of significant interest to recreational anglers.

The biggest and best known member of the entire clan is the dusky, estuary or mud flathead, which, despite its name, sometimes strays well offshore onto popular drifting grounds in 10 to 40 metres of water, and may be quite pale in colour when taken from such areas. In fact, any flathead over 3.5 kilos or so in weight pulled from these offshore grounds is most likely to be a wandering dusky, although the southern blue-spotted flathead and the rock flathead both reach three kilos and more on occasions, and are the biggest flathead in southern waters, beyond the range of the dusky.

The best way to positively identify any species of flathead is to closely examine the distinctive caudal fin (tail) markings. A good identification book such as Sea Fishes of Southern Australia by Barry Hutchins and Roger Swainston (Swainston Publishing, 1986) will quickly provide a tail pattern match for most of the more common types.

The following is a thumbnail guide to the most frequently encountered offshore ‘lizards’:

 

Southern blue-spotted flathead (Platycephalus speculator): Also known as the ‘yank’ flathead, this relatively large, usually pale, blue spotted fish is quite common in Victoria, South Australia and southern Western Australia, as well as in Bass Strait and northern Tasmania. It occasionally tops 3.5 kilos in weight and is caught in shallower bays, as well as on offshore drifting grounds.

 

Eastern blue-spotted flathead (P. caeruleopunctatus): This flattie is especially common in central and southern NSW waters and also occurs in eastern Victoria. It is very similar to the southern blue-spotted variety, but doesn’t grow quite as large.

 

Northern sand flathead (P. arenarius): This species tends to take over from the previous one in northern NSW and southern Queensland waters, but does not grow quite as large as either of the blue-spotted varieties.

 

Southern sand flathead (P. bassensis): Also called the slimy flathead, this relatively small fish (up to perhaps one kilo or so) is common in bays and inshore areas from southern NSW to southern Western Australia and is sometimes caught from beaches, as well as boats.

 

Tiger flathead (Neoplatycephalus richardsoni): The distinctive reddish-brown tiger flathead has a quite different body shape when compared with the other common species described here, tending to be noticeably deeper and more cylindrical in cross section. Its eyes are also significantly larger. Tigers are usually encountered in deeper water off the southern NSW coast (40 to 150 metres), but will move much closer to shore further south, and even enter bays and estuaries in Tasmania. This is another reasonably big flattie, commonly topping a kilo and occasionally approaching three kilos.

 

Long-spined flathead (P. longispinis): This prickly little character is more commonly known as a spiky flathead and rarely tops 30 centimetres in length. These small fish can be a real nuisance when drifting, and their extra long gill cover spines pack a nasty punch!

Other species likely to be encountered on offshore drifting grounds at times include: the long-headed flathead (Leviprora inpos) of south western waters; the rock flathead (L. laevigatus) of southern sea grass beds; the dusky flathead (P. fuscus) of eastern waters; the prettily marked marbled flathead (P. endrachtensis), and the less common tassel-snouted flathead (Thysanophrys cirronasus).

SEE ALSO:
Recreational Fishing Guidelines Queensland Australia
Size & Bag Limits
Anatomy of a Fish, Fish Terminology, FAQ about Fish

What Bait to Use A list of types of baits and the fish species you can catch with them

Fish Length-to-Weight Calculator
Seafood Preparation - Handling your catch, including Seafood Storage
Fish Names - Here you will find English names of fish and their equivalent in Japanese, Swedish, Hawaiian, French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Russian.
Fish Photos & Information

 

 
 

 


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