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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).