Unlocking dusky flathead secrets by Gary Brown

In my early years dusky flathead were the main fish species that I use to catch when fishing with my dad drifting the Georges and Port Hacking Rivers.
It was just a matter of rigging up a handline with a large sinker above a match stick on a handline and then putting on a strip of mullet onto a long-shanked hook that was about a foot away from the sinker. Either the cork or coke bottle was placed on the floor of the boat and when the dusky sucked in the bait and the bottle of cork started to bounce around everywhere, you would grab the 20lb line and start pulling away.
How things have changed for me since those early days.
Now days I mostly target dusky flathead with either soft plastics, blades and live baits. Sure, there are times when I catch them while fishing for other fish species like bream, whiting, trevally and mulloway, but I sure do like my lure fishing and so does my wife, as I come back home much cleaner.
Dusky flathead are not all that hard to catch once you have worked out what type of habitat they live in, the types of baits they prefer and a few different techniques to use.
The biggest by far of the flathead family is the dusky flathead, also known as the mud, estuary, dusky river and black flathead. Dusky flathead usually spawn during the warmer months of September to March in northern tropical waters, November to February in Moreton Bay and January to March in NSW and Victoria. Eggs and larvae of the dusky flathead are dispersed along the coast by tidal and current movements.
They have been reported to reach a maximum weight of 13kg and 1.2m in length, and are easily distinguish by the conspicuous black spot on the trailing edge of the upper lobe of their caudal fin.
The longest that I have seen in the flesh was 95cm and was caught by Dave Fletcher on the Gold Coast on a Berkley 6" grub pinned on a 3/4oz, 5/0 TT jighead. The flathead shape is unmistakable, with its flat head, long tapering body, spines on either side of its cheeks and also in the front of the first dorsal fin, fawn to black on top and white underbelly. The tailfin features in a characteristic dark spot in the top end corner and a patch of blue on the lower half.
Duskies are usually found over mud, silt, gravel, along the edges of weed or rock walls while facing into the current, and when the unsuspecting small fish, prawn or crab passes by, it will use its brilliant turn of speed in a short distance to grab hold of its prey.
You will also find them laying in-wait along the edges of mangroves, breakwalls, retaining walls, drop offs, the edges of rock bars, gravel patches, mussel and cockle beds, sand and mud flats, the edges of deep holes, on the edges of fast moving currents, in between and underneath oyster racks, at the bottom of marker buoys and poles, at the base of a bridge pylon and around the edges of floating pontoons.
In my experience, dusky flathead will nail just about any bait that is put near them. The trick is to determine which one they would prefer at the time. Over the years, I have caught them on what I would class as weird baits for flathead. Baits like the skin off a yellowtail or slimy mackerel, cunje, limpets, earthworms and freshwater yabbies have caught me flathead before.
When it comes to targeting dusky flathead with bait, live baits win hands down over dead baits. Then comes fresh whole baits, followed by fresh strips of bait and lastly, old smelly bait.
Some of the flathead I have caught over the years and have taken home for a feed have had everything from mullet, yellowtail, squid, whitebait, worms, yabbies, garfish, sweep, mados, trevally, crabs, oysters, mussels, cockles and one even had a small sea horse in it.
I have found that the trick to catching duskies that are of a good edible size (40-55cm) is to have a live bait that is about 4-6cm in length. This where poddy mullet are ideal. On the other hand, if you can catch yellowtail that are around 7-8cm in length, they are deadly when it comes to catching larger duskies.
In NSW, the term 'poddy' refers to the juvenile of a particular species, and a poddy mullet is a juvenile sea mullet. It can be very difficult to identify the various species of mullet, particularly when they are juveniles. As a result, anglers may take any species of mullet in NSW for use as live bait only. Provided they are less than 15cm and the total number does not exceed 20 per person, this is perfectly legal.
At times, catching poddy mullet can be very frustrating, but so much fun, especially for the kids. You don't even need a rod. A handline, a small number 12-14 long shanked hook and some white bread will do the job. As for berley, you could use white bread, but this will also attract the seagulls. Because of this, I use bread crumbs for berley and small pieces of white bread. The only problem is that you can only catch one at a time, unless you try using a multi hook bait rig. You could also catch yellowtail, whitebait and hardiheads this way.
For a quicker way of getting numbers of poddy mullet you should try using a poddy trap. This can come in the form of an Alvey clear plastic cylinder, a plastic bottle with a hole cut in it or a clear glass bowl covered with fly wire.
If you find that trying to catch your own live poddies or yellowtail is too much work, you could try using strips of mullet, tuna, bonito, slimy mackerel, pilchards, yellowtail, pike and garfish.