Category: Medium Risk
OF ALL the different species of flathead caught by anglers throughout Western Australia the bar-tail is probably the only one regularly targeted by anglers fishing our south-west estuaries. There are other flathead available, but not in such numbers and consistency as the bar-tail. Flathead fishing has its own special delights: wading the shallows of an estuary in summer with the early morning sun warming your body; peering into the clear shallow water as increasing sunlight brings a myriad of underwater life into focus; the flash of a small bait school as it erupts from the as yet unruffled surface in flight from some unseen predator. A cast in that direction is compulsory. I prefer to chase flathead using lures rather than bait, although bait accounts for good numbers of fish. But I just love fishing with lures. I’m told, for I’m not experienced in the art of flathead filleting, that once you have the hang of it a feed of flathead is superb.
There can easily be confusion about identifying flathead although the bar-tail variety is one of the easiest. As the name suggests, the answer to identification lies in the tail but not in the bars – rather the yellow blotch near the top of the tail. No doubt anglers frequently see bars on the tail and think automatically that it’s a bar-tail. However it could be an eastern or southern blue-spot or northern or southern sand flathead, because all of these have black bar-like markings on the tail.
The bar-tail is not a monster by any means but it does reach at least 76cm and 2.8kg in WA. However some researchers believe it can achieve 100cm and 3.5kg. In the Swan River any bar-tail over 40cm is considered a good fish.
Being a sub-tropical species the distribution of the bar-tail is extensive, running from Perth northwards right around the top and down into New South Wales. For reasons best known to bar-tailed flathead they are very rarely found south of the Swan/Canning estuary system. The most common species taken in estuaries south of Fremantle is the southern blue-spotted flathead (Platycephalus speculator), notably in Wilson Inlet. This species is also common in the marine environment, as is the long-spined flathead (P. longispinis). The rock (Leviprora laevigatus) and long-headed flathead (L. inops) are also quite common in seagrass meadows and areas of low reef. Though primarily encountered inshore by anglers, the bar-tail does range offshore out to the Continental Shelf where it’s caught infrequently.
Breeding and migration
Little is known of the biology of the bar-tailed flathead but preliminary research undertaken in the 1980s suggested that they spawn in the middle and lower estuary in late spring and summer, with males maturing at a smaller size than females, and not growing as large. The largest female recorded was 59.5cm, but size and age at maturity has yet to be determined.
Given that inshore trawl fisheries are not extensive in WA the main threat posed to bar-tailed flathead is probably the decline of estuarine water quality and systems.
Tackle and bait
Most bar-tailed flathead fishing is carried out in estuaries like the Swan/Canning. Presenting a lightly weighted prawn or whitebait using a light spinning outfit is a popular approach when fishing from the banks. Some successful boat anglers I know use quite a lot of weight on their lines to keep the bait close to the bottom when drifting for flathead. A four-kilo spinning outfit with 10kg mono trace is all that’s needed for this kind of fishing. I did most of my early estuary fishing using lead-head jigs such as Crappie jigs, Mr Twisters and a range of bucktail and feather jigs that I believed back then were absolutely the best lures for flathead. Sure, I got my share on jigs back then but these days I tend to fish hard-bodied lures like locally made Halcos and RMGs. They are a bit harder to use but well worth the effort. The RMG Scorpion 52 and 68, in particular, are deadly on flatties.
Casting little bibbed lures around the shallows and along the dropoffs of an estuary is a great way to explore a large patch of fishing territory in a session. My spinning outfit these days comprises a 2m light graphite spin stick, 4kg braid and a short 10kg mono trace. This gear is very sensitive, a delight to use and allows me to feel just about every bump and knock from fish. I tend to look for slightly darker coloured areas, which mostly indicate drop-offs and holes where flathead could hide to ambush baitfish and prawns on a falling tide. It may seem surprising but there are areas of estuaries that consistently seem to produce flatties for knowledgable anglers.
Blowfish hordes in the lower reaches of the Swan tend to often rule out using the new breed of soft plastics; the dreaded blowies nip off the wiggling tails in a flash. But in the upper reaches they are an easy to use and most effective lure for flathead. By simply raising the rod tip a metre and allowing your lure to return to the bottom you can impart an enticing action into a soft plastic lure, which in turn can prove irresistible to flathead. Hard-bodied lures require a touch more practice, but not much. I try to impart further action into the lure during the retrieve by twitching the rod tip constantly. On occasions I vary this retrieve using pause and wind techniques, among others. In fact working on your retrieve to improve its effectiveness is a lot of what lure fishing is about. I carry half a dozen lures, some spare mono trace, hook removing pliers and a pair of line cutters in a light bum bag which makes wading and walking easy. A pair of good quality polarised fishing glasses are a must because identifying where you should cast is almost as important as identifying where you shouldn’t. A few lost favourite lures will soon have you agreeing with me on that.
References: Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986. Compiled with the assistance of Marine Research Branch of the West Australian Department of Fisheries.