Mythical monsters; dusky flathead over a metre

Metre long flathead. Alongside catching a Mulloway, they are the holy grail, the pinnacle of sports fishing on light gear in our estuaries.  They might not be as difficult to tempt as bream in sparkling clear water, but nothing else can compare with the sheer size and prehistoric features, especially the enormous head and mouth, of a big crocodile.

After many years (and counting) in this fishing game, what is clear however is that the number of metre-long flathead, affectionately known as ‘meterys’, are grossly over reported.  There are fishing forums and online news sites full of stories, often without pictures, of people claiming meterys. When you drill down in the detail, the fish often got away or were never properly measured, but according to the angler they were ‘definitely a metre!’.  Then there are those photos with the fish held up by the gills or lip-grips (please don’t do this!) at an indeterminate distance in front of the angler. Sometimes the fish look huge, but then again so do the lip-grips or the anglers hands … Examples are here and here.  And finally there are some absolutely enormous fish that weigh in excess of 10kg but are still short of 100cm, like this huge fish here.

Is this monster flathead a metre long?
Is this monster flathead a metre long?

The latest big fish was caught by a good friend of the blog Chris Hollins a couple of weeks ago. It was truly enormous. At first glance the fish looks well over the hallowed metre mark. But even after whispering her a few sweet nothings and some gentle massage, the fish refused to relax and stretch out any further. The boys measured it a couple of times to be sure but it was just short – although still a whopping 97.5cm and an estimated 7.5kg.

Chris was fishing from a kayak in a river near Mollymook on the NSW South Coast, slowly retrieving a 40mm shallow diving lure. After a couple of hours he felt a sharp tap, followed by a dull heavy weight. The kayak started to turn around under the strain of what he presumed was a hooked branch. As he got closer however the branch started to move – sideways. Then a massive head emerged above the surface of the water. It was the fish of a lifetime.

After one quick run he was able to steer the fish back towards the kayak and into the waiting net of his mate Stuart Smith. Only the front half of the massive fish would fit in the net but it was enough to control her and bring her ashore. Fortunately the whole thing only lasted three or four minutes which didn’t put too much stress on the fish and more importantly for Chris, didn’t wear through his 8lb leader line. After a couple of photos and a quick measure, the fish swam away with one big beat of her huge tail.

Chris Hollins with a 97.5cm dusky flathead_Photo by Stuart Smith (2)-001

So with all of this talk about meterys, I started to wonder, if this behemoth didn’t reach triple figures in length – just how many flathead are over a metre long? Rather than rely on the stories and dodgy photos of anglers, we are a tad prone to exaggeration after all, what can science tell us? Well, the science tell us that in the last 10-15 years flathead measuring over a metre long are exceptionally rare.

A series of studies led by Charles Gray in NSW highlight this point. In 2003 a total of 4,327 dusky flathead were caught and examined as part of a study on age, sex and length in commercial catches. The largest fish measured ‘just’ 96cm. A second study published in 2008 caught and examined a staggering 7,783 dusky flathead from NSW estuaries including St George’s Basin and Tuross. The largest fish this time was 98.5cm. So in short, these guys caught over 10,000 flathead in nets and on lures over several years, in several different lakes, and none of them were over a metre long … Not one.

The search continued. I did a fairly comprehensive search through the web looking for proof of these mythical meterys.  I found two fish over a metre pictured with a measuring mat or ruler, and both fish are only a few centimetres over.  In the whole ‘internet’ there are two documented meterys. That’s it!

Brag mat - source:
They do exist! – original source unknown, but accessed here courtesy of ‘Dusky Chaser’
Source:
This 105cm flathead was caught by Jim Barrie, Photo source: Lure & Fly.com

It seems amazing to me that in an age where nearly every angler has access to camera phones, Go Pros, brag mats and those rulers that are supplied with the fisheries stickers, there are only two legitimate meterys …

The next step in the search was to seek out a specialist in catching big flathead.

Enter Big E.

One of the authorities on big flathead is Big E – AKA Ian Phillips. He has kindly supplied a few photos of fish over a metre that he just happen to have ‘lying around’. But before you think that they are a common catch, this guy has caught more big flathead than the rest of us put together and carefully measures each one. In a future post I’ll look at where and how we might catch fish of this caliber, but for now enjoy these photos.

Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips
Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips
Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips
Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips
Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips
Image kindly supplied by Ian Phillips

Ian added that these fish were generally between 100 to 105cms.  He caught a 130cm fish many years ago in a world that still used film cameras, but sadly these photos can no longer be found.  All of which leads me to my last point; historical catches of big fish.

There are many truly epic flathead proudly hanging on the walls of pubs, clubs, hotels, boat workshops and tackle stores up and down the east coast of Australia. Many of these are handsomely over the metre mark (1.1-1.3m) and need to be seen to be believed.  Unfortunately these fish are now dead and preserved only to live on someone’s wall.

The unfortunate conclusion that we can draw from all of this is that:

1) No truly big flathead (bigger than 105cm) have been documented in the last 10-15 years despite scientific (ie. commercial) and angling efforts

2) There are a tiny number of fish that crack the metre mark, but the vast majority, sadly to say, are in the 90cm class.

3) Those really big girls (110-130cm) that have been taken out of these estuaries (either commercially or recreationally), haven’t yet returned, despite the fact that netting has been stopped in some lakes and many anglers return big fish to the water

On this last point, I can only throw my weight behind letting the big fish go.  Flathead don’t change sex as was once commonly believed, instead it is only the females that grow larger than 50cm. So it’s in our interest to let these big female fish go again and here’s why. Each female can lay hundreds of thousands, or even millions of eggs, ensuring that there are plenty more pan-sized flathead for everyone in the future. Flathead are a fast growing and very sweet tasting fish making them a perfect candidate to take home. Secondly, if we as anglers want to be able to tangle with fish over the magic metre, releasing all of the big fish above 70cm will certainly help – given another year or two of growth, they might just make it and we can regale each other with stories of fish that actually were over a metre long!

If you’ve got photos of big flathead, dead or alive, recent or old, please send them through, we would love to see them!

Graham Fifield

The author with a fish measuring 91cm
The author with a fish measuring 91cm – not a metery

 

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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