Animals, Australia, Beach & Coastal Walking
Comments 12

The Truth About Flathead Lies

The tide was low, the air crisp and a winter sunrise was stirring the embers beyond Moreton Island as I approached the mouth to Cabbage Tree Creek. A lone fisherman in waders stood near the jetty, knee deep in salt water and presumably somewhat deeper in concentration:

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The cruising pelicans I’d hoped to encounter were absent; I walked out onto the jetty and introduced myself to another photographer I’d seen ambling around the headland on several equally sublime mornings, an air-traffic controller called Mike who was getting in some shooting before driving to work and an undoubtedly less tranquil scene.

Mike enjoyed a cigarette while we chatted about cameras and lenses and travel. The fisherman had moved a little further downstream when next I noticed him. Mike commented about the gorgeous colours reflected in the creek surface; we fired off a few shots and I went back down the bank to get closer — “zooming with the feet” as we zoom-less users of prime lenses like to put it:

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Looking downstream towards the marina.

Mike and I weren’t the only observers. One of the feathered locals was there after all, with an unbeatable vantage point, observing his/her fellow fisher with keen interest, perhaps taking mental notes:

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Sometimes the timing just works out. Almost at once, the fisherman’s rod began bending, an unfeasibly severe bend that seemed to be testing its limits. The rod stayed intact and soon he was hauling a great mass of gently writhing, almost saurian flesh up onto the mud:

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I eat fish occasionally, though seldom with enthusiasm, and I haven’t fished since childhood. But I quickly recognised a flathead, a common breed in these parts, far more edible than its rather-unlovely appearance might suggest.

I knew they got pretty big, but this one struck me as a monster. I got closer, exchanged a greeting and made some sounds of admiration. He extracted his lure, went up to dry land to retrieve a tape measure, and bent down to obtain some statistics:

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“81 centimetres.” That’s nearly 32 inches.

“Is that a dusky?”

“Yep.”

“How big do they get?”

“You hear about ’em going over a metre, but…” His tone suggested that such fish were the stuff of legends or post-fishing trip drinking sessions.

I got a shot of hunter and kill…

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The dusky flathead, Platycephalus fuscus, is a common local species.

..and he handed me his phone so he’d have his own proof for the archives.

I was pretty damned sad. I’m way too sensitive to ever make much of a fisherman. That great, venerable beast, all the stories it could tell. Lying there in the shallows, doing its thing quietly and invisibly, focused on catching breakfast — an irresistible flash of movement as the lure skitters past, that one fatal impulse to bite…

Sad.

On the other hand, I’d just made my own catch. For much of the last year, flathead, or at least the evidence they leave on the mudflats as the tide recedes, have been one of a dozen slow-cooking picture-projects I’ve had bubbling away. And I regretted the absence in my collection of a real live fish to anchor the selection I’ve included here.

Now I had my fish — real, at least, if not live for much longer…

I’ve talked about and shared pictures of stingray holes in the sand flats off Sandgate and Brighton often enough, another favourite project:

A stingray hole mirrors a perfect sunset at Hay's Inlet, Redcliffe.

A stingray hole mirrors a perfect sunset at Hay’s Inlet, Redcliffe.

The great thing about beachcombing on the flats is that twice a day the slate is wiped clean by the tide and the treasure trove restocked. Stingray holes are always there, often in their thousands, traces of a secret society gathering mostly unseen to feed and conduct their business just beyond the gaze and grasp of us terrestrials.

Likewise, flathead spend much of their time feeding from the sea bottom, partially or mostly covered by sand. Says Professor Wikipedia,

The effect is somewhat similar to flounders. In contrast to flounder, however, flathead are much more elongated, the tail remains vertical, and the mouth is large, wide and symmetrical. Flathead use this body structure to hide in sand (their body colour changes to match their background), with only their eyes visible, and explode upwards and outwards to engulf small fish and prawns as they drift over, using a combination of ram and suction feeding thereby improving their chances to catch prey.

Interestingly, just as stingrays employ a barbed sting to defend themselves, flathead are equipped with weaponry of sorts:

Flathead have two short spikes on either side of their heads and on top of their heads that contain venom. The venom, while not fatal, can cause pain and infection. Some anglers believe the pain of the sting of the flathead fish can be reduced by rubbing the slime of the belly of the same fish that caused the sting on the inflicted wound, due to a particular gland in its belly.

The north-eastern coast of Australia is Flathead Central. But my own introduction to their prevalence just offshore was my discovery midway through last year of their “footprints” in the flats:

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Looking north-west. A lie can be seen in the foreground.

Called lies (fisherman English is nothing if not prosaic) they are far less common than stingray holes — on a typical wander I might only see three or four — but no less beautiful. Stingray holes are attractive thanks to their perfect circularity, and the apparently random patterns with which they pock the flats.

Lies are usually solitary, their indentations diamond- or kite-shaped. They seem to point like arrows across the rippled flats, stamping a strange hieroglyphic symmetry into the almost mandala-like ripples in the sand:

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A lie & distant Shorncliffe, dawn.

Sometimes they’re almost phallic, at others they remind me of giant spermatozoa:

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They seem to point like arrows across the rippled flats, stamping a strange hieroglyphic symmetry into the almost mandala-like ripples in the sand:

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Size-wise, I don’t think I’ve found any sign from 81-centimetre flathead sasquatches. My own measuring standards are somewhat more idiosyncratic:

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And that’s just about all I need say — the pictures speak for themselves. They’re all the same shot, really, mostly taken at dawn off Sandgate. Even so, I can seldom resist adding another to the collection when I find one.

Oh, there is one more thing, in the interests of journalistic fairness…

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Beneath the Brighton ends of the Redcliffe bridges, the Houghton & the Ted Smout.

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“Two flathead walk into a sand bar…”

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His measurements and souvenir shots taken, the fisherman returned with his doomed catch and released it back into the creek. The maximum length for duskies, it turns out, is 130cm, or just over four and a quarter feet — so yes, those metre-plus stories are within the bounds of possibility (and horror fiction).

I’m happy to report that she — yes, a big momma indeed — hightailed it to the bottom and its illusionary security. Which made it just about the perfect morning for this closet fish sympathiser.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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12 Comments

  1. Fish is my favorite food. Reading about the flatfish made me a tad guilty for killing them to satisfy my mortal pleasure.Your photographs are wonderful.

  2. “Two flathead walk into a sand bar…”

    (-: Ha!

    Great title for this post. Another splendid one, Goat. Echoes of Joni Mitchell’s song. You play real good for free. You continue to show a passionate commitment as a writer and photographer. What more can the universe ask of a person?

    My favorites here are the photo of the pelican on the street light and the first photo. All these photos engage my attention.

    And that the fish was freed. I didn’t see that coming. You have the storytelling gift.

  3. Looks like I’d better go back and check out those flathead “footprints”. Despite having lived at coastal places for a number of years in my youth I never noticed stingray holes until I went to your area. I was amazed how many there are at Sandgate. Another collection of beautiful images and interesting information.

    • Thanks, Jane! I never noticed flathead “footprints” till the last year. And there they were, right under my own feet!

  4. Fascinating blog. I have become interested in fish, despite not eating them, breeding them or fishing for them, since I’ve got into canoeing around the Hawkesbury. Amazing to find evidence of the sting rays and the flatfish in the mud. I’ll have to look for some “lies” in the bays around here – we saw a couple of stingrays in the tidal shallows a few months back and I know there are flathead about. Thanks for giving me a new insight into the landscape and awesome pics as usual.

    • My pleasure. It’s always a treat to see a live stingray gliding through the shallows. We’re so blessed with amazing animal life on this continent.

  5. I spent years going to Currimundi beach on the Sunshine Coast and never noticed stingray or flathead holes. I now have a project when I visit in November…Beautiful photos.

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