Casual catfish anglers put away their stinkbaits as summer wanes into early autumn, but the first cool spell finds serious flathead catfish anglers reaching for their heaviest fishing lines, stoutest tackle, and the biggest baits they can find. They know early autumn is when big flatheads go on a feeding binge and become more mobile.
The trick is understanding when, where and how to put baits in front of the often stubborn flatheads in order to take advantage of their seasonal increase in appetite.
TRAVELERS WHO LIKE TO STAY HOME
Radio-tagging studies of flatheads in rivers reveal behaviors that make big flatheads particularly vulnerable to anglers. It’s useful to understand that flatheads follow distinct seasonal migrations — often over long distances — but are otherwise stay-at-homes between those migrations.
Longtime fisheries biologist Greg Gelwicks radio-tagged flatheads on medium to small tributary rivers of the Mississippi River for several years. Through his studies he discovered that when water temperatures fell below 50 degrees, flatheads in those rivers uniformly migrated — sometimes as far as 50 miles — to either the few deepest holes in those rivers, or moved completely out of those rivers into deepwater wintering holes in the Mississippi River. There they spent the winter, nearly immobile, literally stacked on the bottom like cordwood, rarely if ever venturing from those wintering holes.
Once water temperatures warmed in the spring to 45 to 50 degrees, Gelwicks’ radio-tagged flatheads slowly became active, moved out of their wintering holes, and, in a slow, erratic, two-stage migration, eventually returned to the same hole or logjam in the same river where they had spent previous summers. Gelwicks said his tagged flatheads first moved to spawning areas where they had spawned in previous years, and then moved after the spawn to their traditional summer territories.
“They displayed surprising loyalty to specific spawning areas and specific summer territories,” said Gelwicks. “Some flatheads swam past other flatheads in prime spawning areas to get to their preferred specific spawning area, and once the spawn was over, individual flatheads generally moved to the same hole or logjam where they had spent previous summers. They stayed there all summer, then once water temperatures started to fall in September they made their move back toward their traditional wintering area.”
Keep this annual migratory pattern in mind as we examine another radio-tagging study conducted by Dr. Jason Vokuon, now Professor of Fisheries Management at a large university. While he was a graduate student at a well-known university, Vokuon’s work in rivers with tagged flatheads highlighted the unique behavior of flatheads once they settled into their summer homes. He documented that in the summertime flatheads are loners that move only to feed.
“They are notably territorial,” said Vokuon. “We rarely saw two (flatheads) in the same place at the same time. There may be multiple flatheads in a big hole or logjam, but they will be in different areas, never in close proximity.
“The biggest flathead seems to claim the best spot in a hole or logjam, as far as current, cover, and whatever other factors are important to flatheads. They certainly seem to be aware of each other’s locations. If one flathead moves out of a good spot, another one will eventually move in.
“It’s difficult for humans to comprehend how a flathead ‘sees’ his world, because it may have less to do with vision than with smells, tastes, sounds and especially lateral line pressures.”
Another key bit of information gathered by Vokuon is the relative immobility of flatheads while they’re in their summer habitat. He said flatheads in the summertime, “don’t move a lot.”
“Ours averaged 1/2 hour of movement in a 24-hour period. When they moved, they moved pretty much in a direct line, from their resting area to what we assumed was a feeding area, and then right back to their resting area. During our entire study, our fish were actually moving only 3.7 percent of the thousands of hours we watched them.”
Gelwicks, the fisheries biologist, said he actually became concerned that some of the radio-tagged flatheads in his study had died.
“We were checking them once or twice a day, and there were days on end when the fish would be in the exact same spot, time after time,” he said. “Eventually we checked them at odd hours and found that they were occasionally moving around, but their general immobility was surprising.”
Now, lets add to our scientific data about seasonal and daily flathead movements some hands-on information from professional fishing guide Eddie Brochin (ultimateoutdoorstv.com).
“Early fall is greedy time for flatheads,” said Brochin. “Their mentality gets really aggressive when water temperatures fall. They go after the biggest baits; they’ll ignore 3- or 4-inch bluegills and hammer a 1-pound bullhead. They’re still in their summer holes at that time, still using their summer feeding routes. You just have to bait bigger to get their interest.”
Brochin fishes at night to target flatheads during the small percent of time they are actively feeding. He compares flatheads to white-tailed deer, in that whitetails follow distinct paths between specific bedding and feeding areas. Flatheads move out of their holes or logjams and follow seams in the current to areas where they know there are plenty of baitfish, Brochin said.
“I target those travel routes, ignore the rest of the river, and that way I’m on fish from multiple holes traveling that route,” he said. “Those are fish that are aggressive and in the mood to bite.”
Denny Halgren (815-288-6855) is another professional flathead fishing guide who considers September his favorite month of the year, although he uses special tactics and tackle to target flatheads during daylight hours.
“I admit it; I like to sleep at night,” he laughed. “My trick for catching flatheads during the day is to fish right down in the nasty spots where the big ones hole up during the day. You’ve got to go after them; they won’t come out because they’re not in feeding mode. You can dangle a bait 3 feet from them and they won’t budge. But they are extremely territorial and don’t tolerate any other fish in their immediate area.
“Bigger fish, like another flathead, they’ll bump and ram to get it to leave. Smaller fish, a lot of the time it’s as easy for them to eat the intruder as it is to drive it away. I try to antagonize them with a bait small enough so the easiest option to get rid of it is to just eat it.”
While Brochin’s strategy of fishing travel routes used by flatheads during nightly feeding forays puts him in contact with a parade of flatheads from nearby holes, Halgren’s tactic of fishing in daytime lairs requires a skilled eye and precise bait placement.
Halgren looks for what he calls, “territorial water” — holes and logjams that offer flatheads a unique combination of current, structure, and other factors he has learned make some areas more attractive to flatheads than others.
“It takes practice to learn which holes or logjams are the good ones, and exactly where in those holes or logjams you need to put your baits,” he said. “In general, you want a big logjam that’s been around for a while, in deep water with current flowing through it, not around it. The best jams seem to be along a sharp bend in the river after a long straight stretch, where a lot of trees from the straight stretch end up in a really big jam at the bend.”
Halgren first fishes the hole that’s carved at the upper end of logjams, then the sides, and then picks and probes deep within the logjam itself. He uses heavy weights to hold his baits exactly where he initially places them.
“After all these years, I can almost ‘see’ where the big ones are laying, and I try to put my baits right in front of their nose so they can’t ignore it. In September, when I’m using great big bullheads or suckers or even carp, it can take a pretty good weight just to keep the baitfish from moving the rig.”
Many anglers are reluctant to put baits in the tangled depths of logjams for fear of losing tackle. Halgren says lost tackle is the price an angler has to pay in order to catch big flatheads.
“You’re going to lose tackle if you go after the big ones during the daytime because you’ve got to fish back in the snags where they’re hiding,” he said. “Once you hook them, they’re pretty sure they want to stay in that logjam, and I’m pretty sure I want them out, so it’s a plain ol’ tug of war to get them out before they wrap you around a snag.”
Steve Ryan often fishes rivers for flatheads using Halgren’s daytime tactics. He prepares for the tug of war by selecting 7-foot-long, heavy-action rods equipped with Abu Garcia 6500 or 7000 baitcasting reels loaded with 80-pound-test PowerPro line.
“You’ve got to have confidence in your equipment, because it comes down to a test of wills,” said Ryan. “As soon as you know you’ve got him hooked, you’ve got to turn him, got to literally pull him out away from the junk. There are a lot of times when I’ve put both thumbs on the spool of my reel to lock it and worked that rod with everything I had. It’s literally muscle against muscle, and any flathead over 40 pounds has enough muscle to make you wonder who is stronger.”
TACTICS FOR EARLY FALL FLATHEADS
Let’s take a moment to compile what we’ve learned about seasonal and daily flathead movement and use it to develop tactics to take advantage of those movements during the early fall.
When the weather is still warm, flatheads will still be in their summer haunts, feeding at night and defending their lairs by day. Bigger baits tend to be more attractive than smaller baits. By some innate sense, hungry, aggressive flatheads understand it’s more efficient to eat one large, 1- or 2-pound baitfish in a single gulp than to chase down half a dozen 1/4- to 1/2-pound smaller fish.
Anglers who determine “choke points” in their favorite rivers, locations where migrating flatheads are funneled through a particular channel, logjam or other structural feature, can enjoy access on a slow parade of flatheads making their move toward wintering areas. Prime spots in holes or logjams may be temporarily occupied by a succession of migrating flatheads as they move through the area.
Early fall is a nexus for flathead patterns that makes it the best time to catch the biggest flatheads of the year. Changing seasons increase appetites and eventually uproot flatheads from their summer homes, making them more accessible to knowledgeable anglers as the big fish make seasonal migrations.
Casual catfish catchers may surrender to the season once temperatures cool, but for serious hunters of flathead catfish, early fall offers the best catfishing of the year.