Colorado River Flatheads
September 29, 2010
While every other Southern California angler is chasing blues and channels at Irvine and San Vincente, take a friend and head to the Colorado River near Blythe for some excellent catfishin' away from the crowds. (June 2007)
Here's a nice flathead. But in 2003, a Blythe angler caught a 72-pounder -- a record that still holds.
Photo by Marvin Spivey.
It was 6 p.m. when Ronson Smothers noted that it was 119 degrees. Smothers was cruising down the grade into Blythe on his way to go catfishing in the Colorado River.
"Don't worry," he said. "It will cool off tonight. Make sure you bring a long-sleeve shirt. It might get down to 90."
Summer can be unbearable along the California-Arizona border, where the Colorado River weaves its way through the desert and establishes the state line. But if you can stand the heat and have a boat, you can get in on the best big-catfish action in the West.
June through August, the Colorado River can be one of the wildest places in California. By day, thousands of rowdy adults and rowdier teenagers turn it into a bar scene. They beach their boats on sandbars and ride jet boats and WaveRunners at warp speed. Things get crazy.
That, however, is the story by day. Come evening, as the sun sets along the Western horizon, the crowds retreat to trailer parks, campgrounds and hotels. Jet boats are abandoned in parking lots, and most folks are nursing sunburns or taking their party elsewhere.
When the crowds go, opportunity arrives for anglers looking to tap into a great catfish bite.
For more than a half century, the Colorado River has been one of the state's top catfish fisheries, yet for some reason, few folks fish it.
The fishery is far from California's metropolitan areas, and it isn't promoted at all. There is very little information available to anglers looking to tackle it.
Even so, anglers looking to step outside of their comfort zone and learn a new method of fishing can find what no other spot in California offers: great numbers of trophy flathead catfish and great fishing for channel cats.
In California, flathead catfish are about as common as walleye and pickerel. But in the Colorado River downstream of Lake Havasu, they flourish.
In 2003, Blythe resident Billy Joe Potter set a new state record here when he landed a 72-pound, 14-ounce flathead. The fish was 53.5 inches long and had a 36-inch girth.
Amazingly, larger fish are still out there.
"For years I wanted to go fish the Colorado River for big flatheads," said Smothers, the former state-record holder. "The flatheads were the catfish that I hadn't really conquered. I knew they got big, and I wanted to go down and see if I can learn how to go after the trophies."
Smothers learned well and he's now hooked.
You can catch them all year long, but June through October marks the best time to chase them. For Smothers and other catfish hunters, summertime fits their schedule well.
Sutherland, Irvine Lake, San Vicente, Casitas, Jennings lakes and most Southern California reservoirs kick out only small channel cats during the summer. But a trip to the Colorado River gives anglers an opportunity to record enormous catfish.
LIVE BAIT ONLY
Be prepared to try a new form of catfish fishing. Angling for flatheads is much different than targeting channel catfish. Oddly enough, traditional catfish baits such as night crawlers, chicken and beef liver, stinkbaits, sardines and anchovies can be left at home. The best way to catch flatheads, hands down, is with live bait: small carp, goldfish and bluegills. These fish are looking for a meal, rather than a snack.
"It's a whole different kind of fishing," said Smothers. "I mean, once you set your clicker, and you hear the bite for the first time, you'll be hooked."
As you probably know, it's against the law to fish with live bluegills just about anywhere in California. However, the Colorado River region has an exemption that enables anglers to use live baits.
"It's exciting to get hit with a huge live bait in freshwater. It's something that we don't get to experience in most California waters," Smothers said. "The strikes are very exciting, especially at night."
Flatheads are more likely to take live prey, be it tilapia, bluegills, redear, crappie, carp or goldfish.
"I don't know why," Smothers says. "But the locals say that the flatheads will only take the live bait."
Smothers has tried the Catmando bait and mackerel. The channels will take it, but the flatheads haven't yet, he said.
You can use live bait here, but you can't bring it from any other body of water. California law prohibits anglers from catching bluegills or other panfish in one water and transporting them to another for bait. Therefore, most anglers arrive in the evening and catch a dozen or so bluegills from sloughs or canals leading into the Colorado River. Then as night falls, the bluegills become bait. Catching them is easy as long as you can cope with the extreme heat.
Some anglers head to Asian fish markets and buy live carp and goldfish for bait as well. But this can get expensive -- quick.
Smothers said that at night, the river is a different world. It's incredibly dark, and the only sounds you'll hear are frogs. That, and line screaming off your reel.
"And you know they are biting a nice-size bluegill, so you are thinking that it's a pretty big fish to eat a bluegill," said the catfisherman.
While most anglers here haven't been exposed to braided line, it may be the best option. The reason is simple: You have to handle 50-pound fish, and for anglers heading into the tules, that spells doom.
With mono line, chances are you aren't going to be able to horse the fish out of the weeds and tules. Nevertheless, most locals employ 30- to 40-pound mono anyway.
When using the live bait, Smothers fishes with an 8/0 octopus circle or 10/0 Big River Bait Hook by Gamakatsu.
"They are big enough to go through t
he bait and still leave the hook exposed," Smothers says. "These allow the hook to pierce the inside of the fish's mouth and get set. The smallest I'd go with would be an 8/0."
Hooking the fish properly is imperative. Smothers says that he pierces the hook between the dorsal fin and the tail. That allows the fish to stay alive after you've stuck the hook through it.
"I'd say the baits last up to an hour. I think the water drowns them," Smothers explains. "I check the baits about once an hour. The goldfish seem to last much longer. The goldfish last at least a couple of hours. I don't know if they ever die. They are pretty strong."
Anglers must fish with weights to properly approach the fishery. When faced with a slow current, 2 ounces will get you by. But in a fast-moving current, you may need up to 6 ounces.
Going after channel catfish, you can target the same areas, but you'll need to change the baits. The channels will eat Catmando baits, mackerel, liver, sardines, anchovies and other stinkbaits.
It's also exciting to use live bait. But even better is that are no crowds to contend with, and almost no fishing pressure. Even if reports out of the region say that catfish angling is excellent, you'll have an entire stretch of river to yourself.
"You don't have to worry about keeping your spot, because there's almost nobody on the water. It's like a different world. You hear the bullfrogs. You can get a little scared if you are too close to the tules. It's just eerie," Smothers added.
"Sometimes you wonder what might swim out of the tules. Usually in the city you know what's around, but out there you don't know what might come out. Fishing on the river is real nature. It's not like there's a patrolman to come pick you up. It can be dangerous. You have to always stay alert. You have to always go with someone else."
At night, fishing is a straightforward game, meaning you cast the live baits out, and sit and wait. It's best to use reels with clickers and loosen your drag. This enables you to hear the bite. It can be a challenge to see it at night. Smothers says it's important not to set the hook when you first get bit, rather to wait until the fish swallows it first.
THE BIG CHALLENGE
The word "river" has a different meaning out here. It's not the same kind of river you'd expect in the mountains or foothills. The shorelines are bare. Tules line much of the bank and where they don't, homes and trailer parks do. Most of the shoreline is steep, roughly five to 15 feet high and composed of dirt and sand. There isn't much great shoreline access. You pretty much need a boat to tackle the Colorado River's flatheads.
The biggest challenge in fishing for flatheads here is learning how to do it. There are several reasons why so few anglers try to tackle this fishery. One of the biggest is that they are simply intimidated. The river isn't like a reservoir, where loads of thousands of fish are stocked each week, fish reports are easy to come by and hotspots are well mapped out. Here, you're on your own.
"It's flathead fishing. The locals that do catch them keep it quiet, or they aren't interested in publicizing them," Smothers said. "I met a guy in a trailer park that showed me how to do it. The catfish fishing here is not a moneymaking situation. It's not advertised in the magazines, so no one goes there."
You won't find much about flathead catfish by sifting through local tourism guides, websites and brochures. The marinas sell some fishing bait, but are more concerned with selling beer and ice cream.
"I think there's some big catfish in the river," said a woman at the Blythe Chamber of Commerce, who didn't want to give her name. "But we don't have any fishing information. People come here with their boats. Would you like camping info? I know of a few good places to park your RV."
The California Department of Fish and Game doesn't take an active role in managing the Colorado River. There's simply no need -- the fishery is healthy and maintains itself. No plants are necessary to maintain the catfish population.
"We don't stock it," said Mike Giusti, DFG biologist. "We are well aware of the big flatheads that are there. They are definitely the biggest in Southern California, but we don't do any surveys on them. They get huge, though."
"Huge" may be an understatement. Colorado River flatheads can compete with the gigantic blue catfish found in many SoCal reservoirs. However, flatheads are more available and easier to catch than the elusive and rare blue cats. The river system and its sloughs and canals are loaded with flatheads. Channel cats are well established, but rarely targeted -- most likely because the flatheads are larger.
"I'd say the flatheads here need to be 40 pounds and up to be a big fish," Smothers added. "There might be some 70s or 80s in there. That's what I want to find out.
"I had a huge one on last time. But however big it was, it snapped my 40-pound leader in half. At first, I thought it was something other than a fish. But then I saw the eyes. I was a little scared to try to bring it in the boat. I mean, come on! I can't swim in a river, and I was afraid if I tried to lift it in the boat, it would pull me in.
"But I would have loved to see it. I'd say it was at least 40 pounds. And I know it wasn't a beaver or muskrat. They don't get that heavy or fight that hard."
On the Colorado, knowledge is more than half the battle.
Several factors can play a part in your success. The biggest is casting your live bait into optimal spots.
Most important is staying out of fast water and heavy current. When targeting flatheads, locating slow water is imperative. Often the most productive areas will be along the bank, outside the current and near the tules. Flatheads move into these areas to feed on the panfish that hang out inside the tules.
Finding slower water is part of your job, and make sure you do so an hour or two before you fish.
Fish this river with respect. The buddy system is imperative. If at all possible, don't venture onto the river alone. There are few fishing the river, especially at night.
It's extremely dark, and visibility is low. There are very shallow sandbars and other obstacles everywhere. When fighting massive flatheads, it's common for your boat to rapidly shift -- and accidents happen.
Also, once the sun goes down, the unwritten rule on the river is to stay put. Or if you have to move, idle for short distances. It's not safe to run the river at night. Wait until dawn before you run back to the launch ramp.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
California anglers can fish the Colorado River with a valid Californ
ia fishing license. However, they also need a Colorado River Special Use Permit, which sells for $3 and is available wherever fishing licenses are sold.
Flatheads can be found in the Colorado River and its sloughs and canals. However, the best fishing is concentrated between Parker Dam and downriver past the city of Blythe.
The river is open to fishing all year, but summer months provide the most consistent action.
Anglers may keep 10 catfish per day. Only in the Colorado River District can anglers legally use live or dead golden shiners, fathead minnows, red shiner, mosquitofish, longjaw mudsuckers, bluegills, tilapia, threadfin shad, goldfish, sunfish, mollies or dead carp for bait.
For more fishing, call guide Ronson Smothers at (323) 428-6731, B&B Tackle in Blythe at (760) 921-2248) or the Blythe Chamber of Commerce at (760) 922-8166.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Southern California. Learn more about his books at FishingCalifornia.net