Ugly As Mud!

Ugly As Mud!

Unfortunately, it is true that a flathead catfish has a mug that only its mother could love. On the other hand, many anglers do love these bruisers. Let's look at the best places in the Peach State in which to find them.

By Kevin Dallmier

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Still, with a mug only a mother could love, the flathead catfish won't be winning any beauty contests anytime soon.

To catfish anglers, though, the flathead's homeliness is more than made up for by its qualifications as a sport fish. Because of its preference for live bait and its large size, the flathead is usually at the top of the food chain wherever it is found. A large flathead is the bully on the block that other fish fear.

Flatheads are native to some waters in Georgia that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, namely those in the Coosa River system. In recent years their range has expanded via illegal introductions into other drainages as well. Even Atlantic Ocean drainages like the Altamaha River have not been immune to the introduction of this voracious species. In some areas of introduction, flathead catfish have seriously impacted native fish species like redbreast sunfish and bullheads.

The flathead catfish is a creature of large streams, rivers and reservoirs. Flatheads use a variety of habitats, but in moving water they are rarely found in areas of high gradient or intermittent flow. In reservoirs, flatheads usually associate with submerged channels.

The flathead catfish is a solitary species and usually any one logjam or other piece of cover yields only a few adult flatheads. Flatheads feed actively at night and spend the daylight hours loafing in a favorite deep hole before venturing shallow to feed.

Flatheads prefer their prey alive and kicking, and they rarely eat anything dead or decaying. Any fish that the flathead can fit into its mouth would be wise not to venture too close to this catfish's gaping maw. Sunfish and small catfish are popular prey items.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Flatheads are slender catfish with broad, flat heads. The back and sides are a pale yellow to light brown, mottled with dark brown or black, and the belly is a pale yellow or cream white. The upper lobe of the rounded or slightly notched tail is often tipped in white. Anglers can distinguish flatheads from other Georgia catfish species by the fish's white-tipped tail and a belligerent facial expression that is due to a lower jaw which extends slightly beyond the upper jaw.

Flathead spawning is similar to other catfish. A shallow depression is excavated in a natural cavity - a hollow log, for example - or near some other submerged object. The female releases the eggs into the nest and then the male fertilizes them. The parents guard the nest and continuously fan it to keep silt from covering the eggs and smothering them. After hatching, the small catfish remain tightly schooled near the nest for several days before heading out for a solitary life of their own.

Many anglers feel that a large flathead, unlike other catfish species, is just as tasty and tender as a fiddler-sized specimen. A big flathead will yield a lot of meat that is delicious battered and deep-fried or cooked by whatever method you prefer.

Flathead catfish are one of the largest Georgia sport fish. The Georgia record flathead catfish weighed 67 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught in 2000 from the Altamaha River.

So how do you go about catching one of these monsters? Live bait on heavy tackle is the best and really only way to go for challenging monster flatheads. Light saltwater tackle may even need to be considered. If you plan on tangling with a monster flathead, 25-pound-test line is the minimum.

A sunfish or shad makes good bait and is usually fished on the bottom. A standard fish-finder rig consisting of a sliding sinker, a heavy swivel trailed by a 3-foot leader of heavy monofilament, and a large sturdy hook make up a simple yet productive rig. The current dictates how much lead is required to keep the bait in place.

The bait should be hooked to keep it as lively as possible. Cast the rig out into a likely place, like a logjam in a deep channel bend, a feeding flat at the head of a deep pool, or on the edge of a submerged channel, and wait the fish out. Flathead bites may not be many, but they can produce the largest fish you have ever caught.

When a bite is detected, be patient until you are sure the fish has completely taken the bait and then strike with all the force you can muster. Flatheads put up a bulldog fight, using their brute strength to prevent being brought to the surface.

Now that we know a little bit about our quarry, let's look at some of the best places in Georgia for tangling with a flathead catfish. You may run into a flathead on other lakes and rivers, but the fishing holes listed below are the best bets for flathead catfish in the Peach State.

ALTAMAHA RIVER
Peaceful, full of fish, and laced with history, the Altamaha River is as close to perfect as there is. The Altamaha is the largest river in Georgia, and one of few rivers left in the state not impounded at some point along its course. With 137 miles of river downstream of where the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers join to form the Altamaha, it is the largest flow found entirely within the Peach State.

The Altamaha River has always been important for travel, commerce and recreation. During the steamboat era, paddle-wheelers used the river as a highway and freight route to and from the coast. The river was also used to float logs from the rich timberland downstream to the once-thriving port of Darien, from which the logs were sent to overseas markets.

The Altamaha has seen some changes in more recent years. Even the arrival of the European culture and the passing of the steamboat era did not directly affect the fish in the same way as the introduction of flathead catfish. Non-native flatheads were illegally introduced into the river sometime in the 1970s and have dramatically changed the fishing the river offers. The angling for other species, notably redbreast sunfish, has suffered because of the flathead's predatory nature and blossoming numbers.

On the other hand, anglers are taking advantage of this new resource. Pulling huge flatheads from the Altamaha River's deep holes has become a favorite South Georgia pastime. Throughout the 1990s, big flatheads were coming from the Altamaha so regularly that the ink wouldn't be dry on one state record certificate before another, even larger fish had been landed and brought to the scales. The Altamaha River is without a doubt the premier destination in Georgia for flathead cat

fish.

The Altamaha is a wide and meandering river. Bends and turns in the river channel are always the most productive areas to fish, and the Altamaha has plenty. That fact, along with the fertile South Georgia soil, may explain why the Altamaha is such a fine fishery.

Since their introduction, flathead catfish have spread throughout the entire Altamaha River. However, the lower half of the river has the most fish and offers the best fishing. Flatheads can be found even into the tidal zone, although their numbers decrease the farther into the brackish water you go.

Anglers shouldn't completely overlook the upper river, though, as it has produced flathead catfish of state- record proportions.

Fishing pressure on the upper Altamaha is relatively light. No major population centers are along its course, and this undoubtedly helps account for the uncrowded conditions. The lower river has more fish, and consequently, more fishermen. Too, Brunswick is nearby, and Savannah and Jacksonville are easy drives away, so you should expect more company out on the water there.

The river stage strongly influences fishing. As always, current dictates how the fishing will be. High water generally means a poor day, and stable or falling water means your chances of catching fish are good. Since the Altamaha drainage is large and extends well up into the Piedmont, weather conditions many miles away play a role in what the local river is doing.

Even if South Georgia is dry, heavy rains in central Georgia can cause a rise in the river, albeit a delayed one, as the river swells with muddy water trying to make its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The best fishing is when the U.S. Geological Survey river level gauge near Baxley is at 3.5 to 5.5. When the reading is above 6.5, fishing is going to be very tough. Low readings of 0.5 to 2.5 result in good fishing, but navigating the river can become a problem. The ideal time to fish is in late spring or early autumn when water levels are ideal and the heat and bugs tolerable.

The river is full of good places to fish, but there are specific locations anglers may want to keep in mind. Upstream from U.S. Highway 84, the big bends in the river have plenty of cover and deep holes. Overall, the highest densities of flatheads are found between Jaycees Landing (river mile 67) and Altamaha Park (river mile 30).

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) publishes a great resource booklet titled Guide To Fishing The Altamaha River. The free guide includes a river map and has information on launch sites, camping and fishing hints. As a quick glance at the guide shows, access is excellent, with a selection of public ramps and private fish camps up and down the river. Contact the WRD Waycross Fisheries Section office at (912) 285-6094 to obtain a copy. Also available free from the WRD is a booklet titled Flathead Catfish Fishing Guide, which includes everything you need to know about flathead catfishing.

COOSA RIVER
Heading to the opposite corner of the state, northwest Georgia offers good opportunities for flathead catfish. The species is native to northwest Georgia waters in the Coosa River basin. Undoubtedly, the best place for tangling with a monster flathead is the Coosa River itself.

The Etowah and Oostanaula rivers meet in downtown Rome to form the Coosa River, which then works its way toward Alabama and Weiss Lake. The section of the river from Mayo's Bar Lock and Dam downstream to the state line is the most popular with anglers. It won't take a very long look at the river before you spot a good catfish possibility. Deep holes are the places to look for. Likely areas include creek mouths, outside bends and bluff banks.

Gizzard shad are the favorite bait of northwest Georgia catfish anglers. Although the river is full of shad, sometimes the hardest part of the fishing trip can be catching these baitfish. Look for shad in the shallow backwater sloughs off the main river. If the shad are working the top, a few decent throws of the cast net should result in plenty of bait. Consider freezing any leftover bait for use on days when the shad are hard to find.

Coosa flatheads are in an unfamiliar position. There are actually some fish swimming around out there that are just as big as they are or even bigger. Blue catfish grow to trophy proportions in the Coosa and are more common than flatheads, although there are plenty of both species. Big channel cats are also present. To add another ingredient to the mix, the Coosa system is home to a large population of striped bass, some exceeding 40 pounds. Put all of these species together, add in their shared affinity for a tasty gizzard shad, and you have a heavy-tackle smorgasbord. You won't know what the next strike may bring, but you do know that whatever it is, it will pull like a freight train.

May through August is prime time for this type of fishing. The spring floods are gone, and the river should be within its banks and stable. As the dog days of summer set in, stripers depart for the cool-water refuges of smaller tributaries farther upstream. The catfish, though, find the warm water to their liking and don't feel the need to pack up and move shop. They stay right where they always are, in the deep holes waiting for their next meal. Catfishing stays good all the way through the summer.

Access is good on the Coosa River, with several public boat ramps. The WRD publishes a booklet titled Guide To Fishing The Coosa River. The free guide includes a river map and has information on launch sites, camping and fishing hints. Copies are available by calling the Calhoun Fisheries Regional Office at (706) 624-1161.

CLARKS HILL LAKE
Clarks Hill Lake is an inland sea with 71,535 acres of water sprawling across the Georgia-South Carolina border. The impoundment has some monster flathead catfish, and at one time a Clarks Hill flathead held the state record. All the tributary arms of the reservoir have good catfishing, but the Little River arm on the Georgia side is hard to beat (there is also a Little River on the South Carolina side of the lake).

Since the lake is so huge, anglers would do well to pick a tributary arm and concentrate their efforts there instead of wasting too much time traveling between holes. With more than 30 access points on the Georgia shore alone, fishermen should have no problem finding somewhere to launch their boat near good catfish holes. With all the access, bank anglers can find places where the deep water swings in close to the bank, improving their chances for success as well.

Lake fishing for flatheads is a little bit different game. Deep water is still the ticket, but not just any deep water will do. Look for areas near a channel that have another feature nearby - for example, a hump or long, tapering point. Any cover on the bottom just sweetens the spot. Once you have found a hole that has promise, anchor up and start soaking some bait. Give the fish a reasonable chance to cooperate, and if there is still no action, crank up and head to another spot.

To

cover more water, some anglers prefer to fish vertically, using the wind or a trolling motor to slowly move the bait along the bottom near a good channel ledge.

Clarks Hill Lake is just a few miles northwest of Augusta and is easily reached from U.S. highways 221 and 378 from Interstate 20. For more information about the many recreational opportunities offered at Clarks Hill Lake, contact the project manager's office at 1-800-533-3478.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Dallmier is a fisheries biologist who makes his home in Menlo. He is a frequent contributor to Georgia Sportsman and the author of Fishing Georgia, a FalconGuide book about fishing in the Peach State. Autographed copies can be ordered from the author for $21 (postage paid) by mailing a check to 90 Dogwood Hill, Menlo, GA 30731.

To obtain more information about the Fishing Georgia book, visit www.alltel.net/~kevin90/index.html.



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