Big and Ugly in Nebraska

Here's where in the Cornhusker State to cash in on the catfishing action for king-sized blues and just plain homely flatheads. (July 2006)

Rod Badberg caught this 40-inch Master Angler flathead -- just one of 16 MA cats that he's taken -- in 2004. The Lincoln resident set a catch-and-release record of 70 catfish last year!
Photo courtesy of Rod Badberg.

It's too bad that Mother Nature didn't put the flathead catfish in a better-looking package. There's no way that the uninitiated can look at this throwback to double-ugly and exclaim, "Isn't it a beauty!" -- unless, that is, the neophyte has hooked, played, and landed a specimen in the heavyweight class.

The flathead -- which has attracted monikers such as "mud cat," "yellow cat," "flatbelly cat," "granny cat," "shovelhead" and "bashaw" -- is one of the top three heavyweights found in Nebraska waters, and is a lot more plentiful than the blue catfish or the paddlefish, which can weigh in a bit heavier.

The state record for flatheads is held by an 80-pounder taken from the Loup Power Canal near Genoa in 1988 by Silver Creek's William Swanson, who was using a carp for bait. The blue record is 100 pounds; the paddlefish, 93.

The flathead's profile may give the impression that it'll eat practically anything, including the malodorous fare often eaten by its close relative the channel cat. But that's wrong: It prefers live bait and will often clamp down on artificial lures.

Nick Smith, a North Platte angler who's a firm believer in the aggressiveness of the flathead, was fishing a Shad Rap at Lake Maloney last year when he hooked and landed a 61-pound, 11-ounce specimen. It was the largest of the year to receive a Master Angler Award from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoir manager for the NGPC in Lincoln, is an ardent fan of fishing -- almost every kind. Last May he was throwing a Husky Jerk lure at Branched Oak Reservoir outside of Lincoln when something slammed it and dug in. When it finally gave up, Bauer put the tape on his fish and it measured 36 inches, which would put it in the 20-pound class.

"I was pretty sure what I had on the line -- a big flathead -- as that's what I was fishing for," said the biologist. "There aren't a lot of fishermen who use artificials to catch flatheads, but it does work -- particularly in May and June prior to the spawn. The cat is an aggressive predator, and a game fish that should garner the respect given others such as the muskie. They put up a really good fight, and if you hook into one 15 pounds or better, you will agree that they are not aerialists -- they're bulls!

Branched Oak is a total catch-and-release lake for wipers and flatheads, so the experienced angler can usually hook up with a pleasing fish or two, particularly late in the spring and early summer.

"We fish Branched Oak quite a bit," Bauer stated, "and it has a very good population of flatheads. The lake also has a good population of wipers -- the striped bass hybrid. I like to make a late-afternoon/evening fishing effort when I go. Fish for wipers well into the evening, and then work on the flatheads after dark, when they come in to shallow water to feed.

"I normally throw crankbaits for both species. Anything that resembles a shad will work. I think the vibration and the rattle set up by the crankbaits really helps on the yellow cats."

Bauer and Smith weren't the only anglers to land trophy flatheads on artificials. Here are some facts on "big ones" taken the past two years: Tim Herman of Lincoln, 42 pounds, Lake McConaughy, May, Fat Rap; Bruce Dyer of Aurora, 40 pounds, Sherman County Reservoir, August, unspecified artificial lure; Richard Waldren of Juniata, 36 pounds, Harlan County Reservoir, August, Shad Rap; Dennis Holliday of Lincoln, 36 pounds, Harlan, August, Bandit crankbait; Ryan Windhorst, of North Platte, 34 pounds, Harlan, July, Rapala crankbait; Larry Sabin of Gothenberg, 46 pounds, CNPPID Canal, April, Paddletail Shad; Kevin Wikoff, Lincoln, 44 inches, Branched Oak, April, crankbait; Jerry Randall of Valley, 40 inches, Sherman, September, crankbait; George Huff of McCook, 33 inches, Swanson Reservoir, August, Storm Hot-N-Tot.

According to Rod Badberg, a big flathead on the end of your line is worth a lot of fishing time whether it tries to eat an artificial or a live bait. The Lincoln angler, who catches most of his yellow cats on a jig-minnow or jig-crawler combination, hooked, landed and released around 70 flatheads running from 2 to 45 pounds at Branched Oak last year. He had 16 that qualified for a Master Angler award, which calls for a minimum weight of 15 pounds or 32 inches in length. The total weight of the 16 exceeded 438 pounds.

"I'm hooked on fishing flatheads at Branched Oak," he noted. "I've been fishing there for about 15 years, and no matter how many I catch and release, I can't wait to get hooked up again -- they are great fighters."

Badberg starts fishing for the big cats as soon as the ice goes out and stays with it through much of April. He loads his spinning rigs with 6- or 8-pound-test mono, ties on a 1/2-ounce jig and sweetens it up with a big minnow or a crawler; he then heads for deep water near structure that he's known the cats to use in previous years.

"I started fishing for the flatheads around 1990 after I caught some while fishing walleyes with a jig-minnow rig," he recalled. "I think it was the following year when I got serious about the yellow cats. They were running 2 to 6 pounds that year, and then the next year I was catching fish in the 6- to 10-pound class. Since then they have become heavyweights. I think I had a half-dozen over 40 inches last year."

Last year the Master Angler records showed the top five cats taken by the Lincoln angler as including a 46-incher caught on March 5, a 44-inch fish caught on March 15, a 46-incher and a 43-inch specimen on April 3, and a 45-incher on April 5.

The angler looking for a fight will find the flathead a worthy opponent, Badberg asserted. "If you haven't hooked and played a big one you can't believe the strength they have," he said. "I fish with light line, and my fishing partners agree that the contest equation comes out to about a minute per inch. I have had a couple of guys with me when they hooked into a big one and could barely stay with them until we could get the net under them."

Ron Pickel of Elm Creek declares his favorite spot for flatheads to be the Republican River above Harlan County Reservoir. His largest last year was a 43-incher that weighed 40 pounds; it inhaled a crawler.

"I fish quite a bit with my dad, Ed

, who lives in Alma," he said "Last year he caught one weighing 29 pounds on a crawdad while fishing in August. We normally use either crawlers or crawdads. We catch lots of 3- and 4-pounders. If I remember correctly, I had 15 that weighed over 12 pounds."

Pickel, 54, uses a baitcasting reel on a 9-foot rod and loads up with 20-pound-test line. "You need fairly heavy tackle fishing the river because of the snags and the current," he observed. "I like to fish the mornings best. We often start about an hour before sunrise and fish for three or four hours."

Columbus' Ron Furby fishes an engineered river -- the Loup Canal, northwest of Columbus. He catches most of his big flatheads on banklines. His largest to date has been close to 60 pounds.

"The unknowing just don't realize how tough the big flatheads are," he said. "I watch what I'm doing when I find I have a big one hooked on a bankline. I make sure I can let go of the line if he decides to head for the barn. I would hate to get tangled up in the line and have the cat pull me into the canal -- and I'm convinced they could do it!

"I do quite a bit of rod-and-reeling and catch a lot of channels as well as flatheads, but I get most of the big, yellow cats on my setlines, which I rig with 80-pound-test line. I think April, May and June are the best months for the big ones, but last year I caught one in the middle of June that measured an even 4 feet in length, and its estimated weight was about 50 pounds. My largest to date weighed 60 pounds. I caught it on the canal above Lake Babcock three years ago.

"I usually use small carp and sunfish for the flatheads on my setlines," continued Furby. "I set the bank-pole so it puts the bait out about 5 feet from the bank and no more than a foot under the surface. I hook the baitfish under the dorsal fin and fish it with no weight.

"If fishing with a rod and reel, I often use large minnows and small sunfish. They work well on the channels and smaller flatheads. I don't use any fancy tackle, so to speak. My favorite is the Zebco 33 and I load it with 12-pound-test line."

For a complete list of flathead waters, check the 2006 edition of the Nebraska Fishing Guide.

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