By Bob Bledsoe
If ever there was a catfish that deserved the status of game fish, it’s the Oklahoma flathead.
Of all the North American catfish, the flathead is the only one that you’ll never find eating carrion or decaying garbage. Those kind of substances are the favorite foods of the revered channel catfish, which does have game fish status in Oklahoma and many other states.
But in Oklahoma the flathead is still legally considered a “rough fish,” right along with carp, suckers and other bottom-feeders.
Yes, there are limits on flatheads. There is even a minimum length limit – 20 inches – imposed a decade or more ago because of heavy fishing pressure on flatheads in many of our state waters.
But flatheads are still legally rough fish, an undeserved bad rap in my opinion.
I’ll grant you that a flathead is one of the ugliest creatures you’re likely to run across. But, hey, who am I to criticize anything’s looks?
I admire flatheads because they are pure predators. They like to catch their food alive. That’s why stink baits, blood baits and all those other smelly concoctions that channel catfishermen rely on are pretty much worthless when fishing for flatheads. Oh yes, if you fish those things long enough in enough places, you might snag a flathead somewhere. But you’re more likely to catch a flathead on a crankbait fished along a rocky shoreline or a jig hopped around a submerged brushpile than on a hook covered with stink bait.
I’ve caught numerous flatheads on crankbaits at Lake Keystone near Tulsa. They’ve attacked crawfish-pattern and shad-pattern crankbaits there on many occasions over the years. I recall a few years ago when a women’s bass tournament was being held on the lake. One of the contestants hooked a 46-pound flathead on a crankbait while fishing the riprap near the Highway 51 bridge over Salt Creek. Another angler with a wide-mouthed landing net, meant for landing big stripers, came to the lady angler’s rescue and netted the fish, only to have the net break when they lifted the fish into the boat.
Most anglers who fish for flatheads – and there are a number of fishermen who fish almost exclusively for these creatures – will tell you that small- to medium-sized sunfish are the best baits. Some prefer green sunfish. Others say bluegills or long-eared sunfish are best. Still other anglers use small carp or drum, or big shiners or goldfish, or even live shad. However, shad are so difficult to keep alive, both in a tank and on the hook, that they are not among the usually favored baits for catching flatheads.
Crawfish can also be an effective bait for flatheads, as can leeches and big lively night crawlers. But night crawlers, like the shad, tend to die on the hook too quickly, and so aren’t always the most desirable bait. They’re OK when rod-and-line fishing and when you can check your bait frequently, replacing dead worms with fresh ones. But for limblining, juglining, trotlining or any other kind of fishing where the lines are left unattended for a while, it may be best to use a hardier form of bait.
Growing up in Western Oklahoma, I had a neighbor who lived to set trotlines in creeks and rivers. He loved channel catfish, but he took special delight in pulling up a line and finding a big flathead thrashing on one of his hooks. When baiting his lines he picked carefully through the buckets – which contained assortments of small fish and crawfish that he sometimes paid us neighborhood kids to seine from local creeks for him – looking for just the right baits to entice a flathead.
Any time we provided a bullhead catfish of the right size – about 5 or 6 inches long – he’d hook that on a trotline hook and say it would probably catch a flathead. The sunfish and big shiners he usually hooked through the back, just below the dorsal fin. The bullheads, for some reason, he hooked through the lower lip, bringing the hook up from the bottom.
I don’t know why he hooked the bullheads differently. And while I’ve run a few trotlines myself over the years, I don’t believe I’ve ever used a bullhead for bait.
I do remember, though, that my neighbor often caught flatheads that weighed anywhere from 25 pounds up to 45 and 50 pounds, and that he said bullheads were great baits.
Keith Sutton, the Arkansas catfishing enthusiasts who has written books and dozens of magazine articles about fishing for trophy-sized cats of all species, also advocates using bullheads as baits for catching big flatheads.
My childhood neighbor frequently brought home big flatheads and said they were from Eagle Chief Creek, a stream that flows through the shortgrass prairies and sandhills about 20 miles west of Enid. He also set trotlines in other creeks in that portion of the state, many of which I no longer remember the names.
Virtually all of Oklahoma’s rivers and creeks hold flatheads. Even some of the smaller creeks have produced flatheads of surprising dimensions. I’d be surprised if there were any large reservoirs in Oklahoma that didn’t hold flatheads. There may be some small municipal impoundments that have few or no flatheads, and there are farm ponds and maybe some watershed lakes that are devoid of the species. But most permanent, free-flowing streams in the state contain flatheads. Most of the lakes and reservoirs that were dammed up along those streams contain them as well. Flatheads are perhaps one of the most widespread species in the state.
You have only to drive Oklahoma’s rural roads to see evidence of how widespread they are – and how many big specimens are caught! I don’t know how the practice got started, but many flathead catchers place the heads of their catches on fenceposts along highways and section-line roads. It’s not unusual while driving down an Oklahoma country road to see a line of a dozen fenceposts topped by desiccated catfish heads staring at the sky. Yes, it’s pretty ugly, but it’s a tradition.
There are few freshwater fish that afford inland anglers the opportunity to catch fish weighing more than 50 pounds. But 50-pound or bigger flatheads are caught frequently in Oklahoma. Some specimens even grow much larger, approaching the 106-pound size of the unrestricted-division state-record fish that was caught 27 years ago at Wister Lake by trotliner Claudie Clubb.
Although I’ve never caught one bigger than the mid-40s, I’ve seen several specimens weighing in the 60s and one that weighed 87 pounds. T
he state rod-and-line record catch is a 71-pounder that was caught at Lake Oologah, northeast of Tulsa, in 1998 by James Skipper.
Just about every method that can be used to catch fish is used to catch flatheads. I even watched an inebriated college student leap off of a dock into Stillwater’s Boomer Lake to wrestle a big flathead that came swimming up to the surface beside the dock.
I don’t know if the fish was ill or dying, but it swam lethargically on the surface, waggling its head like a carp sucking air. The young man, who had perhaps dipped into the cooler once or twice too often, handed his wallet to me, a stranger, and jumped feet-first astride the catfish and grabbed it. He waded to shore with his thrashing prize, which weighed, I estimated, about 25 or 26 pounds.
He retrieved his billfold, threw his trophy catch and his beer cooler in the trunk of his car, and drove away, dripping, to show off his big catfish to friends.
He certainly wasn’t the first person to grab a big flathead by hand. Most noodlers rate flatheads as their favorite species. Noodling is mano y mano fishing – grabbing catfish from their dens or spawning lairs by hand and wrestling them to the surface. It’s a summertime staple in many Oklahoma families. Fathers and sons, and even the occasional mother or daughter, probe holes in rocky shorelines of lakes, undercut banks in creeks or rivers, or brushpiles in the bends of creeks – feeling for catfish.
When you grab even a moderate-sized flathead catfish in this manner for the first time, you may wonder who has caught whom? Their rasp-like teeth and their thrashing, head-shaking fight has forced more than one noodler to let go and then struggle to get away from the fish they disturbed.
But with determination – and a pair of gloves – a noodler can usually pull the fish out of its den and gain control, at least for long enough to toss the fish into a boat or onto the shore, or to stick a rope through the mouth and gills.
This type of fishing is not for sissies. Stories abound about noodlers encountering beavers, snapping turtles, snakes and other terrors. I’ve never actually talked to a noodler who has been bitten by anything other than catfish while noodling, but I’ve known several noodlers over the years whose wrists and forearms were scarred by wounds received while wrestling a big flathead.
Flatheads are not only armed with teeth, they have some sharp spikes, made of cartilage or something like it, on a semi-circular plate inside their gills. You’d never encounter those spikes in normal handling of the fish if you caught in on a rod and line or trotline, but if you do what many noodlers do – stick your hand far enough inside the flathead’s mouth to grab the fish by the gills from the inside, you risk getting raked by those spikes if the fish pulls away from you.
The next time you catch a good-sized flathead by any method, open the gills and separate the gill lobes enough so that you can examine that ring of spikes.
Noodling isn’t a solo sport. It should be done only with a companion or in groups. It can be done throughout the warmer months, but it is particularly good from late May through mid-July, when catfish are spawning in shoreline caves and crevices.
Because flatheads grow so large, heavy tackle is often needed for catching them. Yes, I know, big fish can be landed on light tackle. But if you have an 80-pound flathead hooked on 6-pound-test line, it will probably just go sulk beneath a log or in a rocky crevice and you’ll have to break your line. Like other catfish, flatheads thrash and roll when fighting, and so are harder to land on light line than many other species. You can land most of the bigger fish on 17- or 20-pound line, as long as the fish doesn’t wrap the line around submerged snags, but anything lighter than 14-pound line is probably a losing proposition if you hook into a big flathead.
Because catfish in general don’t seem to be very line-shy, many anglers use braided lines or larger-diameter monofilament lines of 20-pound-test or greater. Some use even much heavier line.
Many catfish rod-and-line anglers prefer long rods with a fairly strong spine, which allow them to steer a fish while fighting it. And most experienced flathead anglers use strong steel hooks of 3/0 or larger, so that the hooks won’t be straightened or bent by the fish.
Even limbliners and trotliners must make allowances if they’re planning to catch really big flatheads. Some limbliners make sure their lines are tied to flexible, springy overhanging branches, so that a big flathead can’t put too much pressure directly on the line. Others use pieces of surgical tubing or “rings” cut from tire inner tubes to create a stretchy, shock-absorbing section in the line if the lines are tied to heavy branches or rigid objects.
I once tied several mechanical “yo-yos” – those spring-loaded fishing devices that are triggered by a striking fish and then maintain pressure on the catch until the line is checked – to some logs anchored in the sandy bottoms of the Arkansas Riverbed below Tulsa, hoping to catch big flatheads. I did catch a few smaller flatheads and channel cats, but one of my yo-yos also had the hook straightened out. A big fish had to pull all of the line off of the yo-yo, against the spring, and with enough additional pressure to straighten the 4/0 hook I was using. I know there are fish in the river large enough to do so, but I was still surprised to see it.
If you’re rod-and-line fishing, it’s a good idea to keep your rods in secure holders. Even a medium-sized channel or blue catfish can jerk a rod into the water and drag it away in the blink of an eye. A big flathead can abscond with your rods just as quickly, unless they are secured in some fashion.
Where can big flatheads be caught in Oklahoma? Just about anywhere there is a big lake or a free-flowing stream.
In northeastern Oklahoma, the Verdigris and Neosho rivers, the upper Illinois River, plus numerous creeks in every county can yield good results for anglers or noodlers. And don’t forget the Arkansas River, the biggest of all state streams.
All of the large reservoirs created by dams on those rivers are good flathead fisheries as well. Lake Keystone, near Tulsa, is especially noted for producing lots of flatheads.
The upper Washita, the North and South Canadian rivers, the Cimarron River, plus many creeks, are promising flathead fisheries in northwestern Oklahoma counties. Those rivers flow through several central counties as well.
In the southeast, the lower Canadian River between the Eufaula Dam and Kerr Lake, the Poteau River, and the Little River, Kiamichi River and Mountain Fork River all produce some hefty flatheads.
The Red River and the lower Washita River in the southwestern quarter of the state are good. There are also a number of creeks in the Lawton area that produce trophy-sized flatheads.
in what part of the state you live and fish, there’s a stream or lake nearby that holds these gamest of all Oklahoma catfish.
This time of year is spawning time for flatheads. Some anglers prefer other seasons, saying they catch more flatheads when they aren’t spawning. That’s because there are probably more fish on the prowl then. During the spawn, many of the adult fish are holed up in riprap, in caves or beneath rocky overhangs or big logs – wherever they’ve chosen to deposit their fertilized eggs.
But that just means they’re more predictable than ever right now. And once you’ve found a spawning area, it will probably remain a spawning area for years to come, barring significant changes in the habitat.
Just remember to throw ‘em back if they’re less than 20 inches.
And be prepared for a “shock and awe” reaction from your friends and neighbors if you come home with one of the really big ones.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Oklahoma Game & Fish