By Kevin Yokum
It doesn’t matter whether you call them muddy bottom monsters, mud cats or brown bruisers, flathead catfish are hefty fighting machines. Basically, flatheads are one giant muscle, so it’s no wonder that their hard- fighting ability has made them a favorite quarry for summertime anglers.
Flatheads are by no means ordinary catfish. They prefer live prey. They put up a ferocious fight as good or better than any other freshwater game fish species, and they provide great angling action throughout the summer. But the main reason anglers have fallen in love with flatheads is their immense size. Other than blue cats, which are extremely rare in West Virginia, flatheads are the Mountain State’s largest game fish.
When I say big, I mean big. The current state record is an impressive 52-inch, 70-pound specimen that was caught way back in 1956 from the Little Kanawha River by L.L. McClung. The state’s flathead record has stood for a long time, but over the past few years several 60-pound-plus flatheads have been caught, and each year, flathead catches creep closer to the record.
Will you be the angler who lands West Virginia’s next flathead record? If you’re fishing in any of the following Mountain State waters, you just might be.
For years, Burnsville Lake anglers have enjoyed excellent catfishing and no species has generated more excitement than the lake’s mighty flatheads. Flatheads reach mammoth proportions in Burnsville, and fish greater than 60 pounds are caught from the lake each year.
Catfish like these were once thought to be a rarity in West Virginia reservoirs, but one angler will tell you that this isn’t the case with Burnsville Lake. Darrell Brown is a local fishing guide who specializes in catching giant flatheads from Burnsville. Brown has been very successful in his endeavor, catching over 200 trophy catfish from the lake, many ranging from 30 to 60 pounds.
Just how does an angler go about catching a 30-pound-plus flathead? It starts with selecting the right location. Look for shallow flats that are 3 to 10 feet deep and lie adjacent to deep pools or channels. Flats that have stumps or rock structure on them are more attractive for trophy flatheads than those that are devoid of structure. Brown says it is important to pay particular attention to the area upstream of the flats, as flatheads are more apt to travel upstream when looking for food.
Brown remains tight-lipped about revealing specific spots on his home lake, but he does say that areas with standing timber and cove mouths are prime spots to find giant flatheads. Areas such as Big Run, Knawls Creek and Little Knawls Creek have excellent tracts of standing timber and we all know that flatheads love to lie by old logs or submerged trees.
If you are coming to Burnsville, make sure to fish around the Division of Natural Resources’ (DNR) fish-attractor structures. Scattered around the lake, these tree-and-block structures act as magnets for many kinds of fish, and flatheads are no exception.
Enticed by thousands of bluegills, sunfish and crappie that use these structures, flatheads hang around these fish attractors a lot, especially during feeding time. Finding the structures is a fairly easy task because each fish attractor is clearly marked by buoys with the words “fish attractor” displayed across them.
Nighttime fishing can be particularly effective when catfishing, and most serious flathead anglers realize that when the sun goes down, the odds of catching a huge flathead in Burnsville Lake go way up. Biological studies have shown that catfish, particularly flatheads, become more active at night.
Local angler Brown catches most of his big cats while fishing after dark, but unlike most anglers, he imparts an unusual tactic. Brown doesn’t use a light or lantern when pursuing trophy catfish. In fact, the only light used is a small flashlight for checking his equipment.
Live bait is standard protocol for trophy flatheads, but before putting the bait on a hook, make sure it has been acclimated to the water temperature of the lake. Making sure not to shock a baitfish, by putting it into a different temperature water, increases the bait’s life span and ensures that the bait will be lively. Lively bait is much more likely to attract the attention of big catfish.
Goldfish are the preferred bait, but bluegills can also work well on trophy flatheads. Brown prefers to use large baits and feels that larger baits keep small catfish from interfering with his setup. Baits can be hooked through the tail or through the upper mouth, whichever an angler prefers. A 1-ounce egg sinker is placed just above the bait to secure it on the bottom at each selected location.
Brown says that Burnsville holds flatheads larger than the current state record and intends for one of his clients to establish the new record. He offers the following tips for catfish anglers coming to Burnsville Lake for the first time: Fish shallow water flats adjacent to deeper water, use large live bait, and bring heavy-duty tackle.
Anglers looking to fish Burnsville can reach the lake from access sites at either end. On the upper end of the lake, the Bulltown access site off U.S. Route 19 offers a three-lane launch ramp, which is open from April to November. The Riffle Run launch site, on the lower end of the lake, features a three-lane concrete ramp and is open year ’round. The quickest way to get to the Riffle Run site is to take Exit 79 from Interstate 79 and follow the signs to the lake.
Catfishing opportunities on Burnsville stretch well into the summer and plenty of prime action is still available in July and August. For those planning a trip to Burnsville, here is a little background information on the lake.
Burnsville is a 968-acre impoundment located in Braxton County almost in the center of West Virginia. Created by impounding the Little Kanawha River, Burnsville Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1978 for flood control and flow augmentation. Water depth in the lake averages around 17 feet and reaches a maximum depth of 90 feet near the dam. Water clarity in the lake maintains a slightly murky appearance and at times may get very turbid.
Bluestone is a 2,040-acre impoundment on the New River in Summers County. Filled with highly productive water, Bluestone Lake provides a great setting for growing big catfish. Anglers need to be aw
are that due to precipitation from the lake’s large drainage area and hydropower needs, Bluestone’s summer pool level fluctuates frequently.
Most anglers fishing near Hinton will be looking to hook up with big cats on the New River, but Bluestone Lake is a dynamic trophy flathead fishery in its own right.
Jim Reed of Three Rivers Edge in Hinton gets to witness lots of trophy catfish in his store. Anglers will bring them there so the fish can be weighed and measured for trophy fish citations. Reed has lived near Bluestone Lake for 41 years and is familiar with most of the local rivers and the lake. According to Reed, most of the flatheads brought to the store average between 15 and 20 pounds, but 30-pounders come along pretty regularly as well.
Reed feels that fishing on Bluestone Lake has really improved over the last few years and adds that there has definitely been an overall increase in the number of fish caught from the lake during that time. Additionally, Reed comments that the average size of individual catches has gone up, particularly among catfish. So there are bigger fish and more of them to catch. Sounds like the kind of trend that anglers dream about.
Bluestone has traditionally earned a reputation as a topnotch lake for channel catfish, but the lake also harbors some huge flatheads. According to Reed, the best catfishing locations are in the upper portions of the lake where the river channels start to narrow.
The New and the Bluestone rivers meet about a mile or so above the dam and each arm of the lake provides lots of riverine fishing opportunities on their upper ends. Over 10 miles of Bluestone Lake’s New River arm presents river characteristics that catfish seem to crave. Reed indicates that the New River arm offers better flathead fishing, primarily due to its larger size. He also adds that the Bluestone River arm has its share of big flatheads and probably receives less fishing pressure than the New River arm.
Reed revealed that one of the local hotspots that always seem to produce trophy flatheads lies near Bull Falls on the New River arm. Even during the winter, anglers seem to find quality flatheads in this area, and during the summer months, the area can provide dynamite angling.
Anglers may catch flatheads on an assortment of jigs and soft-plastic lures, but to hook up with trophy- sized catfish on a consistent basis, anglers rely on live bait. Bluegills and shad are popular with flathead anglers, but many anglers on Bluestone Lake use rock bass for flathead bait. Called redeyes or goggle eyes by some, these small river dwellers are abundant in the New River drainage. There is no doubt that rock bass serve as a fine meal for flatheads, and when one is dangling enticingly from a hook and line, it will likely be too tempting for a lunker flathead to resist.
Anglers traveling to Bluestone Lake will find a variety of public access sites to launch their boats. Many of the sites offer shoreline-fishing opportunities in addition to boat ramps. A good portion of Bluestone Lake runs along state Route (SR) 20 and two access ramps are actually visible from the highway. Access ramps can also be found on both arms of the lake, but the easiest ramp for visiting anglers to find is located just south of Hinton under the SR 20 bridge.
Created by the confluence of the Gauley and New rivers, the Kanawha River runs across half of West Virginia before dumping into the Ohio River near the Mason County town of Point Pleasant. Known as a river for producing big fish, none raise more eyebrows than the Kanawha’s mighty flatheads.
The Kanawha consistently ranks among the state’s top five waters for trophy flathead catfish, according to the West Virginia’s Trophy Fish Citation Program. It is not uncommon to see flatheads up to 50 pounds on the citation registry and the list usually includes at least a few 20 pounders each month, especially during the summer. If you don’t believe me, just ask Steven Sizemore of Hico. He caught a 25-pound, 8-ounce flathead from the Kanawha last August. During July and August alone, over 20 flathead catfish were registered with the West Virginia Trophy Citation Program (catfish must weigh over 10 pounds).
As with most large rivers, tailwater areas below dams on the Kanawha act as congregating points for various fish species. Large concentrations of baitfish and other forage entice top predators like flatheads to tailwater areas where they feed heavily. A good number of these trophy flatheads stay in these tailraces for several months, particularly during the summer when tailraces account for the river’s most significant moving water habitat.
The Winfield tailwaters have earned the reputation as one of the Kanawha River’s best locations for trophy flatheads. Every year, it seems that anglers catch a slew of trophy channel and flathead catfish from the waters immediately downstream of the lock. Favorite techniques include using live gizzard shad or large minnows while fishing along the edges of the strong tailrace current. This technique requires more attention than most catfishing techniques, but it can pay off when one of the “big boys” hits.
Anglers fishing the Winfield tailwaters also have the luxury of fishing from shore, as there is considerable room for shoreline fishermen along this productive tailrace. Shoreline anglers have a huge advantage of fishing around the access piers just below the dam. These piers are excellent fishing spots because the swirling currents pass close by, creating eddies for catfish to hold in. The Winfield tailwaters are located along U.S. Route 35 near Winfield.
Another hotspot for big flatheads on the Kanawha River is near the town of Buffalo. This small community is located along SR 62 about halfway between Charleston and Point Pleasant. Near Buffalo, a good-sized boat ramp, which can accommodate about 50 vehicles, provides anglers with the best access to this section of the Kanawha River.
Shoreline opportunities are very limited in this area, so serious fishing will require a boat. Anglers trying this particular area need to scour the river and search out the Kanawha’s deep pools. These large pools serve as prime habitat for many of the Kanawha’s mammoth flatheads. Anglers should pay special attention to the fact that many of the river’s best pools are located on river bends. These bend pools make great initial setup spots for anyone looking to encounter trophy flatheads. Try these areas for a bit, and if action is slow, then move to another spot.
Catfish anglers employ a variety of techniques, but Kanawha River fishermen catch most of their large flatheads by using live suckers and shad. They’ll place these live baits along either back eddies or main-river currents. Live suckers are especially effective for hefty flatheads in the Kanawha. Don’t be afraid to use suckers up to 20 inches or so. Remember, a flathead’s mouth can exceed 12 inches across, so these mud monsters can eat nearly anything you can cast on a rod.
One of my favorite tactics is to use heavy sinkers and fish live bait along swift current. This technique requires more work by the boat’s oarsman or trolling motor, but the largest fis
h often lie on the bottom near the current line.
Most anglers are aware that a “do not eat” advisory has been issued for the consumption of carp, suckers and catfish on the Kanawha River from the confluence of the Coal River to Point Pleasant. This advisory acts just like a catch-and-release regulation for catfish. The majority of anglers return their catfish to the water, and consequently, the potential for huge catfish in this section of the river is excellent. Because of the high concentration of trophy catfish in this area of the Kanawha, this section of the river may be the state’s best water for jumbo flatheads.
If you’re looking for big flatheads this year, West Virginia has plenty of them. Look for trophy flathead action in these three featured locations, and if you fish there, maybe you will land the Mountain State’s next record flathead. If not, you may still catch one big enough to qualify for the state’s Fish Citation Program.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to West Virginia Game & Fish