If you’re interested in fall “bear hunting” — fishing for flathead catfish — here are some tips to know that will increase your chances of hooking a brute.
The old catfisherman held the huge flathead catfish alongside the boat, rocking it back and forth so water would flow over its gills. Then he rubbed the catfish’s belly with his free hand, released his hold on the fish’s jaw and said, “Swim away, old bear. Maybe we’ll meet again someday.”
At the time, it was the biggest flathead I’d ever seen — around 50 pounds I’d say, with a broad head and massive maw. My friend John Polly caught it on an Arkansas river on a day the trees burned crimson and yellow with autumn’s colors.
John was the best flathead angler I ever knew, and he always said fall was the best time for catching the big ones.
“A big old flathead acts just like a bear this time of year,” he told me that day. “He’s gorging on everything he can get in his mouth so he can fatten up before winter comes. When the weather turns cold, he’ll stop eating and hole up to hibernate until spring rolls around again. That’s why you want to be on the water as much as you can when the leaves start falling — the flatties are on the prowl and stuffing their bellies.”
I’ve met many flathead anglers in the years since who agree with John Polly. They know these powerful predators are gorging on fish, crawfish and other forage as summer’s heat dissipates and days grow shorter. There’s a distinct peak in flathead feeding because these fish are following instinctive urges to put on weight before the cold “starvation” period ahead.
So flathead fishing — flathead catching — is at its peak this fall.
If you’re out there doing some fall “bear hunting,” it certainly doesn’t hurt to know a few tips that will increase your chances of hooking one of these shovel-headed brutes.
For example, you need to remember that flatheads rarely chase down their food like channel cats and blues. Instead, they use their mottled coloring as camouflage and, during the day, they hide around or within submerged logs, piles of driftwood, toppled trees and cavities to ambush their prey.
To catch them in these hideouts, use a sliding-bobber rig — a bobber stop on your line above a big slip bobber, a few split shot and a hook. Hook a live fish behind its dorsal fin (sunfish, chubs, shiners and carp work well), then cast the rig near cover and use your rod tip to guide it to a spot where you think a fat flatty might be hiding.
You’ll have to be careful the baitfish doesn’t get you tangled up, but if you can keep it close to but not in the cover, it should coax a flathead out for dinner.
If you find it troublesome to fish heavy cover like this, plan a nighttime outing. When darkness falls, flatheads leave their lairs and cruise the shallows looking for something to eat. This is prime time for bank fishing, using weighted still-fishing rigs like the paternoster rig that allow using big live-fish baits anchored in one spot but darting about with a wounded look that says, “come eat me.”
If you want to exclude small flatheads from your catch and zero in on trophies, use the biggest baitfish the law allows. For giant flatheads, fish 50 pounds and up, this may mean a bait that weighs 8 ounces to 1 pound or more. It’s tough to cast a bait that size, so you may have to use a boat to place your baited rig right where you want it. Ideally, this will be in a spot where flatheads leaving cover to prowl can find it — alongside a driftwood pile or submerged treetop, for example.
After placing the rig, let it sit. You don’t want to move the bait too often. Trophy-class flatheads are rare creatures, even in the best waters, so it may be necessary to leave the bait in one spot for an hour or more until a hungry, cruising heavyweight can find it.
Don’t like the sit-and-wait game? Well, here’s a more active method that often works great on fall flatheads: trolling shad-imitation crankbaits on riprap edges. Yes, crankbaits. Flatheads frequent riprap rocks covering the bank to feed on shad and crayfish. And they’re suckers for a tight-wiggling, fishy-looking plug darting past.
To maximize success, troll with two to four rod/reel combos, each rigged with a different-colored crankbait until a color preference is determined. Use just enough trolling-motor speed to keep the cranks skimming the rocks and bumping them occasionally.
Keep your rods properly secured in rod holders or prepare to lose them. Strikes are explosive!