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Catfish Fishing

River Monsters: Catching Flatheads in the Current

by Keith Sutton   |  June 8th, 2012 1

Expect to use heavy tackle on these river fish. They usually are in some kind of brush or wood cover. Photo by Keith Sutton.

Flathead catfish seldom thrive in creeks, ponds and small lakes. Many are caught in large natural lakes and impoundments, but hard-hitting, pole-bending flatheads reach their greatest abundance in big bottomland rivers. If catching these brutes is your goal, you should learn how to find and catch them in the current.

Begin by learning these almost invariable facts: flatheads prefer well-oxygenated, flowing water to hardened sand, mud or gravel bottom. Where the river bottom is soft and current nil, flatheads are absent.

Flatheads are cover lovers. During daylight hours, they seek shelter around or within submerged logs, piles of driftwood, toppled trees, snags and cavities in mid-depths. At night, they leave these sanctuaries and move into more open, shallower waters to feed. Fish accordingly.

Adult flatheads tend to be solitary and often are aggressive toward others of their kind. Thus, a single spot of cover usually yields only one, or at most two or three, adult flatheads. It’s best to relocate in another fishing spot after landing a sizeable fish.

Flatheads up to 10 pounds may be caught using almost any bait, from chicken liver and prepared stinkbaits, to night crawlers and crawfish. When targeting adult heavyweights, however, use live fish baits, and nothing else. Unlike channel and blue cats, adult flatheads rarely scavenge, preferring to eat lively fish such as shad, herring, carp, suckers, chubs, sunfish and small catfish. Domestic baitfish like goldfish and large shiners also are effective and readily available from bait dealers. Be sure, however, to read local regulations for bait use and fish only with what’s legal.

Chasing big channel and blue catfish with lightweight gear is laughable, but testing it on flatheads borders on the very verge of insanity. Earning the respect of these behemoths requires the use of stout, durable fishing gear.

One good combo choice is a 7- to 9-foot, medium-action, e-glass rod paired with a multi-bearing baitcasting reel with a good drag. The long rod lets you hold more line out of the water, allowing quicker hook sets and better bait control, and permitting more accurate drifts and natural presentation when fishing in current. It also provides more leverage for battling heavyweight cats. Medium-action rods have a light tip that prevents the fish from feeling the rod, but enough butt strength to pull a big fish up.

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Baitcasting reels are more durable than spinning and spincast reels and provide more fish-cranking power. The best for flatheads hold at least 200 yards of the line size you intend to use. And most flathead fans prefer one with a “clicker” mechanism that produces an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating a catfish bite. The clicker also keeps a soft, steady tension on the spool, thus preventing backlashes when a cat runs with a bait.

Spool the reel with your favorite 30- to 50-pound-test line unless you’re fishing specifically for super-heavyweight fish, in which case you may want to use line testing 60 to 130 pounds. Using braided line, which is smaller in diameter than monofilament, allows you to spool more on the reel. Braids also have little stretch, transmitting strikes instantly to the rod tip, thus providing more positive hook sets. High break strength and low stretch permit better manhandling of big flatheads.

A 5/0 or 6/0 hook is necessary when using live baitfish up to 6 inches. Where 50-pound-plus cats are possible, 8/0 to 12/0 hooks may be in order. Hone all hooks to needle-like sharpness, and leave the barb exposed after hooking the bait.

Wide-gap hooks work best for impaling the live fish typically used as flathead enticements. And while other styles can be used, many flathead anglers fish exclusively with wide-gap circle hooks that hook the quarry in the corner of the mouth, thus facilitating easy hook removal and healthy release.

Many rigs can be used, but because flatheads tend to be near cover and structure, I use a float rig in most situations. This consists of five basic components: a big balsa or Styrofoam slip float that suspends an 8-ounce bait; a bobber stop; a 1-ounce egg sinker; a sturdy barrel swivel and an 8/0 wide-gap circle hook. The bobber stop goes on the line first and is positioned so when the float abuts it, the bait suspends about a foot above the bottom. Next the float is added and below it the egg sinker and then the barrel swivel. I then tie a 24-inch hook leader to the swivel.

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