February 22, 2022
Targeting big flathead catfish is similar to deer hunting for a giant buck. They’re smart, wary, suspicious loners with a much smaller population than the more popular blue and channel catfish.
Diehard catmen know that catching a couple of flatheads on a trip is a pretty good outing. Three or more and, well, maybe you’ve had a truly banner day unless you’re in a special area chock full of flatheads. They’re secretive, tough fish and worth bragging about when you catch a good one.
Flathead catfish are unlike their cousins, the blue and channel cat, in several ways. One is appearance. Flatheads have yellowish mottled skin tones, which in some areas has led anglers to calling them yellow cats or mudcats. Their heads are flat, all the better for probing the bottom and around rocks or log jams for food.
Similar to the blue catfish, though, they can grow to astonishing weights and lengths, thanks to a long lifespan that includes being picky about what they eat.
It’s widely known that flathead catfish prefer live bait. Anglers use everything from chicken livers to mass-production stinkbait chunks for blues and channels.
But flatheads? Oh, you most definitely have to have live bait to catch those, or so it’s believed. But as ESPN’s Lee Corso likes to say, not so fast my friend. Flatheads definitely prefer live bait, but other baits work, too.
Here are some baits to consider using to catch big flathead catfish:
1. Live Bluegill
Bluegill are the prolific members of the sunfish family. They spawn many times a year and school around cover or structure. Find a piece of cover (a couple of stumps, or a logjam) on a bit of structure (a bend or dropoff in a river) and they’ll probably be nearby.
Flathead catfish likely will be there, too. A flathead almost never turns down a frisky bluegill. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 2- or 3-inch pipsqueak or one you’d consider putting on your dinner table. Circle hooks and good components should be part of your arsenal, because you’ll be in for a tug. Check state fishing regulations about using bluegills for bait, too, as some states classify them as game species.
2. Live Shad
A hearty threadfin shad likely won’t be overlooked by a flathead. Nor may a bigger gizzard shad. These nervous baitfish pack a flavorful wallop thanks to their oily meat. Keeping the shad alive and frisky may be your biggest challenge; a round, well-aerated bait tank and replenishing with fresh water periodically definitely will increase your odds of having lively baitfish. Just as with bluegills, having a hearty setup of your tackle is required. Flatheads are powerful fish. Threadfin or gizzard shad definitely should be a consideration.
3. Cut Bait
Stop, stop. Don’t throw rocks or "tsk, tsk" anymore. Cut bait may not be the preferred or widely-touted flathead bait du jour, but it can work. Even if you’re fishing with live bait, don’t be afraid to add some aromatic cut bait.
Big chunks of oily, bloody gizzard shad, the fillets, the head (run the hook through the eyes) or a gob of shad guts is a tactic for big blue catfish, no doubt. Flatheads may be picky, but they’re not going to have lockjaw or swim up and think, "Hmmm, I’m being tricked by this chunk that they want me to believe is alive." Flatheads are opportunistic and a chunk of oily, bloody, meat tingling its receptors definitely may get him to chow down.
Add a dash of flash with these baits — where legal — if you’re unable to get your mitts on shad or bluegills. It may sound crazy but goldfish are sometimes used by anglers to catch several species including catfish and striped bass. Best known as an indoor pet in an aquarium, goldfish may live quite a while if released in the wild. They’re pretty tough. It may take a little practice to figure out where to hook them but a couple of possibilities are through the eyes or lips (don’t hit the brain) or in the back, where they can swim freely like a shad. This definitely is one baitfish possibility you’d need to check state or local regulations about before using. Where legal, don’t be afraid to give it a shot.
5. Black Saltys
The black salty is a specially bred goldfish used by anglers for catching everything from largemouth bass and catfish to saltwater species such as redfish. Black saltys are raised and sold by I.F. Anderson Farms, a commercial baitfish supplier in Lonoke, Ark.
Selective breeding results in a tough, hearty baitfish that will often have a gold/silver hue, different from a shad or bluegill. Rig them on your tackle like a shad or bluegill so they can swim freely. Keeping them alive in the boat requires a bubble aeration tank and clean, freshwater. Don’t be surprised if you catch other species, too, because just about anything that swims will eat a black salty.
In a bind because you can’t find any shad, saltys or bream? It may be time to grab a bucket and flip rocks to find crayfish. Found almost everywhere in the continental United States, crayfish pack about 14 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving. That’s for us humans, so imagine what a flathead is getting by noshing on the entire bug.
If you have a clean stream or enough rocks around a boat ramp, dock or other location, take time to flip a few and get the 3- to 5-inch crayfish. Crayfish seek nooks and crannies in logjams, rocks and hard bottom, so you want to rig these to keep them off the bottom but while keeping them near the bottom. As with the other baits, you’re likely to catch a variety of species with crayfish but could indeed land a few hungry flatheads. Be sure to check your fishing regulations about using crayfish, as some may be protected in your area.