August 02, 2023
The hint of sunrise brightened the eastern horizon as I helped Rod Bates launch his boat. Fifteen minutes later, Bates and I, along with fellow river veteran Dave Neuman, were anchored along the edge of a deep pool. Hooks were baited with lively sunfish and cast out to the depths, where heavy sinkers kept them pegged in position.
Rods were secured in rod holders and our eyes were focused on their tips, eagerly anticipating the first “run” of the morning—when a flathead would crunch down on the bait and swim off with it. We didn’t wait long. Within moments, following a strong hookset and a quick battle, a flathead in the 4-pound range was in the boat. It was a nice start, but just a baby compared to what the river can produce, and what we would later catch.
While our day’s first flathead was modest in size, the “skunk was out of the box,” as we say. The action continued, with the size of the fish quickly skyrocketing. During the next three hours, we boated 18 flatheads. The largest was 35 pounds, 13 ounces. Several others were more than 20 pounds. All were taken from the same basic hole, though we did move within that pool several times.
The following year, I joined Bates, whose guide business has included a heavy focus on catfish for more than a decade, for a channel cat trip. Like the flathead outing the year before, it was highly successful. Indeed, come late summer, when other more glamorous species can prove tough, catfish often continue to provide sport for numbers of fish as well as the potential for large ones.
CHANNELS VS. FLATTIES
Rivers provide some of the best habitat for both flathead and channel catfish, and are “readable,” meaning you can eliminate large stretches of water and concentrate on high-percentage areas. Generally speaking, in rivers that support both channel catfish and flatheads, the former will be more numerous and the latter more likely to achieve a much larger size. According to Bates, channel catfish are far more cooperative biters, being active in a wide variety of scenarios.
“Channel cats are the most consistent species I fish for,” says Bates, who targets smallmouth bass and walleyes in addition to catfish. “They bite all day long and we don’t have to fish for them at night. They bite in low water, clear water, high and dirty water.”
As implied by this comment, flatheads tend to be highly nocturnal, with some of the best action happening after the sun goes down. However, as summer gives way to fall, flatheads gather up in deeper holes and tend to be active during daylight hours, especially cloudy, rainy days. On the river Bates fishes, channel cats are taken from much shallower water than shovelheads and are willing to bite on prepared baits rather than the larger live baits that flatheads require.
Bait is a big deal when targeting flatheads. As an apex predator, flatheads prefer to kill their prey. When you’re talking fish that commonly tip the scales in excess of 20 pounds, it can take a big bait to get their attention.
“Primarily, I use bluegills for bait,” Bates says. “They are the easiest for me to catch, but I will also use other types of sunfish, suckers, chubs, small channel cats and bullhead catfish.”
Bates rigs live bait on an 8/0 Team Catfish double-action circle hook, hooking the bait behind the dorsal fin. He prefers flat “bank” sinkers to round ones since they don’t roll, which often leads to snags. A short leader of 80-pound-test Offshore Angler Dacron is employed, joined to the main line with a heavy swivel. The sinker is placed above the swivel. Bates uses 7 1/2-foot-long, medium-heavy Team Catfish rods paired with Gold Ring levelwind reels. The reels are loaded with Tug-O-War braided line of 50-pound test.
During a typical post-sundown flathead outing, Bates will position his boat along a deeper river hole. He anchors the boat with a two-anchor system (off both the stern and the bow) to minimize swing. He starts by targeting deeper areas of a pool with the intention of moving shallower as the night progresses (flatheads typically move to shallower water to feed as the night moves along). Rods are placed in rod holders in anticipation of a bite, which is announced by the reel clicker.
The most crucial lesson I’ve learned from Bates is to be mobile, not to camp out on a spot hoping the fish will show up and start biting. “I will soak baits for up to 30 minutes and then make short moves,” he explains. “Typically, we reposition in the same general area. We move no more than a half mile but often as little as 50 yards.”
Bates also notes that some of the best late-summer nighttime action for flatheads happens after thunderstorms. That might mean delaying a trip until midnight following eveing elecrical activity, but the action can be worth the effort.
CHANNEL CAT TACTICS
Numerous differences exist between targeting channel cats and flatheads. As noted earlier, it’s often not necessary to fish for channels at night. Bait selection is easier, too, and the fish come from much shallower water. “I like low, moving water during the summer when the water is warm, and deeper water as things cool down,” says Bates. “Most of my channel catfishing is done in 2 to 5 feet of water. You don’t need a lot of specialized gear. The same equipment that works for bass is ideal for channel cats. And you don’t need to collect live bait as you do for flathead catfish.”
During my time on the water with Bates, the clinic he provided reinforced his claims. In terms of bait, all we used was prepared catfish bait, in this case Team Catfish Sudden Impact Fiber Bait. It’s a relatively viscous concoction that’s packed in a bucket. Baiting up was easy – simply use a spatula-like device to place a gob of the stuff within a treble hook.
His rig includes an egg sinker, a 2-foot leader of 17-pound-test fluorocarbon line and a swivel to connect the main line (also 17-pound-test fluoro) and peg the egg sinker in place. As with flatheads, Bates anchors upriver of the targeted area. If there’s a heavy south wind (which means an upriver wind on his home river) he’ll also drop a stern anchor to stabilize the boat. Too much swing, he says, will result in a lot of snags.
“Once I catch a fish I will stay on that spot until they stop biting,” he says. “Then I will let out 10 yards of anchor rope and repeat the process. I am creating a chum slick every time I put out a bait, so I want to take advantage of that.”
Whether you’re looking to catch what could be the biggest fish of your life or a bunch of eager channel cats to brighten an otherwise lazy day, cats can be your best bet during the dog days of late summer.
- Seven top catfish flowages throughout the East.
Catfish rivers in the northeastern part of the country present a bit of a paradox. On one hand, the majority of them are found in the western part of the region, within the Ohio River drainage, where both channel cats and flatheads are native.
By contrast, a handful of rivers to the east, ones that eventually dump into the Atlantic (including Chesapeake Bay), support fishable populations of channel cats, flatheads and, in some cases, blue catfish. The more widely distributed flatheads—found in these eastern waters by way of unauthorized introductions—generally are not looked upon favorably by resource management agencies. Flatheads are top-of-the-line predators with the potential to negatively impact native species.
This being said, flatheads are well established in some non-native waters, and populations will likely expand. Fortunately, anglers enjoy catching fish that reach impressive proportions. With this in mind, here are some top catfish waters in our region.
- SUSQUEHANNA RIVER: The Susquehanna has long provided an excellent fishery for channel catfish. In recent years, flatheads have found their way into the Susquehanna, and anglers now target them with vigor. The best water for flatheads is south of Harrisburg, Pa., though they’re found north of the city, too.
- OHIO RIVER: The Ohio River is classic catfish water, with both channel cats and flatheads being native and well distributed. Fishing attention is focused below navigation locks and dams, at the mouths of tributary streams and in deeper holes.
- MONONGAHELA RIVER: Flowing south to north from West Virginia into Pennsylvania (where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio) the Monongahela is another classic Eastern catfish river. Like the Ohio, the Mon herds cats below locks and dams and at creek mouths.
- ALLEGHENY RIVER: Unlike the Ohio and the Monongahela, the Allegheny provides both impounded (locks and dams) and free-flowing habitat. The lower Allegheny, from East Brady to Pittsburgh, is impounded and mirrors the Ohio’s and Mon’s habitat. Above East Brady the river is natural and free flowing, with deeper pools concentrating catfish.
- CONNECTICUT RIVER: Catfish are not well distributed in New England with a few exceptions. The Connecticut River is one, as it features a fine, self-supporting population of channel cats. Good habitat and excellent access is found in Connecticut’s Hurd State Park.
- POTOMAC RIVER: The Upper Potomac (above the tidal influence) features a strong population of channel catfish, providing sport for anglers from Maryland and nearby states. An ever-expanding population of flatheads exists in the Potomac, with the heaviest concentrations found between dams 5 and 3.
- JAMES RIVER: Virginia’s James River is a fine destination for both flathead and blue catfish. The area around Richmond features both free-flowing and tidal waters. The tidal water begins below the 7-mile stretch of rapids downriver of the city.
This feature on catfish is featured in the East edition of the August 2023 issue of Game & Fish Magazine, available on newsstands across the country. How to subscribe.