Whiskerfish fans use an astounding variety of baits to entice big flathead catfish. Consider, for example, this classic story related by Hart Stilwell in his 1946 book, Hunting and Fishing in Texas.
“I believe the fuzziest idea I ever saw put into practice in the taking of catfish,” Stilwell wrote, “was revealed to me way out on the West Pecos River where a friend of mine … showed me how to catch big old flathead yellows with freshly killed (or freshly dead) baby chicks. His trouble was in getting the baby chicks, since his wife had strong moral and economic objections. She watched her baby chicks about as closely as the mother hen did, and I honestly believe she had taught that hen to set up a racket the instant Bill eased into the henhouse with the idea of sneaking out a baby chick.
“I hung around there several days, fishing for bass and catching mighty few of them,” Stilwell continued. “From time to time Bill would show up with a baby chick. Each time he managed to convince his wife the chick had died of causes beyond his control. Maybe it did; all I know is that Bill was there for the death watch, for the chick was still warm when he showed up with it.
“Each time he threaded a fluffy baby chick on a line and let it down into the river he caught a big old flathead yellow, and one of them was big enough for Bill to carve a 5-pound steak off one side and give it to me to ice down and take back home.”
The republication of this story, which was written nearly 70 years ago, is not an attempt to revive the forgotten art of “chick flipping” for flathead cats. No, indeed. I would no more recommend using fluffy chicks for bait than I would suggest using puppies or kittens, a practice that is not only highly illegal but highly unethical. I relate the story merely to open your mind to the almost infinite possibilities.
Following are some excellent flathead baits you can and should try.
Live fish top the list of “traditional” flathead baits, and with good reason. When a flathead grows to a length of 24 inches or more, it no longer scavenges for its food. These whiskered brutes are active predators, lurking within log jams, brush piles and other dense cover as they wait to ambush passing fish. They rarely are caught using chicken liver, stinkbaits and other dead, malodorous allurements that may tempt blue and channel catfish.
Flatheads eat many types of fish, and determining which might make the best baits in a particular body of water requires a bit of study.
First, try to determine natural foods favored by flatheads in the lake or river you’ll fish. Local fisheries biologists, bait shop owners and anglers can help in this regard, so seek their advice. Ask what the fish eat and when. A flathead lake may have has lots of bluegills but few shad, so bluegills are more likely to yield a catch. If freezing temperatures cause a die-off, flatheads may gorge on shad, making those baitfish the best choice.
You can further your investigation by examining stomach contents of catfish you catch. If most catfish have shad in their belly, then obviously shad are an excellent bait. If their bellies are round with some type of minnow, use minnows if possible.
You also should read local fishing regulations closely to determine the baits you can or cannot use. Restrictions vary from one body of water to the next, so it’s important to know what’s legal and what’s not.
Small live sunfish such as bluegills and green sunfish are hot flathead baits on many waters. Suckers or creek chubs, 6 to 12 inches long, freshly seined from a creek or river also make great flathead baits because they’re extremely active.
Various types of shad and herring work well, too, but these baits can be difficult to keep lively unless you have a large aerated bait tank. It’s worth trying, though, because flatheads find a big shiny shad or herring hard to resist.
Other wild fish that make good cat baits when legal include small carp, buffalo fish and bullhead catfish.
Live fish that can be purchased from bait dealers also work extremely well in some cases. Big goldfish are irresistible to hefty flatheads and are very hardy and easy to keep. Shiners and fathead minnows excel, too, especially the big 4-inch-plus shiners sometimes available at bait shops.
The attractiveness of these fish baits can be improved by snipping the spiny fins off, causing the baitfish to bleed and flounder in the water. As the blood trail flows and the baitfish darts erratically about, flatheads are attracted. When fishing relatively still water, hook the bait toward the rear of and just below the dorsal fin. When fishing current, run the hook through the baitfish’s lips.
Crawfish run a close second to live fish on the flathead’s dinner menu. In many lakes, ponds and rivers, these crustaceans are the primary forage of flatheads, especially those flatheads in the 12- to 24-inch range.
The best crawfish are “peelers,” those that have molted their hard outer shell. Small- to medium-sized hardshells also work, but break off their pincers to keep them from grabbing objects on the bottom. Keep crawfish in a minnow bucket with wet leaves or moss in the bottom.
To mimic natural crayfish action, rig them for a backward retrieve. Thread the hook up, through and out the top of the tail, and work them across the bottom with a very slow, stop-and-go retrieve.
Night crawlers and other big earthworms work well, even on big flatheads, if you use the following bait setup. First, tie an 8/0 to 12/0 hook below a small egg sinker and bait it with as many night crawlers as you can impale on the hook. Leave the ends of the worms dangling loosely. Small fish—sunfish, suckers, little catfish—will nibble the worms when the big ball of bait is fished on bottom. A big flathead nearby will watch the little fish, and if nothing disturbs the smaller fish, Ol’ Jumbo knows it’s safe to go out and eat. When you notice the nibbling stop, that means the small fish are fleeing as the big cat approaches. Prepare for a strike.
(Editor’s note: Keith Sutton is the author of Catfishing: Beyond the Basics. To order an autographed copy of this 160-pg. book, send a check or money order for $29.45 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002 or visit www.catfishsutton.com.)