Perhaps more akin to "hunting" than "fishing," the pursuit of the elusive and solitary flathead catfish is not for the faint of heart. Do you have what it takes to land Missouri's "other" whiskerfish?
During the daytime, flatheads seek out woody or rocky cover from which they can ambush passing prey.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
The first thing that a European angler strolling into a Missouri bait shop and pausing to examine its "bragging board" might notice is that a plurality -- if not a majority -- of the photos tacked to it would show a man (occasionally a woman) straining to hold a catfish clear off the ground. If the pictured angler were a veteran of such photo shoots, both hands would be thrust into the fish's mouth, the better to get a death grip on the protruding lower jaw. Who'd blame the angler from across the pond for assuming that catching fish like the ones in the photos is an everyday occurrence?
The bait shop owner, being an honest person, would tell the customer that the fish in the photos were flatheads (or -- depending on exactly where in the state this particular bait shop is located -- "shovelhead cats," "yellow cats," "mud cats," "goujons," "appaluchions" or "Johnnie cats"), explain that most flatheads are caught on setlines -- and suggest that a newcomer to the area would be much better off fishing for crappie. One imagines the visitor from the Old World buying two dozen jigs and, after a last, wistful glance at the photos, exiting, stage right.
Ironically, despite the logical truth of what he'd have been told, that redirected crappie angler might actually catch a flathead. Hundreds of "long-as-your-leg" Missouri flatheads chomp 1/16-ounce crappie jigs every year, and a few dozen of them are landed. In fact, the current world-record flathead, which weighed 123 pounds and was caught just across the border in Kansas, bit a crappie jig.
BY THE NUMBERS
Getting the attention of a fictional foreigner took nothing more than a few keystrokes -- but how do real Missouri anglers feel about the most mysterious of the state's three big cats? In 2002, the Missouri Department of Conservation used data it had collected from anglers in 2001 to compile the agency's most comprehensive study of catfish and catfishermen, based on fill-in-the-blank forms mailed to a randomly-selected 15,000 of the 664,208 permit purchasers in the state. Anglers filled out and returned 5,486 of the forms, which, in the survey business, is considered an excellent rate of return. In fact, it represents the opinions of almost five times as many people as national pollsters use to extrapolate the opinions of the entire population of the United States.
Almost 64 percent of the respondents fished for catfish in 2001. Of these, 60 percent spent 10 days or less catfishing, but 17 percent went catfishing more than 25 days. When asked which species they fished for most in 2001, 14 percent favored flatheads. By way of comparison, 75 percent chose channel cats, 9 percent opted for blues and 2 percent remained loyal to bullheads.
A whopping 87 percent of survey participants used rod and reel "most often" for catfishing, 11 percent favored various untended lines, and only 3 percent preferred jugs. A person with a keen eye for numbers might well notice the percentage of anglers who use methods other than rod and reel and the percentage of anglers who prefer flatheads are equal.
While some correlation between the two figures undeniably exists, owing to the fact that the flathead's nighttime feeding habits make it vulnerable to setlines, flatheads -- including trophy flatheads -- are legitimate targets for rod-and-reel anglers. All that's required is a working knowledge of how flatheads use the underwater "landscape" of the reservoir, lake, river or stream they inhabit.
OF A DIFFERENT BREED
Unlike Missouri's other catfish, flatheads are pure carnivores. An occasional mammal, bird or reptile notwithstanding, the flathead's diet consists of live fish and crayfish. Flatheads are eating machines -- it takes a lot of fuel to keep an 80-pound "furnace" glowing -- so the species has developed a two-pronged feeding strategy. During the daytime, flatheads seek out woody or rocky cover from which they can ambush passing prey without expending much effort. Conversely, flatheads patrol shallow water after sunset, either actively searching for prey or lying motionless on the bottom, waiting to ambush anything that swims within range.
During the June-July pre-spawn and spawn periods, it's not unusual to find one female and one male flathead in proximity, but that sole exception apart, flatheads are solitary creatures. In fact, even though several flatheads might occasionally be drawn to the same exceptional food source, "fishing" for flatheads is better described as "hunting" for one fish at a time.
William L. Pflieger wrote in his The Fishes of Missouri, "(The flathead) is one of the most abundant of the larger catfishes in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, in their principal tributaries of the Prairie Region, and in the larger streams and ditches of the Lowlands. In the Ozarks, it's largely restricted to reservoirs and the downstream sections of the larger streams.
"This catfish inhabits a variety of stream types but avoids those with high gradients or intermittent flow. It is never found in headwaters creeks and achieves its greatest abundance in large rivers. . . . Adults occur in pools, near submerged logs, piles of drift or other cover."
Studies conducted by MDC biologist Kevin Sullivan -- a man who knows more about catfish than most catfish -- have shown that Pflieger's observations on the places in which adult flatheads spend their time is, if anything, an understatement. In fact, Sullivan believes, locating the best woody cover available is the key to finding the best flatheads available. He noted, however, that flatheads will adapt to rocky cover when woody cover is scarce or absent.
Now it's time to put science into practice on some of Missouri's flathead hotspots. Relatively speaking, medium-sized streams are the easiest places to fish for flatheads, and several Missouri streams -- including the two I'll discuss in detail -- produce good numbers of fish weighing more than 40 pounds and a few weighing more than 60 pounds every year. If you don't think those are big fish to handle on rod and reel in tight quarters, you will after you set the hook.
The Grand River is best known for its excellent channel cat fishery, but it's also one of the best rivers in its size-class for trophy flatheads. Although river levels play a significant role in where adult flatheads will or can be found, the portion of the river within practical reach upstream from the boat ramp at Chillicothe serves as an easily recognizable upper terminus, while the mouth of the river near Brunswick is an o
bvious lower demarcation.
From northwest of Chillicothe to a point about two dozen river miles downstream of the ramp-equipped Bosworth Access, the Grand is a classic series of riffles, pools and runs. In between these two points, Fountain Grove Conservation Area in Linn County and Lake Compton Conservation Area in Carroll County provide extensive access to the river for bank-fishermen.
A tremendous amount of wood is to be found the river, much of it in the form of snags. Ignore these isolated stumps and logs (except, of course, while motoring up and down the river) and look for piles of driftwood trapped against the bank of outside bends and extending out into deep water. Here be dragons -- or at least big flatheads.
Many veteran flathead hunters begin working a logjam by anchoring their boat even with the upstream end of the jam and a short cast away from the outermost logs; a slip-float rig is then used to maneuver a live bait of the angler's choosing -- usually a green sunfish, carp, drum or crayfish -- along the outer edge of the logs, staying as close as possible to the wood. Note: Setting the bait only 1 or, at most, 2 feet below the cork helps minimize hangups and doesn't reduce the number of strikes.
If this tactic fails to produce, the boat's reanchored a short cast directly upstream. Using a no-roll sliding sinker, the angler casts to the upstream edge of the wood and then slowly pays out small amounts of line to allow the bait to work its way under the wood.
The Lamine River between Otterville's boat ramp and the ramp at Roberts Bluff doesn't receive much publicity outside the immediate area, but it's a hotspot for flatheads in the 15- to 40-pound class nonetheless, and most especially for those who prefer to fish the riffles at night.
Most Lamine River fishermen either fish from the bank (access can be gained at bridge crossings or from the Lamine River CA) or from motor-equipped flatbottomed boats. Traditional float-fishing from Otterville to the Swinging Bridge Access or from Swinging Bridge to Roberts Bluff is also feasible. Boaters need to be aware that summer water levels can drop to the point that even canoes have to be walked or dragged across the tops of some riffles.
Although some fishermen swear by big gobs of night crawlers, most use live fish, preferably ones caught from the targeted riffle prior to dark. Some prefer to fish from their boats, which they anchor crosswise to the current at the head of the riffle; others set out lawn chairs on the gravel bar adjacent to almost every riffle and fish from the bank. Either way, fishing riffles at night is the one time it's reasonable to hope to catch several flatheads from the same spot.
When I asked Sullivan to pick a flathead hotspot from among the dozens of MDC impoundments, he scarcely hesitated before picking Che-Ru Lake, a 160-acre impoundment in Fountain Grove CA, in Linn and Livingston counties. Che-Ru may well be the most interesting body of water of its size in the state. It contains just about every natural and artificial habitat imaginable, many of which are within casting distance of one another.
It also boasts an abundant prey base in the form of both game and non-game fish that supports a thriving flathead population. In the daytime, try using your electronics to locate a large flathead suspended alongside a steep dropoff; then, fish for him vertically. At night, identify a stretch of shoreline along which any species of fish is spawning and cast your offering just beyond the deepest nests.
Frankly, it's a stretch to call Henry County's Montrose Lake a flathead hotspot. Even so, no article on trophy flatheads would be complete without at least a mention of the body of water that yielded the state's current pole-and-line record, a 77-pound, 8-ounce bruiser caught in 2003. And no question: Other heavyweight flatheads swim this shallow, stump-filled lake.
Fans of the diversion system below the dam at Mark Twain Lake could convincingly dispute this, but it's arguably the case that the extreme western end of the Lake of the Ozarks from Truman Dam down lake to Buffalo Creek provides the state's best opportunity for catching big flatheads on artificial lures. What's more, July and August are the best months of the year to get in on the action, especially in the Truman tailrace.
For reasons known only to the fish themselves, large numbers of flatheads forgo their need for solitude and gather at or close to the western terminus of the Lake of the Ozarks. A rigorously enforced no-fishing zone makes it impossible to get a bait or lure close to the dam, but a walkway makes it possible to look almost straight down on monster flatheads finning just beneath the surface.
Everything changes when water starts cascading through the dam's turbines -- the world's largest chum grinders. The current triggers a feeding frenzy that extends the entire length of the diversion channel and beyond, as hungry flatheads -- to say nothing of blue cats and hybrids -- start snapping up the hapless shad and pieces of shad being sucked through the dam. Flathead purists, knowing that their favorite fish disdains cut bait, hurl long shad-imitating spoons toward seams in the current and work them back with a series of sharp jerks. The flatheads respond enthusiastically, to say the very least.
Further downstream, trollers plumb the deep holes from the U.S. Route 65 bridge east with magnum-sized deep-diving crankbaits. This tactic works best during the middle of the day, when the outflow from Truman Dam is minimal. According to Virgil Tagemeyer and others who pioneered the system, the biggest fish are concentrated in the deepest holes under the just-described conditions and are thus more likely to have a lure pass within their strike zones.
BIG RIVER, BIG CATS
Finally, the big rivers. Just being on either the Missouri or the Mississippi is exciting, and provided that the angler's in a riverworthy boat and uses common sense, it's relatively safe as well. Best of all, as Pflieger noted, it's in the big rivers that flatheads are most abundant.
The average size of Missouri River flatheads is still recovering from the days that saw the species' annual commercial harvest total more than 200,000 pounds. That's not to say, however, that record-class flatheads don't haunt the river right now, because some most certainly do. Flatheads are present in solid numbers throughout Missouri's portion of the river, but the best fishing is usually found from St. Joseph north. Wherever you fish on the river, look first for logjams in areas with moderate current, then for steep banks with large riprap, next around wing dams and, finally, near but not very far up tributaries.
The Mississippi River has every type of flathead habitat imaginable, from backwater sloughs and ditches to main-channel logjams and rockpiles to various sorts of navigation structures; all produce fish. Anglers who want to catch as many flatheads as possible, even if it means sacrificing some -- but by no means all -- trophy potential, should fish between St. Louis and the Iowa border. Conversely, the odds of setting a new state or world record keep increasing t
he farther south from St. Louis the angler travels.
When I was a college student, I fished for flatheads out of a 16-foot canoe. I landed the big cats, including one memorable 52-pounder, by sticking my hand and forearm into their mouths and grabbing a gill raker. I'd then deliberately fall backwards into the bottom of the boat, dragging the fish with me. I wore my constantly raw forearms like a badge of honor.
I don't land flatheads that way anymore, but I still love to fish for them -- and you will, too, if you give the sport a try.