Everything about this Arizona flathead catfish fishery calls for big things: big water, big rods, big reels, big lines, big hooks, big baits and -- oh, yes -- big arms! (June 2006)
One of Clayton Randall's favorite ways to spend a summer night is to anchor in the middle of the Salt River end of Roosevelt Lake, drink a few beers and wait for a big catfish to bite. Flatheads are his favorites.
All you need to join him is stout tackle, the right bait, and a lot of patience. A good friend or two helps Randall's patience -- but bring your own beer.
One of his frequent fishing buddies is Critter Despain. Together, they are a tough team to beat if catfish are what you're after.
Whenever Randall goes out for catfish, he prepares to spend a good part of the night on the water. Citronella candles in big jars or cans flicker on the console of his boat to keep the "skeeters" away, and he lays in a good supply of brew and snacks. A catfish fisherman, after all, needs to keep his strength up. Randall has boated flatheads up to 71 pounds, and that takes muscle.
Flatheads are solitary and territorial and like to ambush their prey. "I think the big flatheads go out into deeper water during the day, then move in shallow at night to feed. A really big fish is king of the territory, and he'll pretty much keep smaller flatheads out of his water," says Randall. He fishes anywhere from 10 to 45 feet deep, but at night he usually tends to stay on the shallow end of that range.
No matter how good he thinks the spot is, if somebody downstream is making a lot of noise, Randall moves. Catfish are spooked easily, he says, and noise repels them. Also, if anything is blocking their path to the shallows, even just a noisy boat of party animals, they won't pass.
If the boss flathead gets removed, another big cat will move in relatively quickly, so a good spot generally stays good. An ideal spot for catfish has all the attributes that make for a good feeding ground: cover of some sort such as brush piles, logjams or rocks, along a creek channel or a long point.
Randall most often finds the big ones near cover, in deeper, slower-moving pools of the rivers feeding Lake Roosevelt. Flatheads spawn in spring or early summer, building nests in caves, depressions under rocks, or under undercut banks. One or both parents will stick around to take care of the fry, so the fish are often very shallow at that time of year.
Flatheads are hunters, so live bait is a must. Randall catches 3- to 6-inch baitfish, usually small sunfish, to use as bait. You can also use big waterdogs for flatheads. Outsized channel cats will also eat these baits, but anglers pursuing them usually use minnows, worms or bass tackle. Randall says that young flatheads eat bugs and crawdads, and switch to fish when they get older.
Even a small flathead can pull like mad, so Randall uses saltwater fishing gear and a minimum of 50-pound-test line. "A lot of big fish die because people go after them with 20-pound-test," he asserts. "They bust the line, then swim off with a big old weight and hook in them, and they end up tangled up where they can't swim."
A big strong flippin' stick or deep- sea rod is ideal; you need to make sure your reel is in good shape. A really large flathead can straighten even a massive saltwater hook, so don't be afraid to use stuff that may look too big. When Randall first targeted catfish, he used lighter gear, but he has gradually gone heavier and heavier as he's grown more experienced.
RIGGING UP FOR BIG CATS
Flatheads like lively baits. Randall uses a 2-ounce egg sinker, a sliding bobber, and a three-way swivel. The swivel is tied to the main line. Attach the big sinker to one arm with about two feet of line, and tie two big hooks to the other arm with a leader. Put a big bobber above the whole works to keep the line straight and avoid tangles. This system allows the bait to swim freely and attract flatheads.
A rig like this can be difficult to throw, so lob the rig out carefully with a sideways sling. You don't want to snap it out too quickly, or your bait might fly off the hook. With a two-rod stamp for each angler's license, you can get quite a few setups out and still be comfortable in the boat. Clayton and Critter are old pros at slinging the big rigs out, telling each other, "Fore!" as they send their baits sailing toward cover.
They rig the two hooks by slipping a large treble hook onto the leader that is attached to the three-way sinker. Then they tie an enormous bait hook to the end of the leader with a strong knot. The baitfish is hooked in the back so it can swim around. When a big fish takes the bait, hopefully he will hook himself on both hooks. Then if he somehow manages to shake the bait hook, the treble hook will slide along the line and keep him on long enough for you to boat him.
"You have to have your drag set really tight and you've got to really slam the hook to them once they start to take out line," Randall advises. "Keep your bait near the cover, but not right in it, because (the catfish) will head right for the heavy stuff the instant you set the hook." You have to have the power to turn them and keep them out in open water. Once you let a big fish get back into the cover, it's pretty much over with. It'll get the line all tangled up in branches and then it can pull the hooks straight or break your line.
Fighting a really big flathead is hard work. You have to pump the rod and reel the slack as hard and as fast as you can. You don't play a big flathead down, you have to overpower him, Randall says.
For those who fish from shore, Randall says to choose a spot in one of Roosevelt's river ends with good cover and a channel nearby. He doesn't recommend propping your rod on a rock; big flatheads will swim off with it, perhaps not even noticing the extra weight. Get a rod holder that can be staked into the ground securely. Make yourself comfortable and stay ready for action.
Don't forget to bring along plenty of cold drinks and some insect repellent. If you're afraid you'll fall asleep and miss a bite, use a bell or an alarm on your rod to wake you in time to bring in your prize.
TARGETING CHANNEL CATS
Channel catfish are tasty, and a lot of fun to catch. Even kids can get in on this action. Use a strong rod and make sure your line is in good shape. A 1/0 or 2/0 sinker should be enough for an eating-size channel cat. Put a few earthworms or minnows on your hook, or even some type of stinky bait. A sliding sinker will let the fish take the bait without feeling weight, and a bobber fixed to the line will let you know when you get a bite. There are even bobbers with lights in them and glow-in-the-dark bobbers for ni
ght fishing. Take your cooler, your lantern, and your kids to the shore and swap stories while you wait for a bite.
Randall recommends that you experiment with different areas and study the locations where you have the most success. Then you can search for similar areas and give them a try. Ask around at tackle shops for good catfish spots on the lake.
Experienced catfish anglers stay for several hours in an area they have confidence in, even if the fish aren't biting right away. Sometimes the fish suddenly "turn on" and several fish will be caught in a short period. Be patient, and be prepared.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Arizona 2006 fishing license prices -- one-year license: resident $18, non-resident, $51.50; one-day: resident, $9, non-resident, $12.50; five-day non-resident, $26; two-rod stamp (residents and non-residents): $4.
Live baitfish may be taken with minnows, traps, dip nets, cast nets, line and pole, handlines, crayfish nets or seines. Waterdogs are not considered baitfish in Arizona.
The daily limit is 25 catfish, which can be any combination of channels and flatheads.
Pick up a copy of the Arizona Fishing Regulations where you buy your license and be sure to read them. There are several tackle shops near Roosevelt Lake, including Highway 188 Tackle and The Tackle Box, both on Highway 188 east of the bridge.
There are a lot of good campsites at the lake and several good motels in Tonto Basin and Roosevelt. For more, plus links to the lake, tourism tips and weather forecasts, go to http://www.recreation.gov/detail.cfm?ID=8. You can download the Arizona fishing regulations and buy licenses online at ???.
Summer is monsoon season in Arizona. Keep an eye on the weather and bring a radio. If you hear a weather alert for Gila County or see signs of an approaching storm, get to shore quickly. Summer monsoons move very quickly and can be violent, with high winds, driving rain, and lightning.