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Flat-Out Fun

Flat-Out Fun

Set your bait down in central Arizona's Bartlett, Roosevelt or Pleasant lakes or Verde River for an all-day or all-night cat fight. (June 2009)

Clayton Randall used a live sunfish to catch this 50-pound Roosevelt Lake flathead.
Photo by Margie Anderson.

Central Arizona boasts some dynamite action for catfish addicts, especially on summer nights.

Some of the flatheads get to be real monsters, and they are worthy opponents for any angler.

The warm waters of central Arizona's reservoirs are big-cat nurseries. There are catfish all over Arizona, but in the central part of the state, Roosevelt Lake, Bartlett Lake, Lake Pleasant and the Verde River are the most popular with locals.

The upper and lower Verde River passes through national forest and is open to public recreation of all kinds. The lower river is designated a Wild and Scenic River and offers the opportunity to fish by boat from Beasley Flat to Childs.

Roosevelt Lake is formed by a dam at the confluence of Tonto Creek and the Salt River, so there are two "river ends." The Salt arm is the one that is the mainstay of flathead hunters.

When the lake is high enough to get back near the bluffs, anglers like Homer Townsend and Dean Despain will anchor and stay out all night, drink coffee and wait for bites. If you are lacking in the patience department, flathead fishing may not be your favorite thing to do, but if you are laid back and don't mind getting skunked now, and then, you have the potential to land an absolute giant.


Look for rocky holes near shallow areas this time of year. The catfish breed down among rocks and boulders, or even in culverts. They like to be near shallow areas so they can come up to feed in the evening and early morning.

You will often find the big ones near cover, in deeper, slower moving pools of the rivers. Flatheads spawn in spring or early summer. They build nests in caves, depressions under rocks or undercut banks. One or both parents will stick around to take care of the fry, so at that time of year the fish are often very shallow. A really big flathead is king of the territory, and he will keep smaller flatheads out of his water.

Flatheads are solitary, territorial and like to ambush their prey. Townsend and Despain fish anywhere from 3 to 45 feet deep. But on summer nights, they tend to stay in the 3- to 10-foot range.

If the boss flathead is removed, another big cat will move in pretty quickly, so a good spot generally stays good. An ideal spot for catfish has all the attributes that make for a good feeding ground. They like cover of some sort -- brushpiles, logjams or rocks along a creek channel or on a long point -- are perfect.

Big flatheads are spooky, so keep the radio low and don't thump around in the boat. If there is a noisy party going on close by, you should probably just move on. Also, if there is something blocking the fish's path to the shallows, they won't pass.

You can fish for flatheads from shore. Most of the lakes have good access to a variety of shoreline areas. You may have to park and walk a bit. If you fish from shore, keep your gear compact and easy to carry. Choose a spot in the river with good cover and a channel nearby. Don't prop your rod up on a rock, though -- a big flathead will just swim off with it, perhaps not even noticing the extra weight. Get a rod holder that can be staked firmly into the ground.

Flatheads Techniques
Flatheads are hunters, so live bait is a must. Townsend and Despain catch sunfish to use for bait. Live-bait regulations change from area to area in Arizona, so make sure you read the regulations carefully before you fish. You can also use big waterdogs for flatheads.

Even a small flathead can pull like mad, so make sure your tackle can take the strain. A flippin' stick or saltwater rod is ideal. Make sure your reel is in good shape. You should use at least 30-pound-test line and strong hooks. A really large flathead can straighten out even a massive saltwater hook.

It is essential for the bait to be lively, so a system like a live-bait rig is the best. Use an egg sinker, bobber and swivel. Slide the egg sinker onto the main line and tie on a swivel. Slide a treble hook onto a leader so it slides, and then tie on a big circle hook to the end of the leader with a strong knot. The treble hook will secure the bait to the line.

When a big fish takes the bait, he should hook himself on both hooks. Then if he manages to somehow shake the bait hook, the treble hook will slide along the line and keep him on long enough to boat him.

The baitfish is hooked in the back so it can swim around. Use a slip-bobber above the whole works to keep the line straight and avoid tangles. At night, use a lighted or glow-in-the-dark bobber so you'll be able to see it when the line starts moving off. This systemallows the bait to swim freely and attract the flatheads.

It's important to keep your bait near the bottom. Use the lightest weight you can get away with. You want the rig to stay in place, so use a heavier weight in rough water or fast current. Keep your bait near the cover but not right in it.

A rig like this can be difficult to throw, so carefully lob the rig out with a sideways sling. If you snap it out like a bass fisherman, you'll likely lose the bait. Buy a two-pole stamp for each angler's license, and you can get quite a few setups out and still be comfortable in the boat.

Heavy line doesn't bother a flathead, especially at night. Too many anglers lose huge fish because they use line that isn't up to the job. If you are after really big flatheads, use at least 30-pound-test line.

Keep your drag set tight, and really slam the hook to them once they start to take out line. Catfish will head right for heavy cover the instant you set the hook. You'll need 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. They get the line all tangled up in branches, and then they can pull the hooks straight or break the line.

Fighting a massive flathead is hard work. It's a lot like catching big saltwater fish -- you have to pump the rod and reel up the slack, and you have to work as hard and as fast as you can. You don't play a big flathead down, you have to overpower him.

As a result, he's still fighting mad and extremely live

ly when you get him to the boat, so it can be quite an ordeal to get him aboard. When a fish that is almost as big as the fisherman decides he doesn't want to be in the boat, it's survival of the fittest!

Summer is monsoon time. Powerful thunderstorms can come up very suddenly, especially if you are out at night and don't notice the clouds moving in. Be sure to check the weather reports before going out, and make sure you wear a life jacket. If the weatherman says there is a storm moving in, believe him, even if you don't see any signs of it.

By law, you need to keep boat lights on at night, and that can draw pesky insects. Don't forget insect repellent. Since you will be anchored or sitting on shore, you might want to try citronella candles.

Summer nights in central Arizona can be very muggy and hot, so bring plenty of water to drink and wear light clothing. It may get chilly though, especially if the humidity is low, so bring along a light jacket.

You might also consider a portable fishing seat. Many of them have room enough for your bait and some snacks. They give you a comfortable place to sit as well as a rod holder. The shorelines of Arizona's lakes are rocky, so you will need to bring something soft to sit on if you are planning to make a night of it.

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