June 05, 2020
By Keith Sutton
In recent years, as more and more anglers have begun targeting freshwater fish exceeding 50 pounds, interest in flathead catfish has skyrocketed. These whiskered goliaths sometimes exceed the century mark, placing them among the top five heaviest fish in North American waters. Hook one and it will definitely test your tackle and your mettle.
Catching trophy-class flatties isn’t easy, though. Specimens exceeding 10 pounds tend to be solitary beasts that are hard to find and picky about the catfish baits they will take. Most of the time, they live in dense cover that’s extremely hard to fish, and they are rare in all but a tiny fraction of waters nationwide. Hooking one may require a very substantial investment of time, money and effort.
I do not say these things to discourage you from pursuing trophy flatheads. If you are a patient and dogged type who enjoys a challenge, a quest for monster flatheads may be ideally suited to your disposition.
But if you’re like most catfish fans and are more interested in catching a mess of catfish to keep and eat, I suggest you focus your attention on smaller flatheads, up to 10 pounds, which are much more common and easy to catch. On a good day, you might land a dozen or more when fishing prime waters during prime times, and the biggest of those will provide enough rod-bending action to keep you smiling for hours.
The flathead catfish’s delicious taste also provides a good reason to target the species. Blue cats, channel cats and even bullheads are excellent table fish as well, but many hardcore catfish fans, myself included, believe a young flathead has a delectable flavor that’s far superior to that of the other species. To me, it’s like the difference between a fish basted in butter while being cooked and one that is not. I’ll take the buttery flathead over its plain-tasting cousins any time.
WHERE TO FISH
Flathead catfish seldom thrive in small bodies of water like ponds and creeks—habitats where channel cats and blue cats do just fine. However, flatties are well adapted to life in rivers, larger man-made reservoirs and many natural lakes, where healthy populations often produce excellent fishing opportunities.
In rivers, look for eating-size flatheads anywhere there’s a steady water flow and hardened mud or gravel bottom. The outside bends of rivers are among the most productive hotspots, especially where washed-out trees have fallen into the water and the river has gouged deeply into the bank, forming undercuts. Potholes or slight depressions in the river bottom also concentrate flatheads, as do the upstream sides of underwater humps, shallow flats and drops near tributary mouths and the whitewater tailraces below big dams.
Flatheads in reservoirs and natural lakes usually seek cover near areas of fast-breaking structure. A good fish-finder can help pinpoint them on or near stream channels or ledges meandering across the bottom. Inundated ponds also are honey holes because they offer flatheads easy access to both deep-water holding areas and shallow feeding spots. Other areas to investigate include current-breaking cover where streams feed the lake, sloping points near the junctions of inundated channels and steep, rocky ledges with adjacent timber. Prime hotspots provide well-oxygenated water, plenty of cover and food and some current.
When looking for flatheads during daylight hours, I focus on areas of dense, shady, near-shore cover such as blowdowns and drift piles—the preferred home sites of these bushwhackers. Even small flatheads will squirm their way inside tangled piles of brush, then turn to face outward from their hiding place so they can watch for forage fish or crawdads that they then dart out to catch. Toppled trees in outside river bends are among their favorite haunts, as are floating piles of driftwood and cavities beneath logs or rocks.
At night, flatheads become more active, leaving their brushy sanctuaries and moving into more open, shallower waters to feed. This is when you’re more likely to catch them on baits presented on the bottom near structure features that guide their movements. Creek channel edges, tributary mouths and underwater humps are among the most productive spots after the sun goes down.
BAIT AND TACKLE
What baits work best? Studies show that flatheads up to two feet long subsist primarily on a diet of invertebrates. Live crayfish and nightcrawlers are especially relished, making them top bait picks. But easily obtained baitfish like goldfish, minnows and small sunfish also are first-rate enticements. In a pinch, you also can try baits such as prepared stinkbaits, fresh chicken liver and chunks of fresh cut bait (shad or herring), as small flatheads also scavenge to some degree, unlike their larger, older cousins.
Any catfishing rig can be used, but because flatheads like to hang in or near heavy, woody cover, I prefer a slip-float rig that allows me to drift my bait from one spot to another near the bottom with fewer tangles. You’ll need four things to create such a rig: a Thill Premium Bobber Stop with plastic bead, a large Thill Pro Series Slip Float, a 3/0 Team Catfish Double-Action Circle Hook and some split shot.
To start, run your main line through the tube of the bobber stop and slide the tube a few feet up the line. Slide the stopper knot off the tube and pull both tag ends of the string to tighten the knot just enough to keep it in place. Slide the tube off the end of the line and throw it away.
Next, run the end of the line through the plastic bead that comes with the bobber stop and then through the slip float. Tie on the hook and add a split shot or two above the hook. Set your starting depth by sliding the stopper knot up or down the line. Pull the tag ends so the knot gets snug and trim both fairly close to the knot. That’s it. After baiting your hook, you’re ready to fish. You can adjust the depth as often as needed by simply sliding the knot up or down the line.
You won’t need heavy tackle to subdue the eating-size flatheads you’re after. A medium spinning or spincast outfit spooled with 10- to 15-pound mono works fine (the Cat Daddy Spinning Combo by Lew’s is one of my favorites), but I prefer to use a 7- to 9-foot rod that allows me to more easily control the movements of the baited slip-float rig. The longer rod allows me to lift my line off the water and “steer” the bait to hotspots while keeping it from tangling.
To ensure solid hookups, leave the point and barb of your hook exposed and not buried in bait. When fishing with live baitfish like shiners or sunfish, don’t push the hook’s barb back into the fish. Slip it once through the lips, back or narrow part of the tail, and leave the point exposed. Hook crayfish through the tail, making sure the hook point is pushed all the way through. Thread the hook two or three times through night crawlers, but, again, don’t hide the point.
Targeting trophy flatheads is an exciting challenge, no doubt. But if you’re like me, there are times when you’re happy just sitting under a shade tree and catching some of the smaller, more abundant flatheads for dinner.
Zero in on some eating-size cats this season. Take your children along or some kids from the neighborhood. It’s fun, relaxing and enjoyable. And as soon as you smell the aroma of those catfish fillets frying up golden delicious, you’ll be ready to do it again.
BIG CAT SPINCAST COMBO
One of my favorite rod-and-reel combos for catching eating-size flatheads is Zebco’s medium-heavy Big Cat Spincast Combo. This beefed-up fishing outfit is tough as nails, able to handle smaller fish with ease and ready for a fight in case a trophy-class cat comes along. It features a super-tough E-glass rod with nearly indestructible line guides and a reel built with a titanium-nitride-plated, stainless steel spinnerhead commonly used on cutting tools to add durability and reduce friction. Tip guides on the rods are made of stainless to minimize insert pop-out, and high-vis glow tips aid in detecting the slightest bites. The 7-foot rods give you more casting distance when bank fishing. MSRP: $40–$75; zebco.com