August 25, 2021
Trophy flathead catfish remind me of my late Uncle Earl. Earl was a big boy, larger than the rest of my uncles, and had a lifestyle that minimized effort and maximized comfort.
He ate on a strict schedule, had a well-worn path to and from the refrigerator, and spent the majority of his time in his recliner. At family gatherings, he stayed a grumpy distance from relatives, but he quickly nabbed any appetizers or desserts that passed within easy reach.
Interestingly enough, according to many fisheries studies, flathead catfish share a lot of the same daily habits as Uncle Earl. That is to say, they don't move around a whole lot or exert much effort when it can be avoided.
Obviously, this isn't an ideal fishing scenario. But, while this lack of activity is problematic, savvy anglers can overcome it by understanding where the fish are and knowing what they want to eat.
In their research on river-dwelling flathead catfish in the Midwest, Dr. Jason Vokoun and Dr. Charles Rabeni tracked radio-tagged flatheads and found their tagged fish spent an average of 23.1 hours per day relatively immobile. In the same place.
Day after day. Fish spent an average of less than one hour in a 24-hour period—usually at night—feeding a short distance from their home base. Flatheads also typically moved an average of less than a quarter-mile during their nightly feeding foray, and they mostly moved between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The big fish followed the same paths to and from feeding grounds each night before returning to almost the exact same position in the same logjam each morning.
Not only are flatheads less mobile than most suspect, they also don’t live up to their reputations as "denizens of the deep." In a study conducted by biologists Daniel Daugherty and Trent Sutton, late-summer flatheads strongly preferred spending daylight hours resting in rugged woody structure in water averaging only 3 to 6 feet deep. This was true even when woody structure in deeper water was readily available.
Variations to this late-summer routine only occurred when thunderstorms briefly raised river levels. Vokoun and Rabeni noted flatheads would take "vacations" during periods of elevated water flows. In these instances, they might travel as far as 30 miles to explore new logjams before falling water levels prompted them to return to their summer "homes."
Aside from feeding and short vacations due to increased water levels, Vokoun noted flatheads in his study were so sedentary during daytime—and so loyal to the exact same position in their favorite logjam—that his co-workers became concerned some of the fish had died.
"Only when we started checking them every 15 minutes over several days were we able to catch individual fish actually leaving, feeding and then returning," he said. "Not every fish is exactly like the others, but as a group, flatheads don't seem to be very mobile."
So, how does an angler confront the extreme lethargy of flatheads that spend more than 95 percent of their day immobile? Based on the insights mentioned earlier, anglers have two general paths to follow for optimal fishing opportunities.
The first of these two approaches—and by far the more traditional method—is night fishing. It is well-described as a classic “sit-and-wait” approach. Pick a spot, start a fire, put out some baits and wait for the flatheads to come to you.
For generations, old-school flathead hunters have targeted fish during their nightly feeding forays. Given their habitual nature, flatheads are easy to intercept at this time. Fish from a long stretch of river leave their lairs in the nighttime hours and travel routine paths to predictable feeding areas.
Like Uncle Earl headed to the fridge, flatheads almost always take the path of least resistance when moving in rivers. They hug the shoreline and follow the narrow channel of slower-moving water along that edge, or they travel the edge of a well-defined submerged channel. They may also glide down the shallow edge of a sandbar along the inside of a major bend—anything to stay outside the main current. Anglers who place baits in these low-current “catfish highways” offer up grub to a parade of flatheads on the move—and in the mood to feed.
These hungry fish are usually headed to distinct areas where they can consistently find concentrations of baitfish. Low-head dams, rock bars and the mouths of tributaries, for example, are smorgasbords for flatheads. Anglers who identify and fish these areas often see lots of action.
RUNNIN' AND GUNNIN'
The second, more aggressive tactic for late-summer flatheads, described as "run-and-gun," has gained popularity over the past couple decades. Run-and-gun anglers target flatheads where they spend 90 percent of their lives: deep in tangled logjams during daylight hours. While daytime fish aren’t actively feeding, they rarely turn down an easy snack. A fat bullhead, sucker or green sunfish in front of a flathead’s face lasts about as long as a slice of pie set in Uncle Earl’s lap.
In many ways, run-and-gun anglers borrow strategies from tournament bass anglers. They identify likely places to fish, fish them intensively for 15 to 20 minutes and then move on to the next logjam.
They follow a pattern at each one, though. First, they’ll fish the head of the logjam, where current has scooped a hole ahead of the obstruction. Then, they’ll drop baits into small pools within the tangle of logs. After that, they check any trenches along the sides of the obstruction. Anglers will then move on after probing any holes on the down-current end of the obstruction.
How "hard" run-and-gun anglers fish a particular logjam depends on its size and configuration. Another finding of studies involving radio-tagged flatheads is that, except during the spawning season, flatheads are mostly loners. It’s rare to find two flatheads in close proximity. A single root ball and tree trunk with one "good" hole might hold only one flathead. It stands to reason, then, that if you catch one flathead out of a small hole, you can probably move on to the next.
A large logjam with multiple holes scooped out by current, however, may house several flatheads. But rarely will two fish share a hole, and if one of the holes in a big logjam has the best current, best depth and best sense of security, that’s where the biggest flathead will be. The most dominant cat rests in the best spot.
FLATTIES BY NIGHT & DAY
- DAY: Continuous tracking of radio-tagged Midwestern flathead catfish by fisheries biologists has shown the big fish average 23.1 hours per day resting in woody, snaggy habitat and favor water depths of 3 to 6 feet. Scour holes below dams also attract resting flatheads.
- NIGHT: After sundown, flatheads follow the edges of channels and other areas of reduced flow, traveling between daytime lairs and distinct feeding areas to find concentrations of baitfish. These include shallow, submerged sandbars, mouths of tributaries and downstream drop-offs below exposed sandbars and dams.
We've established that flatheads are pretty opportunistic when it comes to their diet. Still, it doesn't hurt to be diligent with regards to bait selection.
If you're fishing after dark along a catfish highway or in a traditional feeding area, just about any live bait common to that waterway is fair game. While live bait is preferred, flatheads will take fresh cut bait, especially if they’re already in feeding mode. Large, bloody chunks of any baitfish can draw their attention; bluegills, bullheads, common carp, Asian carp and suckers are all acceptable.
The most attractive bait for flatheads, however, seems to be wounded or struggling baitfish. Generally, you want a baitfish that can endure and struggle on a hook for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Bullheads, bluegills and larger suckers work well, but some trophy flathead hunters also swear by 1- to 2-pound carp when targeting 50-plus-pound fish. Clipping or trimming fins to make baitfish struggle on the hook—or scoring their sides with a knife to release blood—can increase interest from flatheads. Just be sure it doesn’t lead to premature baitfish mortality.
There are many options for flathead baits, but your choices for rods, reels, lines and hooks are almost endless. Tackle selection varies somewhat with an angler's chosen approach (sit-and-wait or run-and-gun), but hook selection is consistent. For years, traditional flathead hunters have favored 6/0 to 10/0 J-style, Kahle and Octopus hooks. But many flathead anglers now prefer 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks.
J-hooks require anglers to set the hook with a hefty jerk of the rod. Circle hooks are self-setting, and actually fail to lodge in the fish's jaw if the angler attempts to set them. Circle hooks are deadly if the angler ignores tentative bites and waits for the fish to pull consistently and steadily, then simply starts to vigorously reel in line. This gets the bait and hook well into the fish’s mouth before its movement rotates and engages the hook. This process nearly ensures solid hook engagement in the corner of the mouth.
To reduce the urge to violently set the hook on a bite, try putting rods in rod holders and not picking one up to start reeling until it is fully bowed and appears to be in danger of slipping into the river.
While many flathead anglers describe their rods as "pool cues" and their reels as "winches," industrial-duty tackle isn't necessary. Yes, rods must have strong backbones to manhandle big flatheads in open water or convince them to leave the snaggy confines of a logjam, but a soft tip gives live baits a little freedom of movement. It also prevents a suspicious flathead from dropping a bait when he feels resistance as soon as he picks it up. Seven- to 8-foot-long heavy-action rods with moderate tips work well in most situations.
Serious flathead hunters uniformly prefer baitcasting reels, often with "bait clicker" options that allow catfish to pick up and move baits without feeling major resistance. Big, heavy spinning reels also catch lots of flatheads, but baitcasters offer line control and drags favored by those who target the biggest fish. Abu Garcia's Catfish Special reels are popular, as are Penn's Level Wind series and Shimano's Cardiff and Corvalus baitcasters.
Line-wise, monofilament is generally preferred over braided line due to its "give" when shock-loaded, plus it's sufficiently tolerant of abrasion. Most flathead anglers prefer 50-pound test and greater for obvious reasons. Berkley Trilene Big Cat, Sufix Tritanium Plus, Sufix Superior, Berkley Trilene Big Game and Ande monofilament lines all work well for flatheads.
TAKE YOUR PICK
With the right rod, reel and line combination—and irrestible baits—anglers are ready to face monster flatheads in the dog days of summer. Based on scientific research, we know they really only hang out in a few places during the late summer and early fall. In daytime hours, they're in tangled logjams in surprisingly shallow water. At night, look for them on travel routes to feeding areas. Choose which of these approaches you want to take, and then get after them. Just like Uncle Earl, flatheads are creatures of extreme habit. They're also just as feisty.