River Monsters: Catching Flatheads in the Current
June 08, 2012
Flathead catfish seldom thrive in creeks, ponds and small lakes. Many are caught in large natural lakes and impoundments, but hard-hitting, pole-bending flatheads reach their greatest abundance in big bottomland rivers. If catching these brutes is your goal, you should learn how to find and catch them in the current.
Begin by learning these almost invariable facts: flatheads prefer well-oxygenated, flowing water to hardened sand, mud or gravel bottom. Where the river bottom is soft and current nil, flatheads are absent.
Flatheads are cover lovers. During daylight hours, they seek shelter around or within submerged logs, piles of driftwood, toppled trees, snags and cavities in mid-depths. At night, they leave these sanctuaries and move into more open, shallower waters to feed. Fish accordingly.
Adult flatheads tend to be solitary and often are aggressive toward others of their kind. Thus, a single spot of cover usually yields only one, or at most two or three, adult flatheads. It's best to relocate in another fishing spot after landing a sizeable fish.
Flatheads up to 10 pounds may be caught using almost any bait, from chicken liver and prepared stinkbaits, to night crawlers and crawfish. When targeting adult heavyweights, however, use live fish baits, and nothing else. Unlike channel and blue cats, adult flatheads rarely scavenge, preferring to eat lively fish such as shad, herring, carp, suckers, chubs, sunfish and small catfish. Domestic baitfish like goldfish and large shiners also are effective and readily available from bait dealers. Be sure, however, to read local regulations for bait use and fish only with what's legal.
Chasing big channel and blue catfish with lightweight gear is laughable, but testing it on flatheads borders on the very verge of insanity. Earning the respect of these behemoths requires the use of stout, durable fishing gear.
One good combo choice is a 7- to 9-foot, medium-action, e-glass rod paired with a multi-bearing baitcasting reel with a good drag. The long rod lets you hold more line out of the water, allowing quicker hook sets and better bait control, and permitting more accurate drifts and natural presentation when fishing in current. It also provides more leverage for battling heavyweight cats. Medium-action rods have a light tip that prevents the fish from feeling the rod, but enough butt strength to pull a big fish up.
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Baitcasting reels are more durable than spinning and spincast reels and provide more fish-cranking power. The best for flatheads hold at least 200 yards of the line size you intend to use. And most flathead fans prefer one with a "clicker" mechanism that produces an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating a catfish bite. The clicker also keeps a soft, steady tension on the spool, thus preventing backlashes when a cat runs with a bait.
Spool the reel with your favorite 30- to 50-pound-test line unless you're fishing specifically for super-heavyweight fish, in which case you may want to use line testing 60 to 130 pounds. Using braided line, which is smaller in diameter than monofilament, allows you to spool more on the reel. Braids also have little stretch, transmitting strikes instantly to the rod tip, thus providing more positive hook sets. High break strength and low stretch permit better manhandling of big flatheads.
A 5/0 or 6/0 hook is necessary when using live baitfish up to 6 inches. Where 50-pound-plus cats are possible, 8/0 to 12/0 hooks may be in order. Hone all hooks to needle-like sharpness, and leave the barb exposed after hooking the bait.
Wide-gap hooks work best for impaling the live fish typically used as flathead enticements. And while other styles can be used, many flathead anglers fish exclusively with wide-gap circle hooks that hook the quarry in the corner of the mouth, thus facilitating easy hook removal and healthy release.
Many rigs can be used, but because flatheads tend to be near cover and structure, I use a float rig in most situations. This consists of five basic components: a big balsa or Styrofoam slip float that suspends an 8-ounce bait; a bobber stop; a 1-ounce egg sinker; a sturdy barrel swivel and an 8/0 wide-gap circle hook. The bobber stop goes on the line first and is positioned so when the float abuts it, the bait suspends about a foot above the bottom. Next the float is added and below it the egg sinker and then the barrel swivel. I then tie a 24-inch hook leader to the swivel.
In the current of big rivers, I look for flatheads in locales of three basic types: cavities and rotating current areas that form in or near cuts in shoreline revetment and riprap, along the upstream edges of rock jetties or dikes, and in bottom troughs along bluff banks with woody cover
The first type of hotspot can be found on big-river navigation systems maintained by government agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To stabilize the riverbanks and prevent erosion, bulldozers are used to smooth the shoreline, then the soil is covered with concrete matting called revetment. The revetment may be covered with a layer of large limestone rocks, or riprap, to further stabilize it.
Circular areas of rotating current that resemble gigantic, slow-moving whirlpools often form where the river races past cuts formed when fast-moving water erodes soil beneath the revetment. As the undercut increases in size, the concrete or rock superstructure eventually collapses and sinks, creating a deep hole adjacent the bank.
Fishing the slow or rotating current areas around these cuts often produces good flatheads. Some of these rotating currents are no bigger than an automobile; others may be as large as a football field. It all depends on the depth and length of the cut. No matter what their size, though, all such areas tend to hold big flatheads.
It's possible to catch a flathead in one of these pools simply by anchoring upstream, casting a float rig into the rotating water and waiting for a bite. Chances of a trophy catch increase, however, if the angler can pinpoint a large hole that has formed beneath buckled revetment. Giant flatheads love the security of these dark cavities, and anglers who use a "finesse" presentation to put the bait right in front of the fish often find themselves battling a trophy-class cat.
A good sonar unit is essential for finding these underwater houses. Start downstream and troll slowly upstream parallel to the bank, watching the screen for the ups and downs of these buckled-up revetment slabs. When a hole is found and you feel like the boat is directly over it, pick out a reference spot on the bank. Then motor upstream and anchor the boat casting distance away from the hole.
Consider using a float rig set 4 to 6 feet deep for this type of fishing because the revetment houses are small, and precise location is mandatory for success. Cast directly over the hole, let the rig settle and wait for a hit. If you haven't had a bite after 15 to 20 minutes, motor up the bank until you find another likely spot and anchor again. Continue doing this, working your way upstream and fishing first one hole and then another.
If strong wind or current make it difficult to properly position and hold the boat, try beaching your craft and walking the bank to present a live bait in a similar manner. You have to be extremely stealthy to fish this way. Flatheads, like all cats, have very sensitive hearing, making it hard to slip down a rock bank without being detected. But this tactic may earn you a bite if you can't fish a hole any other way.
Rock jetties or dikes are another type of structure where a "get out of the boat and walk" presentation is useful. The best extend from bank to bank, usually behind islands.
Flatheads are attracted to the jetties by the promise of a shad dinner. In summer, when the river gets low enough, the water between two jetties may form a lake that clears quickly as mud and sediment settle to the bottom. Large algae blooms occur in the clear water, and the algae attract feeding shad. The schools of shad attract hungry flatheads.
Flatheads typically hold on the upstream side of these rock formations. Presenting a live shad under a cork is a surefire way to catch them. Work the topside of the dike quietly and slowly from bank to bank, paying particular attention to places where water runs through rocks in the dike or over low spots. These areas have some current, and cats hold nearby waiting to ambush the baitfish.
Another hotspot in big rivers is where a steep mud bank, slow current and timber combine to create an area attractive to flatheads. Cats visit these areas in spring looking for spawning sites in protected cavities and undercuts in the woody cover, and may remain here in summer to feed on baitfish.
Look for bluff banks with timber or old stumps sticking up. These are excellent fishing spots, particularly those on the downstream side of shallow sandbars where the current is slow and baitfish stack up. These banks often drop off into troughs of water that are more than 20 feet deep just 40 feet offshore. The troughs typically run parallel to the bank, and they're great features for cats. Flatheads run the troughs most of the year, depending on the water level and current speed. You can catch them by working a float rig in and around the cover.
After periods of extended summer rainfall, you often can find drift piles, or log rafts, harboring abundant flatheads. These platforms of floating logs and debris form in big-river backwaters during high water. As the river rises and current velocity increases, the main current presses against the seam of more quiet water in the backwater and causes it to swirl like a gigantic whirlpool. Logs and other woody debris in the river are pulled into the eddy and form floating platforms sometimes 100 yards or more across. These structures attract many types of baitfish that nibble food off the logs, and the baitfish in turn attract flatheads.
Various types of carp -- common carp, bigheads, silver carp and others -- are common in big rivers where flatheads are found, and they, like other fish, are attracted to drift piles. When they can be obtained alive (often from a commercial fisherman or caught on hook and line), carp of 6 to 12 inches long make great baits for drift-pile flatheads. They're hardy on the hook and able to survive better than other baitfish in the maelstrom of debris.
If carp aren't available, goldfish may be. Bait dealers often carry them, and in waters where it's legal to use them, goldfish are popular flathead enticements well suited for fishing drift piles.
To fish a drift pile, anchor your boat to one side, or find a bank fishing spot with access to the outer edges of the logs. Flatheads often hold beneath central portions of a drift pile, but it's much easier to fish the edges where flatheads also feed. Present your baitfish on a float rig. You want to maneuver the rig so it floats right up beside the outer edge of the drift pile. Then hold your rod tip high and strip line manually from your reel, guiding your rig alongside the rotating log maze to fish different spots. If a bite hasn't come by the time your line is caught by a piece of driftwood, move it and try again. If flatheads are present and actively feeding, they usually bite quickly.
THE KING OF BIG RIVERS
Mississippi River catfishing guide James Patterson once discussed with me the many qualities of the flathead catfish.
"The flathead is the king of big rivers," he said. "I sometimes hear people call it 'mud cat,' but I assure you it doesn't deserve that title like a lowly bullhead. The flathead is a true predator, a sprinter that can run down the fastest fish. It has a monstrous mouth and can swallow a fish 25 percent its size. This fellow can give you one of the best fights of any catfish, and he is by far, the finest table fare of all the cats.
"Patience is a virtue you must have to catch flatheads consistently," he concluded. "It's never easy. But when fishing big rivers for this incredible fish, the next flathead you tie into could a 50- or 60-pounder, maybe even bigger. That makes all the extra effort worthwhile."
Amen to that!