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Catfish

Catching Winter Flathead Catfish

by Steve Hoffman   |  October 24th, 2004 0

The season for channel cats on the Minnesota portion of the Red River extends from early May through the end of February. I mention this in an article about flatheads because it’s the only legal season for catfish that I’m aware of in North America. Most parts of the country, though, have at least an informal season. Most veteran flathead anglers, for example, begin fishing when water temperatures warm into the low to mid-60˚F range in spring, and they hang up their rods when water temperatures cool below 50˚F in fall.

John Lehto with his largest flathead of 1999, a 69-pounder taken in late February from 39˚F water.

Translating those water temperatures to a calendar can be difficult because weather and water conditions never are constant from one year to the next. During a typical season, though, I’d guess the traditional flathead season in Minnesota extends roughly from mid-May through early October. Heavy cold spring rains might slide the opener back, and a few warm fall days may extend the fishing for a week or two, but northern anglers can expect about six months of fishing during a typical year. Probably add a couple weeks to each end of your season in Missouri and a month or more in South Carolina.

Regardless of where you fish, though, cooling water eventually pushes flatheads into wintering holes that afford them some level of comfort and security. The start of what we call the Coldwater Period is characterized by nearly constant cold water temperatures. Again, how cold depends on geographic location. In the north, some river sections may be covered by three feet of ice, and water temperatures range from a low of 32˚F to a high of about 39˚F. Winter temperatures in the mid-South may run in the mid-40˚F range, and the high 50˚F range in the deep south.

It follows, then, that a flathead’s need for a separate winter range would be strongest in the northern two-thirds of their range. In rivers like the Tallahatchie and Big Black in Mississippi, where water temperatures remain above 50˚F throughout winter, flatheads may remain in the same areas they occupied during summer. In the Minnesota, St. Croix, Wisconsin, and other northern rivers, though, they usually drop into moderately deep holes when water temperatures dip below about 50˚F. And so long as these holes aren’t filled in by changing river dynamics, fish may inhabit the same wintering holes from one year to the next.

Studies on the Minnesota River conducted by biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that channel cats and flatheads favor different wintering holes, though some overlap occurs. While channel cats tend to congregate in the deepest available water, flatheads favor holes with heavy wood cover or rock structure that blocks current, usually in water 12 to 18 feet deep. Most fish in the ­Minnesota River don’t move far, but a long migration may occur in some rivers.

It has long been assumed that these wintering flatheads—especially those at the northern edge of their range—seldom bite, though they’re occasionally caught by anglers fishing with jigs or bait for walleyes or some other species. A reliable pattern has been difficult to establish, though, because most of these anglers weren’t targeting flatheads, and most of the fish they reported catching were snagged.

In recent seasons, though, we’ve met anglers like John Lehto and Terry Hansen who do indeed target flatheads in northern rivers during the coldest times of the year. Both are coldwater catmen to the core. Neither pursues flatheads during the traditional summer season, but both routinely break through ice at the boat ramp thick enough to support an ice fisherman, and they brave temperatures cold enough to send ice fishermen in search of a propane heater.

John Lehto uses a medium-heavy-power muskie bucktail rod with a fast action to move lures aggressively, detect subtle strikes, and pull fish quickly to the boat. Even with heavy tackle in cold water, though, a battle with a 40-pounder could last more than 10 minutes.

John Lehto’s Method
John Lehto, as we’ve already established, is not a typical flathead fisherman. He doesn’t care much for night fishing, and he claims to lack the patience he assumes is necessary to stillfish with livebait. What’s most unusual about Lehto, though, is that his season doesn’t begin until his neighbors in Somerset, Wisconsin, are putting their boats in storage and rigging their ice rods.

But he does like to catch big flatheads. Fishing from mid-October through the end of March, Lehto and two partners boated more than 250 flatheads in the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Their remarkable catch included 15 fish over 40 pounds and two that topped 60. “My biggest fish was just under 70 pounds,” Lehto adds, “which would have eclipsed the current Wisconsin record (65 pounds).”

Most of his fish are caught in main-river holes from 20 to 30 feet deep. “I usually drift through a hole at current speed,” Lehto says, “using an electric motor only to correct my drift and keep the bait directly beneath the boat. Several drifts may be needed to find where the cats are holding. Sometimes most of the fish push toward the head of the hole, but at other times, they’re lined up along the channel ledge or scattered throughout the core of the hole.”

Lehto sometimes uses sonar to locate fish holding on or near the bottom, but they’re difficult to discern from the bottom because of the sunken timber, rock, and other cover that litters the hole. “Flatheads usually hold behind large objects like wood and rock that deflect cover,” Lehto adds, “but they also line up behind each other. At times, they’re packed so tightly into prime holes that jigging without snagging a fish is almost impossible.”

Most of the flatheads caught during the Coldwater Period are, as we’ve said, snagged, usually by anglers targeting walleye or sauger. This has made many anglers skeptical of those claiming to catch numbers of flatheads in water colder than about 50˚F. “I keep a detailed record of all my catches,” Lehto counters, “including notes about how the fish was caught. I estimate that about 25 percent of my fish are snagged, but that’s definitely not my intent, and most of the fish definitely are taking the bait.”

The tailrace area often is favored by walleye anglers, but Lehto has found that flatheads prefer holes a mile or more downstream from the dam. Bend holes in the main river channel and scour holes behind wing dams that extend almost to the main channel are particularly productive during normal water levels. During high water, Lehto prefers to fish shifting sand dunes formed behind islands and in long straight runs. He begins a drift on the flat above the hole by lowering his jig to the bottom and bouncing it down the drop at the head of the hole. He uses an electric motor to correct the drift and to keep the jig as vertical as possible to minimize hang-ups. He’s found that an aggressive 11⁄2- or 2-foot jigging motion as soon as the bait hits the bottom attracts more fish and triggers more strikes.

Lehto’s choice of bait may be the most remarkable aspect of his approach. His initial catches were made with the same plastic grub and minnow combinations used by walleye anglers, but he soon learned that soft plastics were enough to trigger strikes from semi-active flatheads. “I’ve had success with 3- to 5-inch shad imitators like Mister Twister Sassy Shads, Berkley Shimmy Shads, and Banjo Minnows.

“I always add some kind of scent to the bait—usually Berkley’s Walleye Power Bait Attractant or Baitmate Catfish Scent—but I’m not sure how ­important scent is,” Lehto continues. “I’ve also experimented with rattles inserted into the plastic baits, but again, I can’t say for sure it produces more strikes. The whole key to this presentation seems to be keeping the bait near the bottom and jigging fairly aggressively to trigger strikes—just like walleye fishing.”

Unlike walleye anglers, though, Lehto uses heavy-power muskie bucktail rods and large-capacity casting reels spooled with 40-pound monofilament. “Snags are so common that I’ve started using a 30-pound mono leader,”Lehto says. “I lose a few more jigs each season, but I’m not shortening my main line every time I break off. Heavy tackle also means more landed fish. Flatheads tend to be much more lethargic in cold water, but I still expect a battle to last about a minute for every three pounds of fish.”

Since the bulk of Terry Hansen’s catch consists of walleyes and saugeyes in the 2- to 5-pound range, he uses medium-power walleye gear and 6-pound line. Such tackle is too light for almost all other flathead applications, but usually is sufficient to land big fish in cold water.

Terry Hansen’s Method
Terry Hansen, owner of Apex Tackle in South Sioux City, Nebraska, has for years been making spectacular catches of big flatheads during the coldest times of the year. He fishes the lower ends of major Missouri River tributaries. Runs on these rivers average 4 to 8 feet deep, and most sharp bend holes are about 20 feet deep. Most of these holes are 100 to 200 feet long and drop and rise gradually at the head and tailout sections. Most also contain little wood or rock cover.

Hansen says most of the bend holes he fishes hold at least a few flatheads, but he prefers to pinpoint their location with a flasher. “You can pass right over the tops of these fish without seeing them on a liquid crystal graph,” Hansen says, “but a properly tuned flasher will separate fish from the bottom. After spotting a fish, I use my electric motor to hover over the fish, holding my bait right in front of its nose until it decides to eat.”

We’ve long recommended flashers for precision tasks like reading through dense vegetation or vertically jigging through the ice. Before you trade in your LCG for a flasher, though, realize that spotting fish holding tight to the bottom isn’t always easy. “I know how to tune and interpret my flasher through years of experience,” Hansen adds. “Most importantly, though, I know what I’m looking for. That flickering bottom signal may look like a stump to the untrained eye, but I usually can pick out the fish.”

Like Lehto, Hansen also has found that large numbers of flatheads tend to congregate in prime wintering holes. “If I catch a fish or even see a fish on my flasher,” Hansen says, “I’m confident that at least 10 or 15 other flatheads are present in the hole. Most of the fish I catch in late winter are covered with sores, scrapes, and have chunks of their dorsal fins chewed off. One fishery manager I fish with speculates that the fish are taking pieces out of each other, due either from hunger or territorial battles in tight quarters.”

Hansen also finds walleyes, sauger, and saugeyes sharing real estate with flatheads. During the first six weeks of 1999, he caught more than 1,500 saugeyes in the 2- to 5-pound range and dozens of flatheads to 50 pounds. With the balance of his catch so clearly on the walleye side of the ledger, he continues to use walleye tackle and tactics throughout winter. “I use medium-power spinning gear spooled with 4- or 6-pound line,” Hansen says. “My bait is a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Apex Crystal Ball Jig tipped with a 4- to 6-inch shiner.

Hansen has found that most major bend holes hold at least a few flatheads on the rivers he fishes. Even smaller, shallower holes with little cover can hold a dozen flatheads, probably because the current is so slight. Pinpointing the location of flatheads within the hole, though, still is important. After locating an individual fish within the hole with his flasher, Hansen uses an electric motor to hover slightly upstream. He then lowers a jig tipped with a lively shiner to the bottom, holding the offering in front of the fish’s nose until it decides to eat.

“Most hardcore flathead fishermen can’t believe I’m able to land big fish on such light line,” Hansen adds, “and I admit that I probably couldn’t do it in warm water. In the winter, though, the current is almost imperceptible, and the cold water really saps the strength of a big flathead. I’d guess that Lehto’s estimate of one minute per three pounds is about right for me too, but I use much lighter line.

“These fish just don’t fight like they do during summer,” Hansen adds. “I was bringing in a fish last season when my line frayed and broke on a cracked guide. I reached over the gunnel and grabbed the terminal end of the line that was still floating on the surface and brought the fish in hand over hand. The fish weighed almost 50 pounds but felt like dead weight on the line.”

Flatheads For The Future
On his best day last winter, Lehto and a partner boated 35 flatheads for a total weight of more than 600 pounds. Regulations on the river section they were fishing permit each angler to keep 10 fish, but farther downstream (in the Iowa stretch of the Mississippi River), they could have harvested all the fish. “Not only can these fish be caught during the coldest time of the year,” Lehto adds, “but also, they probably can be caught in greater numbers than at any other time of year. I release all the fish I catch and encourage other anglers to do the same.”

Unfortunately, not all anglers voluntarily follow Lehto’s example. We’re committed to covering topics like this one because it’s part of the whole catfishing experience. It certainly appears, though, that flatheads—particularly big flatheads—are extremely vulnerable in cold water.

Editor In Chief Doug Stange, a longtime proponent of bringing catfish regulations into line with regulations for other important gamefish, agrees. “These consolidated fish probably need protection from harvest during winter,” Stange says. “Certainly, they need protection from overharvest. The problem remains that we have little definition of what constitutes overharvest in most areas. Even in conservative states, such as Minnesota, the limit on most waters is five catfish of any species, never mind that those five fish could be 40-pound flatheads with a combined age of well over 100 years.

“Never mind, too,” Stange continues, “that these fish might be taken from a winter concentration that numbers in the hundreds, these hundreds being the fish that will, once spring arrives, spread throughout the river and tributaries to provide recreation for the masses. But I’m reaching here. All I know for certain is that we need to know more so we can protect appropriately in order to ensure good fishing for this incredible big gamefish. In the meantime, anglers need to exercise discipline by practicing selective harvest. Until we have a better handle on how fragile these fisheries are, let’s release the big fish and on occasion perhaps keep only a small fish or two.”

About Steve Hoffman

Publisher Steve Hoffman has fished from the Arctic Circle tundra to the South American jungles and from New England’s hottest runs of stripers and bluefish to the trophy trout fisheries of the Mountain West.

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