Current is the salvation and damnation of every river rat. Rarely do flathead catfish anglers get perfect water conditions during the prime late-spring bite. Either thunderstorms bring deluges of rain that flood channels, uproot shoreline cover, and make upstream holes unfishable, or early summer droughts leave key structural elements high and dry.
Current affects every aspect of flathead fishing. From bait placement, bait selection, hook size, and leader length, to location and presentation, each of these elements changes with falling water levels. Absent ideal conditions, flathead anglers must adapt to seasonal fluctuations in current flow and water levels. How successful anglers are able to make these changes directly affects their catch rate.
During the Prespawn Period, current, cover, depth, and forage affect flathead location. Most spots with good current, cover, and depth also attract plenty of baitfish. During springs with low water, an upstream-downstream pattern develops. A percentage of flatheads forego historic spawning areas that lack in sufficient depth and current in low water. These fish forge upstream to find more favorable conditions, their pilgrimage often ending at a dam or spillway. Here current levels are greatest and bait is plentiful. The remainder of downstream flatheads are never triggered by the urge to move upstream during these low water years. Instead, these fish gradually disperse from their wintering sites and take up residence in downstream areas that continue to offer the best combination of current, cover, depth, and forage.
Starting upstream, the key structural elements associated with dams are scour holes. Formed throughout the years as huge volumes of water push through open dam gates, scour holes provide prime holding areas for low water catfish. Due to their deep cupped shape and ability to trap logs and other debris, flatheads find safety in these deep holes regardless of optimum current. These holes provide some of the most consistent action for flatheads of all sizes and should be fished methodically.
Even under minimum flow conditions, the depth of scour holes offers cooler water temperatures and better oxygen levels that hold schools of baitfish. Under normal flows in spring, the extreme velocity of the water in these areas can make them too dangerous to fish. But low water often permits anglers to safely anchor at the upstream lip (head end) of the scour hole.
Start by placing multiple livebaits at the lip and on the upstream edge of the hole. If you can, catch bait in the area of the dam, using fresh bait whenever possible. Also, keep a few larger baits, like skipjack herring or mooneye, in the spread at all times. These baitfish can be difficult to catch and keep alive yet offer a natural big-bait presentation. They’re also perfect for shore fishing below spillways as they are often plentiful in the eddies directly below the discharge. With a constant supply of bait, experiment with bait sizes, live versus dead, and whole versus chunks. Chunk bait often yields some channel catfish along big flatheads in these fast water areas.
Allow baits to remain set for 20 to 30 minutes, then reposition them. After thoroughly fishing the depths of the hole, work the edges. The perimeter of scour hole tends to have more character than the smooth worn center of the hole. The edges offer scattered current breaks caused by rockpiles and rolling depth changes. All of these areas hold giant flatheads at times. Work baits systematically down the slope at the head scour hole and back up the tailout. More active fish tend to hold in the upper sections of the hole, but big flatheads can be encountered anywhere throughout the scour hole.
Use your electronics to locate irregularities in the scour hole, as well as any large boulders or wood elements. Monster-sized flatheads often go into these holes during low water periods and never exit. With a healthy supply of food and current, flatheads can grow enormous in these locations, and low water conditions afford anglers the rare opportunity to take aim at these giant fish.
During normal flows, keep leader length to a minimum when chucking baits to the face of the dam and down into scour holes. Letting the sinker slide up to the bait eliminates the extra swing you get on a longer leader, reducing the number of snags. In minimal current, however, you can lengthen leaders slightly to allow more movement to the bait without substantially increasing the risk of snagging. The extra bait-swing often triggers more bites.
Other Low Water Locations
Farther downstream from the dam current continues to decrease and flatheads spread out over larger areas. Focus on bridge pilings, wing dams, sandbars, creek mouths, and the front end of islands. As current is intercepted and deflected by these structural elements, flatheads lay just off the current seams and in adjacent eddies.
Another top location in low-flow conditions is at the mouths of feeder creeks. These spots offer increased current, depth, and cover. The channel carved by the creek’s flow creates a natural scour hole, adding depth and forming current eddies as the creek enters the main channel. Brushpiles and logjams also form as the currents converge in these areas. Carp, suckers, and channel and flathead catfish, and other species often stage at creek mouths prior to making annual spawning moves upstream, whether in the main river or upstream into tributaries. The combination of structure and forage can hold flatheads in these areas even during periods of low water.
Current seams are easily distinguishable during low flow. A visual survey of the river’s surface provides a map of the routes catfish take to migrate upstream for the spawn and during their feeding sorties. Target areas where multiple current seams come together and act to funnel bait. Areas where several mainstream islands or sand bars separate the main current into braids or multiple seams can be top spots as well. Key holding and feeding areas are formed where seams converge on the downstream side of flow obstructions, such as an island. Find where converging currents run up against cover and you’ve discovered a prime flathead spot.
Divide a prime spot like this into a grid pattern and dissect each quadrant. Position baits just outside the main current seam. Start at the upstream edge of the funnel. Then work through the chute and slightly off the edges. Finish by fishing any eddy areas. Since key current elements are more limited, bait placement must be precise.
Slower currents in low water allows you to fish with larger baits. If you normally use 4-inch bluegills or 6-inch suckers, upsize by a few inches. Bigger baits transmit more vibration and tend to react more strongly as a flathead approaches. Flatheads also are more likely to leave their lairs and explore when current isn’t routing food directly past them.
In strong currents, larger baits are difficult to anchor on bottom with any reasonable amount of weight. During low flow, 2 to 4 ounces of lead is often enough to keep even the largest bait pegged. Again, lengthen leaders to give baits a larger leash to work freely. With limited current, baits can be fished further away from cover without the risk of constantly snagging.
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