Right now may be the best time to catch a trophy catfish of any species, regardless of where you fish. And weʼre not alone in this thinking. We talked to some of the best catmen in North America about their favorite time of year to catch trophy cats. Fall, they answered in unison. Best in the South where flatheads respond to cooling water just as they do in the North. Best at the northern edge of the channel catʼs range. And best in the heart of blue cat country. Flatheads—The Need To Feed
When biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission released 11 adult flatheads into the Cape Fear River in 1966, Ed Davis was there. The flathead population has flourished in the last 30 years, even in the face of heavy recreational electrofishing on the lower river. Today, the Cape Fear ranks among the top destinations for trophy flatheads in the Southeast. And Ed Davis is one of the top flathead fishermen in the country.
“The best time to tangle with a record-class flathead,” Davis says, “is when the water temperature starts to drop in late fall. Cooling water has a powerful effect on flatheads. Blue and channel cats are feeding too, but with little urgency. Big flatheads, though, are feeding with renewed vigor, like a bear packing on the last few rolls of fat before winter. Smaller fish tend to move toward wintering holes when water temperatures drop below 55˚F, but big fish—those over 50 pounds—continue to bite until the temperature drops to the mid-40˚F range.”
While more flathead anglers are beginning to recognize that fall is a good time to catch big flatheads, most assume that the best cool-water bite occurs during the day. That’s a mistake, Davis says, one that may be keeping them from catching as many fish as they could. “It’s necessary to be at the right spot when a big fish wants to eat,” Davis continues. “And that’s seldom the time when fishing’s most comfortable. Don’t expect these fish to abandon successful feeding strategies—like foraging shallow after dark—just because the water temperature drops.
Location—“Good night-fishing spots differ from good daytime spots. Might sound like common sense, but even though most catfishermen know that big flatheads are nocturnal, they continue to fish the same holes at midnight that they fished at noon. Catfish use holes in medium-size rivers like the Cape Fear as resting areas. Depth means security, and cover means comfort. Seldom, though, do deep holes offer food. When cats are ready to eat, they go where the food is, usually to the head or tailout area of the hole, or to shallow flats near shore.
“In early to midfall, big flatheads can be caught from deep holes during the day, but that’s a boring way to spend an afternoon. The key is to drop a bait right in front of a big cat’s nose and keep it there until he decides to eat. I once marked some big fish near the tail of a hole, and since nothing else was happening, I decided to wait them out. I anchored upstream, set out baits, and waited. And waited. Almost nine hours later, two fish bit, one right after the other. My partner and I both landed 60-pound flatheads. Okay, so it’s not always boring.
“Regardless of season, though, I’ve caught my biggest flatheads at night. That’s the only time to fish if your heart’s set on a trophy. But again, instead of fishing the core of the hole, anchor near the head of the hole and fish the downstream tailout area and the flat areas to either side of the hole. I may also use a float rig to suspend a bait a foot or two down over the deepest part of the hole for active cats cruising near the surface. Never underestimate the power of a lively baitfish to summon big flatheads.
Bait—“As choosy as big flatheads are about where they live, they’re seldom particular about what they eat. They’re ruthless opportunists that can be caught on almost anything. A few years ago, I kept a 20-pound flathead that was badly hooked and bleeding. When I cut open the stomach, I found a partially digested muskrat. Big cats may prefer live baitfish, but they often eat whatever’s available.
“The size of the bait is important, though, and should match the size of the fish you’re after. Most flathead fishermen select baits that are too small for big fish, especially during fall. Even in the best spots on the best rivers, small fish outnumber big fish by a large margin. You need an offering that’s too big for the little fellers to play with. I’ve caught 10-pound flatheads on 11⁄2-pound baitfish. That’s why I prefer 2- or 3-pound carp. Little fish won’t bother baits that size, but they’re perfect for a 50-pounder.”
Rigging—The most compelling aspect of Davis’ technique isn’t the terminal rigs he uses, but rather the way he deploys those rigs. His “release rigs” are based on the limbliner’s approach—using multiple rods to cover several areas and experimenting with different baits. At least one line is a brush hook, which consists of a release clip tied to an overhanging branch. The line is attached to the clip so the bait swims freely in the upper half of the water column. When a flathead grabs the bait, the line pulls free of the clip.
But Davis also catches big flatheads near the surface on the edge of the flat, away from overhanging limbs. Instead of fishing a single line downstream from his anchored boat, Davis uses a release jug, which consists of a two-liter bottle with a large barrel swivel glued to the cap. He attaches a length of 50-pound line to a heavy bank sinker or decoy weight to anchor the jug in current. He ties another shorter line to a release clip. Once the jug’s in position, he attaches a baited rig to the clip.
Tackle—“My favorite rod and reel combination is a 61⁄2-foot fiberglass Penn Powerstick matched to an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000,” Davis says. “Unless I’m fishing specifically for a line-class record, I usually use 20- or 30-pound test. I can’t cast this line directly into heavy cover, but it’s a good compromise for most situations. I’ve been told that light lines put too much stress on big fish. In my experience, though, more harm comes by landing a fish quickly, especially in heavy current. Bring a flathead to the boat gradually if snags aren’t a problem, and he’ll usually be in better condition for release.”
Channel Cats—The Hole Truth
The Red River of the North, which flows north along the Minnesota-North Dakota border into Lake Winnipeg, stands alone for its production of trophy channel catfish. The average size of the fish increases north (downstream), as the size of the river increases. Below the dam in Lockport, Manitoba, where guide Stu McKay fishes almost every day throughout the open-water season, the average channel cat weighs nearly 20 pounds.
“I get phone calls,” McKay says, “from anglers who want to know the best time to book a trip. They can catch big fish almost anytime, but two periods provide the fastest action. The first is the Prespawn Period, roughly between mid-May and mid-June. The cats are hungry and on the move. Fish congregate below the first major barrier above Lake Winnipeg—the dam at Lockport. Set up below the dam at the right time with the right bait and you’ll catch more 20-pound channel cats than you ever knew existed.
“But fall—specifically early September through mid-October—can be just as productive, and the average size of the fish is larger. And, since the fish are spread over many miles of river, finding them is more challenging than during the early season.
Location—“Location is the challenge during fall. Aside from their size, channel cats here are like channel cats everywhere. They adapt to changing water conditions and eat whatever forage is abundant. The lower Red River doesn’t have logjams and other shallow cover as is common in the upper river or other channel cat streams, but these fish still feed in shallow water throughout much of the season.
“I first discovered a shallow fall pattern in September 1991,” McKay continues. “I was guiding a couple guys from Oregon who wanted to catch a few white bass. We were pitching minnowbaits as we drifted down the shoreline. I was using the electric motor to follow the edge of the flat when the guy in the front of the boat hooked up with a big channel cat. Then I hooked one. While I was fighting my fish, the boat drifted toward shore. The propeller hit rocks, and the whole shoreline erupted for 100 yards downstream as hundreds of big cats shot off the flat into deeper water.
“Similar flats continue to produce lots of big fish during late summer and early fall. My guess is that they’re attracted by migrating leopard frogs, but we also find lots of juvenile white bass in shallow water. Regardless of what draws them onto the flats, they usually return to the main river channel when the water temperature drops into the low 50˚F range in late September.
“We continue to catch cats in deep holes through mid-October, depending on water temperature. Once the water cools below 45˚F, the fish become increasingly sluggish. They can still be caught, but they’re not busting up tackle. As the water temperature continues to drop, most of the cats fall back into Lake Winnipeg where they winter without having to fight current. Some fish stay in the river, though, and ice fishermen catch a few each winter.
Bait—McKay says bait choice seldom is critical. “Just use natural bait,” he says, “one that the cats are accustomed to eating and immediately recognize as food. I rely on fresh-cut pieces of goldeye through the entire season,” McKay says. “Lots of other baits will catch fish, but goldeye are abundant and easy to obtain in the lower river.”
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