In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange: “Presentation is important, but only after you’ve solved the location puzzle. Understanding the flathead catfish’s habitat preferences throughout the day leads naturally to the right location, which, in turn, points to an appropriate presentation.”
Most novice catmen want instant results: a secret bait or new rigging wrinkle that no catfish can resist. Thatʼs especially true with flathead catfish. Channel cat anglers might catch 50 fish or more a day on some waters, but for flathead specialists, one or two good fish a night is a reasonable goal on most rivers. Instant results are possible, but success has little to do with baits or rigs.
Tracking Flatheads At Night
No question that flatheads, especially big ones, often feed after dark once summer sets in. Unfortunately for most anglers, fishing at night doesn’t erase location and presentation problems so much as it intensifies them. If anything can go wrong, it still will. Wrong is wronger at night. But right can be righter, too, because that’s when big fish often prowl in many bodies of water.
A radio telemetry study conducted by John Skains and Dr. Don Jackson of Mississippi State University reinforces the theory that flatheads in rivers carefully select their lair and tend to hold there during the day. At the beginning of the study, 10 flatheads were captured from the Big Black and Tallahatchie rivers in Mississippi and implanted with radio transmitters.
Researchers learned that during daylight, cats generally were sedentary in one of their home areas, which typically contained woodcover. Only one fish was found moving during daylight, and this occurred at 3:30 p.m. on an overcast day. All the cats had at least one home site, and usually two or three. No radio-tagged fish shared home sites, though the boundaries of their ranges sometimes overlapped.
When the fish moved at night, they tended to travel along the shoreline, heading in one direction throughout the night, then returning to a home site before daylight. The maximum distance for a nighttime foray was just under a mile, but sometimes they remained in their home site all night. The researchers could detect no seasonal trends in the daily movement patterns of the cats.
The tagged flatheads usually held in areas with reduced current during the day and night, often in deep eddies. The depth of these areas ranged from two to 20 feet and most often from six to 10 feet deep. Surprisingly, no day or night depth preferences were noted.
During the day, though, flatheads primarily held in brushy areas or dense snags. At night, their nocturnal forays often kept them around cover, but active fish often moved through clear areas. In the unaltered Big Black River, fish held in denser cover—which was more available—than in the channelized Tallahatchie River.
In a tagging study on the Minnesota River, one of the state’s top flathead rivers, researchers found that northern flatheads also hold in moderately deep holes with abundant cover during summer. Without radio transmitters, it was impossible to track precise daytime and nighttime movements. Based on the success of trotlines set in featureless runs between holes, though, fishery technician Brad Koenan suggests that flatheads probably patrol these areas after dark, especially during early summer and other high-water periods.
Some of the most productive trotline sets were in the middle of long runs, a mile or more from the type of habitat most flathead anglers prefer to fish. Some of the lines set in these barren river sections produced as many as eight fish on 10 hooks, including many of the largest fish caught during the study. Koenan believes that the first fish is attracted by the concentration of baitfish on the trotline hooks. The struggles of the hooked flathead then attract more flatheads into the area.
Catching Sunrise Cats
Many anglers overlook what often is the hottest of all potential daily feeding periods, the morning period from about 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. The actual length of the period isn’t so important as knowing that it may exist and that it might focus catfish activity, so you can take advantage of it. We’re not suggesting that this period is magical, just good on many catfish waters.
Some anglers believe the early morning is a catch-up period for catfish feeding activity. The cats have all night to feed, but apparently they don’t always get the job done. Or perhaps they just prefer feeding during the morning. When the sun cracks the horizon, it’s like the big boys realize, it’s now or never till tonight. Who wants to sit pouting in a snag with a partially filled tummy all day? That’s no way to reach 30 pounds.
Catfishermen often dwell on the flathead’s tremendous senses of smell and taste. Cats are unique in that regard. But other senses get overlooked. Rarely do one or two senses key an effective lifestyle. It’s the coordination of all the senses that keys effective feeding strategies.
Flatheads, and other catfish for that matter, also are sound sensitive. But it’s understanding that cats also have good vision that helps explain the potential intensity of this catch-up feeding period during the early morning. Flatheads, though, also operate well in dingy water, using their senses of smell, taste, hearing, and feeling. But when the water clears even slightly, they rely on vision, too.
We’ve kept several flatheads in our office observation tank. Most lie on the bottom during the day, only their gills and eyeballs moving. When we move around the room several feet away from the tank, their eyes follow. And once you have their attention, their eyes even follow subtle arm movements.
Like other predatory fish, flatheads probably have a significant vision advantage over most prey species at night. They probably see even better, though, with a bit of light, and continue to have a vision advantage over their prey during the morning twilight period. The big boys, the fish that have lived 10 or 15 years, know the morning period can be prime-time feeding, a catch-up bite, or a hurry-up-and-feed bite, given the approaching intense daylight.
The midnight shift can be good, but it gets old when you have to work the next day. Time it right, and on some waters you might catch more flatheads during the hours just before and after dawn than you would fishing all night.
Flatheads During The Day
Many catmen catch a flathead or two each season during the day, often on a piece of cutbait intended for a blue or channel cat. This usually occurs toward the end of the Prespawn Period, when the fish’s metabolism is in high gear. Few flathead specialists, though, target flatheads during the middle of the day, particularly during summer.
Dean Opatz is a full-time deputy sheriff and part-time flathead guide. He fished exclusively at night for many years, until a lack of sleep and an increasingly demanding work schedule forced him off the water after dark. He soon learned, though, that he could catch more flatheads during the day than he could at night.
Opatz admits that flatheads are more active at night, but adds that they’re easier to find during the day. The tracking studies seem to support this idea: Flatheads often cover a large area when prowling after dark, but usually remain holed up in a dense patch of cover during the day.
The problem night fishermen face is deciding where to set up to intercept actively feeding fish. Every home site probably has one or two high-percentage spots, but it’s impossible to know when a flathead will move through those spots. A flathead might swim upstream instead of downstream during a nocturnal foray, or engulf a big baitfish before it finds your bait. The only way to know for sure is to sit and wait.
Most flathead anglers know the sit-and-wait routine well, but patience usually is detrimental when fishing during the day. Opatz says the best bite usually occurs between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. When the sun’s high, the biggest fish usually are buried in the biggest, nastiest-looking snags in the river. These fish seldom move for a bait, but usually will eat a livebait or fresh piece of cutbait dropped in front of their barbels.
Opatz usually waits only five minutes or so at each spot, but he says that most fish bite within a minute or two. The key is getting the bait as tight as possible to the snag. That’s the reason that Opatz prefers cutbait to livebait; a lively baitfish often wraps the leader around limbs and branches, while a baitfish fillet snags less often, even when cast into the densest cover.
Many flathead anglers know that the density of the cover is more important than the depth of the hole. Opatz caught three big flatheads last fall from a spot less than four feet deep. And the flat surrounding the small depression was less than two feet deep. All of the fish were holding under the root wad of a massive cottonwood. The dense roots provided overhead cover, allowing the flatheads to hold in shallower water than they usually prefer.
From this and similar experiences during the past two seasons, Opatz has developed a location strategy based on time of day. When he hits the water at first light, he usually begins fishing 100 yards or more above a big snag. As the sun continues to climb—as the fish move toward their home sites—Opatz moves closer to the wood. By about 10 a.m., he’s bouncing his sinker off the snag on the cast.
Putting It All Together
The critical concept here is that nothing—not the best bait, the finest tackle, or even time of day—makes up for being in the wrong spot. That flatheads can be caught at any time of the day is important, too, but you first must know where to look. Identifying the best spots requires an understanding of flathead habitat preferences and time on the water.
A flathead trip on unfamiliar water begins with a simple objective: identifying the biggest and baddest snags associated with the best holes—in other words, the best flathead home sites. And that means surveying lots of water. On smaller rivers, you might be able to explore a 10-mile stretch during a typical day, catching several channel cats and maybe a flathead or two as you evaluate spots. But don’t stay in one spot too long; it’s impossible to make comparisons until you know what lies around the next bend.
Most holes occur along sweeping outside bends, where a river makes a sharp turn. The best bend holes usually follow a long, relatively straight stretch of river with fairly uniform depth and current. The current scours the bank and river bottom and scours a hole, and trees and other debris that fall into the water pile along the outside bend. These snags provide flatheads with overhead cover and protection from current, and these areas also attract baitfish.
Even if you’re fishing at night, a time when flatheads often roam shallow flats in search of prey, begin by identifying the holes where the fish hold during the day. If a hole is located in an otherwise desolate river stretch, it probably won’t hold many flatheads but might attract some of the biggest fish. A prime hole in a prime stretch—a short section with many good holes—usually attracts more flatheads. If fishing pressure is high in the prime stretch, though, favor more remote water.
Lots more to talk about when it comes to catching prime-time river flatheads, but it can wait. Learning to apply the location principles we’ve discussed, especially understanding how light intensity affects location, is enough to put a flathead on your line. The rest of the process—tackle, rigging, and bait—are just details. Important details, granted, but they won’t make up for location mistakes.