Flathead catfish are arguably the most bodacious fish in North America. A freshwater Sasquatch of sorts, flatheads grow to over 100 pounds. They’re mean suckers, too, predators to the core. They’ll crack the bones of an unsuspecting carp as easily as a semi smashes an acorn on a highway, and enjoy every moment of it. Elusive, too. Few fishermen regularly catch big flatheads.
Those fishermen who catch lots of them do it just like I do, with heavy tackle befitting the mean mother of a monster this fish is. At least, before I got light-line religion.
Enter the Reverend Mike Kohler and catches of 20-pound-plus flatheads on 8-pound-test line. With regularity. Catches of 2, 4, even 10 big fish a trip, from areas within reach of most of you, areas that fishermen don’t associate with flathead cats.
The pattern probably plays across North America. Dams. Tailwater areas. Vertical-jigging. Walleye tactics and tackle. But for fish that unceremoniously reduce the average walleye to an Erp! and a bony bowel movement.
August 1990. It’s Kohler on the phone. Bring TV cameras, he’s saying. They’re baaaack!
It’ll be like this, he says, doing his best to paint a picture of a segment for the 1991 In-Fisherman TV Specials:
Two fishermen, good-looking fellas, star material—that’s you and me, he chuckles, and then begins almost to whisper as he continues his story in a delivery sounding a lot like Howard Cosell. Two fishermen slowly motor into position below the gates of a lock and dam. As they move across the turbulent water spinning through the washout hole, they notice large “hooks” on their LCD. Sasqui! (Plural for sasquatch, he tells me.)
The stars lower their bowmount electric and begin to “slip”—
Make that deftly slip, I said, interrupting him. Implies prowess. Remember, these guys are stars. Besides, I’ve always wanted to use deftly in print.
“’K right,” he continued, making the necessary correction, as in: They lower their bowmount and begin to deftly slip with the current as they drop 1/2- or 3/4-ounce leadhead jigs tipped with 3- to 4-inch minnows into 40 feet of water. The jigs ride perfectly vertical on 8-pound-test line below the boat through the “slacker” water along the bottom of the washout hole, near the back edge of the hole—the tailout area—where it breaks quickly from 35 feet deep up onto the channel shelf in 25 feet.
They carefully slip along the deep breakline, lifting and dropping their jigs a foot at a time on a tight line. Hooks register along the lip of the washout hole in 32, then 31, 30, 29, 28 feet of water, the tailout lip of the washout hole. Their jigs begin to sweep up the lip—Whomp! “Son, good fish. Big fish. A ‘won’t-move’ fish,” they say in their best TV-fishing-show lingo.
But it’s a “won’t-move” fish for only a moment, he continued. Then—he paused—Then—he paused again, to add suspense to the scenario. Then after several trips following the fish 50 yards upriver, then downriver; after twenty minutes of wondering, Will the hook hold? Will that thin line frazzle or fray? The fish moves the scales to 27 pounds.
Will we be heroes, or what?
Who could resist? So, crack cameraman and In-Fisherman TV Director and Producer James Lindner and I are riding upriver with Mike Kohler en route to a typical tailwater area to shoot a show segment.
“First time when?” I asked as we moved along.
“Nineteen eighty-seven. Late summer. On the Mississippi,” he answered. “Me and another fella are looking for sauger and white bass—just a quick afternoon outing. Boats are drifting all through the tailwater area, with most staying in typical spots where current reverses itself along the edge of the washout hole.
“Couple hours pass and we’re approaching our billionth small whitey and zillionth small sauger. Ho-hum. And, well, I notice a guy drifting way out there over turbulent water where there are supposedly no fish. He has a big fish on. I mean a big fish. Fifteen minutes later, he lands a nasty old ugly catfish. Hey, what do I know about cats, you know? It’s not like I grew up in Iowa like you—I don’t have cats in my genes. I didn’t even know it was a flathead, at the time.
“But I know it’s big. So big it demolishes this guy’s net. And it’s the second ‘accident’ that day. And whatever ‘that’ is has gotta be better than another 5-ounce whitey.”
“To shorten a long story,” I prodded.
“A 20, first drift. Honest. First drift. I think it’s the bottom, but it isn’t and pretty soon this thing is wallowing on the surface and my buddy looks at my new net and I say, Oh no! And then, Aw, geez! And pretty soon I have a pig of a catfish and no net.
“A 16, several drifts later. And finally, one over 30. Biggest fish I’ve ever caught. Bet the house you know where I was next day and many a day thereafter.”
“And you take fish over 20 almost every trip,” I said, repeating what he’d told me on the phone.
“Nope. Get one over 20 every trip. And there won’t be another boat up here after these fish. The fishery’s completely overlooked. Yet the handful of fishermen using this pattern have used it successfully on rivers large and small across the Midwest; so I’m betting it will work in many, maybe most tailwater areas nationwide.”