Across the Southeast and Midwest, and even into the West, select reservoirs produce extraordinary flathead fisheries. Yet, despite a decade of In-Fisherman Catfish In-Sider Guide publications, decades of research by fishery biologists, and more than a half century of insights from savvy anglers such as Guido Hibdon Sr. and his sons—who began plying the Lake of the Ozarks in 1931 for flatheads and caught some beasts that surpassed 100 pounds—the habits of flathead catfish in reservoirs are still not well understood.
Knowledgeable anglers and biologists maintain that getting a grip on flatheads has been difficult because reservoirs contain too many acres of water and too few flatheads. One Kansas Department Wildlife and Parks fishery biologist who manages a 7,000-acre eastern Kansas impoundment says, “I have no real data. I see them infrequently in nets and while electrofishing.” But he suspects that “a fair population of flatheads” inhabits this waterway.
Another Kansas biologist explains, referring to the 7,000- and 9,400-acre reservoirs that he oversees, that he couldn’t “put a number on the flatheads, but they are quite plentiful,” hinting that flathead populations are greater in Kansas reservoirs than the number of anglers who pursue them. In fact, he contends that the flathead is the most underutilized gamefish in Kansas reservoirs.
Even though gathering information on flatheads in reservoirs has been difficult, there’s no doubt that good numbers of big flatheads exist in several of the flatland impoundments of eastern Kansas. In fact, the world-record flathead (123 pounds) was caught in 1998 at Elk City Lake. Setline anglers such as John Thompson of Ottawa, Kansas, and Larry Moore of Topeka have tangled with flatheads that weighed as much as 80 pounds.
J.D. Bell, a commercial fisherman from New Strawn, Kansas, says that he’s inadvertently caught several giant flatheads in his nets while removing rough fish from eastern Kansas reservoirs. Except during ice cover, he’s netted and released flatheads year-round. He’s caught them during winter in water as shallow as 14 feet in John Redmond Reservoir, the deepest spot in the entire lake, and as deep as 30 feet in Melvern Lake, which is 74 feet deep near the dam.
As word spread about Bell’s catches, hopes swelled that another world-record lurks in the impoundments of eastern Kansas. But Leonard Jirak, a biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks from Hartford, Kansas, who manages Redmond and Melvern lakes, says that it’s unlikely another flathead of this size exists, suggesting that the 123-pounder was one of Mother Nature’s freaks. The biggest Redmond flathead that Jirak has landed weighed 83 pounds, which he and Marc Chester caught on setlines along the Neosho River channel in the 1980s.
Redmond has become silt-laden since its creation in 1964. At its normal level, the deepest water in the main body is about 12 feet. Depths occasionally reach 15 feet upstream from a massive logjam that stretches from shore to shore and encompasses over a square mile.
Jirak strives to maintain an abundant flathead population at Redmond, saying that the fish is the reservoir’s only effective predator. Without flatheads, he says Redmond’s extremely turbid waters would become overwhelmed with rough fish.
Jirak has found that the most productive way to fish Redmond is to fish setlines in open-water areas, but it’s hard work and takes a good boat to withstand the brutal whitecaps that the Kansas wind regularly generates. Even though he realizes that using a rod and reel would be a more sporting way to pursue flatheads, he says that he doesn’t have the patience to consistently tangle with them using a rod and reel.
John Thompson, however, has become captivated with the idea of catching Redmond’s big flatheads on rod and reel. But before he makes his first cast, he uses setlines to locate concentrations of them, finding that the largest aggregation resides within the gigantic logjam in the upper portions of the reservoir.
To fish the logjam, he carefully maneuvers his boat along a series of narrow waterways searching for big openings, the best covered with 11 feet of water and 90 feet in diameter. While surrounded by logs, the interior of the area is virtually free of them. Thompson likes some current at these spots, suspecting that it carries the scent of his bait to flatheads positioned inside the thick confines of the logjam.
Thompson arrives at a spot an hour before dusk and anchors his boat about 30 yards from where he wants to cast his baits. If there’s no current, he fishes a float rig on heavy casting gear with 30-pound monofilament. When he fishes a spot that’s 11 feet deep, he sets a 3-inch-diameter bobber on his mainline 3 feet above a #3 barrel swivel, to which he ties a 12-inch mono leader sporting a 5/0 Kahle hook. The rig’s weighted with a 3/8-ounce sinker directly above the swivel. He baits with either a 4-inch green sunfish or bluegill hooked behind the dorsal fin.
Once nightfall arrives, he switches to a slipsinker rig consisting of a 1-ounce egg sinker, #3 barrel swivel, 18-inch leader, and 5/0 Kahle hook with a sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin. He also uses this rig whenever there’s current, saying that it’s impossible to keep the bobber rig from floating downcurrent and becoming snagged.
Thompson’s usually on the water from an hour before dark to 11 p.m.; on a good day, he catches at least a 50-pounder. He says that it takes a lot of luck to land brutes because of the difficulties of battling big flatheads adjacent to the woody quagmire. When he uses setlines in the logjam, he’s been able to extract flatheads weighing as much as 80 pounds, which he always releases.
Thompson fishes Redmond and other eastern Kansas reservoirs for flatheads from late April until the spawning season begins in mid-June, noting that he doesn’t have the time, patience, or inclination to do it after the spawn or during the fall.
Robby Robinson of Marion, Ohio, fishes for flatheads with a rod and reel in the reservoirs near home, once the water temperature reaches 60ºF in the spring and until it slips to 55ºF in the fall. He’s patient in his pursuit, being afloat for 22 weekends and 2 full weeks a year. Except for a few daylight excursions during the Prespawn Period, he fishes from dusk to dawn, virtually living on his pontoon boat.
An example of Robinson’s resolve occurred in early June of 2006, when he fished for 8 nights straight without a bite. He was afloat again the following week, confident in his techniques and that flatheads were feeding. He caught and released a 61-pounder on the first night, a 55-pounder the second night, and another big fish broke his line on the third.
Robinson fishes the impoundments in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District in Ohio. These waters, constructed by the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, range in size from 850 to about 3,500 acres. They lack flooded timber, but there are scores of manmade brushpiles anchored across the reservoirs’ terrain. They also become muddy after a deluge but clear quickly.
The reservoirs contain some rocky coverts where he finds primarily smaller, crayfish-foraging flatheads. Because his quest is for fish in excess of 40 pounds he doesn’t fish the rocks, but instead anchors his pontoon boat in a bay near the convergence of two creek channels. The best spots are in water as shallow as 2 feet and seldom deeper than 10, where the bottom consists of gravel or sand and is bedecked with submerged brush and logs. During a typical year, he catches and releases as many as 20 flatheads that weigh 40 pounds or more from these locales.
Robinson has found that most flatheads forage in water shallower than 10 feet. He’s caught a 41-pounder in only 16 inches of water. When the water is clear, however, he says that flatheads seldom venture into extremely shallow areas. But after a heavy rainstorm muddies the back of the bays, he often encounters big flatheads in 3 feet of water. He recalls catching four flatheads weighing 40 to 61 pounds in 3 to 4 feet of muddy water in the back of a bay when the reservoir was being pummeled by a deluge.
He uses bluegill and green sunfish for bait when the water is cool. But as the water temperature warms, these baits die on the hook, and channel cats attack them. So until the cats spawn, Robinson opts for goldfish ranging from 5 to 9 inches, and while the catfish are spawning he uses 5- to 7-inch goldfish. He says goldfish are hardy and active and he’s had success with them over the years.
Robinson inserts a 5/0 Kahle hook into thin flesh behind the dorsal fin, allowing the hook to tear out when a flathead engulfs the bait and he sets the hook. He uses a Shimano Charter Special reel spooled with 36-pound-test Dacron-braided line and a 7-foot medium-action Quantum Big Cat rod. He threads a 2-ounce egg sinker on the line and sets his drag at 24 pounds, as this setting keeps him from rushing a fish to the boat and losing it.
A typical strike: The reel clicker becomes activated as the baitfish tries to escape a marauding flathead. Then about 8 inches of line is pulled off the reel, followed by a slow peeling of line off the spool. Once the clicker is humming, he disengages it and lightly touches the spool with his thumb to detect whether a flathead is running with the bait. If so, he places the reel in gear, points the rod tip at the fish and, as soon as the line is taut, sets the hook.
If the rod isn’t firmly bent after the hard hook-set, he points the rod tip at the fish again, reels up the slack and sets the hook again. Big flatheads engulf most baits in an instant, he says, clamping their mouths shut to prevent the bait from escaping.
Robinson has customized his pontoon boat with a fighting deck designed for flathead fishing and a sheltered area for cool or wet weather. His boat setup helps him muster more patience than most anglers who pursue these flatheads. He notes that his pontoon is a recent addition to his tactics, hinting that he’s always possessed the patience to pursue flatheads.
Fishing with his boat tied to the shoreline eliminates anchor ropes that can get in the way while fighting a flathead. He says that if there’s no current, anchoring only causes problems while flathead fishing and that no one could be quiet enough in an anchored boat from dusk till dawn.
Another unique element in Robinson’s flathead fishing is that he doesn’t cast his baits. Instead, he uses a 14-foot boat to take his baited hooks from his pontoon to exact locations where flatheads are expected to prowl.
According to Steve Hoffman, In‑Fisherman Publisher and astute observer of trends in catfishing, Robinson has devised a successful template for other rod-and-reel anglers to adopt and modify for catching reservoir flatheads. Hoffman applauds Robinson’s steadfastness, saying that it’s one of those critical and intangible elements that makes Robinson one of the nation’s best flathead anglers. Likewise, he finds Thompson’s approach of using setlines to assist his rod and reel fishing to be another dependable pattern for anglers.