Battling trophy river-run flatheads means tackling sheer mass and brute strength. Add current and pulling forces are multiplied. Now your job is to turn that fish away from a jagged rock ledge or trashpile. That’s river fishing. But before you get to turn big flatheads, you have to locate them and get them to bite.
Flatheads can be found in a variety of river situations, from smaller streams to the largest of our nation’s major watercourses, from shallow and clear bedrock-based rivers to big muddies with shifting sands and silt. While the fundamental nature of flatheads remains the same, strategies for locating and catching them can vary.
Guides Dave Shindler and Dale Broughton have been uncovering river flatheads for decades. Shindler plies the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. The river stretch he fishes resembles many shallow rivers across the U.S. Broughton tackles the mighty Ohio near Cincinnati, which is representative of many of the country’s deep river systems. Comparing their approaches helps contrast successful techniques in different river systems, upping your odds for fantastic flatheading where you fish.
Situation: Shallow River
Where: Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania
Guide: Dave Shindler
River Stretch: Harrisburg south 40 miles
Depth Range: 2 to 25 feet
Flow Characteristics: This section is impounded, so faster water can be found below tailraces with slower water as you move downstream from dams.
Structure Base: 90 percent rock
Finding flatheads: Many anglers believe river flatheads don’t move much during summer and can be caught in the same locations all year long. “That’s not the case,” Shindler says. “These fish move, more than most people think.” But, their movements are measured, and yours should be too. Shindler begins the summer targeting the mouths of tributaries. Fish spawn in these locations through July. While most of the tributaries are shallow creeks or fast running limestone trout streams, the mouths are often deeper.
The key is depth change. If the depth remains fairly constant, the creek mouth probably won’t hold fish. Look instead for scour holes. Shindler favors mouths where the tributary itself runs about 5 feet deep, the main river 10 feet deep, but the mouth is scoured to 15 feet.
He uses sonar to identify deep scour holes, but he doesn’t concern himself with marking fish. “Flatheads aren’t easy to see on fishfinders,” he says. “Its tough to distinguish between fish and cover or debris.” If you mark a hole or ledge, don’t pass it up because you don’t see fish on your sonar screen.”
As autumn takes hold and water levels drop, many of these tributary mouths may only have a few feet of water. Shindler moves upriver, where there’s more current, and he shifts his focus to main-river holes, which are often created by rock ledges on the Susquehanna River.
Many of these rock ledges, or chains, that span the width of the river, are only 2 feet deep. Just below the rock ledge, the depth drops to 8 to 14 feet. These depth changes attract flatheads in fall. Shindler also fishes holes up to 40 feet deep when he can find them.
Boat positioning and presentation: No matter what type of hole you are fishing—tributary mouths or main river ledges—correctly positioning your boat so you can effectively present baits is important. Shindler uses two or three anchors to hold his boat steady. Current and wind dictate how he anchors. If he’s dealing with only current, or current and wind from the same direction, he uses a double-anchor system, with both anchors deployed in a “Y” configuration off the bow. To deal with a crosswind, he uses an additional anchor off the stern, or two off the back and one off the front. Deploying a driftsock off the stern also can help stabilize your position.
He anchors upriver, setting baits in fancast fashion in the hole and on the surrounding flats. If he’s using six rods, he casts the first two baits from one side of the boat to the shallow waters against the bank above the hole. Two rods are used to cover the hole. The other two rods are fished off the other side of the boat toward the main-river flat adjacent to the hole. After fishing the upper half of the hole, he repositions his boat closer to the hole and fishes the downstream section of the hole.
Rigs and bait: In early summer, Shindler uses both live- and cutbait. As summer progresses he uses mostly livebait, but he never completely abandons cutbait. He likes fresh cutbait, slicing the belly open and slashing the sides, and sometimes prefers using a whole fish.
Panfish, especially bluegills ranging from 3 to 10 inches, are his favorite for both live- and cutbait applications. He also uses bullheads, and channel cats up to 3 pounds. With panfish he uses a single hook, hooking baits through the dorsal area or nostrils. Experimenting with different hook placements tells you how flatheads prefer the bait. Flatheads often attack a bait differently at different times. If you’re missing fish, change hook placement to see if that improves hookups. At times he uses two hooks on bigger baits.
Shindler uses a classic slipsinker rig, but sometimes varies his rig by moving the sinker from above the barrel swivel to between the swivel and the hook. This dampens bait movement, creating a more subtle presentation, which on some days flatheads prefer.
He instructs his clients on when to set the hook: “Don’t pick up the rod when a flathead bumps the bait. Wait until it makes the first run, then pick up the rod and hold it still until it turns the bait and starts to swim off with it,” Shindler says. “Even though flatheads are ferocious feeders, they often drop baits if they feel resistance.”
Shindler offers a final tip. He likes to fish at night when the water is clear to stained. But after a heavy rain when the water is dirty, he fishes during the day.
Situation: Deep River
Where: Ohio River
Guide: Dale Broughton
Stretch of River: Around Cincinnati, Ohio
Depth Range: 15 to 60 feet
Flow Characteristics: This is big water with strong currents in spring and sluggish flow in summer and fall.
Structure Base: Silt bottom littered with laydowns, logjams, and brushpiles
Finding flatheads: Broughton agrees with Shindler that flatheads move throughout the year. But the reason behind flathead movements on shallow rivers is perhaps different than on deep rivers. On the Susquehanna in summer, Shindler relocates to main river holes because the early season holes he fishes become too shallow. Deep-river flatheads aren’t necessarily driven out of early season holes because they become too shallow. Instead, the fish relocate based on the current. And their movements are usually more subtle.
“Of all the catfish species, I find flatheads are the least tolerant of strong current,” Broughton explains. “They like some current, but not too much.” From late spring to early summer, Broughton fishes current breaks and eddies because the current is too strong in the main river and along outside bends. He looks for eddies and breaks at several different locations, including the downstream side of tributary mouths, downriver side of inside bends, behind islands and points, below shoals, or downriver of tied-up barges.
When fishing eddies, target the seam where fast water meets slack water. This type of area provides a place for flatheads to rest and to feed on items delivered by the current. Seams can also mark ledges. The faster current cuts the river bottom deeper than the adjacent slow-water region. Trash can also pile up against the ledge, making these perfect flathead hideouts.
In July, when the main river current subsides, flatheads move from current edges, which become too slack, to mid-river or outside-bend holes. Holes with logjams and brushpiles are prime places to find mid-summer flatheads. “One little tree can hold a lot fish,” Broughton says. “Smaller holes with a single tree are often overlooked, making them great targets.”
In October, flatheads move out of smaller holes and search out the deepest, longest holes. On the Ohio that usually means holes that are several hundred feet to a quarter mile long. Look for wood or subtle changes in depth within the hole that might attract fish.
Boat positioning and presentation: Broughton points the bow of his boat upstream and slowly motors just upriver of his target. Once he is within casting distance, he drops into reverse to stall his forward movement. Then he shifts into neutral, throws a single bow anchor, and lets the current pull the slack out of the anchor rope.
He then sets baits in a wide swath with rods out of the back of the boat. Broughton uses quick-set rod holders because he sets the hook as soon as there’s a steady bend in the rod. This setup allows anglers to set the hook and remove the rod in one motion. He never sets the hook when the rod tip is bouncing. He waits for that steady pull, which tells him the flathead has fully taken the bait.
Rigs and bait: Broughton’s favorite big-river bait is gizzard shad, the primary forage species in the Ohio River. He prefers shad ranging from 6 to 10 inches long. “Fresh bait is essential,” he notes. “Catch shad the day you plan to fish and keep them in good shape. Red noses signal stressed shad, and stressed bait is not very lively. You want bait that makes your rod tip bounce because flatheads are attracted to the movement.”
He uses a filter for his bait tank, and adds two handfuls of water-softener salt for every 20 gallons of water. Ammonia Sorb to remove waste, Foam Off, bait saver, and ice to keep the tank cool, are also part of his bait health regimen. It seems like a lot of maintenance, but fresh bait can make all the difference.
During periods of low flow, Broughton uses livebait more often, but like Shindler he never rules out cutbait. He hooks live shad through the dorsal area. For cutbait presentations he removes the tail and head and then fillets the shad into halves.
Broughton fishes mostly at night during the summer and fall, but early in the year when the water is stained he fishes the early morning hours. He also says there’s no better time to be on the water than when a “dead” river starts to rise. Flatheads In Shallow Water & Deep
*Brian Ruzzo is a freelance writer from Carlisle, Ohio, and has contributed to In-Fisherman magazine. Contact: Guides Dave Shindler, susquehannariverfishing.com, 717/324-5769; Dale Broughton, 513/248-9032.