Catch More Flatheads
August 08, 2016
Trends come and go in flathead catfishing circles. Night-fishing, day-fishing, big livebaits, small livebaits, artificial lures, river fishing, lake fishing — they all have advocates among the fanatics who target flatheads. But the constant that all successful flathead hunters share is patience — time spent on the water. They universally possess the ability and willingness to fish for hours, over periods of days or even weeks, in order to catch the meanest, most
obstinate and challenging catfish in North America.
Robinson on Reservoirs
Robby Robinson has landed more than 1,400 flatheads from flood-control reservoirs and rivers in southeast Ohio during his decades of stalking them, but he says those big catfish have come one or two at a time, and often with a week or more between catches. "Everybody wants a shortcut on how to catch big flatheads," he says. "There are no shortcuts. You've got to put in the time, know where to fish, and use the right baits and tackle in the right ways."
Because he fishes at night, when solitary flatheads leave their daytime lairs to prowl, Robinson looks for bottom features such as old creek channels that the big fish use to move to and from feeding areas, or small flats they patrol for any food they can get in their mouths.
"I think they have their own territories, maybe a half-mile diameter circle from the spot where they hole-up during the day," he says. "When they're out prowling those areas, they're opportunists. We caught one flathead last year that took a 3-inch goldfish, but before we could set the hook it grabbed a 1-pound pumpkinseed, and had both of them in its mouth when we landed it. They're like a snake — they eat as much as they can, then lay up for a week and not eat anything. So you have to be in the right place at the right time when they decide it's time to eat."
Robinson's strategy to be in the right place at the right time involves nosing his pontoon boat onto the shore near submerged creek channels or other bottom structure that create funnels for flatheads when they're on their midnight prowl. He then uses a small boat to ferry hefty sunfish, bullheads, or goldfish loaded on a 5/0 Kahle hook snelled to 36-pound-test Dacron braided line to "choke points" where he precisely anchors them with egg sinkers. Positioning the baits with the small boat not only allows precise placement, but avoids impairing, stunning, or killing baits due to the effort to cast them great distances.
"You've got to have lively baits," he says. "I don't peg the egg sinker — I let the baitfish swim out from the sinker a foot or so and create its own leader. I like Dacron line because it sinks. I may have more than 100 yards of line out, and with boat traffic and wind and waves, floating line doesn't work. I'd use monofilament, but its 5 to 15 percent stretch is a problem when you're trying to set the hook and you've got that much line out. Setting the hook at that distance is hard, but I've had good luck with medium-heavy or heavy power, 6- or 7-foot Rippin Lips rods. I recommend Shimano TR200 reels for big flatheads.
"I use circle hooks if I'm tightlining or fishing in current, but if you're using a circle hook in a lake and the fish swims toward you, there's no tension to turn the hook. If you jerk to set a circle hook, it just pulls out. Kahle hooks let me be the one to decide when the hook gets set," he says.
While long-distance fishing presents challenges, Robinson feels that parking his boat on shore and using a shuttle boat is the best way to put and keep baits exactly where flatheads will find them. "Even with two anchors it's tough to hold a boat and keep baits in the exact spots I want them," he says. "Catching big flatheads is a combination of precision and patience."
Guide John Trager, aka "Captain Catfish," agrees that patience is key to catching big flatheads, but offers clients around Kansas City the option of catching either big flatheads or lots of flatheads — and sometimes both.
"Catfish guys forget that a 'small' flathead is bigger than the biggest fish most other anglers catch in their entire lifetime," he says. "There are bass and walleye anglers who have never caught a 10-pound fish. I take them out and help them catch 10 or more 10- to 20-pound flatheads and they can't believe it. I find a riprapped outside bend and look for any little point or outcrop of rocks, then jam the nose of my boat into the shore just upstream from that outcrop. I run a rope from the back of my boat and tie it off to the shore upstream, then pull the boat so it's sideways to the current. With the boat sideways to that outcrop, I can use four or more rods to fish all along and beside that spot. If I'd anchored from the bow and was fishing out the back I'd end up with all my baits in one small area."
"Baits" is a misnomer, because when fishing near rocks Trager often uses jigs and artificial lures. "Especially during the spawn, flatheads are in rocks," he says. "There's a rock dam in Lawrence, Kansas, and a rock weir in Kansas City that maintains depth for a water intake, and at times it seems like there's a flathead behind every rock below those dams. You'd think it would take a big jig to interest a flathead, but I use a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Blakemore Road Runner because I can straighten the hook if I get snagged. My favorite color pattern is red and chartreuse. Everyone who casts jigs for flatheads has chartreuse on their jigs. Shad-colored swimbaits work well, too. But mostly it's about dragging it right in front of them and triggering a strike."
Crankbaits are another option for flatheads near rocks. Trager often wades out a few feet from rocky shorelines, balancing on rocks. "I cast a shad-colored Rat-L-Trap out in the current and let it drift downstream to the current seam that's along the rocks," he says. "I don't really retrieve it, I just hold it in that seam, let it swim and do its thing. Flatheads follow that current seam up and down the rocks, maybe only a couple feet from the water's edge, especially at night."
Floats are another tactic for pulling flatheads from rocky shorelines. "Drifting a big goldfish or green sunfish under a float along rocks after dark works well," he says. "Green sunfish are my favorite livebait for flatheads. They're tough and feisty. I call them the Eddie Haskell (remember the obnoxious teenager on Leave it to Beaver) of livebaits because they annoy flatheads into biting."
While Trager delights in sharing 10- to 20-pound flatheads with converts to catfishing, he also caters to anglers who want to cross paths with the biggest flatheads. When a monster fish is the goal, he targets individual fish rather than general locations.
"During the day, we drift right up to a logjam and put a sunfish or other bait right down into the middle of it," he says. "We're after the big loner that's king of that stickpile, trying to bounce it off his nose so he has to bite. It's like dabbing for crappies."
The solitary nature of large flatheads has been well documented. Researchers in Iowa and Missouri used radio-tagging and showed that postspawn flatheads often migrate to the same stretches of rivers where they spent previous summers, often to within feet of where they found them the previous year. Once in their summer lairs, big flatheads are often immobile for up to 23 hours a day, leaving only to feed, usually at night.
"I know I've caught the same flathead from the same hole, year after year," Trager says. "We go to certain spots and when my client pulls in a big flathead I say, 'Hey, you caught Harold!' because I recognize the hook marks from when I caught him the previous year."
Working with clients mandates that Trager uses durable but economical gear. He favors 7-foot, medium-heavy Eagle Claw Water Eagle or Ugly Stik rods that carry Okuma or Penn 9500 reels. Mustad Demon Point, Team Catfish, or Rippin Lips 8/0 to 10/0 Kahle-style hooks are loaded with green sunfish, bluegills, or sometimes cutbait made from Asian Carp.
He collects silver carp for bait then hangs several of the them from a stringer above a 5-gallon bucket. He cuts off their tails with heavy-duty titanium-nitride scissors ("Sixteen dollars at Home Depot, and they never get dull," Trager says), and lets the fish bleed into the bucket. He then fillets slabs of meat off the carp, cuts the fillets into chunks, and marinates them in the drained blood during the rest of the trip.
"Livebaits, especially green sunfish, are best for flatheads, but there are days when they go nuts over the bloody Asian carp," he says. "Big flatheads don't feed every day, so it's best to have different baits in the boat so you have what they want when they get hungry."
Being in the right place at the right time with the right bait when reclusive flatheads decide to feed is also the primary strategy of Joe Gunter, catfish guide on the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. A self-described "flathead fanatic," Gunter fishes exclusively at night because he feels nighttime offers him the best odds.
"There's always that unknown variable of exactly when a big cat is going to decide to feed," he says. "They don't feed every night, so they aren't going to bite until they're ready. I set up on a likely flathead spot that I find with my side-imaging sonar."
Shelf rock is the major feature of the bottom landscape of the Susquehanna, and therefore the focus of Gunter's search for mega flatheads. Rock ledges perpendicular to the current are a favorite target.
"I prefer a bigger ledge, with at least a 10-foot drop-off," he says. "If I find a 10- or 15-foot ledge, there's generally a bunch of baitfish somewhere along that edge, and that means there's probably a big flathead in the area. Aggressive, feeding flatheads in such areas usually bite immediately, then the action generally slows. If we don't have the number or size of fish I want in the boat in a half hour, I pull anchor and go to another spot. Some nights I don't have to move because the cats bite really well. Most nights, moving is the key to lots of action and a fun trip for my clients. We have lots of trips where we catch more than 30 flatheads. Most are in the 8- to 15-pound range, with usually at least one over 20."
Gunter fuels his flathead hunts with rock bass, redbreast sunfish, and green sunfish from the river's tributaries. He's found that while baitfish from ponds or lakes are easier to catch, they aren't as resilient and feisty as baitfish from creeks and rivers. When fishing in moderate current, he tail-hooks a 3- to 8-inch baitfish on tandem 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus circle hooks. He lip-hooks baits in strong currents because tail-hooked baits spin too much. He loads 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game Solar Collector monofilament line on Shimano Baitrunner reels with the bait clickers turned off, mounted on 7-foot medium-heavy Ugly Stik Tiger rods painted fluorescent green.
"I don't use the reel's clicker because when a flathead feels a change in tension after it picks up a bait, most times it rejects the bait," he says. "I set the drag tight, put the rod in a rod holder, and let the rod pull down so the circle hook sets itself. We land a lot more fish that way. Even the most inexperienced fisherman can 'reel-down' on a rod in a rod holder until it's loaded. The Solar Collector line and fluorescent green rods are important because I fish at night. I've got blacklights rigged around the perimeter of my boat. Flatheads like to pick up a bait and swim toward the boat, and the fluorescent line lets me see when that happens."
Gunter generally uses a three-way rig with a 3- to 6-inch leader of 80-pound-test Ande line, and 20 to 24 inches of 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game line as a dropper, connected to a 2- to 8-ounce flat bank sinker. Instead of tying the sinker to the end of the dropper line, he ties a swivel to the end of the dropper then uses a small, 3-inch zip-tie to secure the swivel to the sinker. A slipfloat rides on the line a few inches above the three-way swivel to hold the boat a bit off bottom.
"It's my 'sinker sacrificer' when I get snagged in rocks," he says. "Zipping on one of those ties is faster than tying a knot, so it saves time. I buy a bag of 100, 3-inch zip-ties at Walmart for $1.25."
Gunter's nighttime run-and-gun tactics for flatheads to find active, feeding fish pays off. Flatheads over 40 pounds are rare in Pennsylvania; the state record is 48.6. Last year he caught and released 12 that weighed over 40 pounds each.
"I know there are bigger ones in the river," he says. "I'll eventually find them. Time on the water is the key to catching the biggest flatheads, once you figure out the locations and the baits. You just have to have the right baits in the right places when they finally decide to eat. â–
Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contacts: Guide John Trager, captaincatfish.net, Captain Catfish on Facebook, 913/706-5888; Guide Joe Gunter, hookedoncatfishing.com, 717/304-9843.