Catching Flathead Catfish: The Time and Place
August 27, 2013
Flathead catfish, the reclusive rulers of many North American rivers and reservoirs, are creatures of habit. Watch big flatheads in tanks at Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, or public aquariums and you see individual fish lying beneath the same log or ledge day after day. This behavior could lead you to believe the life-purpose of big flatheads is to do as little as possible for as long as possible in order to grow as large as possible. That might be an accurate assumption.
Long-term studies of radio-tagged flatheads, however, show they can make significant annual movements within river systems as part of their seasonal cycles. Triggered by falling water temperatures, they move each fall to communal wintering holes, vacate those holes each spring to move to spawning areas, and then migrate during the post-spawn to summer habitats, which often are the same areas in rivers where they spent previous summers. Then the annual cycle repeats.
But within those cycles, especially during summer, flatheads are relatively immobile for most of the day, using the same spots day after day just like the fish in the tank. In summer, just about all movement occurs during low light and at night. Multi-year studies of radio-tagged flatheads in midwestern rivers by Drs. Jason Vokoun and Charles Rabeni show that large flatheads in their postspawn summer habitats are immobile for long periods. "We stayed in radio contact with some of the fish 24 hours a day," Vokoun says. "We checked them every 15 minutes, and estimated they were stationary for an average of 23.1 hours a day." They noted that their research supported the popular belief that flatheads move most after dark to feeding areas, often shallow flats or other locations known to support large numbers of baitfish, before moving back to their reclusive summer lairs before sunrise.
The researchers found the only significant non-feeding movement of flatheads in rivers during late summer was related to summer thunderstorms. Temporary rises in river levels encouraged radio-tagged flatheads to take brief "vacations" of up to 31 miles. Not every tagged fish moved in response to rising water, but most fish that moved eventually returned to their normal summer lairs as water levels receded, "eventually" being the operative word.
In a study by fishery biologist John Skains in Mississippi, some flatheads established 2 to 3 temporary, alternate lairs during their "vacations." They spent days immobile in alternate lairs, making brief forays to feed at night before returning to those temporary homes. As water levels receded to normal, most of the vacationing flatheads returned to their traditional summer home territories and patterns.
Eddie Haskell Tactics
Knowing that summer flatheads are relatively stationary except when feeding leads to two presentation approaches: Convince them to eat a bait while they're in their daytime spots, or entice them while they're on their nightly feeding forays.
Some anglers specialize in daytime flathead fishing, exemplified by Illinois' Denny Halgren and Iowa's Ryan Wassink. Their daytime strategy is to move from logjam to logjam, fishing with heavy tackle to dangle a lively bluegill or other sunfish or bullhead into the tangles. Their theory optimizes two responses common to large predators: No predator turns down an easy meal placed nearly in its mouth; and even if it isn't in the mood to eat, it often gulps down a fluttering baitfish just to kill the annoying thing.
John "Captain Catfish" Trager of Merriam, Kansas, likes to combine the annoyance factor of baits with the second tactic of intercepting aggressive, hungry flatheads as they move out of their daytime lairs around sunset. "Green sunfish are squirmy, stay alive on a hook, and I think flatheads crush or eat them just to get rid of them," Trager says. "They're the Eddie Haskell of baitfish — just plain annoying to flatheads. Catfish seem to go out of their way to attack them."
When fishing in rivers, Trager rigs green sunfish or shad from a large, three-way swivel. He prefers 30-pound-test Berkley Big Game, Cajun Advantage, or other monofilament for his mainline. He likes the shock-absorbing stretch mono offers compared to braided line. "I tried braids up to 80-pound-test and lost fish because the braid just didn't have any 'give' to absorb the shock of a hard bite," he says. "I use an 18- to 20-inch dropper of 15-pound-test mono off the three-way-swivel down to a 6-ounce weight so it breaks off if it snags, rather than losing the whole rig. The leader is 6 to 8 inches of 50- to 60-pound-test mono. I use an 8/0 to 10/0 Eagle Claw Kahle wide-gap hook. I prefer the Kahle hook design over circle hooks for my style of fishing. If a flathead slams a Kahle, he hooks himself, but if it swims off sideways or toward me, I can reel in the slack and set hard. That often won't work with a circle hook."
A new option for Kahle hook fans is the Lazer TroKar TK6, a super-sharp wide-gap sized up to 9/0. The point sticks with minimal pressure. Some anglers prefer circle hooks when fishing in and around logjams because the narrower hook gap tends to snag less than a J- or octopus-style hook. Good go-betweens are the Lazer Sharp Octopus Circle (L7228) and Gamakatsu Octopus Circle. These are modified circle hooks, with characteristics between octopus and circle hooks. In'‘Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange finds that this modified style is more forgiving than traditional circles if you set the hook, making setting an option if it's necessary to hit fish quickly. The wide hook gap maintains an exposed point and enhances hookups when using large baits.
Trager targets flatheads in the sticks on the Kansas River and behind wing dams on the Missouri River. "In August on the Kansas River, I go from stickpile to stickpile around sunset, probing down inside the pile or laying baits right beside the wood," he says. "We fish every woodpile because you never know which one houses flatheads. I've noticed that we tend to do better on big woodpiles that build up on the abutments that support railroad or road bridges. On the Missouri, the backsides of wing dams are good spots. Anchor a livebait right in the armpit of a wing dam, where the backside meets the shoreline, and eventually you're going to catch a flathead."
Public lakes and reservoirs in urban Kansas City are Trager's other choices for big cats. Most are known as panfish lakes and overlooked for their flathead potential. "Lake Olathe, Leavenworth Lake, Wyandotte County Lake — they all have flatheads bigger than 50 pounds," he says. "The fish are around structure during the day and follow certain paths to patrol and feed at night off the face of the dams, areas of big riprap, or shallow flats. In those lakes, I like green sunfish for bait. They put a lot of vibration in the water to attract flatheads."
Trager fishes mainly at night and uses strict light and sound rules in his boat or when fishing from shore on rivers or lakes. "No campfires, no lanterns," he says. "Flatheads are spooky about light. When I fish at night on the river in Kansas City there's enough night-glow from the city lights to see what I'm doing so I don't need extra lights."
Skip Martin guides for flatheads and channel cats mostly on lakes and reservoirs in northeast Ohio and also is strict about light control in his boat at night. "If you ease into a spot that's good for flatheads after dark, thinking you have it all to yourself, two or three boats flash headlamps or flashlights at you, so you know where they're at. All the serious flathead anglers work completely in the dark."
Martin pays close attention to the thermocline in August. He believes flatheads suspend just above the thermocline during the brightness and heat of the day, then migrate just above that invisible boundary toward shore to shallower water for their nightly feeding as darkness descends.
"They move up onto flats or saddles to feed after dark, and I want my baits right on that ledge or breakline," he says. "If there's a drop-off from 4 feet of water down to the thermocline at 12 feet, I fish baits under floats at the break so when flatheads come up that break, my baits are there waiting for them." If there's a long breakline across the mouth of a bay or along a saddle, Martin uses sonar to look for a creek channel, a log, or any structure perpendicular to the main breakline. "They key on that structure — even if it's a difference of only a foot or two in depth — fish move along it up onto that flat or shallower area."
Martin uses 30- to 40-pound Big Game mono and often rigs with a 6-inch long, hard foam Shark Float from Comal Tackle pegged above a 6- to 10-inch gizzard shad on a 7/0 Owner circle hook. When fishing on a breakline, he adds a 2- or 3-ounce sinker near the hook to keep the baitfish near the bottom. "If the break is from 4 feet of water to 12 feet, I want my bait at 4 feet, just off the break, so that's the first thing a flathead sees or feels as it moves up the face of that break," he says.
He targets breaklines during the early evening when flatheads are moving to shallow bays and flats to feed. Around midnight he sometimes slow trolls over feeding grounds at 0.5 to 0.7 mph. His trolling rig consists of a 2- or 3-ounce slipsinker ahead of a 12- to 16-inch leader with a 7/0 hook baited with a big shad. "Trolling lets me cover large areas where fish are feeding. I move back to the drop-offs toward morning to intercept fish as they move back to deep water for the day."
Wisconsin guide Jason Gaurkee's favorite strategy is to target flatheads moving between daytime lairs and evening feeding locations. "These are active, feeding fish," he says. "I call these routes flathead highways, and I fish a stretch of the Fox River that has them. Those highways are structural edges — borders of channels, deep grooves between holes, or other features that run parallel to the current. If there's no physical edge, they follow current seams. I like to anchor right on a current seam, put one bait on the slackwater side of the boat, one on the current side, and one or two off the back. No matter where a flathead comes up the river on that highway, it's going to run into one of my baits."
Gaurkee uses up to 150-pound-test Power Pro braided line, after having trouble with heavy monofilament abrading on rocks and abundant zebra mussels in the Fox River. He slides a 3-ounce No-Roll sinker onto the line ahead of a 6/0 to 7/0 circle hook baited with a 6- to 10-inch white sucker. "I use a longer leader if I want the bait to flutter and create more vibration," he says. "But if I'm getting bites and having trouble hooking them, I let the sinker slide right up against the hook."
Gaurkee's final tip for late summer flatheads: Anchor on a flathead highway with sturdy tackle and big baits, just as the moon begins to rise in early evening. "When the moon is scheduled to rise between 7:30 p.m. and midnight, that's prime time to catch flatheads," he says. "I've won a lot of bets, that one or more of our rods would go down just as the moon clears the trees on the shoreline. August is good for flatheads, but moonrise in August is best."
*Dan Anderson is a freelance writer from Bouton, Iowa, who regularly contributes to In-Fisherman publications on catfish topics. Contact: Guides John Trager, captaincatfish.net; Skip Martin, ohiocatguideservice.com; Jason Gaurkee, ariverguide.com.