Flathead Catfish When The River Runs Slow
August 23, 2012
Current is the salvation and damnation of every river rat. Rarely do flathead catfish anglers get perfect water conditions during the prime late-spring bite. Either thunderstorms bring deluges of rain that flood channels, uproot shoreline cover, and make upstream holes unfishable, or early summer droughts leave key structural elements high and dry.
Current affects every aspect of flathead fishing. From bait placement, bait selection, hook size, and leader length, to location and presentation, each of these elements changes with falling water levels. Absent ideal conditions, flathead anglers must adapt to seasonal fluctuations in current flow and water levels. How successful anglers are able to make these changes directly affects their catch rate.
During the Prespawn Period, current, cover, depth, and forage affect flathead location. Most spots with good current, cover, and depth also attract plenty of baitfish. During springs with low water, an upstream-downstream pattern develops. A percentage of flatheads forego historic spawning areas that lack in sufficient depth and current in low water. These fish forge upstream to find more favorable conditions, their pilgrimage often ending at a dam or spillway. Here current levels are greatest and bait is plentiful. The remainder of downstream flatheads are never triggered by the urge to move upstream during these low water years. Instead, these fish gradually disperse from their wintering sites and take up residence in downstream areas that continue to offer the best combination of current, cover, depth, and forage.
Starting upstream, the key structural elements associated with dams are scour holes. Formed throughout the years as huge volumes of water push through open dam gates, scour holes provide prime holding areas for low water catfish. Due to their deep cupped shape and ability to trap logs and other debris, flatheads find safety in these deep holes regardless of optimum current. These holes provide some of the most consistent action for flatheads of all sizes and should be fished methodically.
Even under minimum flow conditions, the depth of scour holes offers cooler water temperatures and better oxygen levels that hold schools of baitfish. Under normal flows in spring, the extreme velocity of the water in these areas can make them too dangerous to fish. But low water often permits anglers to safely anchor at the upstream lip (head end) of the scour hole.
Start by placing multiple livebaits at the lip and on the upstream edge of the hole. If you can, catch bait in the area of the dam, using fresh bait whenever possible. Also, keep a few larger baits, like skipjack herring or mooneye, in the spread at all times. These baitfish can be difficult to catch and keep alive yet offer a natural big-bait presentation. They're also perfect for shore fishing below spillways as they are often plentiful in the eddies directly below the discharge. With a constant supply of bait, experiment with bait sizes, live versus dead, and whole versus chunks. Chunk bait often yields some channel catfish along big flatheads in these fast water areas.
Allow baits to remain set for 20 to 30 minutes, then reposition them. After thoroughly fishing the depths of the hole, work the edges. The perimeter of scour hole tends to have more character than the smooth worn center of the hole. The edges offer scattered current breaks caused by rockpiles and rolling depth changes. All of these areas hold giant flatheads at times. Work baits systematically down the slope at the head scour hole and back up the tailout. More active fish tend to hold in the upper sections of the hole, but big flatheads can be encountered anywhere throughout the scour hole.
Use your electronics to locate irregularities in the scour hole, as well as any large boulders or wood elements. Monster-sized flatheads often go into these holes during low water periods and never exit. With a healthy supply of food and current, flatheads can grow enormous in these locations, and low water conditions afford anglers the rare opportunity to take aim at these giant fish.
During normal flows, keep leader length to a minimum when chucking baits to the face of the dam and down into scour holes. Letting the sinker slide up to the bait eliminates the extra swing you get on a longer leader, reducing the number of snags. In minimal current, however, you can lengthen leaders slightly to allow more movement to the bait without substantially increasing the risk of snagging. The extra bait-swing often triggers more bites.
Other Low Water Locations
Farther downstream from the dam current continues to decrease and flatheads spread out over larger areas. Focus on bridge pilings, wing dams, sandbars, creek mouths, and the front end of islands. As current is intercepted and deflected by these structural elements, flatheads lay just off the current seams and in adjacent eddies.
Another top location in low-flow conditions is at the mouths of feeder creeks. These spots offer increased current, depth, and cover. The channel carved by the creek's flow creates a natural scour hole, adding depth and forming current eddies as the creek enters the main channel. Brushpiles and logjams also form as the currents converge in these areas. Carp, suckers, and channel and flathead catfish, and other species often stage at creek mouths prior to making annual spawning moves upstream, whether in the main river or upstream into tributaries. The combination of structure and forage can hold flatheads in these areas even during periods of low water.
Current seams are easily distinguishable during low flow. A visual survey of the river's surface provides a map of the routes catfish take to migrate upstream for the spawn and during their feeding sorties. Target areas where multiple current seams come together and act to funnel bait. Areas where several mainstream islands or sand bars separate the main current into braids or multiple seams can be top spots as well. Key holding and feeding areas are formed where seams converge on the downstream side of flow obstructions, such as an island. Find where converging currents run up against cover and you've discovered a prime flathead spot.
Divide a prime spot like this into a grid pattern and dissect each quadrant. Position baits just outside the main current seam. Start at the upstream edge of the funnel. Then work through the chute and slightly off the edges. Finish by fishing any eddy areas. Since key current elements are more limited, bait placement must be precise.
Slower currents in low water allows you to fish with larger baits. If you normally use 4-inch bluegills or 6-inch suckers, upsize by a few inches. Bigger baits transmit more vibration and tend to react more strongly as a flathead approaches. Flatheads also are more likely to leave their lairs and explore when current isn't routing food directly past them.
In strong currents, larger baits are difficult to anchor on bottom with any reasonable amount of weight. During low flow, 2 to 4 ounces of lead is often enough to keep even the largest bait pegged. Again, lengthen leaders to give baits a larger leash to work freely. With limited current, baits can be fished further away from cover without the risk of constantly snagging.
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If under normal conditions a flathead can see and react to a bait within a 6- to 8-foot radius, that area expands considerably with clearer water and decreased flow. Flatheads are no longer tucked under root balls or positioned with their noses against a log. They are now on the prowl, using their refined senses to locate prey. So spread out baits to cover a larger area adjacent to a traditional holding spot. Without strong currents pulling all lines behind an anchored boat, multiple rods can be employed to cover a wide swatch of river.
When upsizing baits, increase hook size and don't bury the hook deeply in the bait. A size 8/0 Owner SSW Up-Eye Circle Hook better accommodates a 7-inch bluegill than does a 6/0 Owner Mutu Light circle used with a 5-inch bluegill. Hooks with wide hook gaps allow greater hooking percentages. Flatheads are rarely hook-shy and these larger hooks can easily accommodate big baits. The Lazer Sharp L2228 and L2022 and Gamakatsu Octopus Circle are other good options in this hook category.
With extra-large baits you also might try the saltwater technique of bridling baits. Either make or buy an open-eyed rigging needle available from online saltwater websites for a few dollars. Cut off a 4-inch piece of rigging thread and tie a sliding knot on each end of the thread. The resulting rig is than 2 inches long after trimming the tag ends.
Attach one end of the rig to the bend of the circle hook and tighten. Attach the other end to the rigging needle and slide the needle, with rigging thread attached, through the nose of the bait. Remove the rigging needle from the open loop of the thread. Slide the hook point through the open loop and tighten the knot. With practice, the whole process can be completed in seconds. Bridling allows a bait full range of motion and maximum unimpeded hook gap.
Since flatheads are on the move in low water, allow more time at each anchorage and bait placement, at least a half hour. Reduced current makes it difficult to "walk" a sinker back 6 to 8 feet at a time to reposition a bait. So more casts and multiple bait placements become necessary to fish an area thoroughly.
A good presentation choice during low flow, float-fishing is more precise than drifting and effective for delivering baits over the top of cover. With a float like a Thill Big Fish Slider, you can accurately position a bait at the front of a tangle of wood and then probe deeper into the cover.
Allow the bait to work in place for 5 to 10 minutes, then reposition the float 5 to 10 feet downstream for another 10 minutes and so on, until the entire section of cover has been explored. Sometimes, all the strikes occur on baits riding over the top of the cover. Other times the eddy area behind the cover produces the majority of the fish. Look for patterns while floating baits through cover and follow up with a bottom rig to get a few bonus fish.
It's critical to properly weight the rig to keep the bait from being forced up by the current. I use a 1-ounce egg sinker 8 inches above the bait and two 1/2-ounce Rubbercor sinkers at one-foot increments above the egg sinker. The even spacing of the sinkers allows the bait to achieve its maximum depth. Smaller baits, like a 4-inch green sunfish, fish well under floats. Green sunfish are hardier and struggle longer than most other baitfish. Insert a size 5/0 Kahle-style hook behind the sunfish's anal fin. This hook placement causes the bait to constantly swim downward toward the cover.
Adjust the slipfloat depth to drift the bait in and around the cover. With a wide-gap hook like a Kahle, or traditional J-style hook, there's no need to wait for a flathead to swim off with a bait before setting the hook; doing so often allows it to swim back into cover. Instead, immediately tighten the line when the float goes under and set the hook once the fish is felt.
For float-fishing, use stout gear and tighten down reel drags to the maximum. A longer rod — I like the 8-foot Shakespeare Custom Ugly Stik (USCB 1180-XH) — helps keep line off the water for as long as possible and is better for steering floats around exposed wood. Longer rods are also better for performing sweeping hook sets.
This is combat fishing, with the weakest element of an angler's gear being put to the test. Braided line in the 80-pound-test range is ideal for this application. It's incredibly strong, offers almost no stretch, floats on the surface more effectively than monofilament, and is incredibly abrasion resistant around woodcover. A braid like PowerPro in hi-vis yellow is great for keeping visual contact with the line as the float drifts between stickups.
Don't let low water keep you from pursuing flatheads. When traditional spots fail to produce under low-flow conditions, keep an open mind about alternative locations and presentations. Prespawn flatheads modify locations and feeding habits based upon current and water levels. Adjust your methods in the same manner and you'll find fantastic flathead fishing when other anglers come up dry.
Steve Ryan has traveled widely in search of giant fish of all species. He lives in Des Plaines, Illinois, and has worked with the In-Fisherman staff to gather television footage.