Fooling Fall Flatheads
October 29, 2017
Let's start with legends, which actually turn out to be true in some instances. For decades, river rats of the upper Midwest talked quietly among themselves, sharing tales about how flathead catfish migrate to wintering holes in large rivers, stacking there like cordwood, immobile for such long periods that silt and debris coat their bodies. Those anglers kept secret the locations of wintering holes to prevent those without ethics from taking advantage of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of big catfish packed into small areas for most of the winter.
The concept of large numbers of fish migrating to select areas and spending the winter nearly dormant seemed sketchy to many observers. But even as early as the 1960s, fishermen and fishery agencies knew about some of the areas flatheads congregated in winter. An early study on Pool 7 of the Mississippi River confirmed winter concentration densities of about 2,700 flatheads per acre based on seine haul samples.
Subsequent research involved the first direct observations of wintering flatheads in their natural habitats. The first of that work occurred in 1979 in response to proposed river modifications and the need to identify critical flathead habitat. Researchers with the Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR, and University of Wisconsin set out to identify flathead wintering habitat in Pool 4 of the Mississippi River upstream from Red Wing, Minnesota.
During that study, Wisconsin DNR biologist Mike Talbot and Doug Stamm, photographer with the University of Wisconsin's Marine Studies Center, donned scuba gear and observed catfish and habitat characteristics along several transects in the suspected wintering area. The area was confirmed as a wintering site, with flathead densities to be as high as 2,350 fish, indexed on a per acre basis. Eighty percent of the catfish in the area were flatheads and the others channel cats.
According to the report, flatheads were most abundant in areas of widely scattered rock, evidently selecting these sites to break current and reduce energy output. Flatheads were dormant, remaining motionless, with little or no opercular movement. Divers could even gently stroke or tilt fish with no response, the researchers report. Only when divers grasped their tail did they react.
More recent research provides a better understanding of the annual cycle of flathead catfish movements. Dr. Jason Vokoun and others in the upper Midwest conducted studies of radio-tagged flatheads that proved they did indeed migrate, sometimes over long distances, to holes where they spent the winter. As waters warmed each spring, catfish moved out of those areas and dispersed throughout the river system, often returning to the same location in the same river where they'd spent previous summers.
While, radio-tagging research proved the migratory aspect of the flathead wintering legend, the advent of underwater cameras allowed innovative anglers to capture fantastic video of wintering flatheads "stacked like cordwood." More than a decade ago, retired guide Brian Klawitter took advantage of low current flows and relatively clear water under the midwinter ice of the upper Mississippi River to lower an underwater camera into flathead wintering holes. The video of dozens of flatheads lying exactly as reported — stacked like cordwood with silt laced across the backs of fish — was an Internet sensation among catfishing enthusiasts.
Klawitter and others experimented to discern how "dormant" the fish were under the ice, in terms of feeding. With cameras rolling, they lowered jigs, cutbait, and live shad down to the wintering fish. The flatheads showed no interest in bait of any kind, even if they were bounced off their silted noses. The fish were described as torpid, behaving in the manner that earlier research discovered.
"I'll never say it's not possible to catch flatheads in water below 50°F," Klawitter says. "But once the temperature got below 40°F they weren't interested in anything we offered."
Klawitter's observations on feeding are on target with more recent research into the relationship between flathead feeding rates and water temperature. In his lab at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Vokoun, tested feeding rates of flatheads acclimated to six different temperatures, from 37°F to 73°F. Flatheads barely ate below 59°F, and nothing was consumed at 45°F or below.
"It would be interesting to know more about when they start migrating to their wintering holes," Klawitter says. "The water is too turbid before the river freezes over to get a good look at their numbers in those areas, but I know that when the water temperature gets below 50°F they're there, almost magically. They aren't packed into one spot when they first arrive, so it's hard to know how many there are and when they start and stop arriving."
Catfishing enthusiasts in at least one large midwestern city simultaneously enjoy and guard the potential to catch 30- to 50-pound flatheads each November as flatheads from two rivers migrate to a series of wintering holes near the rivers' confluence. These anglers declined interviews for this story out of concern that less ethical anglers might abuse the information. There have been heated confrontations on the river between those who practice catch-and-release for late-fall flatheads and those who merely snag-and-brag.
But in general, ethical anglers have found that on sunny afternoons when the water temperature is still in the 50°F range, flatheads that have migrated toward wintering areas meander up- and downriver a mile or more in search of a pre-hibernation snack. They're not feeding aggressively; not looking for large meals. The most effective technique has been to slowly drag a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig with a 2- to 4-inch white paddletail or twistertail jig on the bottom along troughs and current seams or behind drop-offs and underwater obstacles. These late-season flathead hunters affirm that they hook fish in or very near the mouth when fishing in that area using those techniques, supporting their contention that they're catching feeding flatheads and not snagging them. Some have taken late-season flatheads on cutbait or small livebait, but for unknown reasons, jigs and softbait have been the best way to catch a few final flatheads before water temperatures drop into the 40s and the flatheads shut down for the season.
Cold-Weather Cats, Southern Style
All this attention and controversy caused some flathead anglers in southern states to reconsider their wintertime catfish opportunities. Upland bird hunting, deer hunting, and college football traditionally draw southern sportsmen off the water once the leaves fall, leaving few anglers to target catfish in winter. But those who do wonder why they have such little company.
"The winter months are our best time for flatheads," says Joey Pounders, a tournament-winning catfish angler from Steens, Mississippi. "I remember one time my partner Jay Gallop and I fished a particular tree at Lay Lake in Alabama and caught a 47-, 40-, 25-, 20-, and a 15-pounder within 20 minutes. That doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to keep us fishing long after most anglers have given up for the year. We start licking our lips toward late September, knowing that the flatheads are going to start moving around and congregating in certain areas so they're easier to find."
Mississippi fishery biologist Tyler Stubbs says while southern flatheads don't mirror the behavior of their brethren in northern waters, they do exhibit a degree of migratory behavior as water temperatures cool.
"There hasn't been much directed research, but what we've seen incidental to work we're doing with other species during cooler seasons indicates that flatheads here tend to move toward wintering areas," he says. "They don't move as far as fish in the Midwest, and they don't go into a torpor like northern fish do once they get into wintering areas. I wouldn't use the word "migrate" to describe their movement, but they seem to congregate in certain areas more than they do in the summer."
Tennessee's legendary now-retired catfish guide Jim Moyer adds that declining water temperatures trigger aggressive feeding by flatheads as they move toward wintering habitat.
"As the water cools below about 67°F, flatheads get real active," he says. "They stay on the prowl down to around 55°F. Below that they slow down some, and by the time it gets down to 40°F they're pretty much dormant. Down here, the water generally gets down to 40°F around Christmas week, so there can be some really good fishing from October all the way into early December."
Moyer and Pounders agree that no matter what the water temperature, flatheads are flatheads, and that they usually associate with structure, and usually with woody structure.
"We look for them in submerged trees," says Pounders. "I can't say that other people don't catch them around rocks, but for us, it's trees. The wood doesn't have to be in a hole. If there's a tree in the water from a shoreline that runs 20 to 25 feet deep, that's as good to a flathead as a tree in a deep hole in a shallow river. It's not as much about the depth as it is the woodcover."
It's not enough for Pounders to fish near woody structure; he insists on fishing in the wood. "I have no problem risking 75 cents worth of tackle for the chance to catch a 75-pound fish," he says. "I worry about getting them out after I hook them."
Moyer agrees that close to wood is not as good as in the wood. "When targeting flatheads, especially in the cool months, you have to fish right on or in cover," he says. "On the depthfinder you rarely see a flathead 20 or 30 feet from cover. If the marks are right on or in the wood, they're not as active and harder to catch, but they will bite if you get a bait in front of them. The ones that are right beside or in front of a logpile or submerged tree are more active fish and the ones I go after first."
Pounders looks for deep wood because he feels noise and commotion in shallow water spooks fish. "Our target depth is 25 to 40 feet," he says. "I'm pretty sure you can spook flatheads, especially with noise in the boat. That's one reason when we're fishing in a reservoir and targeting an old river channel, we park on a nearby bank, or anchor away from the channel and cast baits to the spot we want to fish. We've noticed that even if we slide in with our trolling motor and do our best to be quiet in the boat, if we're parked on top of a spot and catch a nice flathead, the commotion of landing the fish and the ruckus a big flathead always makes in the boat pretty well shuts off that spot for catching any more fish."
Pounders says as long as water temperatures are in the 50°F range, air temperatures can be near zero and flatheads still bite aggressively. "We have worn them out on days when the air temperature was in the teens," he says. "But the water was still in the low 50°F range, so they were aggressive. It's a little odd to wear coveralls and hoodies when you're fishing for catfish, but it's worth it."
Pounders and Moyer differ on baits for cool-season flatheads. "I want the freshest shad I can get," Pounders says. "Before a tournament, other guys go out the day or night before to get their bait, but I don't get bait until the morning of the tournament. And I sort my bait, looking for the healthiest, liveliest shad. I may net hundreds of shad to get a couple dozen good enough to use. Since we tend to fish deep, it takes a strong shad to stay alive. Even with big, lively shad, they're only good for 15 or 20 minutes when you put them down 20, 30, maybe 40 feet."
Moyer goes against conventional wisdom for catching flatheads and uses only cutbait. But it's fresh cutbait, carefully prepared. "I've caught a ton of flatheads over the years, and all of them were on cutbait," he says. "Any baitfish makes good cutbait, as long as it's skipjack. Keep it alive until you use it. Don't fillet it or gut it, just cut it enough to make it bleed, and flatheads find it. They're opportunists. They won't turn down a chance to grab what amounts to a bleeding livebait that won't put up a fight."
Pounders presents baits with a 10-foot B&M Magnum rod with a soft tip that allows slow-biting flatheads in cool water to mouth the bait without feeling resistance. Vintage Daiwa 7000C spinning reels ("You can get them for $30 or $40 on eBay and they're built like tanks," he says) are spooled with 80-pound test Vicious braided line tied to a 3-way swivel. A 4- to 5-foot dropper of 20- to 25-pound Vicious mono anchors the rig with a 3- to 5-ounce weight. A 12- to 18-inch length of 60-pound-test mono serves as his leader to a 7/0 Daiichi circle hook.
"We used to use baitcaster reels on 7-foot rods, but we had trouble with birdnesting the reels with the heavy weights we were casting, plus we were always throwing off the baits when we cast them," he says. "Switching to those old Daiwa spinning reels made it easy to cast heavy baits and weights, and we're less prone to throw off the baits when we cast with the longer rods."
Moyer differs in his line selection and terminal rigging technique. He prefers 30- to 40-pound Berkley Big Game monofilament as his mainline, and slips a two-way swivel onto it before adding another two-way swivel to the end. "I don't use beads and stuff like that," he says. "They complicate things and take extra time. I use 60-pound-test Big Game mono for a leader to my circle hook. I tie the dropper line for my weight to the swivel that slides on the mainline. I usually use a 15-pound mono dropper tied to a bank sinker from 3 to 10 ounces, depending on what it takes to anchor baits in current."
Moyer says that even when the right tackle and baits are in play, the biggest trick to catching cool-water flatheads is patience. "If you feel like you're fishing slow, then slow down more," he says. "When you finally hook a good flathead, they're amazingly powerful. I've caught a lot of catfish in my career, but flatheads are the king. To catch a big flathead you have to outsmart them."
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.