Patterning River Flathead Catfish
June 02, 2014
Like those rare catmen with the gift, Dennis Steele owns that primal feel for the river. While scouting a new stretch of water, you see him narrow his eyes, idle down, and just know about a certain little nook up ahead. Could be the slight surface swirl he's certain conceals a wood snag, the subtle seam formed between opposing currents, or something more instinctive, like selecting the jackpot hole among three similar spots.
As we geared up for a recent flathead trip to a moderately sized river in the Upper Midwest, Steele and I poured over a well-weathered river map. "We've got three stretches to choose from," Steele says. "One with seemingly endless bend holes, another with several well-spaced bends, and a third with just a couple major river bends separated by many miles.
"With just one night to fish, I like this one," he says, poking at the second stretch on the map. "Just the right amount of key habitat. There's only so much biomass in a given section of river, and I don't think that a stretch with endless holes necessarily supports more flatheads. Plus, fewer hiding places means it's easier for us to target the right ones. Still, it's nice to have more than a couple options in a five-mile stretch," he adds, referring to the third section that lacks potential spots.
"If I know you, we'll be shooting all three five-mile stretches tonight," I say, with Steele's maniacal jet-boating tendencies in mind. Boulders, downed trees, sandbars matter not, hull dents notwithstanding. Indeed, heaven help those innocent newcomers aboard his River Pro jet boat. Like a first-time skydiver, you've no idea what you're in for; but once you've jumped, options suddenly shrink to terror and survival.
"I kind of like your 15-mile idea," Steele says. "The map only tells us so much. The best way to judge a stretch is to see it firsthand."
"Sort of tough to judge anything that passes in a blur," I jest. "Still, much as I enjoy jumping sandbars, let's pretend we're good boys tonight. Say we've narrowed it down to five key spots on the second stretch. Do we attempt to fish several spots in one night, or do we roll the dice on one or two potential Meccas?"
"Always good to fish several spots during the course of the night," Steele says. Let's rate each spot as we see it, then fish them according to key times. We'll probably spend a good hour on the best spot, beginning as the sky turns dark after sunset. Then once we get the active fish to pop or fail to get bit, we'll start moving around, fishing the alternative holes and giving them anywhere from half an hour to an hour, depending on the type and complexity of their structure. Finally, we should save the second-best area for at least the last hour before sunup."
As we near the end of our 5-mile run, I say: "What do you think of those last two spots?" One is a deeply sweeping 13-foot hole on an outside river bend with almost no wood or other cover; the other is a gnarly wood snag lying over just 6 feet of water at the end of a long shallow run. "Say we're looking at just these two spots. Which one gets fished?"
"I don't think flatheads necessarily need cover when feeding," he says. "Rather, they utilize current relative to how it plays against solid objects. Did you notice how, on the deep river bend, current flowed straight into the bank at a right angle and then split in two directions? I think we ought to try this spot, even without any wood. Still, if the current were to simply follow the bank as it turned, I'd pass it by."
"I look at that second area — the shallow snag you mentioned — the same way," he continues. "Since the snag lies in the main current, creating a push at the front as well as short channels or chutes along its sides, it's certainly worth fishing. But it'd be especially good if the snag hung on a sharp break, point, or cut, rather than a gradual slope at the tail of that hole. The chutes along each side create current features that flatheads use to ambush prey. It's a decent spot but not a top option."
Steele's sharply attuned to current and how flatheads move relative to it, which tells him where to best place baits in a given spot. He believes current is the key to patterning flatheads on any river.
This gets me thinking. Current just doesn't figure prominently enough in the process most anglers use to pattern flatheads. Most are considering cover, not current. Which makes me wonder about another spot we passed by earlier. "Remember that 4-foot run flowing over all that broken rock — the one that poured into the 10-foot deep pool encased in big granite shelves and slides? What do you think?"
"That spot interests me, too," he says. "I think flatheads are there, for sure. Still, as with any spot, current dictates where cats feed here. In rising water like we're seeing today, I'd fish the big boiling eddy along the front of the hole. Rising water kicks up baitfish, which often moves them to the head of the hole. The broken rock in the upstream run could hold crayfish, too, which both flatheads and baitfish eat. When I'm fishing a rock spot, it's not necessarily the rock itself I'm fishing — it's the current features that attract baitfish."
Knowing Steele's fondness for rock spots (he's pulled several 50'‘pound'‘class fish from rock), I press the point a bit further. "What is it about rock that you like so much for flatheads? I mean, lots of anglers pass these spots by in favor of the next big woody snag."
"Tell you a story," Steele says. "One year in a creek where I collect bait, I found a 24-pound flathead isolated within two pools. It probably swam up the creek in higher water, and when the water receded, got stranded. I found the old fella in late May, his dorsal fin high and dry. Finally, by late October I decided to move the fish back to the river before the creek iced up.
"In one pool, boulders lined the top and the bank along one side," he says. "In the other pool there was a large blowdown sitting over the outside bend. Both pools were about 31â„2 feet deep. Three-fourths of the time I found the fish in the pool with the boulders, his head tucked right up against the granite at the head of the hole, even in broad daylight. A few other times I found him tucked way up underneath the blowdown like any catman would expect.
"As winter passed that year, I thought a lot about that fish and its fondness for rocks. Next season I started experimenting with rocky areas in the river and found lots of cats there. Ever since then, most of my largest flatheads each season have come from rock."
"So you're saying rock is better than wood?" I ask.
"Well, not necessarily," he says. "But I do believe it's easier to wrestle catfish out of a rocky area than a woody area, particularly big flatheads. Rocks provide both cover and the current edges flatheads use to catch prey. Large granite or sandstone ledges, or extensive riprap areas in the river, provide major slackwater areas used by baitfish. Rock provides cover for cats during the day, too. I just think that flatheads use the deep woody snags more for resting than feeding. They do, however, move from the woodcover at night and roam, looking for food. Which reminds me, next spot's waiting." At this point, I'm convinced. Joyride behind us, tonight we'll put a certain rock spot at the top of our list.
We anchor and place our baits at the front side of a sandstone formation, at the tail of a deep riverbend where rock rises abruptly toward the surface, creating a "push" effect. Current moves rapidly over the rock, slackening toward the base of the formation. "See how this big sandstone slab sort of sucks water out of the deep upstream bend?" Steele asks. "Bet you there's baitfish holding at the bottom of the break, and flatheads move out of the hole from the back side of the rock here to feed on fish holding along the sandstone face."
Within ten minutes, I lip Steele's first flathead, a robust 20-pounder. As always, there's a reason he's scored first, which he soon explains. "I'm a big believer that bait placement is key to getting on fish, and you just can't always get your baits set properly from shore," he says. "In places like this, the best spot to place your bait is along the face of the rock, or transition from rock to softer substrate. Here, the current starts to turn across the face of the rock — a kind of inside bend of the current edge.
"The spot changes with different water levels, but the key is the current edge created by the rock formation," he explains. "In any case, it's best to anchor directly upstream from the area you're fishing, or upstream and opposite the direction you think fish run. This does two things: Your bait can't be swept out of your target area, and it prevents a bow from forming in your line when setting the hook. If the wind picks up or current changes slightly while fishing that spot, I reposition the boat until I get it right."
The appetites of the flatheads in our spot don't give me too much time to ponder, for within an hour and a half we've had five solid takes and four big scores, including a hulking 45. "The best thing about this spot is that there's nothing for catfish to snag you on. The rock is mostly smooth, and there's no wood for them to run into."
While this spot has indeed been a gem, it isn't without challenges. The tricky thing here is that the fish aren't whacking the bait and making a classic run. They're moving upstream toward the boat, which actually creates slack in the line, rather than zinging line off a clicker. Dennis detects the pattern immediately. "Notice how these fish are taking the bait? The only giveaway is a sharp tap on the rod tip, followed by a slight load on the rod as they drag the sinker slowly upstream. If we weren't tuned into this behavior, we might miss most of these fish," he adds.
Hours and several flatheads later, dawn approaching, we jet downstream to our second-best spot. It's a large woodpile stacked against a shoreline protrusion on the downstream side of a backwash area. With the rising water, the backwash is attracting baitfish — a key location, particularly early in summer. Action commences nearly immediately, baits thumping, blood pumping, which launches my thoughts toward a million magical possibilities.
A Flathead Treasure Map
When faced with a river you've never fished, or a new section of a familiar river, a bit of map reading can lead you to the best bets for river flathead catfish. While you certainly can't get the goods on each spot without actually seeing it, maps do tell you quite a bit about what to expect, once you actually arrive.
Land contours, rapids and hazards, mile markers, accesses, towns and other features on a good map all provide clues. Land contours give you an idea of the river's depth. Rapids betray rock habitat. Mile markers help you accurately match potential map spots to real-world spots. Illustrated access and town sites help you pick remote stretches not so often pressured by other anglers.
During Steele and Schmidt's flathead trip, the three 5-mile stretches of river they consider represent a dilemma many catmen face: Lots of potential catfish water but only so much time to fish. On most small to medium-sized flathead rivers, boating and surveying 20 miles a day just isn't feasible. That's why, at the beginning of the trip, Steele simply takes a few glances at each mapped stretch.
He looks first at riverbends. While bends don't tell the whole story, they do tend to house deeper water than the adjoining straight stretches; the sharper switches gather wood that builds into major snags flatheads haunt. Outside bends are perpetually exposed to strong wash-away currents which, over years, uncover underlying granite and sandstone ledge rock, another flathead hangout. Still, just because bends offer potentially favorable habitat doesn't mean that a greater abundance of bends on a map means better flathead fishing.
Stretch One — A nearly endless series of riverbends and switches, Steele believes, isn't your best option. Too many holes may spread the available cats too thin across a long stretch of water. Only so many cats in any stretch, and only so much food, as well. Too much habitat makes finding cats difficult for rod'‘and'‘reel anglers.
Stretch Two — This section contains a few major riverbends, in addition to several less prominent sweeps. In the less-than-perfect reality of flathead rivers, this section offers the optimum number of options for one day's fishing. An on-the-water examination reveals one prime spot and a second nearly choice hole. Spread between the two, several minor bend holes provide secondary fishing targets — places to hit for a quick 30 to 60 minutes before moving on.
Stretch Three — This reach is composed of several long, mostly straight sections of river, likely shallow runs that gather few flatheads. While a couple of well-spaced bends exist here, the boys aren't so willing to gamble a full day's fishing on the potential of just a few spots, as they never see the stretch firsthand. This speaks directly to the limitation of river maps — they're only helpful as a means of narrowing the search and rarely so detailed as to describe specific spots.
But river maps remain great tools for all catmen, proving to be timesavers when assessing several sections of new water, in particular. And they're a wise first step in the process of outlining a potent flathead pattern.
Steele's Tackle and Bait Solutions
Reels: "I fish lot of bait-feeder spinning reels so I won't have to work out the backlashes caused by inexperienced clients using baitcasters," Steele says. "Reels like the Shimano Baitrunner or Pflueger Contender work great. The freespool feature on bait-feeders offers much less resistance than the clicker on many casting reels, which can be quite tight. Of course, spinning tackle works for me because many of the areas I fish allow you to fight cats without worrying about tangling in cover. But if I'm near wood, I'm always using heavy-duty casting tackle for its cranking power."
Rods: Steele uses 9-foot-long rods, such as Shakespeare Ugly Stiks or Berkley Glowstiks, matched with spinning reels for casting distance and light bite detection. He says: "Even a large flathead sometimes takes a bait very subtly and may not run at all. On the other hand, in compact, combat-style spots I prefer a short, stout rod and a beefy baitcaster."
Line: "My line is nearly always 65- to 80-pound PowerPro or Spiderwire Stealth. I prefer the superlines with some body and stiffness for ease of use." Superlines also cut current well, minimizing drag.
Hooks: Steele mostly uses 7/0 to 8/0 Kahle or wide-gap hooks, such as an Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L142. "I also like larger octopus style hooks in 8/0 to 10/0, depending on bait size," he says. "When I'm sure that the fish turn and run, I opt for circle hooks like the Gamakatsu In-Line Circle or Daiichi Circle Chunk Light. Hook baits lightly so that when you set the hook, the bait pops free, allowing the hook to do its job."
Sinkers: "Most of the time I use flat No-Roll sinkers run through the line to a barrel swivel, then the leader," Steele says.
Rigging: "Leader length is usually short — no more than 12 inches. To give the bait extra freedom, I pay out more line. The short leader makes casting the rig easier," he says. "If my baits seem to be inactive, I may increase my leader length and attach a small float near the hook. The bait fights against the float, giving it more action. Also, when fishing snaggy or sharp rock, I often use a dropper line to a bell sinker and add a float near the hook. This protects your mainline from nicks caused by sharp rocks, and lets you break off the dropper line if the sinker gets stuck.
"Another option that works well in cover is letting the sinker slip right down to the hook. This places all the weight (bait and sinker) at one point at the end, making the rig easy to cast. When the sinker rests on bottom, you simply pay out line to give the bait room to move and struggle," he says.
Baits: "I try to bring enough baitfish to use a fresh one at each spot and to swap out fickle baits. Typically, this means a dozen for each person in the boat. Standard baits are lively bullheads or large creek chubs. If I can get live wild redhorse suckers — not pond-raised, but fresh, self-caught stuff — I'll throw those, too. I also bring along some fresh-cut sucker. It's always a good idea to carry a variety of baits and let the flatheads tell you what they want.
"When targeting just large fish, I use large baits. On some of the slower nights, though, smaller baits work better if I'm just looking to connect."
Triggering Tricks: "I like to play with the rods when the bite is slow or if the baits quit kicking," says Steele. "I shorten or lengthen the bait's leash and thump on the rod blank to keep the bait thrashing."