Breaking the Rules for Catfish
July 12, 2012
I don't know if dog owners eventually begin to resemble their favorite pets, but I do believe that many fishermen begin to adopt the personality traits of their favorite fish. I'll skip my observations about finicky walleye anglers and pugnacious bass fishermen for fear of offending anyone who fell upon this page by mistake.
My point here concerns flathead fishermen. The boys who play this game know that their quarry demands a hefty price -- time. Part of the bill is paid catching and caring for the bait, usually big lively baitfish like bullheads, chubs, or sunfish. The balance is due when that bait is put to use, at a time when the rest of the world is fast asleep.
Most flathead anglers believe the price is reasonable, or they start fishing channel cats or some other species that can be caught at a decent hour. Some of them even adjust their own internal clock around the flathead's natural cycle -- staying up later at night and sleeping long past dawn, hitting their stride at about the same time flatheads begin prowling.
Truth is that most of these guys think the bait deal is pretty cool, too. My fish aren't scavenging around on the bottom looking for decomposing morsels, they'll tell you; flatheads hunt big, lively baitfish. This predatory mindset is tough to break -- both their perception of the flathead as a pure predator, and their perception of themselves as some kind of nocturnal warrior.
But there's more than one way to play this game. Flatheads can be caught on deadbaits, and they can be caught during the day. We shared the beginning of this story a year ago in a piece about Ryan Wassink and his brother Vaughn, a couple of nontraditional flathead anglers from Hull, Iowa, who catch lots of big fish every summer on cutbait from the Minnesota River.
Then we heard from Dean Opatz (952-492-3720) a flathead guide and deputy sheriff from Jordan, Minnesota. We've known Opatz for several years, and spent several nights on the river with him in search of flatheads. But we didn't know how far he'd ventured from the flock until last fall, when he could no longer hold his secret: "I don't like fishing at night anymore."
To some that might not sound like a big deal, but to a flathead fishermen, it's like a soldier confessing during the middle of a battle that he's chosen the wrong side. But Opatz, or Opie as he's known around the sheriff's office, hasn't given up flatheads; he's just stopped losing sleep over them. According to his fishing log, he caught more flathead catfish during the day last year than at night during his previous best season.
A DAY AND NIGHT DIFFERENCE
We've said before that flatheads occasionally eat a fresh piece of cutbait intended for a blue or channel catfish, particularly when their metabolism is in high gear toward the end of the Prespawn Period. Few flathead fishermen, though, would recommend targeting flatheads with cutbait throughout the season, especially during the middle of the day. But that's exactly what Opatz does.
"The best bite usually occurs between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.," he says. "Flatheads usually cover a large area when they're prowling after dark. They might move onto the flat in front of a big snag, then move out to the river channel, and finally circle downstream behind the snag before finally returning to the safety and comfort of their lairs."
The problem anglers face is deciding where to set up to intercept these actively feeding fish. "Every area has one or two high-percentage spots," Opatz says, "but it's impossible to know when a flathead will use that spot. Maybe they'll move in a different direction, or maybe they'll eat a big baitfish before they find your bait. The only way to know for sure is to sit and wait."
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Most flathead anglers know the sit-and-wait routine well, but Opatz says patience actually is detrimental during the day. "When the sun's high in the sky, you know where the fish will be," he says. "They're holed up in the middle of the biggest, nastiest-looking logjams on the river. And when you put a bait in front of them, they'll eat it."
Opatz usually spends about five minutes at each spot, but says that most fish will bite inside of two minutes. "A good spot doesn't have to be deep," he adds, "so long as it's dense enough to offer good overhead cover. I caught a 40-inch flathead and two smaller fish last fall from a spot that was less than four feet deep in the middle of a 2-foot flat. The fish were holding under the root wad of a massive cottonwood tree that blocked as much daylight as current."
Sometimes, though, flatheads will venture away from cover during the day. "My first fish of the season last year came from a creek mouth where we had been catching channel cats," he says. "It was early May, and the water was still in the high 40F or low 50F range. The fish probably was attracted to a concentration of bait or the warmer water, but there also was a massive timber pile a few yards downstream."
Once the water warms above 60F and the flathead season gets into full swing, Opatz gets into a routine. "If I hit the water at first light I usually start fishing about 100 yards above a big snag," he says. "I continue to move progressively closer to the wood as the day wears on. By about 10 a.m., I'm bouncing my sinker off the wood on the cast."
OPIE'S BAIT AND TACKLE
Good bait is just as important with cutbait as with livebait, maybe more so for catfish. "I usually catch creek chubs from small tributary streams," Opatz says. "Almost any size will work, but bigger baits seem to attract bigger fish. I remove the head with a diagonal cut behind the gill and then cut off the tail. That leaves me a chunk of meat about four or five inches long."
When chubs are tough to catch, as they were last summer when the water level in local creeks fluctuated from week to week, Opatz buys white suckers from a bait shop. "Suckers catch fish, but not so well as wild minnows," he says. "I know it sounds silly, but I think flatheads know the difference between natural and pond-raised baitfish, even if the bait is dead."
Opatz's rigging depends on conditions. "When the fish are actively feeding it's tough to beat a circle hook," Opatz says. "I prefer a 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus, which is strong enough to land a 50-pound flathead, but thin enough to quickly penetrate the soft tissue at the corner of the fish's mouth. This hook also has a wide gap that prevents the hook from setting back into the bait."
When the fish are less active, though, Opatz opts for a 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. "A flathead usually grabs a bait and immediately drops it," he continues. "I think they're trying to kill it. A few seconds later, they pick up the bait again and start to move off. That's when the line tightens and a circle hook will turn into the corner of the fish's jaw. If a fish spits the bait at this point, I usually change to an Octopus hook and use a freespool bait clicker."
Leader length, meanwhile, depends on current speed. "I prefer to use a long leader in slack water," Opatz says. "I think the added movement attracts fish from a greater distance. But in heavy current, more movement usually results in more snags. I go with an 18-inch leader in faster flows and a 36-inch leader in calmer water."
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Opatz also experimented with floating jigheads to suspend the bait off the bottom and make it easier for flatheads to find. "It can make a difference during a tough bite," he says, "but the hook on most floaters is too small and too thin to land flatheads. A panfish-size slipfloat sliding on the leader probably is a better option, since it elevates the bait and allows for a larger hook."
We've talked in the past about using Spin-N-Glows with cutbait rigs for big channel cats, a rig similar to the one used by Columbia River sturgeon guides. Spin-N-Glows are available in a range of sizes to match any size bait and current condition, and the little plastic wings spin in the current to create flash and vibration. Definitely worth trying for flatheads, especially with cutbait.
A two- or three-ounce flat No Roll sinker (made from a Do-It mold, 319-984-6055) keeps the bait anchored above cover and doesn't roll around on the bottom like an egg sinker. This results in a more precise presentation with fewer snags. "The only problem with these sinkers is that their wide profile sometimes catches on limbs," Opatz adds. "They usually can be freed with a steady pull, but not without jamming the swivel into the sinker hole. I thread a 1/2-inch piece of 1/8-inch diameter plastic tubing onto the main line between the sinker and swivel to cushion this connection."
A SEASONAL PERSPECTIVE
On the Minnesota River, the action usually begins in late May and peaks in mid to late June, toward the end of the Prespawn Period. "That's when the fish are most active," Opatz says, "biting almost anytime during the day or night." But again, the daytime bite tends to be more consistent because the fish are confined to small, predictable areas. Find the biggest, nastiest-looking tangles in a stretch of river, and you'll find the largest concentrations of flatheads.
Once the fish begin spawning, usually in early July, the bite slows considerably. "To be honest," he says, "I don't even fish much for flatheads during July. Too long between bites. Besides, the channel cat fishing is great in July, and I catch just as many flatheads fishing for channels at this time as I do when I'm targeting flatheads -- maybe more."
But the Wassinks continue to catch flatheads throughout the Spawn Period, using similar tactics. "Fishing aggressively is the key," Ryan Wassink says. "You can't sit in front of a snag for an hour if you're not getting bit -- no matter how good the spot looks. That might work at night or during Prespawn, but no bait I've found will tempt a flathead to leave its nest during the day."
By early August, most flatheads have finished spawning, and the fishing starts to pick up again. "August can be a great month," Opatz adds, "and so can September. Maybe it's not as good for numbers of fish as June, but it's probably the best time of year for big fish. Cooling water gets big fish thinking about food, and if you drop a bait in front of them, they will eat it -- dead or alive, day or night."
October usually spells the end of the flathead bite, at least in the stretch of river that Opatz fishes. "Used to be a big deep hole in this area where lots of flatheads probably spent the winter," he says, "but it filled in with sand during a spring flood a few years ago. I haven't spent much time looking for flatheads during fall, but I'm sure they'd eat a fresh piece of cutbait if I could find them."
Maybe there's something to this daytime fishing. It's certainly easier to cover more water, especially on a small, shallow river filled with sandbars and deadheads. The bait's easier to keep, too, requiring only a cooler of ice instead of a big aerated baitwell. And if the flatheads in your home water behave like those in the Minnesota River, you might catch more and bigger fish in less time.