Shine the Light on Lures
Catching flathead catfish on artificial lures during the day defies conventional wisdom. The traditional theory regarding flathead behavior, supported by multiple studies by fishery biologists, is that they are sedentary during the day and become more active at night to feed. Long-term tracking studies in Midwestern rivers show that flatheads can be immobile for up to 23 hours a day, holed-up in lairs that they leave only when feeding.
What they eat was beyond the scope of the research, but among many flathead anglers, livebaits are the only way to go. Channel catfish and blue catfish are opportunistic omnivores, but tens of thousands of man-hours of amateur "research" around campfires while tending rods held in forked sticks have led to the popular notion that flatheads eat almost exclusively live prey.
So the success of flathead anglers who go against traditional practices can be puzzling. They fish mostly during the day with lures, yet they catch flatheads. Lots of them. They catch them from spring through fall, in both rivers and lakes, so they're not the benefactors of chance encounters with a few rogue flatheads. In most cases, tactics were stumbled upon while fishing for other species, and refined over time until artificial lures became a significant part of their strategy.
In the late 1990s, In-Fisherman reported on using jigs to catch flatheads in the Upper Mississippi River. Editor In Chief Doug Stange recalls how during the 1970s, anglers fishing Missouri River reservoirs in the Dakotas and Northeast Nebraska caught both walleyes and channel catfish using nightcrawlers on spinner rigs. In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde also reported on trolling deep-diving Mann's 20+ crankbaits for flatheads in Lake of the Ozarks. But today a new generation of anglers using artificial lures for flatheads is finding success with intriguing techniques.
Float Tube Flatheads
Keith Severns, Wichita, Kansas, is one of the best known and most vocal advocates of lures for flatheads. He says he still uses livebait at times, especially when fishing at night, but his primary passion is daytime fishing with lures. And he does most of his flathead fishing from a float tube.
"When I'm out there on my tube, I try to think like a flathead," he says. "I look for areas they would call home — places with abundant cover and deep water nearby. Then I imagine the routes I would use from those homes to feed. I look for edges because they're natural travel routes. I especially like rocky edges and outcroppings because every big rock is a potential ambush spot, plus you have the added attraction of crawdads in the rocks. Flatheads never turn down a crawdad. My top technique is to slow-creep along these edges and any other feeding routes in my float tube, and vertical jig or pitch various softbaits."
Severns agrees with researchers that flatheads spend 90 percent of their time inactive, holed up in an out-of-current lair with easy access to feeding areas. His goal when fishing for these inactive fish is to use a finesse approach of probing holes with lures designed to trigger an "apple pie bite." His theory is that just as a well-fed human resting on a couch won't decline a piece of fresh apple pie handed to him, even a resting flathead will happily snarf a tantalizing tidbit dangled in front of its nose. Float tubes are an integral part of his apple pie strategy.
"Not only does a float tube help get me into remote, woody areas, it forces me to slow down and probe every nook and cranny," he says. "The other factor is stealth. Flatheads are one big sensory system and sensitive to sound and vibration. The flippers I use to move around are quiet and shaped like a fish's tail, and put out pressure waves that don't scare fish. I can hover over or around cover, or cruise shallow feeding flats with the flippers. I think an angler in a boat running his trolling motor, or in a kayak splashing his paddles, scares fish in the close-quarter situations I like to fish."
Scents and flavors play a big role in Severns' lure preparations and selection. His goal is to appeal to all of a flathead's senses, from its vibration-sensitive lateral line to its incredible senses of taste and smell. "I always soak my baitfish softbaits in concoctions of different fish oils, and my crawdad plastics in crayfish oils," he says. "The last thing I want is for my plastics to smell like plastic. The Berkley Gulp! softbaits I use are scented. I use everything from 3- to 4-inch Gulp! Minnows, 6-inch Gulp! Jerk Shads, to the 10-inch Gulp! Eels from their Saltwater lineup."
The softbait Severns chooses on a given day is almost secondary to how he presents it. His go-to rig starts with a 7-foot Gander Mountain GSX Titanium medium-power spinning rod paired with a Pflueger Patriarch 35 spinning reel, which he likes for its 25-pound drag. At the business end he favors a double-jig rig, similar to a drop-shot rig, with two jigs tied about 15 inches apart on a 30-inch leader of 25-pound-test Trilene XT monofilament. The leader is attached with a barrel swivel to 65-pound-test PowerPro braided mainline.
"I like braid for sensitivity and strength," he says, "and the mono leader for a bit of stretch to help with shock absorption when a beast hits and goes on a freight-train run. Jig weights depend on current and depth. I use a larger jig with a larger lure on the bottom of the rig, with a smaller jig-soft plastic combo halfway up the leader. That creates a chasing effect so it looks like the big lure is chasing the small one when you work the rig. You can pitch the rig, cast it, vertical jig it, work it fast, slow, or with an erratic twitch, rip-sweep, slow-hop, or dead-stick it, flutter-fall it, or even suspend it under a float. It's a great tool for covering the entire water column, just like a flathead does when it's on the prowl. If you always fish on the bottom for flatheads, you're missing fish."
If Severns' apple pie strategy doesn't bring strikes, he forgoes subtlety and fishes aggressively. He switches to a 7-foot 11-inch Omen Black extra-fast heavy-power rod paired with an Abu Garcia Revo STX-HS baitcast reel, and throws musky-size crankbaits, big swimbaits, big chatterbaits with various trailers, and even umbrella rigs. The goal is to create an underwater uproar that triggers strikes.
"I bang rocks and deflect off wood with the big crankbaits," he says. "I work swimbaits with a rip, sweep, and drop retrieve. I twitch and pause hard swimbaits, and I like to vertically jig umbrella rigs. This approach isn't for the faint of heart. When a flathead smashes a lure you're cranking hard, you feel it through your entire body. And the ride a decent flathead gives you in a float tube is out of this world."
On rivers and reservoirs in Iowa, James Love of Des Moines, Iowa, uses a drop-shot technique similar to Severns' around logjams, and casts crankbaits near sandbars to consistently catch flatheads. "I still fish at night for flatheads with livebaits in traditional spots, but lately I've been having more fun catching them during the day," he says. "We call it combat fishing, dropping long-tail soft plastics on drop-shot rigs down beside and into logjams, right in front of their noses, annoying them till they bite."
Love uses a Penn Squall reel on an 8-foot Tangling With Catfish Extreme heavy-power rod. He uses 80-pound-test PowerPro braided line all the way to the drop-shot weight, which is a 1/4 - to 5/8-ounce split shot, just heavy enough to get the rig down to the bottom, but not big enough to hang up in a logjam. If it snags, it slips off the line when he pulls hard on the rig. Ten to 12 inches above the weight he ties on a strong 2/0 or larger worm hook.
"On the hook I use a wiggly 4- to 6-inch softbait," he says. "Sometimes they like the movement of a twistertail, sometimes they want the thump of a swimbait. Then I drop it down to the bottom beside or in a logjam, and jig it up and down until they can't stand it and eat it. It's usually more of a 'bump' than a bite. You lift it, and the line has extra weight and starts moving sideways. That's when you sweep up and use that big rod and 80-pound line to manhandle the fish up and out of the brushpile before it can get wrapped up in it. There's no finesse to it, once you hook one. Combat fishing is a good description of what happens when you hook a good one."
Love and a circle of friends combat fish during midday when flatheads are lurking in logjams. But during the hours just after sunrise and just before sunset, they often cast crankbaits near sandbars. "We were fishing for smallmouth bass and walleyes a couple miles downstream from Saylorville Reservoir, on the Des Moines River, and we were catching a lot of flatheads when casting crankbaits," Love says. "So we started working on the pattern. There are a lot of white bass in that area, and they move upstream and drive baitfish against the lower end or side of a sandbar. Flatheads follow and take advantage of the bass doing all the work. We cast #5 Rapala Jointed Shad Raps in firetiger color and flatheads hammer them.
"I use an 8-foot Scheels Walleye Tournament medium-heavy rod with a Pflueger Arbor 40-size spinning reel loaded with 30-pound-test PowerPro braided line. I like that reel's oversized spool, which means it has an oversized drag disk, and you need that when a flathead hits. We've also done well casting around sandbars using jigs with 4- to 6-inch swimbaits in clown colors, or big curlytail grubs. Some days they like twistertails, some days they prefer the thump from swimbaits. But in this stretch of the Des Moines River, they always like that jointed Shad Rap."
Nebraska's Daryl Bauer has for the past decade combined old-school night-fishing with artificial lures to catch flatheads on Nebraska reservoirs. He puts on his waders as the sun sets and steps a few feet into the water along riprapped shorelines at Branched Oak and other reservoirs in his area. He casts a #12 or #14 Rapala Husky Jerk parallel to the rocky shoreline.
"My goal is to crank that lure fast enough to pull it down so it's banging the rocks," he says. "Flatheads come up and patrol along those rocks at night, and the thump of the lure combined with me banging it off the rocks seems to trigger them. I don't catch lots of flatheads in a couple hours, two or three is a fair night, but they tend to be 20 pounds or larger. My biggest was a 50-pounder."
He focuses on current to pinpoint the best places to cast for flatheads in lakes. "If the wind has been blowing steady all day from one direction, I look for natural points or rock jetties or breakwaters that stick out into the lake at a right angle to the wind's direction," he says. "The wind and waves create currents that push against the upwind side and then flow around the tip. Catfish are naturally attracted to any kind of current, so those are places I always target."
He says he stumbled upon this technique for flatheads while using spinning tackle to catch walleyes after dark, and has stayed with a medium-heavy rod and spinning reel combo when casting lures for flatheads. "I use 20-pound Sufix 832 braid for mainline along with a fluorocarbon leader of similar pound-test to tie to my lure. Flatheads inhale lures after dark along the rocks, and the leader gets rubbed across the rough edges of their jaws. I want a leader that stands up to abrasion."
Bauer, Severns, and Love's success in catching flatheads on artificial lures, day or night, at all levels of the water column, diverges from traditional strategies. Like many anglers who set out to experiment and work through the discovery process, Severns doesn't disagree with tradition, but believes there is more to learn about flathead behavior and how to take advantage of it.
"If you make an artificial lure look alive, smell alive, and act alive, flatheads crush it," he says. "The great thing about artificials is you can easily cover the entire water column and adapt your lure and presentation to the mood of the fish. You improve the odds by using artificials from morning till dark and cover more potential spots than someone fishing with livebait in only one or two spots at night." –
*Dan Anderson, Bouton Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, often on catfish topics.