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Cutbait Connections to Early-Season Flatheads

Cutbait Connections to Early-Season Flatheads
Illustration by Larry Tople

Mikey hates everything. You might remember this kid, rising from a 1970s Life cereal commercial to pop-culture status. The scene is set with three brothers sitting around the breakfast table:

“Did you try it?” one big brother says to the other big brother as he slides a cereal bowl to him.

“I’m not gonna try it,” he says. “Did you try it?”

“I’m not gonna try it.”

“Hey, let’s ask Mikey.” 

“He won’t eat it. He hates everything,” says big brother, passing the bowl on to little brother.

Mikey fills his spoon and chomps down in overwhelming approval.

“He likes it! Hey Mikey!”

In the fishing universe, the ratio of Mikeys to big brothers is probably somewhere around 1 in 10. Big brother is I’m-not-gonna-try-it conventional. Mikey really doesn’t hate everything; he’s just misunderstood, an explorer, an experimenter, willing to take a chance to discover new things. A success along the way might be outnumbered by failures, but it’s worth it. Isn’t it the Mikeys that keep fishing innovation moving forward? When he finds there’s a better way to play the game, word gets out, and all of a sudden there’s an explosion of people doing what Mikey does, using what Mikey uses. Sometimes. There’s the occasional Mikey that comes along and there’s no explosion, just a smaller group that eventually gets it. Sure, it’s hard to venture from conventional methods that can work well. But why settle for a straight on the deal when someone is telling you that the cards are set for a straight flush? Who’s willing to draw?

In the flathead catfish world, there’s probably nothing more conventional than fishing with big, aggressive livebaits. Flatheads are apex predators after all, top of the chain, kings of their underwater empire. Channel cats, though, eat all sorts of things, dead or alive, meat or not. But a flathead? Now there’s an aquatic T-Rex—inclined to hunt, kill, and devour.

But then the occasional flathead comes along and eats a cutbait—no liveliness to the offering, nothing to slaughter, none of the signals that trigger a flathead’s motion-detector. These catches are easily set aside as happenstance when the target’s channel cats or blues. And most of them are, because most anglers soaking cutbaits aren’t after flatheads.

“I think back to fishing with Jim Moyer in the 1980s on the Mississippi River,” In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange recalls. “We were fishing cutbaits for blue cats, but we caught at least one flathead each day we were out. Back then we were still learning about where to consistently find blues, and where we fished—in the main river close to the drop-off near cover—overlapped with flathead territory.


“That’s about when we started to make the connection, and we never saw anyone writing about flatheads on cutbait then. Toad Smith—a maestro of slipfloating cats in smaller rivers, also used to connect with a fair share of flatheads drifting cutbaits for channel cats around logjams. Still, we always targeted flatheads on livebaits, and never really suggested catching them on cutbait until after Toad passed away in 1991. But there may have been other people making the cutbait-flathead connection then.”

In 1996, two genuine Mikeys, brothers Ryan and Vaughn Wassink of Hull, Iowa, discovered something that eventually changed the way they approach flathead fishing. “It started for us on a trip to the Minnesota River. We were using cutbait for channel cats around logjams and we caught a 41-pound flathead,” says Ryan. “A few anglers like Darrell Carter were onto a similar pattern in the Sioux River, a tributary to the Missouri River in Iowa, but we continued to test cutbaits on the Minnesota, fishing bigger baits inside logjams, and we caught just as many or more flatheads than we used to. Now, it’s our primary presentation. The only times we don’t use cutbait are during the spawn—typically for the month of July—and at night.

According to Wassink, the best time to fish with cutbait is during the day, and the best spots to fish are woodpiles. Several tracking studies confirm their observations, showing that flatheads are mostly stationary in cover when the sun’s up, becoming more active at night. In one such study, Dr. Jason Vokoun, who tracked flatheads on the Grand and Cuivre rivers in Missouri, found that during 24-hour periods during the summer, flatheads held in cover for as long as 23 hours, the remainder of the time spent hopscotching between cover areas. These movements tended to occur from around sunset to midnight, and then again for a few hours before sunrise. A mysterious blip in movement also happened around noon. They were small moves, some fish just switching position in the same logjam, perhaps to stay in shade as the sun angle shifted.

“Fish are holding tight to cover,” Wassink says, “so we’re running from logjam to logjam. If we’re fishing a spot and don’t get a bite within about 5 minutes, we pull anchor and head to the next spot. An ideal logjam has some big cottonwoods plugged with logs and debris. Another key is slow current; we avoid woodpiles that have fast current flowing through them. If you’re running the river and you see an old basketball floating in the wood, it’s probably a good spot. Another clue is grass growing on the matted floating debris collected in the snag. And you don’t need to find the deepest wood-laden holes. In the Minnesota River where we fish the deepest holes are about 25 feet, but we focus on woodpiles in 8- to 16-foot holes, and rarely any shallower than 4 feet.


“White sucker is our favorite bait—the biggest we can find,” he says. “The head is absolutely the best part to fish with. And it’s important that the bait’s kept fresh. Keep suckers alive and cut them on site, or keep cut pieces in plastic bags in a cooler. Bags should be sealed tight so the bait doesn’t get soggy from sitting in meltwater at the bottom of the cooler.”

The Wassinks present cutbait on slipsinker rigs. A 3-ounce No-Roll sinker rides above the swivel, with a 12-inch leader sporting a 10/0 Gamakatsu Big River hook. They work with 40-pound Berkley Big Game, preferring the mono to a braided line when fishing around abrasive wood. “Fish tend to whack a bait once and then the rod slowly goes down.” Ryan adds: “Then you need to bear down and haul the fish away from the snag. The stretch in mono helps cushion the stress of quickly heaving back to extract the fish. If you’re using braid and the line is nicked or starting to fray, there’s a better chance of it snapping when you rear back.

“Once you anchor and get the boat situated on the spot, upcurrent of the logjam, it’s important to get the bait as close as possible to the wood, even to walking baits under and into the crevices between the logs,” he explains. “If you don’t get a bite, move the bait to another spot in the logpile. Sometimes you only need to move baits to the other side of the log you just fished. These flatheads don’t want to chase things down when they’re holding tight to the wood, so you need to get baits close to them, flipping to at least a few key spots.”

Former Catfish In-Sider Guide Editor Steve Hoffman says that few anglers still recognize cutbait as a legitimate option for flatheads, but some prefer it 2 to 1 over livebait. “Besides the Wassinks, Minnesota River angler Dean Opatz, of Jordan, Minnesota, is another unconventional flathead angler who fishes with cutbait and gave up nighttime fishing,” Hoffman says. “His game plan changed in about 2002, and when he told me about his new methods, he said he’d caught more flatheads during his first year experimenting with cutbait during the day, than he had at night during his previous best season.”

Although Wassink and Opatz stick with cutbait tactics into fall, Hoffman finds it most effective during the Prespawn Period. “On the Minnesota River, the action usually begins in mid- to late May and peaks in mid- to late June, toward the end of the Prespawn Period. On an In-Fisherman Television segment filmed in mid-June years ago, Hoffman landed 18 flatheads in two days of fishing, all on cutbait, all during the day.

“When a flathead’s deep in wood during the day, it can snap over to an aggressive state when potential food invades its space,” Hoffman says. “Because you’re fishing up close to wood, cutbait also has an advantage over livebait because you snag less—you don’t have to deal with a baitfish swimming around and tangling itself on limbs. There’s no avoiding snags, though, and if you’re not getting hung up now and again, you’re not fishing where the fish are.

“I like to anchor so I’m within easy flipping distance to the edge of the wood. If it’s a spot I haven’t fished before or if it looks like the wood might have shifted, I make a few flips to the edge without a hook, just a sinker tied on, so I can probe around and find openings to place baits. That helps to reduce snags, but lost rigs are always part of the game.

“It can’t be overemphasized that this is a run-and-gun tactic,” Hoffman notes. “If you’re not getting bit in 10 minutes, move on to the next spot. You might be covering miles of water and dozens of spots in a day. Never back-track. These fish have a go or no-go response, and if it’s a no-go, you go.

“Another sign that it’s time to go is if you’re getting pestered by smaller channel cats,” he says. “Lots of small channels aren’t going to be around if a big flathead is nearby. If you get the nibblers, you’ve found a channel cat hole and not a flathead hole. Sometimes you catch a single large channel cat in a spot. That’s okay, because a big channel can tolerate sharing a spot with flatheads. When we did our TV shoot, we caught only one channel cat—about 12 pounds—out of the 18 flatheads.”

Like Ryan Wassink, Hoffman prefers white sucker, sectioning one into thirds: the head, a shorter mid-section, and a longer chunk on the tail-end. He opts for a slipsinker rig without a leader, so the No-Roll sinker is free to slide right up to the Eagle Claw 84 hook. “This isn’t a heavy current tactic, so usually I’m working with 1- to 2-ounce sinkers,” he says.

Despite these successes on cutbait, most flathead anglers still fish with live baitfish at night, and we’d agree that livebait—such as bullheads, suckers, chubs, and green sunfish—is the most effective option after dark, and in some situations during the day. But a daytime flathead isn’t a nighttime one in terms of behavior—where and how active the fish are. A flathead at night cruises like a shopper in a grocery store. It’s a different beast than a flathead during the day, which is more like a lion slumbering under a shade tree on the savannah. It might not want to run down a gazelle, but bring fresh kill to it and it starts to salivate.

At night, you might set up in areas away from a logjam to intercept prowling flatheads, such as at the head of a hole with a good daytime holding area. Get a lively baitfish down there to grab attention. Or as Stange writes: “The bait’s your fish call. Flip, flip, flop. Calling all flatheads, ho-dee ho-dee-do, catch and kill me if you can! A flathead can feel a struggling bait a hundred feet away. Maybe 200 hundred feet—I don’t know, I’m talking relatively. They may be able to taste it 30 feet away. And if you’re lucky, they can see it at night in clear water at a distance of 15 feet.”


But daytime flatheads are a captive audience, deep in the quiet confines of a woody quagmire. It’s unlikely they’d have any trouble at all knowing something had invaded their space—a big chunk of cutbait splashing the surface, sounding bottom on a couple of ounces of lead, maybe knocking on wood along the way. And if they can taste a livebait 30 feet away, how about a cutbait oozing a bazillion molecules of taste and scent at just a few feet or less.

“The whole system is like setting the table,” Hoffman says. “If you can put a chunk of fresh cutbait near a flathead, it’s probably going to eat it. It’s an efficient way to fish, too. You don’t have the extra effort of keeping bait alive, and it’s easier to get around on snag-infested water during the day.”

Try setting the table and serving up the non-conventional, big brother. A massive flathead might be down there. His name’s Mikey, and he likes it.

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