Flathead catfish are hunters — alpha predators residing at the top of the food chain. With their wide gaping mouths they can engulf some of the largest prey items eaten by predator fish swimming in fresh water. As such, anglers pursuing flatheads most often use livebaits like suckers, bullheads, sunfish, and more. Many anglers won't head out unless the most vigorous bait can be obtained, and great efforts are made to keep baits lively so that when pinned on a hook they struggle, swim, and emit vibrations irresistible to stalking shovelheads.
Kentucky resident Steve Douglas, catfish tournament angler and owner of Monster Rod Holders, dispels the notion that flatheads can only be caught with livebait and has found good success with cutbait. He's refined his approach in many ways including the rigs he uses, presentation details, and timing. He says that the best time to use cutbait is during the spring and early summer.
"On the Ohio River where I fish, flatheads start to hit cutbait when the water temperature reaches about 50°F to 55°F," Douglas says. "Cutbait remains particularly effective throughout the spring through early summer.Additionally, cutbait is more effective for longer periods on waters where flatheads are more predominant."
He speculates that flatheads are hungry and not as picky in spring and therefore are more apt to take fresh cutbait, especially where they're abundant. As the season progresses he finds livebait more effective.
Ohio River Guide Dale Broughton also uses cutbait to catch early season flatheads. Starting in April when the water temperature reaches 50°F, flatheads move from wintering holes to shallower water. He says big flatheads are looking to feed, and since the river is awash with debris in spring, the fresh scent of cutbait is hard to beat.
"Because of the heavy spring currents and additional grass and leaves being carried by the current, I think scent becomes more of an important factor than vibration," Broughton says. "Flatheads would have to almost be on top of livebait to feel it, but cutbait has strong scent and they can track it better." Hungry, aggressive flatheads combined with fresh scent makes for a deadly combination.
Douglas often finds big flatheads escaping heavy spring currents holed up near creek mouths, around barge moorings, along ledges, or on flats with cover or structure that attracts them. "On flats I always look for something different," he says. "If I find a brushpile I set up there. A flat could be 30 feet deep. It could have a gravel bottom or it could have a mud bottom. The key is finding something different on it that can attract flatheads — brushpiles, rockpiles, or logs that are caught on bottom." As the season continues, he moves to deeper water, but during the spring he fishes water closer to the bank in 30 feet or less.
Douglas fishes these areas by anchoring and using either a three-way rig or Carolina (slipsinker) rig. The three-way rig allows him to keep his bait off bottom, while the slipsinker rig positions bait on bottom. He sets up using both rigs and after a few bites he determines which is more effective and then switches to that rig on all rods.
To build his three-way rig he ties a three-way swivel to his 65-pound braid mainline. To one eye of the swivel he ties on a 10- to 12-inch leader of 50-pound mono ending in an 8/0 circle hook. To the other eye of the swivel he attaches a mono dropper 18- to 24 inches long terminating in a 1½-ounce bank sinker.
His slipsinker rig begins by sliding a 3- to 8-ounce no-roll flat sinker on his mainline before attaching a barrel swivel. To the other end of the swivel he ties on a 12- to 18-inch 50-pound mono leader ending in an 8/0 circle hook. Shorter leaders keep baits closer to the bottom, and he sometimes uses leaders as long as 2 feet.
For cutbait, Douglas likes skipjack herring, but he also uses bluegills. He recommends heads for big flatheads, too. He thinks that the eyes draw big fish, but also finds that the hook point can at times foul-hook into the bait, resulting in missed fish on the hook-set. When using heads, he pierces the circle hook through one nostril and out the other.
Later in the season when flatheads move from the banks to main river ledges, Douglas employs controlled-drifting, using his trolling motor and current to control drift speed. This allows him to cover river stretches of up to a mile or more. This technique can only be used when the current is manageable, he says.
Rather than move continuously at a set speed along a ledge, he uses the trolling motor to stop and hover at precise spots for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing him to fish prime targets for longer periods. Bushpiles, rocks, and structural changes along the ledge are worth extra time. This strategy allows him to fish an entire ledge, but spend most time at prime locations.
He uses a vertical slipsinker rig with a short leader for controlled-drifting. It's the same as the one he uses while anchored except he shortens the leader to 8 to 12 inches, which helps him stay in contact with the bait since he fishes it just off bottom and often close to cover.
"I like to cut pieces vertically or horizontally, not diagonally, because angled pieces spin like a helicopter and twist," he says. "Straight baits are straighter running, and flatheads won't detect something's out of the ordinary." When using a cutbait strip he pierces it once with the hook.
He starts by dropping the rig to bottom and then raising the bait 2 to 3 feet off bottom. The short leader allows him to accurately control contact with the bottom. For all of his cutbait fishing he uses 71â„2-foot medium heavy Tangling with Catfish Extreme Series Rods and Bass Pro Shops Catmaxx reels.
Because Broughton's cutbait strategy revolves around poor to fair river conditions in early season, he relies on the ability of big cats to track fresh cutbait and recommends fresh fillets of shad. The best shad measure about 8 inches, he says. He likes to fillet shad leaving the rib cage and guts attached to the fillet.
He uses a slipsinker rig similar to Douglas's but prefers an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook rather than a circle hook. "I like to set the hook, especially with flatheads, which can be a light-biting fish. I have a lot more success with a J-hook."
Broughton says that flatheads normally crush their food before they run. So as soon as he sees a steady rod bend, even as small as 3 inches, he sets the hook. He builds rod holders that allow him to set the hook without removing the rod from the holder. As he pulls back on the set, the rod automatically comes out of the holder.
He threads shad fillets on the hook about three times so that the fillet doesn't come loose. For his rig, he starts by sliding a 4- to 8-ounce no-roll sinker onto 40-pound Berkley Big Game mono mainline. Then he ties on a swivel, and to the other end of the swivel he attaches a 18- to 24-inch leader of 50-pound clear mono terminating with the hook. He uses 71â„2-foot Berkley E-Cat rods and Abu Garcia Ambassador 7000 C3 reels. He says this setup has all the power necessary to handle big-river flatheads.
Besides changing cutbait often, Broughton also recommends watching rod tips for more than a slow steady bite. He finds that with all the debris in the river, rigs can collect trash. The debris can cover your bait and reduce its scent. "If you see your rod tip bowing more than usual, you've probably collected unwanted trash and it's time to check your bait," he says.
Several spots hold hungry flatheads in early season, he says, and the best locations are those with current breaks. "A little current edge can hold a lot of flatheads in the spring. Wherever you find a current break, you find a lot of grass and leaves. So watch the surface and look for these signs."
Marinas, backwaters, and creek mouths are all good locations to find current breaks. On the Ohio River where Broughton fishes, these locations usually have current breaks where slack water meets faster current. They also usually feature ledges that lead into the main river channel making them even better flathead spots.
Flatheads hold in slack water and move into current edges to feed. Often depth at these locations ranges from 10 to 25 feet. However, productive depths vary among rivers and regions.
Also consider water temperature. If you find it a few degrees warmer at current edges, it can further attract flatheads and baitfish. Broughton often finds that at some of the current breaks he fishes it can be 5 to 7 degrees warmer than in the main river channel.
He continues to catch flatheads on cutbait into May and June. He even uses it in the dead of summer, especially when river levels rise after thunderstorms. "If the river's rolling I use cutbait," he says. "I never rule it out." River conditions after a thunderstorm mimic early spring conditions. He finds excessive debris in the water makes it more difficult for flatheads to find livebait, while the fresh scent of cutbait is easier to locate.
Locations he targets in summer are different than early spring. He focuses on main river ledges and deep holes with structure, and also likes inside bends on the downstream sides of points.
For bank anglers, there's no better time to access big flatheads than the early season when they move into marinas, backwaters, and creek mouths. On the main river, if a location has much current, it can be difficult to keep your bait in position when you need to cast perpendicular out into current. Sometimes you can overcome light to moderate current with heavier weights.
Another option is to set up on points so you can angle casts downstream. For example, if you're fishing a creek mouth, cast downstream from the point on the upstream side of the creek mouth and let the current take your rig downstream across the mouth, keeping the line tight. Target the current edge that forms between the mouth and main river channel. â–
Brian Ruzzo, Carlisle, Ohio, is a freelance writer and contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: Guide Dale Broughton, 513/248-9032, fishohioriver.com.