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Flathead Catfish Bait Options

Flathead Catfish Bait Options

Knowing when and where to use a variety of live, dead, and artificial baits is one key to catching more and bigger flatheads.

If you were to cater a gourmet meal for a convention of flathead catfish, the menu might center around a lively 6-inch green sunfish presented on a 5/0 hook. Other entrees might include feisty bluegills, bullheads, or creek chubs served on sliprigs constructed with 12-inch leaders. Appetizers such as a writhing ball of river worms on an 8/0 hook, a lip-hooked waterdog, or a juicy section of a large sucker also would be welcome. Dessert could be a back-hooked mudpuppy or a crankbait trolled through a school of gizzard shad.

This menu is courtesy of some of America's leading flathead catfish bait anglers. All of these experts agree that green sunfish, where legal, are the premier bait for flatheads. "Green sunfish are tough, and they constantly fight the hook, which produces lots of vibration," says Denny Halgren, who guides flathead-loving clients on the Rock River near his home in Dixon, Illinois.

Jigging sunfish — Unlike most flathead anglers, Halgren fishes almost exclusively during daylight hours and aggressively jigs his sunfish to antagonize inactive flatheads into attacking his baits. He anchors his boat above a hole, baits with a 5- to 6-inch green sunfish back-hooked on a 5/0 or 6/0 Tru-Turn Catfish Hook, then casts at a 45-degree angle to the back of the boat. He uses a 2- to 4-ounce slipsinker pegged 10 to 24 inches above the hook with a lead shot.


Slow currents allow for less weight and longer leaders; stronger currents require more weight and shorter leaders. Halgren's clients cast a similarly rigged sunfish off the other side of the boat at a 45-degree angle. The current and a jigging motion moves the baits downstream into the daytime resting hole of the resident flathead. A slow, methodical lifting-and-dropping action moves the sunfish into the hole, then works it back to the boat.


"During the day, these flatheads aren't in feeding mode," Halgren says, "so I show them the bait, then take it away, over and over again. We may work a bait through the same hole 15 or 20 times in an hour, but eventually the fish will grab the bait."

Jigging for big flatheads requires specialized tackle. Halgren uses Pro Cat II graphite catfish rods developed and marketed by Aurora Sports in Elmhurst, Illinois. "I use 20-pound Stren line and those Pro Cat rods to give me the sensitivity to feel exactly what my bait is doing as I jig it, " Halgren says. "Twenty-pound line is strong enough to handle a big flathead. It's not necessary to horse him back to the boat. All you have to do is hold him when you set the hook, keep him from getting back into the snag, then use the current and steady pressure to guide him away from cover so you can work him back to the boat."

Other sunfish tactics — Live green sunfish also are the preferred bait of Gene Murray, a well-known catfish angler from southeastern Iowa, who has lived on the banks of the lower Iowa River for over 30 years. Murray, who has fished with Halgren, agrees that Halgren's jigging technique can be deadly — under certain conditions. "Most of these rivers have a soft bottom littered with debris, so jigging tends to produce lots of snags," Murray says. "I agree with Halgren that green sunfish are a top bait, if you can get them, but I also have a lot of luck with 6- to 8-inch bullheads.

"My fishing partner Craig Whittaker is a little more adventurous and will put anything that's legal on his hook, just to see if a flathead will take it," Murray adds. "He's used small sheepshead, carp minnows, crawdads, chubs and has caught flatheads on all of them. But I usually catch more and bigger flatheads by using proven baits like green sunfish or bullheads. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I'm also a better fishermen than he is."


While Murray and Whittaker enjoy long discussions about who is the better angler, they agree that they have discovered a way to dramatically increase their catch rates for flatheads. Iowa regulations allow two hooks per rod, so Murray and Whittaker use either a 3-way swivel or a Kentucky-style twisted-monofilament leader rig to put a chunk of fresh cutbait — usually a small shad or herring fillet — on the same rig with a live sunfish, bullhead, or chub. "Rigs with both cutbait and livebait almost always get bit before a rig with two livebaits, " Murray says. "I think the flavor of the cutbait draws the cats' attention, but they almost always take the livebait once they get close enough to see it."

Waterdogs and mudpuppies produce big flatheads in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, particularly when flipped or pitched into heavy cover.

The trouble with mudpuppies — Murray admits that while his favorite bait for flatheads is live green sunfish, his dream bait, when he can find them, is mudpuppies. Mudpuppies are the larval stage of salamanders; they're only available during certain seasons and usually difficult to find. "I grew up with an old river rat who knew a spot where we could seine mudpuppies," Murray recalls. "We'd bait bank lines with those mudpuppies and catch lots of channel catfish; we'd also find broken lines and straightened hooks where big flatheads had broken off. The only problem with mudpuppies is that every fish species in the river likes them too."


Great gobs of worms — Virgil Agee, of Chamois, Missouri, has a favorite bait for flatheads that deals with the problem of bait thieves. He uses river worms, a sluggish, blackish-purple-brown worm found along riverbanks from Oklahoma to the Carolina coast. "I don't know any other name for them except river worms," Agee says. "I dig them in sand or gravel areas along the river bank. They're about a quarter inch in diameter and up to a foot long. They're slow-moving, tough-skinned, and their slime kind of glows in the dark. Sometimes I dig for hours to get a dozen, and other times it's possible to get three dozen in 15 minutes."

Gobs of nightcrawlers or river worms have long been a favorite bait option for many veteran flathead anglers.

Three dozen river worms equates to about three "baits" for Agee. He threads a baseball-size gob of river worms onto an 8/0 or 10/0 hook below a pegged slip sinker, then casts the slow-writhing mass into a prime flathead lair. "Little fish start working on the tips of the worms, but those river worms are so tough that small fish can't do much more than nip off the ends, " Agee says. "All the juice and activity attracts larger fish that in turn eventually attract the big boy in charge of that particular hole.

"Those little "shakers" will keep that wad of worms bouncing from the minute you toss it in the water, " Agee adds. "But be patient and ignore all that shaking, even if you leave it out there for an hour or more. Have faith that the river worms are tough enough that the small fish won't clean the hook. Just leave it out there, and when all the shaking stops, it's time to start paying attention. Something has scared away all the little fish, and it's probably a big flathead. Flatheads don't mess around with river worms — they just up and grab the wad, so be ready to set the hook as soon as you detect a steady pull."

Eels, dead or alive — Ed Davis of Fayetteville, North Carolina, hasn't boated any 100-pound flatheads, but in the past three years he has caught more than 100 flatheads in the 40- to 70-pound range from the Cape Fear River. Davis fished for flatheads all across the United States during a 21-year military career. He baits his line with green sunfish where they're legal, and eels whenever possible. "I've often fished with two rigs, one baited with live sunfish and the other tipped with 6- to 8-inch chunks of a ­1-inch-diameter eel," Davis says. "The chunks of eel always outfish the live sunfish.

"Live 6- to 8-inch eels are good, too, but they're hard to fish because they crawl into holes and get you snagged a lot. Live eels can be kept alive for months if they're kept on ice," Davis says. "They go dormant as soon as they're chilled, then they perk right up as soon as you put them into warm water. The secret is to prevent them from burrowing through the crushed ice and to the melt water at the bottom of the container where they'll drown."

Bully for bullheads, too — Davis also is fond of baiting with bullheads. He usually hooks an 8- or 9-inch bullhead through the back near the tail, so the bait is off-balance and must constantly fight to stay level. "Bullheads are tough, they put a lot of vibration in the water, and they're easy to find," Davis says. "Anyone who doesn't fish with bullheads for flatheads is handicapping himself, particularly in states where sunfish aren't legal and eels aren't available."

Fresh cut portions of an oily baitfish like shad, sucker, or herring may at times outproduce livebait.

The cutbait crusaders — Ryan Wassink of Hull, Iowa, and his brother Vaughn frequently cross the Minnesota border to fish the bait-restricted Minnesota River. Last year they caught and released 102 flatheads from the Minnesota that weighed up to 50 pounds. The Wassinks have developed an aggressive approach to catching flatheads with cutbait. "We buy 8- to 12-inch suckers from bait shops and cut them into halves or thirds, " Ryan says. "For flatheads, I like to use the gut section, but Vaughn likes to use the heads. We save the tail sections for channel cats."

The Wassinks put the juicy chunks of fresh sucker flesh on a 4/0 or 5/0 Kahle hook with a 12-inch leader. An appropriate-sized sliding egg sinker above a swivel keeps the chunk of sucker on the bottom. "The secret is to keep moving, " Wassink says. "If we're fishing during the day, we'll hit 40 or 50 snags in an afternoon. We average about 5 minutes per snag. It has to be a really hot-looking spot for us to spend more than 15 minutes in one spot."

The Wassinks have learned that the older the snag, the more attractive to flatheads. "We look for the old snags that have so much debris in them that grass and weeds are growing out the top, " Ryan adds. "It doesn't have to be deep — four feet of water under a snag might hold a nice flathead if sunlight can't penetrate the snag during daylight hours."

Artificial offerings — While most flathead anglers swear that lively livebaits or fresh cutbaits are the only sure-fire way to catch flatheads, Eric Anderson of Phoenix, Arizona, disagrees. "I've taken lots of flatheads on crankbaits, " Anderson says. "In Horseshoe Reservoir, we clobbered flatheads that were suspended 12 feet down over 30 feet of water, following schools of shad. We caught them on #9 Shad Raps; that's 15- to 20-pound flatheads on spinning rigs spooled with 8-pound line."

Anderson says his goal when trolling is to trigger impulse strikes from aggressive flatheads already bent on feeding. Crankbait color doesn't seem to make a big difference in murky water. "Thump or vibration is what matters," Anderson adds. "Flatheads live in dirty water, and they depend on vibration to find food."

No time to debate about bait when the action's this hot.

The waterdog option — While Anderson has had success trolling crankbaits for flatheads, 9-inch waterdogs pitched into nooks and crannies along shoreline cover also have been deadly flathead bait. "I thump a waterdog on the head to kill it," he says, "then hook it through both lips. They're too active and hard to control when they're alive. I pitch them into nooks and crannies along the shoreline as if pitchin' for bass. I can give dead waterdogs enough action on the retrieve so flatheads think they're alive.

Anderson agreed with our other experts that no single bait will catch flatheads in every situation. Weather, water temperature, water levels, time of day, and a dozen other factors all influence the sometimes finicky taste buds of flatheads. But flatheads find certain baits difficult to resist. If green sunfish aren't legal in your waters, then bullheads, river worms, mudpuppies, eels, or fresh chunks of cutbait definitely should be on the menu.

All-Tackle World Record - Ken Paulie

If Ken Paulie's gargantuan world-record flathead doesn't make your heart skip a beat, you best check your pulse. At 123 pounds even, it tops the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's all-tackle and 14-pound line class standings, and photos of the behemoth will make you think twice about dabbling your toes off the dock.
Taken from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, on May 14, 1998, the fish stretched the tape a whopping 61 inches and sported a pleasantly plump, 42¾-inch girth. Paulie was crappie fishing at the time, and hooked it on a jig-and-minnow. Like many world records, it was not without controversy. It was verified while alive by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fishery biologist Sean Lynott. But details of the catch — such as the relatively light tackle Paulie was using, and his statement that it didn't put up much of a fight — raised eyebrows in the cat community. Still, the record stands to this day as a testament to the immense proportions flatheads are capable of attaining.

Georgia - Carl Sawyer

The Peachtree flathead record rests in a tie, and it's a whopper. Eighty-three pounds is the mark to beat, thanks to Carl Sawyer and Jim Dieveney. Sawyer struck first, pulling his 83-pounder from the Altamaha River near Jesup on June 22, 2006. In doing so, he literally destroyed the old record of 67 pounds, 8 ounces. Sawyer was fishing a 'hand-sized ' bluegill on a 7/0 circle hook with 50-pound mainline and a 3-ounce sinker, in a 15- to 17-foot deep hole. He reported that the 54-inch giant offered a 15- to 20-minute battle before surrendering boatside.

Georgia - Jim Dieveney

Carl Sawyer retained solo claim to the record until Dieveney hooked a nearly identical leviathan July 11, 2010, while fishing the Altamaha in Wayne County. Fishing alone but wielding a rod fit for sharks, he managed to land his 52½-inch prize all by himself. Interestingly, a mammoth 103-pound flathead was taken on trotline on the Ocmulgee River in August of 2009, leaving little doubt a tiebreaker resides somewhere in Georgia's cat-rich waterways.

Iowa - Joe Baze

'Catfish ' Joe Baze of Chariton, Iowa, set the Hawkeye flathead record in June 1958 with this 81-pound behemoth, taken from Lucas County's Lake Ellis. Baze was a consummate fisherman, with numerous trophy catches to his credit. As the story goes, he loved devoting Saturdays to fishing a nearby lake, but almost stayed home the day of his big catch due to a foul east wind. When the wind switched late in the day, however, he and his son geared up, headed for Ellis — and made history.

Michigan - Dale Blakely

Michigan's state record might not rank among the top 10 fattest flatheads of all time. But it's the newest record-holder we ran across — taken on January 12, 2014 — and has an interesting story to boot. For starters, the 52-pound fish was caught through the ice on Cass County's Barron Lake. Dale Blakely was enjoying his second-ever hardwater adventure, fishing a jig and waxworm for crappies. He hadn't had a bite all day when, at 3 p.m., the giant cat inhaled his jig. The catch trumped the existing record of 49.8 pounds, and was quickly verified by the state DNR. Officials noted that flatheads do not naturally occur in the lake, and speculated that the fish may have arrived with the illicit assistance of a 'bucket biologist ' at some point in its life. Regardless of its origins, Blakely's record stands. 'Catching this fish was the most exhilarating experience, ' he said.

Oklahoma - Richard Williams

Richard Williams was fishing for bass in El Reno City Reservoir on May 11, 2010 when he hooked into a monstrous fish far bigger than anything he'd expected to hit his Strike King crankbait. After a pitched battle, he reeled in a 51-inch-long, Sooner state record flathead weighing in at 78 pounds, 8 ounces. Williams' big cat topped the old record of 76 pounds, set on the Poteau River near Wister. Though admittedly not a cat fancier, Williams told the press at the time that he considered his record catch 'pretty cool. ' Indeed. And so do we. Although truth be told, we'd rather hook up with the 60-inch, 106-pound thug C. Clubb caught on a trotline in Wister Lake in 1977. That remarkable giant holds the Oklahoma record for 'unrestricted ' tackle.

Texas - James Laster

At 98 pounds, 8 ounces, James Laster's Lone Star lunker was big enough to topple the previous Texas benchmark, but not the all-tackle world record. It did, however, capture the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's 16-pound line-class record. Laster pulled the mighty flathead from Lake Palestine on December 2, 1998 while bank-fishing for crappies. It measured 53 inches long, with a 40-inch girth. The previous Texas record, 98 pounds even, had stood for 22 years. The new record flathead — named Taylor after Laster's grandson — was transported to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens for display, but was released back into Palestine two years later after it stopped eating.

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