Flathead catfish are arguably the most bodacious fish in North America. A freshwater Sasquatch of sorts, flatheads grow to over 100 pounds. They're mean suckers, too, predators to the core. They'll crack the bones of an unsuspecting carp as easily as a semi smashes an acorn on a highway, and enjoy every moment of it. Elusive, too. Few fishermen regularly catch big flatheads.
Those fishermen who catch lots of them do it just like I do, with heavy tackle befitting the mean mother of a monster this fish is. At least, before I got light-line religion.
Enter the Reverend Mike Kohler and catches of 20-pound-plus flatheads on 8-pound-test line. With regularity. Catches of 2, 4, even 10 big fish a trip, from areas within reach of most of you, areas that fishermen don't associate with flathead cats.
The pattern probably plays across North America. Dams. Tailwater areas. Vertical-jigging. Walleye tactics and tackle. But for fish that unceremoniously reduce the average walleye to an Erp! and a bony bowel movement.
August 1990. It's Kohler on the phone. Bring TV cameras, he's saying. They're baaaack!
It'll be like this, he says, doing his best to paint a picture of a segment for the 1991 In-Fisherman TV Specials:
Two fishermen, good-looking fellas, star material — that's you and me, he chuckles, and then begins almost to whisper as he continues his story in a delivery sounding a lot like Howard Cosell. Two fishermen slowly motor into position below the gates of a lock and dam. As they move across the turbulent water spinning through the washout hole, they notice large "hooks" on their LCD. Sasqui! (Plural for sasquatch, he tells me.)
The stars lower their bowmount electric and begin to "slip" —
Make that deftly slip, I said, interrupting him. Implies prowess. Remember, these guys are stars. Besides, I've always wanted to use deftly in print.
"'K right," he continued, making the necessary correction, as in: They lower their bowmount and begin to deftly slip with the current as they drop 1/2- or 3/4-ounce leadhead jigs tipped with 3- to 4-inch minnows into 40 feet of water. The jigs ride perfectly vertical on 8-pound-test line below the boat through the "slacker" water along the bottom of the washout hole, near the back edge of the hole — the tailout area — where it breaks quickly from 35 feet deep up onto the channel shelf in 25 feet.
They carefully slip along the deep breakline, lifting and dropping their jigs a foot at a time on a tight line. Hooks register along the lip of the washout hole in 32, then 31, 30, 29, 28 feet of water, the tailout lip of the washout hole. Their jigs begin to sweep up the lip — Whomp! "Son, good fish. Big fish. A 'won't-move' fish," they say in their best TV-fishing-show lingo.
But it's a "won't-move" fish for only a moment, he continued. Then — he paused — Then — he paused again, to add suspense to the scenario. Then after several trips following the fish 50 yards upriver, then downriver; after twenty minutes of wondering, Will the hook hold? Will that thin line frazzle or fray? The fish moves the scales to 27 pounds.
Will we be heroes, or what?
Who could resist? So, crack cameraman and In-Fisherman TV Director and Producer James Lindner and I are riding upriver with Mike Kohler en route to a typical tailwater area to shoot a show segment.
"First time when?" I asked as we moved along.
"Nineteen eighty-seven. Late summer. On the Mississippi," he answered. "Me and another fella are looking for sauger and white bass — just a quick afternoon outing. Boats are drifting all through the tailwater area, with most staying in typical spots where current reverses itself along the edge of the washout hole.
"Couple hours pass and we're approaching our billionth small whitey and zillionth small sauger. Ho-hum. And, well, I notice a guy drifting way out there over turbulent water where there are supposedly no fish. He has a big fish on. I mean a big fish. Fifteen minutes later, he lands a nasty old ugly catfish. Hey, what do I know about cats, you know? It's not like I grew up in Iowa like you — I don't have cats in my genes. I didn't even know it was a flathead, at the time.
"But I know it's big. So big it demolishes this guy's net. And it's the second 'accident' that day. And whatever 'that' is has gotta be better than another 5-ounce whitey."
"To shorten a long story," I prodded.
"A 20, first drift. Honest. First drift. I think it's the bottom, but it isn't and pretty soon this thing is wallowing on the surface and my buddy looks at my new net and I say, Oh no! And then, Aw, geez! And pretty soon I have a pig of a catfish and no net.
"A 16, several drifts later. And finally, one over 30. Biggest fish I've ever caught. Bet the house you know where I was next day and many a day thereafter."
"And you take fish over 20 almost every trip," I said, repeating what he'd told me on the phone.
"Nope. Get one over 20 every trip. And there won't be another boat up here after these fish. The fishery's completely overlooked. Yet the handful of fishermen using this pattern have used it successfully on rivers large and small across the Midwest; so I'm betting it will work in many, maybe most tailwater areas nationwide."
We pulled into the tailwater with the camera running. "Produce!" Jim Lindner demanded as he screwed his eye to the lens of his Sony.
"Perfect," Kohler said, as I stopped the boat with the bow facing upriver. We drifted stern-first downriver using the bowmount electric to correct our drift. "Gotta stay a safe distance below the dam. Dangerous to get too close. But we also have to get the boat moving downriver about the same speed the turbulence is moving before we drop these jigs. The jigs gotta be in position before we reach the critical tailout lip where the flatheads usually congregate."
"Been awhile since I've fished a washout hole," I observed. "Once we're drifting back the same speed as the current, we drop the jigs to the bottom as fast as possible."
"Right," Kohler replied. "The water along the bottom's moving slower than the surface water — slower, too, than the water in the middle of the water column.
"Once the jigs are down in position, it's a matter of correcting our drift with forward thrusts of the electric to keep the jigs riding directly below us. The more they swing away from vertical, the less control we have. The jigs gotta be within a foot or so of the bottom most of the time. That's the reason for thin line — less water resistance for better control.
"Right here — most critical area," Kohler said, as we approached the beginning of the break — the lip — at the tailout of the washout hole. "Water builds in the washout hole, then gets forced downriver. But the steep lip at the back of the hole creates a kind of slackwater area — a rim along the lip — for the cats and bait to hold in. We catch cats on the flat downriver from the tail-out, too, but only occasionally."
"Time of year?" I asked.
"Well, here the fish seem to appear in August and stay until early October. Fishing slows during fall as the water cools into the 50°F range. I've only caught small fish then.
"Can't say for sure how early fish appear in tailwaters, though. Maybe as early as June. Depends, too, I suppose, on the area of the country."
We finished our drift and began to motor back toward the dam.
"Try a drift along the far edge of the tailout hole," Kohler instructed. "Let's follow the break as closely as we can until we reach the tailout. Try to stay in 28 to 35 feet of water."
I chose a fresh minnow and impaled it on the 1/2-ounce jig.
"About baits?" I asked. "These 4-inch minnows are considered tiny offerings for flatsies."
"Yes, I know," he said. "I've seen you and Toad Smith fishing for huge fish at night with huge baits. All I know is, these jigs work. Bigger baits just get blown out of position too easily in current. But maybe — Fish on! Big fish! Get the electric! Good fish!" he shouted, as Jim focused on him holding a rod arched from butt to tip.
"Gotta keep lots of pressure on these fish!" Kohler shouted at me and the camera. "Flatheads have such powerful jaws they'll whack down on the bait and you can't move it. They don't even know you're up above, half the time. But sometimes they know something's up and they open that big mouth and spit the bait. That's when the jig moves and you have to get a hook — and that could be 5 minutes into the — No! No! No!" he shouted.
"Lost him," he said to no one in particular.
"But look there," I said as he reeled in. "Slime de line (for two feet above the jig), as we say. Flatsie for sure."
"That's just so typical," Kohler moaned. "Man, but with the camera running — fish pulled my bait down sharply just after I'd lifted it a foot off the bottom and held it there a moment. Whomp! And then I lose him! Man!"
"I like that," Jim Lindner said. "Good scene, the way the rod bent. The look on your face when you lost him."
"You're not using that," Kohler said with a weak smile.
"For sure! But now we need a star. One big flatsie will do. Fish. Produce. Or do you want me to do it for you?"
Time passed quickly that afternoon. But fishing was slow compared to most outings for Kohler. I lost a flathead — slime de line. Then Kohler missed a fish on a hook-set. Never did feel the fish. Finally, in the evening I set into —
"A stump," I said. "Either that or a crankshaft from a 1950 Buick."
Of course I landed the fish. Sure, the camera was running. I even let Kohler hold the fish before we released it. "There, you're famous," I told him. "Fan mail will pour in."
"So ugly they're beautiful," Kohler said as we headed back toward the ramp. "I wonder, though, about the TV show and an article telling people how to catch those cats and about people keeping those big fish, now that they'll know how to do it."
"We're into teaching people to catch fish and have fun," I observed. "I had fun. Lots of other folks will, too. But we're also into ensuring a future for fishing. That's why we teach selective harvest.
"You know the story," I went on. "We want to continue a tradition of eating some fish, because, darn it, they're great table fare. But not big flatheads. We need to release these fish to help sustain good fishing. "Aren't enough big fish to go around these days. Big flatsies are old. May seem like there's a lot of them because few folks are fishing for them, but the supply isn't endless.
In a typical outing, you'll also get a small flathead or two, enough for a couple great meals. Release the big guys; keep a few small fish. That's one aspect of selective harvest.
"Aren't many breakthroughs left in fishing," I told the Reverend Kohler. "Twenty-pound flatsies on thin line's one. Amazing grace!"
How To Fish For Flathead Catfish