November 30, 2020
By Steve Ryan
I have a special appreciation for summertime flathead fishing. There’s something magical about those warm June nights anchored up in front of a logjam with a cooler full of livebaits. Prespawn flatheads are on the prowl and looking to feed.
Unfortunately, the prime prespawn bite is fleeting. Then we get distracted with other fishing pursuits as the spawn sets in and flatheads grow more stubborn. Soon fall rolls around and signals the beginning of the end of the catfish season. About the time trees drop their leaves, our local flathead pursuits come to a halt.
Fortunately, in recent years, we’ve discovered a nice flathead bite that fills a void in our late flathead season prior to fish going dormant for the winter. Best of all, the fishing can be done from shore or a boat. It doesn’t require any livebait—just a few bucktail jigs, soft-plastic swimbaits, and crankbaits to fool some late-season giants.
This pattern slowly came together throughout the course of multiple years trolling for walleyes around mid-river rock humps and casting for muskies below spillways. The occasional accidental flathead became a routine occurrence as we kept better track of these “random” bycatches and adjusted our tactics slightly. The program may not be fool-proof but it’s consistent enough to keep you confidently on the water a little later in the season.
When, Where and How
This bite starts to take off in late September as the days get shorter and water temperatures begin to cool. In the Upper Midwest, the first frost is a good indicator that flatheads are moving to feed more frequently. In more southern locations, the best bite occurs as water temperatures drop through the 60°F range. Action continues until water temperatures drop below 50°F and flatheads feed with less regularity.
The best bite occurs during low-light periods and into the dark. If your schedule allows for flexibility, moon phases should be taken into consideration. Moon-rise and moon-set are periods that spur additional feeding activity for big predators like muskies. Flatheads are no different. They are the biggest predator in most river systems and feel the same feeding urges from celestial alignments.
The feeding windows can be as short as 10 to 15 minutes or extend beyond an hour. So it’s worth getting lines back in the water as quickly as possible after catching a fish. These are not the homebody flatheads of midsummer where a spot may only hold one good fish. Fall flatheads are mobile. They’re transitioning from summer haunts to wintering holes. They travel in predictable patterns with multiple fish using prime feeding shelves throughout the night.
The most consistent bite takes place below dams or spillways. These man-made structures halt the upstream migration of catfish. The rapidly rolling water of dams or spillways also serves as a constant food processor. A mix of shad, rough fish, and panfish get pushed through turbines or open gates to create a puree of dead or disoriented fish for predators to scoop up.
Key areas include mid-river rock humps, bridge pilings, pitch points, pronounced current seams, and feeding shelves adjacent to quick turns in the river channel. In bigger river systems, these key zones may extend a mile or more below the dam. On small systems, the bite may be limited to just one or two key locations within a couple hundred yards of the dam or spillway.
Observing the activity of birds and other fish feeding on the surface gives clues to the presence and activity of flatheads. Our initial bird-watching efforts were driven by muskie pursuits but the practice translates to our catfish fishing.
Surface activity to be on the lookout for includes the following: Muskies have no fear. They come right to the surface with their mouths open looking like a shop-vac cleaning up shad on the surface, as gulls and terns pick off small stunned baits. Gar hang motionless just below the surface and snap their long teeth-lined muzzles at anything that lingers too long in front of them. Walleyes are a bit shyer and spend most of their time in the mid-water column and set their sights on slightly damaged prey. Under hi-voltage lights of dam sites, you can occasionally spot the glowing eyes of walleyes quickly charge to the surface to sneak a snack near the surface. Silently on the bottom, flatheads wait for anything that slips past the feeding activity above.
This feeding activity takes place below dams and spillways on rivers across the country that have a healthy population of flatheads. Those fisheries that have a solid shad forage tend to produce even better in fall. This may be due to the fragile nature of shad. Rapid cool-downs in water temperatures result in major shad kills throughout the cold weather months. However, flatheads are just as happy feeding on crappies, drum, carp, and suckers that may get pushed through dams and spillways.
To mimic this dying forage, our best shoreline tactic involves casting swimbaits and bucktail jigs. The trick becomes positioning oneself within casting distance of key flathead holding areas and then allowing the offering to swing through or be held in place in these areas long enough to get eaten. To get maximum casting distance, we use 50- or 65-pound Sufix 832 braided line on a 4000-size spinning reel or 400-size casting reel. These larger reels have greater line capacity and their larger spools allow for longer casts.
The use of 7- or 8-foot rods further aids in making longer casts and helps to better position lures throughout the retrieve. By keeping the rod tip high, less line comes in contact with the current, so the lure takes a truer path downstream with the current. The thin diameter of braided line also aids in limiting water resistance on the offering. This allows the lure to sink more quickly and stay in the strike zone longer.
Small differences that pay huge dividends also apply to jig selection. The size, weight, and style of the jig or swimbait used is dependent on three criteria: depth of water, speed of current, and prey size. In areas with moderately fast current and a dominant shad population, paddletail swimbaits in the 4- to 6-inch range, weighing 1/2 to 21/2 ounces perform nicely.
I have done well with swimbaits like the 4.5- to 5.5-inch Livetarget Gizzard Shad, the 4- to 6-inch Spooltek Fatty, and the 4-inch Savage Gear Pulse Tail Baitfish, but any swimbait with good tail-kicking action should work. Of course, they need stout hooks. They also need to cast well and sink quickly relative to their weight. Besides the visual profile, it’s the thumping tail when held in the current that attracts and triggers fish. Flatheads generally just suck in these lures as they wash by, without any telltale thump at the end of the rod. It’s important to strike quickly when the jig stops unexpectedly or the tail action stops.
Expect to lose some lures. It takes time and multiple casts to mentally map out each location from shore. I start the process with some of my not-so-favorite lures and switch to higher-confidence options after snags are mapped out. You often need to perfectly present a lure in front of a single piece of cover a dozen times prior to getting bit.
The shad profile of swimbaits captures the attention of flatheads as they sweep cross-current in front of the occasional log or extra-large boulder scattered across the bottom that serve as resting areas for feeding flatheads. These fish are actively feeding but don’t expect them to move great distances to eat a swimbait. They will, however, rise off the bottom to take a lure on the fall. So it’s important to count down the bait on each cast and watch for any line jumps as the offering sinks.
Plastic swimbaits have more thump than curlytail grubs or hair jigs. This added vibration helps catfish locate them more easily. The bigger the tail, the harder the thump. However, the increased profile and body mass of jumbo swimbaits in the 7- to 12-inch range means that they catch more current and tumble in fast current more easily. So swimbaits bigger than 6 inches are best suited for rivers with moderate current.
A slow and steady retrieve helps give these baits a nice swimming action. When confronted with high-water conditions and fast currents, swimbaits get blown out in the current and bucktail jigs perform better. Choose jigs with large enough hook gaps to get solid hook-sets and the necessary holding power to muscle fish out of heavy current. Excellent choices include the Mustad Big Eye and SPRO Bucktail jigs, both available in large sizes, weighing from 1 to 8 ounces. A 2-inch curlytail grub can be added to these jigs to impart some action and vibration on them without adding lift to them in current. Bucktail jigs can be swung through current like swimbaits, or hopped tight to the bottom in areas slightly out of current.
Where boat access is available, better positioning can often be achieved from an anchored boat. Lures can also be upsized when fishing from a boat to keep them down in current seams and work them slowly back to the boat with slow sweeps of the rod to get the paddletails thumping. Each time the lure is swept forward, be certain to feel as it comes back in contact with the bottom. When bottom contact can no longer be achieved, reel up and cast again. For added scent, tip bucktail jigs with a strip of sucker belly meat or shad.
To cover more water while fishing from the boat, an upsized version of a Dubuque rig as commonly used for walleyes can be a productive option. The rig consists of 65-pound braided mainline tied to a three-way swivel. To a short 12-inch dropper line of 30-pound monofilament, attach a 3/8-ounce bucktail jig. Then tie a crankbait on a longer 24- to 36-inch leader of 60-pound mono. Crankbait options include shad style lures such as the #9 Rapala Shad Rap, Bagley Rattlin’ Diving B2, and Salmo #9 Executor—all upgraded with X-strong Owner ST-58 treble hooks.
The rig is lowered with the jig making periodic bottom contact and the lure constantly riding within inches of the bottom. The boat is crept upstream at less than .3 mph and regularly hovered in place when fish or prime cover are observed on sonar. Most bites will be on the crankbait. Unlike the subtle takes that occur when using jigs, flatheads crush tight-wobbling crankbaits. The slow forward movement of the boat also accentuates these bites. When a bite occurs, reel down to the fish and give a firm forward sweep of the rod to bury the hooks.
For this technique, we favor a heavy-duty baitcast reel like an Abu Garcia Revo Beast capable of 30 pounds of drag pressure and beefy gears to winch in big fish from heavy current. Pair the reel with a rod like the Temple Reef 7-foot XXH Metal Jacket for maximum power, sensitivity, and responsiveness. Metal Jacket rods are designed to perform flawlessly as casting rods, which make them lightweight and comfortable to hold in the boat while making small adjustments with the reel to keep the rig tight to the bottom.
Whether you’re on shore or in a boat, swimbaits, jigs, and crankbaits keep you in the flathead game heading into fall. Note cold snaps that can cause die-offs to fragile baitfish, as well as influxes of water through dams from heavy rains or scheduled drawdowns that push disoriented forage through dams for waiting flatheads. It can be some of the most exciting and rewarding flathead fishing of the season.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan travels the globe in search of big predatory fish.