Reservoir Flathead Catfish
April 17, 2014
Nothing is longer than winter for the catman. By the time you read this, you've probably already fished for channel cats. Depending on where you live, you might have donned a knit hat and wool gloves, but at least you were fishing cats in open water. Still, for many of you, the season isn't really underway until you've tied into that first flathead of the year.
Regular Catfish In-Sider Guide readers know that flatheads can be caught during winter, even at the northern edge of their range. But it's not the same. The most effective pattern involves vertical jigging with saltwater-size soft-plastic baits, often while snow is falling. Maybe I'm too traditional, but I prefer to leave them alone during winter. Even though the coldwater season passes with the speed of a 3-month church sermon, it makes that first flathead of spring even more enjoyable.
But catching reservoir flathead catfish in early spring is not like catching bluegills off their nests; it's not easy fishing. Each spring is different, and while patterns hold true, fishing for flatheads before the trees have budded requires patience and flexibility. Flatheads in spring are greatly affected by the weather and water temperature — two variables that change from year to year.
Two flathead experts offer their advice on this subject: Steve Shipley of Ship's Guide Service (803/854 — 4727) fishes Santee Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina; and Ed Brochin of Geist Lake Charters (317/826 - 8231) fishes all over Indiana. Both have caught more than their share of big flatheads, and both begin fishing and guiding in early spring. What they can tell you about their home waters will help you catch more flatheads in reservoirs across the country.
When To Begin Fishing
Flatheads are flatheads wherever you go, but that doesn't mean the calendar determines when this spring flathead thing will happen. Likewise, every spring is different; weather patterns can vary the start of spring by weeks or even months. But by watching the weather and water temperature, there are ways to predict when it's time to get out on the water and fish for flatheads. "This is the time of year," Shipley explains, "when you've got to get out there and try a few things. You have to be willing to experiment."
Just as flatheads are likely to slow down in fall once the water temperature reaches 50°F, they will likely perk up when it reaches that mark in spring. But this isn't a hard science — some flatheads will be moving around in colder water and some will wait for the water to further warm. As a general rule, though, 50°F is as close to a magic temperature as exists for flatheads.
Shipley begins targeting flatheads as early as March in South Carolina. "Our water might be 60°F to 64°F by then," he says. "It can be near 70°F by the end of March. Once the water temperature's over 60°F, Santee Cooper flatheads can be caught fairly regularly. Weather patterns in South Carolina, though, are the exception, because they're so stable and warm. That's not to say that flatheads in southern waters don't vary their behavior according to the season, but these fish don't have to adapt to the extreme weather conditions that flatheads in other parts of the country face every year.
In Indiana, where winters can hang on well into March, Brochin looks for other clues to tell him when to begin fishing for flatheads. "I'll go fishing after the second or third good warm rain," he explains. "That might be in March or April. Say the water temperature is 35°F right after ice-out, in early March. A good rain might lift it to 39°F or so. The second rain — and we're talking flooding rains here — will lift it into the mid-40°F range. When the third rain hits, and this could be several weeks after the second, the reservoir will be full and the water temperature will be near 50°F. That's the time to go flathead fishing.
"Smaller flatheads tend to move up sooner," Brochin continues. "But they all have wintering holes, as they do in rivers, and those warming floods are what turn the fish on. Their bodies warm, their metabolism speeds up, and eventually they all begin to move upcurrent."
There's one more crucial element to consider when planning your spring forays: flathead fishing in spring doesn't mean fishing all night in the Midwest, or any place where the water temperature has dropped considerably during winter. "I fish in the afternoon," Brochin says, "including two or three hours after dark. In early spring, fishing late at night isn't necessary. These fish have a set feeding time during this season. About an hour or so before dark, they move onto the flats and feed for a couple hours. As the sun drops and the water cools — even a degree or two — the fish sense the change and return to the channels, having finished feeding for the day. Once the water warms above 60°F, you can fish almost all night. Until then, though, concentrate on peak times — late afternoon and early evening."
Of course, in southern waters like Santee Cooper, the water almost always is warmer than 60°F in spring. As a result, Shipley says, "If I'm fishing strictly for flatheads at this time of year, I fish from late afternoon until midnight or so, like a second shift for flatheads. I still catch a lot of flatheads during the day in early spring, though."
Increased Bait Options
Both Shipley and Brochin fish with livebait for flatheads most of the year, and both catch most of their bait the old fashioned way: one at a time, with hook and line. Brochin fishes small creeks near his home for green sunfish, bluegill, and chubs, while Shipley catches white perch. This works in summer — in fact, big, lively baitfish usually are the best option in warm water.
But early spring provides more options for flathead anglers. "In spring, a flathead will sometimes hit cutbait as greedily as a blue cat," Shipley says. "It's still primarily a livebait approach, but I've caught many flatheads in cold water on cutbait." Using cutbait gives Shipley another advantage on Santee Cooper — he catches big blue catfish and flatheads from the same spots this time of year.
Regardless, the bait — live or cut — should be native. "Give them something they're used to eating," Shipley adds. When fishing unfamiliar water, Shipley suggests asking locals what panfish species are present in the lake. "The one that is most prevalent — bluegill, white perch, or whatever — is what the flatheads are primarily feeding on." Then gather bait by hook and line. Be sure to check local regulations, though, before collecting and using live baitfish.
And in early spring, livebait doesn't have to be full-sized adult panfish. "You can get by with a 2- to 3-inch baitfish in spring," Brochin says. "In summer, baits that size might not be enough to attract big flatheads, but it often works for the same fish in spring." Shipley agrees. He uses large baits for the most part, but again, spring can be a little more forgiving. "I've caught some big flatheads in spring on little baits," Shipley says, "both live and cut." But some things never change: "It's not so much the size, but the liveliness that matters," Brochin asserts.
Shipley uses his standard flathead tackle in the spring — heavy-power Shakespeare Tiger rods paired with Abu Garcia 7700 Morrum reels spooled with 50-pound-test Berkley Big Game line. He ties a 7/0 Kahle hook under a 2-ounce slipsinker, and knots a partially inflated balloon above the hook. This keeps the bait slightly off bottom, and if Shipley is using livebait, he hooks it through the lips to help it ride the current.
Brochin uses similar tackle most of the year, including Berkley E-Cat rods and Abu Garcia 6500 reels. But he does switch to lighter line in early spring. "It's like bass fishing in cold water," he says. "Sometimes you have to use a finesse approach. I might go with 20-pound test early in the year, especially when I'm fishing in open water."
Narrowing The Search
Reservoirs everywhere can be broken into an upper and lower half, with the dam marking the lower end. The hunt for springtime fish begins in the upper end, often near feeder creeks. "Every reservoir has a main feeder creek or river," Brochin explains. "Sometimes more than one. But all of them bring current into the reservoir, and that attracts all species of fish, including flatheads."
Larger feeder creeks attract more fish, as they bring in more current. This is why the spring rains are important to Brochin's approach: "Those flooded creeks bring warmer water and food to waiting catfish." Remember that studies of tagged catfish have shown that these fish are not afraid to travel great distances. "They will swim for miles and miles to these feeder creeks," Brochin adds.
"Locating the fish is the first thing you have to do," Shipley explains, "so move around until you find them. You can spot flatheads on sonar — they usually show up as one big fish on the bottom or right off the bottom. Drop some baits and see if he'll hit. If not, move on." You can fish flatheads during the middle of the day at this time, but as Brochin points out, "You have to know exactly where they are. You should go from one cover element to the next, dropping baits almost right on their heads."
To locate fish with sonar, though, begin searching in the right general area. "The first thing you have to do when fishing any reservoir, especially if it's unfamiliar, is to find the creek channels," Brochin explains. Shipley's springtime strategy is to anchor his boat near the edge of one of these channels. Once positioned this way, he can cast half his baits into deeper water and the other half up on the shelf alongside the channel.
"I want to know which side gets bit first," Shipley explains. "I might also put out half livebaits and half cutbaits. Then I'll wait to see what the fish are telling me. One day all your fish will come from the deepest parts of the channel, and the next they might all come from the shelf. The same goes for livebait and cutbait."
"To start, look for wintering holes," Brochin adds. "These will be among the deepest holes in the old creek channels. A good way to target early-season flatheads is to fish somewhere near these holes — maybe near a point or a sharp drop-off. Start there, and then, as the water warms, start fishing shallower and shallower."
Shipley doesn't like to stay anchored for long, and he reminds us: "You can always find flatheads with sonar, but you need to find active fish. Don't be afraid to keep moving around. Give a good spot an hour, to give the fish time to acclimate to your presence after the commotion of anchoring, but if you don't get bit, it's time to look elsewhere.
"Flatheads hug the channels year-round," Shipley concludes. "If they're not in the channel in early spring, they're not far from it. And they're always going to look for cover like stumps and logs. Flatheads love to surround themselves, as much as they can, with cover — especially wood cover."
When The Spring Pattern Fades
Eventually, flatheads move into more summer patterns. "By May in Indiana, you can start to become more aggressive," Brochin says. "Look for fish near spawning sites." The flatheads will drift into suitable nesting areas with heavy cover and overhead protection. The male remains in the nest with the eggs and then the young, while the female cruises the immediate area for a while. By then, I'm fishing up in the creek arms — around logjams and other cover in shallow water."
Down south, the spring pattern begins and ends sooner. "Our flatheads are spawning by late April into May," Shipley says, "and they'll have moved onto the edges of the river channels to spawn in the stump fields. I fish for them around standing timber using mostly livebait, but I also continue to experiment with cutbait."
But by May, all is right with the world. The flatheads are feeding heavily and behaving in familiar ways. Winter is a distant memory — like a fuzzy-haired prom date wearing a bad dress and smelling heavily of perfume. This article is meant to get you through the tumultuous weather of early spring. Because, as the warm rains fall and the trees begin to bud, the flatheads are there, in a reservoir near you. And they're waking up.
*Greg Schwipps, Danville, Indiana, teaches English at DePauw University.