Reservoir Flathead Strategies
July 31, 2013
Ohio angler Robby Robinson has been fine-tuning his reservoir flathead strategies for more than 30 years on southeastern Ohio waters: Salt Fork, Tappan, and Clendening reservoirs. He consistently catches 50-pound fish with occasional monsters over 60.
About 800 miles west, Nebraska Game & Parks Fisheries Outreach Manager Daryl Bauer has discovered a unique strategy for reservoir flatheads. While shore-casting for walleyes and wipers, he's found that wading and casting crankbaits works well for flatheads. Many of us have caught what we may have considered a random catfish while cranking for walleyes or bass. But Bauer has taken the system further in developing shore-casting strategies for flatheads.
Robinson's Bay Strategy
Robinson's home waters are typical reservoirs containing several arms and bays that flooded small streams and creeks. He believes that a large percentage of big flatheads can be found in bays all year long, except in winter when they seek deep wintering holes primarily in the main lake. He begins fishing bays in early spring and adjusts his strategy slightly through summer and fall.
He begins the season by looking for warm water, usually in the shallow reaches of bays. "In the reservoirs I fish, main-lake basins are 14 to 20 feet deep, with a lot of bays that are 10 feet deep or less," Robinson says. "I start with these bays in spring because the water warms faster, which draws baitfish and flatheads. One particular bay contains an old roadbed that warms the water considerably. At night, the big cats sit right on the asphalt."
Robinson also says that in early spring, other flathead anglers set up along the bridges spanning these bays. Catfish traveling from main-lake wintering holes to the back of bays must pass under them. Moreover, bridges are usually built across narrow sections of the lake where fish funnel through, making them high-percentage targets.
He also recommends riprap shorelines. After a sunny day, the rocks hold heat at night, warming surrounding water slightly, provided too much current doesn't pass by to dissipate the warm plume. He fishes these early spring locations during the day as well as at night.
As the Prespawn Period approaches, big males start looking for spawning sites. Robinson usually targets bays with mud bottoms in 4 to 8 feet of water with clusters of submerged timber. Cats typically lurk in cover-laden home areas during the day. But at night, male flatheads cruise around the bay fighting for territory. Fish circle out from their home areas and return by morning. During this period, they're opportunistic feeders since their prespawn jousting burns considerable energy.
"Fish these activity circles at night, especially where the activity ranges of several flatheads intersect. Most of a bay may be barren, but if there's a clump of submerged timber with baitfish, the activity circles of several big flatheads may intersect there," Robinson says. "Sometimes the dominant male makes this clump his home area, but other males pass through the territory if they're not challenged."
Dominant males don't mind smaller females (20- to 30-pound fish) in their territory, he says, adding that larger females don't generally frequent the same areas. They prefer isolation. Since they only feed once every several days and they are isolated the big females can be difficult to target.
Finding clusters of timber with several active male fish in the vicinity takes trial and error. Robinson suggests checking clusters of timber in 4 to 5 feet of water along these flats. Once flatheads establish home and nocturnal activity areas during the Prespawn Period, they remain nearby through the Spawn and Postspawn periods. But, Robinson alters his strategy slightly after the spawn. Since cats move a bit deeper, he targets timber clusters in the same area but deeper, usually about 6 to 8 feet of water.
Robinson prefers a simple rig with a snelled 5/0 Kahle hook. Snelling eliminates knots, which are potential weak points. He adds a 2-ounce egg sinker but avoids swivels or other hardware for the same reason — to avoid knots. His rig is simple and strong.
He doesn't cast but uses a small boat to place baits in prime spots. He then returns to shore to set up for the night. He sometimes drops baits 60 or 70 yards offshore, so a stiff, one-piece rod is essential to set the hook. He recommends 7- and 8- foot E-glass rods, such as the Berkley's E-Cat series. He matches them with a Shimano TR200 reel and 36-pound Dacron braid. Dacron doesn't stretch, important for hook-sets at over 60 yards. And Dacron, unlike most other braids, doesn't float. A floating line stretching 60 yards can collect debris or become tangled by boats or swimming creatures, such as muskrats.
Dacron's downside is that it's a high-maintenance line. Mildew and fraying can sap its strength. For a low-maintenance line, try Berkley's Big Game. It has more hardeners than other monos, so it stretches less. A 30-pound-test mono is adequate for flatwater flatheads as long as you have your drag set properly.
During spring, Robinson mostly baits with bluegills and rock bass 5 to 8 inches long. As the temperature rises, he switches to goldfish because he finds them more heat tolerant. He generally doesn't change baits, so the right bait that stays lively is important.
He makes a point to drop baits on the shore side of timber. You don't want to try and haul a monster flathead through heavy woodcover if it can be avoided. With sonar, find clusters of timber at the right depth and drop baits on the shore side. You have more options if you fish from a boat. It also facilitates changing baits. But Robinson chooses to fish from the bank for comfort as well as stealth.
He offers one more tip: From late summer through fall, his most productive nights immediately follow a thunderstorm or heavy rain. Runoff usually is cooler and more oxygenated, but he speculates that more stained water drives the big flatheads to feed, since they can attack baitfish more readily in the murk.
Bauer wades for flatheads whenever they're in shallow water, potentially from spring to fall. "Shore-casting works best when the water is at least in the mid-50°F range," he says. "When it's colder, reservoir flatheads generally are in deep water, in or near wintering habitats, and I can't reach them."
He primarily fishes at night when most flatheads move shallow to feed. Early or late in the season when the water's cool, he may start in late afternoon or early evening. But, daylight fishing isn't recommended if the water is clear because the fish are spooky and often buried deep in cover.
Current is key for finding reservoir flatheads, adding oxygen and attracting baitfish, which attracts cats. Bauer recommends checking feeder streams, points, inlets, riprap banks, neck-downs, breakwaters, and jetties.
Points offer the most potential when the wind is blowing onto or across them, as baitfish often are piled up there. Avoid those with a prevailing offshore wind. Wind blowing perpendicularly across a point also can bring a good bite. On the windward side, baitfish often are abundant, but don't ignore the sheltered side altogether. If the wind creates current across a point, an eddy or backflow may form on the sheltered side. These spots, sometimes called "pockets," can attract big flatheads seeking to ambush prey. The best points are near deep water, and steeper breaks are a plus. Bauer notes that inlets also produce pockets. "As wind-driven or tributary current moves across an inlet perpendicularly, an eddy can form and the mouth of the inlet functions like a small point," he says.
Breakwaters and jetties function like man-made points. Their advantages are proximity to deep water and an abundance of rock. In pockets or along wind-blown sides of these structures you often find active flatheads. Riprap banks can be productive, but again, avoid those where wind or current pushes away from shore. Onshore winds are best for riprap, as they often cluster baitfish. Neck-downs in reservoirs act as funnels and often have current due to wind or inflows. A flat strategically located along a neck-down is worth investigating. In all these locations, baitfish activity generally draws flatheads.
Prime location is but half the battle. You have to approach fish without being detected and present the right bait at the right speed. Bauer likes to fish in waders because that allows him to approach shallow spots stealthily. He's used a boat to bounce from location to location, but prefers to approach on foot. But a boat works fine where you can get close to shallow water while anchoring in deep water. The key to success is remaining undetected.
Bauer often casts parallel to shore and retrieves with the current. Near stream mouths, he often begins out in the water facing the inlet and fan-casts upstream. He makes long casts to avoid spooking fish. If he's had previous success there, he sticks with a spot. At high-percentage locations, he feels that flatheads will come to feed at some point during the night. When prospecting new locations, however, he's not nearly as patient. He might work a spot for just 20 to 30 minutes.
When choosing crankbaits for flatheads, Bauer believes vibration is the most important factor. "I often use #9 Shallow Shad Raps, #12 and #14 Rapala Husky Jerks, as well as Flat Raps," he says. "In recent years, big swimbaits like Berkley's Flatback Shads or Big Hammers have also become favorites."
He isn't picky about color, but generally matches native forage, picking lures with silver sides and black backs in most cases. But gold works well, too. When water is stained, he chooses brighter colors for contrast. But he regards vibration as more important.
Early in the year when the water is cool, he favors neutrally buoyant lures that can be fished slowly. He bounces them off the rocks, then pauses, letting them suspend in place to tempt flatheads that may still be lethargic. Floating baits rise too fast during the pause. But once the water warms, cats become more aggressive so he fishes faster, banging floater-divers off the rocks with a steady, fast retrieve.
Bauer fishes with a 7-foot Bass Pro Shops medium-heavy rod and a 2500 Series Cabela's spinning reel spooled with 20-pound-test Sufix 832 braid. He ties on a 6-foot fluorocarbon leader with a Berkley Cross-Lok snap that attaches the crankbait. The leader helps with abrasion resistance. That's helpful when fishing rocks, but he adds that flatheads have abrasive mouths. Fluorocarbon is tough, but check line and retie after a catch. Once the leader is shortened to 2 feet, replace it. Bauer carries a diamond hook sharpener since rocks frequently dull the treble hooks. When a giant hits, you don't want hooks to pop out.
Robinson and Bauer have refined systems that work on reservoirs large and small in different parts of the country. Wherever you live, you can adapt their tactics for the waters you fish and tangle with some mighty flatheads.
*Brian Ruzzo, Carlisle, Ohio, is a freelance writer and has contributed to In-Fisherman publications.