Big river systems like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio garner national attention for flathead fishing. These waters make news with triple-digit catfish and tournament totals that outweigh some sumo wrestlers. But small rivers located across the flathead's range offer great opportunities. They can be fished with modest gear and yield sizable fish for those willing to do some exploring.
Captain Jason Gaurkee has more than 30 years of experience on every kind of flathead water. He guides clients to flatheads primarily on the Wolf and Fox river systems in central and northeastern Wisconsin. Though located close to each other, similarities stop there. The Wolf is a naturally flowing river with moderate shoreline development and abundant cover, while the Fox is an industrial river with abundant development and little natural cover.
Both systems not only have a reputation for producing big flatheads but also have tributary rivers that draw significantly less attention from the catfish crowd. This scenario plays out across catfish country. The trick is researching which tributaries hold numbers of quality-size fish during specific water conditions and calendar periods.
"Most rivers look 'catfishy,'" Gaurkee says, "but can be a bust for finding good-size cats. If they don't offer adequate depth, food, and cover, they won't hold fish. To find productive waters, contact a local DNR biologist, fishing guide, bait shop owner, or consult a reliable fishing website for clues on which small rivers are worth trying." Although anglers may be tight-lipped about their flathead honey holes, bragging is part of human nature and it can help you find productive spots.
Other useful tools include Google Earth or other map websites that offer satellite imagery of every square mile of the U.S. The amount of information that can be gathered on a river from the convenience of your home computer is amazing. You get a bird's-eye view of an entire length of river in minutes. Print portions of the river you intend to fish and mark them with your on-water observations.
When conducting a Google Earth session, start by locating rivers of any size that contain flathead populations. Search for dams or large confluence areas on the primary river. Next, track the river downstream and locate the first available tributary. Zoom in on the trib and follow its entire length upstream. If you don't like the looks of the first tributary, move downstream to the next one. Determine how much of the river is navigable by boat. Note any obstructions that would block the migration of flatheads. In zoom mode, you can observe all the bends, shallow runs, and likely holes even before setting foot on the water. Crossroads and major developments located along the river appear on the satellite imagery. Use these landmarks to plot a milk-run of possible fishing locations.
Anglers accustomed to big rivers should scale back notions of what it takes to hold flatheads. On a small river, a discarded refrigerator may be equivalent to a sunken barge on the Mississippi and offer enough of a current break to hold fish. "All rivers have similar characteristics," Gaurkee says. "Tiny ones are condensed versions of big rivers. Look for the basic elements of current, depth, cover, and food and you find fish." Locating flatheads on small rivers often is easier than on large systems since their smaller volume reduces potential spots. Baits can nearly be positioned from one bank to the other in many creeks.
Small rivers might not exceed 20 feet across, and Gaurkee notes that his primary fishing depth throughout the season is 7 to 10 feet. A 10-foot hole that contains woodcover and has an adjacent feeding flat 4 to 5 feet deep can hold flatheads. Add a couple hundred yards of shallow run upstream and downstream of the hole and you have an ideal spot.
Gaurkee generally waits for nightfall to fish such spots, after collecting bait during the day. Or he may fish for channel cats and do a bit more exploration. "I like night-fishing. Telemetry studies show that flatheads become active at dusk and make predictable movements after dark. They're stationary 20 to 23 hours a day and make movements of a mile or more after dark. This pattern has held true in my experience. I boat more flatheads from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. than the rest of the day."
At night, he sets baits on current edges and in slack areas. "I often anchor on the current seam and place three baits in slack water and three baits on the current edge. Almost without fail, flatheads bite in slack water while channel cats come in current."
Gaurkee finds suckers, chubs, bullheads, and panfish effective. If crayfish are prevalent, they can also be a preferred food for flatheads in small rivers. Bait gathering helps to determine the type, size, and location of forage in the system. "During summer, I use big baits no matter the size of river I'm fishing. This is the Prespawn Period and big fish want to eat. In rocky rivers that means suckers. In soft-bottom rivers and those with cold headwaters, chubs are a good choice."
For rigging livebaits, he uses no-roll sinkers on slipsinker rigs, with circle hooks. Wisconsin law allows only non-offset circle hooks when fishing with baits over 8 inches long. If he runs out of livebait, he rigs a three-way rig with cutbait. "I use a long leader to allow cutbait to move more in current," he adds.
Since bait choice can depend on what's available, pack an assortment of hook sizes and styles when exploring small rivers. For in-line circle hooks, he favors Eagle Claw Laser Sharp L2022 and Owner Tournament Mutu, which can handle all the torque a big flathead can deliver. With a top-end size of 10/0, these large circles accommodate any size sucker, carp, or bullhead. For small baits like 4- to 5-inch bluegills and 5- to 7-inch creek chubs, a lighter wire 4/0 to 7/0 TroKar TK3 circle provides a wide hook gap and is light enough to allow baits to swim and struggle more freely. For 3- to 4-inch chubs, green sunfish, or crayfish, a #2 to 3/0 baitholder hook is a good option.
Small streams carry considerably less current than big waters, often offering outstanding float fishing. The advantage of float fishing is that baits can be presented above submerged cover as well as on bottom. Bait placement is precise. With floats, you can drift baits through areas of uniform depth quickly and efficiently to check for active fish. Instead of walking a sinker rig back a couple of feet at a time and risking snags, a float rig fishes faster and with fewer hang-ups. By releasing line, the float drifts a bait downstream as far as you wish.
Use a pole-style float matched to the size of the bait. Thill Pole Floats range from 5 to 12 inches, in weighted and unweighted versions, and a 9-incher works in most small rivers. Weight the rig and set the bobber stop to keep a bait near the bottom. Gaurkee uses a 12-inch leader of 50-pound mono attached to the mainline with a barrel swivel, and sets a 1-ounce egg sinker above the swivel. Add two 1/2-ounce Water Gremlin Rubbercor sinkers at 1-foot increments above the sinker. Evenly spaced sinkers allow the bait to ride nearly vertically below the float.
Select hardy baits such as green sunfish. When hooked behind the anal fin with a 5/0 Owner Kahle or TroKar TK9, baits constantly swim downward in search of cover. Unlike circle hooks, which require that a catfish move off with the bait before you apply pressure to set the hook, a Kahle hook allows instantaneous hook-sets when you need to extract fish quickly that are hooked near cover. Their ultra-wide hook gap also yields high hooking percentages. Gaurkee's found that it's best to move after an hour with no bites. Holding areas for flatheads are typically small and can be worked thoroughly in a short time.
Casting artificials can be a viable option for flatheads in small rivers. A #4 or #5 Mepps or Blue Fox spinner offers flash and vibration that gets the attention of flatheads. They often leave logjams and current breaks to chase down lures. Spinners can be cast cross-current and swung through eddies with a slow retrieve to provoke bone-jarring strikes. They're also effective held in place along current seams or cast and slowly retrieved parallel to submerged logs.
Crankbaits provide vibration, profile, and noise. They have the added ability to grind on the bottom and make a disturbance. Cast crankbaits and make bottom contact, allowing them to track stationary in current before you pull them further upstream, where they can be held stationary again in current. This way, the lure works through the water column like a yo-yo.
Some effective flathead crankbaits include the Rapala Flat Rap, Yo-Zuri Sashimi Flat Crank, and LiveTarget Square Bill Bluegill. Square-billed cranks have the advantage of deflecting off rocks and wood with fewer snags. As with all flathead gear, beef up the split rings and treble hooks on lures. Put maximum pressure on the fish from the moment it hits to keep hooks away from snaggy cover.
Small River Operation
"Small rivers can be intimidating from a navigation standpoint," Gaurkee says. "Carefully reading a river makes the difference between safety and danger. Jon boats in the 14- to 18-foot range with a small outboard or jet motor excel for running as shallow as a couple inches. When checking new waters, be careful. Keep your motor trimmed and take it easy."
Shoreline and wading options are also great for small rivers and may be the only option where access is scarce or navigation is impeded. Riverbends, creek mouths, logpiles, and small islands create current breaks and can hold fish. Deeper cuts also are worth trying. Low-head dams also attract flatheads. Their rushing water provides oxygen, and attracts baitfish. Check deep washout holes and woodcover downstream of these dams.
Eddy areas below dams can be fished effectively with floats and artificials. Deep holes and the face of the dam are often littered with snags and are best fished with three-way rigs using a light break-away leader. Due to the undertow below dams, use extreme caution when wading or boating nearby. Fish bridge abutments downstream from the dam as well. Washout holes created by the pilings offer ideal habitat.
While location is critical to fishing success, so is timing. Small rivers warm quickly and begin producing flatheads earlier than large systems. Spring currents are typically less in tributaries so main-river flatheads often move there during deluges. Flatheads migrate toward the headwaters of creeks in spring and drop back to the lower and deeper sections as summer progresses.
Flathead catfish are amazing predators with a wide distribution. Ample opportunities exist on small rivers to go toe-to-toe with some true monsters.
*Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and avid multispecies angler.