July 28, 2015
By Brian Ruzzo
Many catfish anglers believe you can only catch flatheads at night during the dead of summer. Another popularly held belief is that when you do fish at night during the summer you must locate feeding areas. While there might be merit to these ideas, two successful flathead guides could bust these myths.
Illinois Guide Denny Halgren has been catching flatheads for 55 years on the Rock River in Illinois and he primarily fishes during the day in summer. Florida Guide Glen Flowers has also caught his share of flatheads on the Escambia and Apalachicola rivers in Florida. While he fishes at night, he doesn't target feeding areas. Instead, he has a unique strategy that most would never bet on.
Expanded Territory Strategy
Halgren catches more big flatheads during the dog days of summer than any other season. He attributes his summer successes primarily to increased access. He finds that during the summer, big flatheads expand their territory due to low flow.
"It doesn't matter if you're fishing the Mississippi or the Rock River, everything depends on current," Halgren says. "Low flow allows flatheads to move more freely, so a fish will move off a woodpile that it held tight to during high-flow periods."
The woodpile that provided a current break is still part of the fish's home territory, but it's no longer the only place that fish can hold. Halgren explains that in low flow it could be found 30 feet in one direction or 60 feet in another direction from the cover, allowing it to take up residence behind other less prominent current breaks, such as a small trench, crater, lone rock, or even a single log that has become lodged in the river bottom.
Low flow, however, isn't the only factor leading to increased access to big flatheads during the summer. Warmer weather also means higher metabolism and the fish feed more. This need to feed combined with expanded territory makes it more likely to "cross paths" with flatheads, especially with the right strategy.
He recommends beginning with fishing a woodpile, then methodically working your way out away from it. He always works a woodpile by maneuvering his boat as close as possible because shorter casts allow precise presentation and bait control. Second, he always approaches a woodpile from the upriver side with his bow facing upstream, fishing off the stern.
"The root ball is almost always up current," he says. "The branches have more area and catch more current so they are pushed in a downstream direction. This leaves the root ball upstream and often hidden from the more obvious branches. But, the root ball is where big flatheads hide.
Halgren positions his boat just upstream of the root ball and sets two baits at the root ball and a couple more outside of the woodpile. For the baits that he drops directly down to the root ball, he tries to keep them almost vertical. One bait is fished on the bottom and the other is suspended. Since many root balls are about 7 to 8 feet in diameter and buried 2 to 3 feet deep, he calculates that most protrude about 4 to 5 feet from the river bottom. So he suspends the second bait about 3 to 4 feet off the bottom to keep the bait near the upper edge of the root ball.
For the baits he casts to the outside edges of the woodpile, he lets the current draw them into the wood. He gives each bait about 15 minutes and then recasts each bait. He repeats this step two to three times, and if he hasn't had any strikes he repositions baits to inner portion of the wood or starts searching expanded territory.
Casting into the inner portion of the woodpile is tedious because you lose rigs. If you catch smaller fish on the inside of the pile, move on. But, if you catch smaller fish along the perimeter or outside, Halgren recommends spending extra time fishing the inside the pile because a big flathead could be holding inside the pile and pushing smaller fish out.
When you move away from the woodpile you don't need to move far. You also don't need to look for larger or obvious flathead structure. Instead, Halgren recommends looking for nearby surface boils indicating a small break along the river bottom that could hold a flathead. Fish boils like you would fish a woodpile. Approach from upriver, anchor as close as possible, and drop your bait into these lairs.
Halgren offers a few other tips. First, thunderstorms are not uncommon in July and August. Therefore, low-flow periods can quickly be interrupted by a day or two of high flow. This may drive flatheads back into woodpiles. Keep this in mind if the river is up.
Second, if you're fishing a stretch of river that is known for channel cats and suddenly you aren't catching channels there, take notice. A big flathead may have expanded its range away from woodpiles and is lurking there. Look for subtle places that a big flathead might hide, and probe those areas.
Halgren utilizes a slipsinker rig for probing flathead cover. He slides a slipsinker up to 2 ounces in weight onto his mainline or installs a sinker on a Team Catfish sinker slide, which allows him to change weight quickly without retying. The sinker is followed by a Team Catfish sinker bumper and a 7/0 or 8/0 Tru-Turn hook. Leader length is adjusted by pinching a split shot above the hook. He uses a 2- to 3-foot leader when fishing away from wood and shortens it to about 10 inches when fishing in and around wood. He fishes the rig on a 7-foot 6-inch Team Catfish High Standard rod and Pflueger Trion 66 reel.
Halgren uses only livebait and says that carp, bluegill, goldfish, and crappies are all fine, choosing what's convenient and legal. He says oversize baits aren't necessary for trophy fish, and prefers 4- to 12-inch baits.
Florida Guide Glen Flowers agrees with Halgren that summer flatheads are often on the move. Since Halgren fishes during the day, this translates into probing expanded territory. For Flowers, who fishes at night, this means intercepting fish moving from one feeding area to another.
"A lot of anglers look for logjams or woodpiles, but I look for long straightaways between bends," Flowers says. "Flatheads travel between areas using straightaways, which act as funnels." In July and early August, flatheads here are in the Postspawn Period, hungry, and on the move. They use straightaways like game trails to move to their feeding areas.
He explains that fishing at feeding areas is like locating a deer stand at plots where you know deer feed. "You might see three or four deer," he says. "But, if you set up on a game trail you have exposure to those three or four deer and also others using that trail to move to other food plots."
He believes he can get baits in front of many more fish during the dog days of summer if he locates and fishes funnel areas. "Funnel areas are the same locations that commercial fishermen use," he says.
Not every straightaway is created equal. The best ones are located between bends. Flowers says that bends are feeding and resting areas used by flatheads during the day. If you locate a straightway between two bends you probably have located a travel route.
Another characteristic of straightaways he looks for is where the main river channel cuts close to one side of the river, creating a steep bank. The deeper water adjacent to the bank offers security and provides easy meals as the flatheads travel. This also creates a funnel effect, which makes it easier to target.
He ties up or anchors upriver of the main channel area that he intends to fish. Being stealthy allows him to get close to the fish. He uses four to six rods and casts baits to the edge of the channel along the drop close to the bank. Other baits are "fanned out" into the main channel to cover the funnel area evenly so fish passing through encounter at least one of his baits. He casts all baits in a downriver direction so current keeps lines tight.
Flowers uses a slipsinker rig, with the weight sliding on braided mainline above a bead and swivel. He ties a 12-inch monofilament leader to the other end of the swivel and finishes with 8/0 Eagle Claw King Kahle hook. He varies the weight of the sinker to match the current speed. He likes a shorter leader because he can tell when a fish takes sooner than when he's using a longer leader. He doesn't use baitclickers on his Abu Garcia 7000 IC3 reels, opting instead to be locked and loaded to set the hook immediately when the fish strikes. Rods are medium-heavy 7-foot 6-inch American Spirit Night Sticks.
He fishes with bluegills and bullheads most of the time, but doesn't have a strong preference for either as long as the bait is lively. Early in the year he starts with smaller baits and progressively switch to larger baits throughout the season. By fall, his baits are up to 2 pounds. In summer, he looks to 4- to 8-inch baits. –
*Brian Ruzzo, Carlisle, Ohio, is a freelance writer and contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: Guides Denny Halgren, catfish-guide.com, 815/288-6855; Glen Flowers, -catsfishing.com, 850/607-6898.