Surface Strategies for Big Flatheads
September 02, 2018
In May 1995, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange wrote an article for the magazine entitled "A Near-Surface System for Giant Catfish." The system, just a vision in his mind back then, has now been found workable for giant fish in most areas of the country where big flatheads swim. Part of his vision was brought into focus after he fished with ace limb-, log-, and poleline experts Red Rheums and Gary Van Pielt, to get a better idea of how they make near-surface sets. Rheums and Van Pielt may have been the first such anglers to fish primarily for the sport of it, releasing most of the fish they caught on their setlines.
In his article, Stange describes various rigging options, including standard float rigs and float paternoster rigs, both of which are designed to suspend baitfish. Also covered are poleline sets, limblines, and loglines, which can be used to suspend baits at any depth including just under the surface.
The secret system Stange sketched utilizes breakaway setups, where bankpoles have a release clip at the end. The clip holds the line from a rod-reel combo so the bait is suspended or positioned near the surface. When a flathead takes the bait, the line is released from the clip and the fish is free to fight on rod and reel.
Florida Guide Glenn Flowers is finding good success fishing near-surface systems for flatheads. He believes that it doesn't yield as many flatheads as other presentations, but it does produce some of his largest fish. It's become one of his favorite ways to fish for flatheads. "Big flatheads have evolved not only to feed on fish, but also to gain nutrition from prey items such as small mammals, reptiles, rodents, and even birds," explains Flowers. Whether finned, furry, or feathered, the commotion, splashing, and profile of a prey item at the surface gets the attention of flatheads.
Flowers points to Steve Green, a Kansas angler, for developing and marketing a limblining system, called Topcats (topcatfishingtackle.com). The mobile system includes a short pole that attaches to an existing structure. It allows catfish enthusiasts to set limblines among standing timber and laydowns, rather than being limited to areas where overhanging limbs are available. Green also offers a release clip option for incorporating a rod and reel into the setup.
What attracted Flowers most to Green's system is the ability to position a livebait at the surface and create splashing. "Larger flatheads are prone to take surface baits," Green says. "These fish have been conditioned throughout their lives because of repeatedly obtaining easy meals near or at the surface."
Flowers knew the surface system could work at creek mouths and outside bends of smaller tributaries that feed the larger rivers that he fishes in the Florida Panhandle. But many of these areas lack standing timber or laydowns for installing Topcats. Instead, he improvises by using a 3/4-inch section of PVC pipe approximately 5 feet long. At one end of the pipe is an outrigger clip. He jams the other end of the pipe into the bank, leaving the outrigger clip hanging over the river's edge where he wants to set his bait. The pipe serves as the "limb" and the outrigger clip releases the line when a fish strikes.
The bait is suspended so it's just breaking the surface. "I want the baitfish's back out of the water and its tail splashing on the surface," Flowers explains. "The splash attracts flatheads. Big bluegills are the ticket.
The rig on the fishing rod starts with a barrel swivel tied to the end of the mainline, followed by an 80-pound monofilament leader attached to an 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action hook. A glowstick is attached just above the swivel with electrical tape. This allows Flowers to see which way the fish is running when it takes the bait, making it easier to know which direction to set the hook.
He uses a kayak to set up to six lines. A nearby sandbar is an excellent place to make base camp. He often sets rods in holders on the sandbar and then paddles out across the river to hang his lines and baits from the bankpoles. He returns to the sandbar with rods set, lines stretched across the river to the release clips on the bankpoles.
"Flatheads frequent sloughs, backwaters, and creeks off the main river to feed at night," he says. "If you position your bait at a creek mouth, set baits where you can intercept flatheads moving through."
He advises that when choosing a bank to set bankpoles, make sure that it's hard clay and not sand, as sand doesn't hold the PVC pipe securely. Also, when suspending baits along outside bends, position them in slack water or slow eddies. If you place them in current they tend to die or collect debris. He never sets baits over water deeper than 10 feet and often fishes them near the surface in 3 to 4 feet of water.
Flowers believes it's critical to be stealthy. When limbliners set their rigs, they leave. There's no one around to disturb the fish. You can't cast lines, play music, and light bonfires if you expect to draw monster flatheads to the surface.
He recommends fishing during new moons or as close to new moons as possible. Full moons are the worst time to use this tactic, he says, as flatheads don't seem to take baits near the surface during a full moon. Surface action is usually good all year long in Florida, but for more northern regions, warmer months are more productive.
Most of the impoundments Green fishes have standing timber, so unlike Flowers, he has plenty of places to attach Topcats. In this situation he uses a Topcat with release clips, what he calls uprigger clips. Like Flowers' setup, the clips allows the Topcat to incorporate a rod-and-reel into the system.
To convert a standard Topcat, remove the leader and replace it with an uprigger clip. Then attach the leader removed from the Topcat to the line on your rod, and the line from your rod to the uprigger clip. When a flathead takes the bait, the uprigger clip releases the line from the Topcat so you can set the hook and fight the fish with your rod and reel.
The Topcat is designed for vertical attachment points, such as standing timber. Green also has developed a second product called the Cheater for laydowns. The Cheater doesn't have a back plate to fit a vertical tree. Instead, it includes a through-rod. Drill a half-inch hole in the laydown and then slip the rod through the hole. Both products, the Topcat and Cheater, come with a strap that secures them to the wood.
Whether you're fishing the Topcat, Cheater, or PVC pipe like Flowers does, the key is to place the bait precisely at the surface. "Never more than 6 inches below the surface," Green says. "It's all about the splash. When the bait starts up like a motorboat, it's about to get eaten.
Green believes the system's success is in its ability to attract flatheads. "When you set a live baitfish in deeper water, it hides in any hole or crevice it can find," he says. "But when you place a lively baitfish at the surface in the right location, it can't hide. It can't snag. And it's exposed. All three are advantages.
The key is finding the right location. Just any tree won't do. Green agrees with Flowers don't surface-fish in water deeper than 10 feet. "Ninety-nine percent of the time I fish in 3 to 8 feet of water," Green says. Timber in shallow water adjacent to deeper water is excellent. He recommends clusters of timber, or doubles and triples, referring to them as "feeding stations." Laydowns and logjams can be good, too, but avoid brushpiles as they usually yield smaller fish.
Green focuses mostly on transition areas where the river turns into the lake or where the lake becomes a river. These areas are not too slow or too wide like the main lake. And they're not too fast or too narrow like the river. They have some current combined with deeper water. Another hot spot is wherever creeks flow into the transition area, especially if there's timber. As spring progresses, work up from deep water to transition areas. In fall, work back down toward the lake as the fish move back into deeper water.
Another key factor is bait. Flatheads want to be close to their food source. The best timber areas are full of baitfish. Seeing them is good sign. If bait isn't visible, timber near rocky shores, vegetation, and brushpiles can be good.
Since Green fishes lakes that don't generally provide sandbars strategically located across from standing timber, he looks for nearby banks to set his rod holders. He uses a canoe, kayak, or jonboat for setting rigs. If you find that timber is too far from a bank, you can fish from a boat.
Like Flowers, Green believes that dark nights, such as new moons, produce the best fishing. He also likes to fish cloudy nights. While he catches fish throughout spring, summer, and fall, he boats more during spring when water temperatures range from 60°F to 80°F. Fall is good, too, while temperatures fall from 80°F to 60°F. Flatheads are aggressive during these periods.
He also says you catch a lot more flatheads with this system during rising water than when it's falling. He also prefers calm weather conditions, as waves mask surface action created by a bait, and he catches more fish right after sunset and right before dawn.
Green prefers green sunfish for bait. He also fishes with bullheads, clipping off the dorsal and two pectoral spines. This not only makes the bait easier to eat, but also adds scent, which is important, he says. "No gas, oil, bug spray, or cologne. I even wash my hands with mud at the water's edge before leaving the launch ramp."