Current is key for Catching tailwater flathead catfish in dams. At first glance it might appear that the raging water crashing over and through dams is flowing at the same rate. But, what's created is a complex series of currents flowing at varying speeds and in different directions. What you see only scratches the surface. Current seams are particularly important. Unlocking the secrets of those seams can be key to more flatheads.
Brian Klawitter guides for flatheads on the Upper Mississippi River, often in Pools 3 and 4 around Red Wing, Minnesota. Once the spring rains subside and the river settles into its summer pattern, Klawitter approaches flatheads in three ways. Before he talks tactics, he says it's important to understand of the dynamics of the larger tailraces he fishes.
"The dams up here are called roller dams," he explains. "They raise and lower the roller gates to control water levels. They look like tear-drop cylinders and the dam above the tailrace I fish has four of them. Unlike low-head dams with even flow over them, dams with multiple rollers don't have the same amount of water moving over them at same time. One roller can be more open than another."
Where Klawitter fishes, usually the outside gates have more flow. This can change from season to season depending on how flows are manipulated to manage erosion, or the scouring of holes below the dam. To achieve even scouring, they vary flows through different rollers.
What's most important for anglers is that the water moving through roller dams is moving at different rates, creating different flow "zones," Klawitter says. It's important to identify these zones to determine where the fast and slow currents are. Where currents of different speeds or directions meet, current seams are created.
One of his top strategies is to fish the inside edge of a current seam. He anchors in the faster water pointing the bow of his boat upstream. Once anchored, he casts baits into "backwards" or reverse current, into the seam, and into the scour hole.
Another strategy is to position the boat outside the current seam into what he calls a "back eddy." The bow of the boat is pointed downriver into the reverse current. When safe, he also maneuvers his boat as close to the dam as he can get without the anchor letting go. He never gets in an unsafe position, and it's important to follow rules regarding how close you can fish to a dam. From this position he casts to several locations around the boat, primarily into the current seam as well as into shallower water on either side of the boat.
A third tactic Klawitter employs is to motor right into the heart of the fast water. Here he targets the breaks created by concrete structures that separate the roller gates. Sometimes these structures are only 4 to 5 feet wide, but they create breaks in flow. He positions the boat with the bow pointed upstream into the current. Then he casts several lines off the stern into the scour hole. The idea is to get most of those lines into the hole where it intersects the current break created by the upriver structure.
His rigging consists of a Team Catfish Super J hook on a 12-inch leader tied to a swivel and a 4-ounce no-roll sinker above the swivel. He uses 80-pound-test Team Catfish Tug-O-War braided line and iCat 7-foot 6-inch rods with Abu Garcia 7000 series reels.
Early in the year, Klawitter uses 8-inch suckers and chubs. He changes to 7- to 8-inch bullheads in summer and back to suckers in the fall. Many types of baitfish work for flatheads, so choose whatever hardy livebait is common to the tailrace you fish.
He is particular about how he rigs livebait. Instead of piercing a baitfish perpendicular to the dorsal fin, he inserts the hook under the dorsal fin at an angle. Looking at the baitfish from the top, the hook penetrates one side just behind the dorsal fin and comes out the other side at an angle. He says this improves hook-sets because when flatheads bite down, the hook is in better position to penetrate.
Once a bait is cast, Klawitter sets each rod in a rod holder and turns the reel clickers on. Most of the time he detects a strike by watching his rod tips. As soon as a fish strikes, he feeds out a little line so the flathead can move off without detecting pressure as he removes the rod from the holder. Then he reels in the slack and immediately sets the hook.
Ohio River Seams
During the summer, Ohio River Guide Dale Broughton catches his share of flatheads below lock-and-dam structures. "When the river stabilizes in the summer, I fish tailwaters," Broughton says. He likes tailwaters for several reasons: the constant flow provides good oxygen throughout the summer; tailraces always harbor plenty of baitfish; and the locks and dams are stopping points for baitfish and flatheads.
He says that identifying current seams below dams is key to finding flatheads. The best way to locate the current seam is to see which gates are open and closed. On a big river like the Ohio near Cincinnati where he fishes, there might be 8 to 10 gates spanning the river. If the middle gates are open then the fastest current is through the middle of the tailrace. A current seam can be found on each side of that fast current. Likewise, if gates closer to shore are open, then faster current flows from those gates and current seams form where the faster water meets slower water.
Once you find current seams, check for washouts on either side of the seams. Washouts are scour holes formed from heavy current. They can change from year to year so don't rely on past year's knowledge. Scout the river with your depthfinder each season and mark the location and edges of washouts. The deepest washouts are typically closest to the dam.
He always positions his boat in a current seam with the bow facing upstream. "Position your boat as close to the deeper washouts near the dam as you can while remaining safe and legal. Be precise as you maneuver into the current seam. If you get the boat too far into the slack water you get caught in the eddy that forms and your boat spins," he says.
Broughton explains that current seams are like highways. "Flatheads move in and out of current to feed," he says. "By positioning the boat along the seam you place yourself between fish moving in and out of the current. If you have eight rods, cast two or three baits in the slow current, two or three in the moderate current, and two or three in heavy current. I almost always catch fish on the outside rods.
"Flatheads pick up the first bait they come to as they move in and out of the current. Sometimes my clients want me to move the boat to where the outside rods are because those rods are getting all the hits, but that's a mistake. The outside rods are catching fish because the boat is positioned correctly."
During high flow when it's difficult to fish current seams, you can find flatheads along the lock walls. Broughton anchors at the end of the lock wall and casts baits to the backside of the wall.
He relies on both livebait and cutbait for tailrace flatheads, preferring 6- to 10-inch gizzard shad for livebait rigs and gizzard shad fillets for cutbait rigs. He most often use cutbait in faster water because the scent carries well there. In slower current, he uses mostly livebait because he feels that the vibrations given off by livebait are more effective in slack water.
He fishes both livebait and cutbait on slipsinker rigs, with a 5- to 8-ounce no-roll sinker above a swivel and a 8/0 to 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook tied to 15- to 18-inch leader below the swivel. He uses 7½-foot custom Berkley Ecat rods and Abu Garcia 7000 Ambassadeur reels spooled with 40- pound Berkley Big Game mono. This setup gives him plenty of muscle to handle trophy tailwater flatheads in heavy current.
He hooks livebaits under the dorsal fin. "A lot of catfish anglers hook baitfish through the nose because they believe they live longer that way," he says. "They might live longer, but it creates problems in tailwater currents. Nose-hooked baits often attempt to swim against the current and this often allows the hook to slip through the nose and the fish ends up double hooking itself, which reduces hooking success. Line twist is another problem with nose-hooked baitfish in current.
"Baitfish hooked under the dorsal fin pull away from the sinker most of the time, eliminating twist and double-hooking, and they also create more vibration," Broughton explains. "You should see your rod tips thumping if you have active, lively baits that aren't twisted, wrapped, or double-hooked. If you don't see thumping check you baits."
Like Klawitter, Broughton doesn't believe that you need to let flatheads run with the bait. Unlike Klawitter, however, Broughton doesn't give the fish any slack when they strike and he doesn't use clickers. Instead, he looks for a slow, steady pull — sometimes as little as a 3-inch of bend in the rod tip. Then he sets the hook. "When a flathead takes a bait he crushes it and then moves off, unlike other catfish that hit on the run," Broughton says. "A 15-inch flathead can take a 7- to 8-inch bait."