June 18, 2018
The allure of flathead catfish is multifaceted. With a broad distribution across the U.S. and a top-end size of over 100 pounds, they're the largest catfish species available to many anglers. Plus, flatheads are cold-blooded killers, predators in the truest sense. Not only does their camouflaged coloration allow them to lie in wait near cover to ambush unsuspecting prey, but their long muscular frame and oversized mouth enable them to bull-rush large prey in open water. Nothing is safe when flatheads are on the hunt.
Mississippi, Minnesota & St. Croix Rivers, MN/WI
In the Upper Midwest, this trio of waterways provides prime stomping grounds for trophy flathead anglers. According to local catfish aficionado Luke Hentges, the Minnesota River has a healthy population of flatheads topping 40 pounds. They grow big here due to abundant forage and available cover. They have ample spawning grounds, and most catfish anglers in the area practice catch and release. "The Minnesota is partially channelized for barge traffic," Hentges says. "In low water, the non-channelized portion (most of it) can be dangerous. Rapids, large granite rocks, numerous downed trees, and sandbars that only a jet boat can pass on a good day dominate the river. The flathead season in Minnesota runs from April 1 until November 30. Early summer and fall are prime times on this river."
The Mississippi River from Poo1 1 to Pool 7 (Minneapolis to Dresbach, Minnesota) offers bigger water and the potential for flatheads topping 50 pounds. Cover and structure vary from backwater settings, barges, wood barge tie-downs, bridge pylons, sunken barges, sandbars, deep holes, cut banks, and day markers. Artificial structure, such as wing dams, can be especially rewarding in summer. Due to its size, the Mississippi can be tougher to fish. Flatheads are more spread out. Once you find a pattern, however, you can typically fish similar spots with success.
The St. Croix River is special due to the monster flatheads it produces. Use caution when navigating this waterway above Stillwater, Minnesota. The water is clearer than the Mississippi and Minnesota. There's less structure and it's shallow in spots, with boulders. The top-end size of flatheads on the St. Croix may exceed 60 pounds, but the numbers don't compare to the Minnesota or Mississippi. Where legal, preferred baits include live bullheads, bluegills, and suckers. Contact: Luke Hentges, northwoodsangling.com.
Susquehanna River, PA
With its North Branch originating near Cooperstown, New York, the Susquehanna represents the northern extreme of flathead populations along the East Coast's Atlantic drainage. The Susquehanna is also among the newest trophy flathead fisheries producing fish to 50 pounds. Flatheads were first reported on the Susquehanna in 2002. Since that time their size and range has exploded.
They're now accepted as a permanent fixture in the river. Catch-and-release has been promoted by resident catfish expert Captain Jamie Hughes for nearly a decade and such practices are now embraced by the local catfish crowd. The river has an outstanding population of fish in the 12- to 25-pound range, with a significant crop of 30- to 40-pound fish available from the Shamokin Dam in central Pennsylvania to Holtwood near the Maryland border. With remarkable growth rates, records are certain to be broken for years to come.
As a relatively wide river with plenty of shallow rocky runs and a large upstream drainage area, water levels fluctuate tremendously on the Susquehanna. Accordingly, a flat-bottom boat and jet motor are in order when pursuing flatheads here. Hughes targets flatheads from May through November with a mix of both live- and cutbait, consisting of bullheads, bluegills, and small channel catfish. Favorite target areas include ledges, breaklines, current seams, and behind islands during periods of high water. Contact: Capt. Jaime Hughes, 717/773-1463, breaklinecharters.com.
Wheeler Reservoir, Tennessee River, AL
The Tennessee River is blessed with an abundance of trophy catfish, but Captain Jason Bridges singles out Wheeler Reservoir as his top pick for big flatheads. He favors the upstream river section of the impoundment from Hobbs Island downstream to Decatur Junction. Prime months are March through May for monster flatheads to 70 pounds or more.
Bridges prefers to anchor for flatheads. Freshly iced cut skipkack is an effective bait in early spring. After the spawn, he fishes tight to woodcover and tempts flatheads with 10- to 12-inch shad and what he refers to as "hand-and-a-half-size" redears.
On a good spring day it's not uncommon to land over a half-dozen flatheads from 30 to 50 pounds, with 30-pounders released at boatside in anticipation of larger photo fish. Contact: Capt. Jason Bridges, 256/738-9461, wheelercatsguideservice.com.
Kanawha River, WV
At approximately 100 miles in length, the Kanawha River is a relatively modest tributary of the Ohio River. What isn't modest are the size and number of its flatheads. Due to protective regulations enacted by West Virginia — setting the daily creel limit at four flatheads per person (with only one over 35 inches) — the state aims to reduce live harvest and sale of valuable catfish to paylakes, as has occurred in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
Justin Conner and Tabitha Linville operate The Catfish Duo Guide Service out of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and attest to the healthy population of 20- to 45-pound flatheads that make for exciting fishing throughout the year. Linville suggests concentrating on cover such as rock and brush when fishing the Kanawha early in the season. After the spawn, rockpiles and current seams become more important. For bait, it's hard to beat fresh cut shad, mooneye, or skipjack. Contact: Tabitha Linville, 304/972-5803 or on Facebook at Catfish Duo Guide Service.
Chattahoochee (FL) & Atchafalaya Rivers (LA)
Captain Glenn Flowers has his pulse on all things catfish-related in Florida and across the country. When asked to name just one Florida flathead hotspot, he listed a half dozen rivers before settling on the Chattahoochee as a top pick. The current state-record flathead at 63.8 pounds was caught there in 2016. Flowers says this record could be broken repeatedly over the next several years as more avid catfish anglers take to fishing them with rod and reel.
"Until relatively recently in Florida, a lot of catfishing took place with setlines," he says. "With a long growing season, abundant food supply, and the expanding range of flatheads, top-end size will increase. We already have a strong showing of fish from 25 to 50 pounds, with 60-pounders showing up now."
Flowers' bonus pick is the Atchafalaya River, near Morgan City, Louisiana, for adventurous anglers with a 100-pounder on their wish list. He says this large, interconnected, delta-like waterway dumping into the Gulf of Mexico regularly produces 60- to 70-pound fish without fanfare. Larger specimens have been taken, but most locals are tight-lipped about their little piece of catfish heaven. Contact: Capt. Glenn Flowers, 850/208-4667, cathunters.net; Ivy Tackle, 985/384-2070.
Branched Oak Lake, NE
Flathead catfish were introduced into Branched Oak Lake in the 1980s and '90s for recreational angling, with additional stockings to help control abundant white perch. Over the years, this 1,900-acre flood-control impoundment has quietly gained a reputation as an outstanding flathead fishery.
"The flathead fishery in Branched Oak is still excellent," says Daryl Bauer, Fisheries Outreach Program Manager for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. "There are very good numbers, with fish up to 60 pounds. The lake continues to be one of the top flathead destinations in the state with multiple fish over 40 inches, giving anglers a chance to catch a true trophy." Anglers should also note there is a catch-and-release regulation on flatheads at Branched Oak. May through June and September through October are the best months.
Successful anglers often fish livebait suspended above bottom in areas with cover. A good tactic is to target riprap shorelines after dark with a stealthy approach to avoid spooking fish. In one research study at Branched Oak, 75 percent of flatheads were sampled along riprap shorelines, even though riprap makes up only about 25 percent of the available shoreline habitat.
Bauer says the Tri-County Canal and Loup Power Canal. Neither one has the numbers of Branched Oak, but contain monster fish. The Missouri River from the mouth of the Platte downstream into Missouri has a lot of flatheads, too, he says. Contact: Daryl Bauer, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, 402/471-5005, email@example.com.
Lake Pleasant, AZ
Guide Ed Wilcoxson holds the Arizona state record for flatheads at 76.52 pounds. Although the record fish was caught from Lake Bartlett in 2013, Wilcoxson views Lake Pleasant as the next hot flathead fishery out West. Lake Pleasant is blessed with an incredible crop of flatheads in the 15- to 18-pound range and good numbers from 35 to 60 pounds. The lake has a tremendous baitfish population that has lead to flathead growth rates of 3 pounds per year. Furthermore, the Central Arizona Project canal diverts water from the Colorado River to maintain more constant water levels and ensure better spawning and year-round feeding conditions for flatheads.
Wilcoxson primarily fishes at night and favors large bluegills and carp in the 2- to 5-pound range to keep "nuisance" 20-pound catfish at bay. He favors the northwest section of the lake near Castle Creek and prefers late fall when the temperature is cool and catfish feed heavily. Contact: Guide Ed Wilcoxson, 623/256-7245, flatheadedadventures.com.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan travels near and far in pursuit of the world's largest catfish.