By Nick Johnson
The fall cool water period is argued by many hard core cat anglers as the best time of year to catch numbers of big flatheads. Daily movements increase and a virtual feeding binge takes place in the flathead community. Simply put, any cat angler looking to catch a plus sized mudcat should be on the river in late September to October soaking live bait.
Most seasoned cat anglers will note that the summer, especially late summer, is a tough game when targeting flatheads. Their movements on a day-to-day basis are minimal and the big fish often remain tucked into a specific hideout for weeks on end, only venturing out to feed for brief periods. Many anglers in the summer spend nights on the water only to go home with a few less bullheads or bluegills in the bait tank. Fish are certainly caught in the summer but it’s not the numbers that keep most fishermen routinely going back for more.
When September hits, very slowly anglers begin to see more bites and more flatheads landed. A change takes place and it seems like that vacant deep hole during the summer has now become a flathead hangout. They appear to just come out of the woodwork, literally, and life is good once again for catfisherman.
The seasonal patterns of flathead catfish are pretty cut and dry, especially with the advance of modern scientific research aiding in adult fish telemetry. Understanding these patterns has shown why bites and catch rates during the spring and fall are exponentially greater than mid-summer and especially winter. Simply put, flatheads are more mobile during these times.
In the winter, flatheads are by and large dormant, resting in deep pools where their movement is virtually nonexistent. Often times they stack up in a specific hole, lying side by side and on top of each other, relying on their built up store of energy from fall feeding to get them through the winter. When the spring thaws come and the water begins to warm, flatheads leave their winter holes and begin migrating to their summer territories, most often upstream, feeding heavily and moving a lot in preparation for the spawn.
After spawning the flatheads then seek out a specific territory which for adult fish is often the same brush pile or bank hole year after year. Yes, they literally find the same exact spot every summer unless water conditions or a disturbance forces them elsewhere. They remain in these spots throughout much of the warm water months while they diligently feed and defend their space. Flatheads often remain tucked away in their hideouts for much of a 24 hour period during warm water.
When the water cools in the fall, flatheads begin to slowly filter back towards their wintering holes, most often downstream, and feed heavily once again in preparation for winter. Their daily movements aren’t as far reaching and rapid as they may be in the spring but they are still very mobile, comparatively to summer, and actively seeking prey to bulk up on.
The Fall Transition
The transition from a summer to fall pattern in Iowa generally occurs around the middle to the end of September when water temperatures dip into the upper 60’s. Flatheads sense this seasonal change and begin to move away from their summertime hideouts, feeding more heavily. When the water temperature approaches the low 60’s to upper 50’s, the magical change happens and a call to action so to speak literally draws flatheads throughout the river to begin their migration to seek out a wintering hole.
This is not a dramatic event and it often takes a few weeks, perhaps a month to complete, all dependent upon water temperature and the rate at which it cools. What this does mean for the fisherman however, is a slow steady stream of active flatheads in locations that may have been devoid a month prior. This time of year certainly is not a guarantee to catch one of these fish by simply running to grab a rod and some live bait and hitting the river. Anglers still must be patient and fish in the right locations to capitalize.
Times and Temperature
Just like in the summertime, flatheads in the fall base much of their feeding around lowlight periods. The hour before and after sunrise and the hour before and after sunset is usually a great time to have bait in the water. When the waters begin to cool below 65 degrees though a bite may come at any given time of day or night with the increase in flathead movement occurring.
Temperature during this time can also have a ranging effect on the flatheads. A slowly cooling trend is ideal but mother nature often mixes things up this time of year and it may be in the 80’s one week and then in the upper 50’s the next. When the temperature takes a sudden drop the bite may almost seem to shut down. When it has been rather cold for a few days and all of the sudden the weather turns warm the bite may magically seem to pick up again. Warm days during cool water seem to be the best all around.
Fall is the time to really get out and do some investigating down river. That lowhead dam that was so productive in the spring or the brush pile that produced a few fish through the summer should now be largely ignored with a focus on pinch points, deep water current seams and deep pools.
Pinch points in the river can be anything from a rise in bottom depth to a narrowing channel, even the tail or head end of a pool. These are the classic early fall locations when fish are on the move. They are important travel corridors for the fish but they can also be places where a resting flatty pauses to ambush prey. Areas where structure and shallow bottom force the main, deeper channel through a smaller area of river can also be a deadly location. Actively feeding flatheads will sit to the edges of this type of location.
Current seams, especially along deeper rock or gravel can be magnets in the fall for flatheads. These locations often congregate baitfish and other forage species and the flatheads really seek them out. Other current seam areas that are good are along bridge pylons, sunken concrete and rock points that jut out into the river with adjacent deeper water.
The inside bend of a sharp turn can be good too where the depth begins to drop. If this area is a soft sand bottom it will not readily produce but if there is gravel or rock present then this can be a solid location. There will still be some current here and the seam largely denotes the separation from the main and secondary channel. Forage is often abundant in this secondary channel and the flatheads use this area, especially in low light to feed.
When the water becomes increasingly cooler late into the fall, the deepest pools in a given stretch of river become a focal point of flathead activity. These deep pools, most notably those with slow current and sunken woody debris or large rocky structure are where the flatheads seek refuge during the winter months. Not every deep pool will hold them though and it takes the right combinations of cover and slack current to become appealing. This is where a depth finder can really come in handy for locating structure and the deepest holes.
If the water temp doesn’t cool too rapidly flatheads will still remain somewhat active. They often move to outside edges and current seams in low light to feed. Placing baits at the upstream edges and sides of the pool can be very effective. When the water temp drops into the low 50’s it becomes more important to focus your baits on the heart of the deepest water.
There is lore about needing the biggest live bait possible for fall flathead fishing and this simply just isn’t true. Yes, big live baits will catch fish and often bigger fish consistently but when the river water cools down, so does a flathead’s metabolism and fish often become very opportunistic, eating anything that presents itself easy and available.
Live bullheads are always a solid option for bait along with sunfish and chubs. Even jigging deeper pools or deep gravel bars using a jighead tipped with a chub or chunk of cutbait can be quite effective. Live baits of five to seven inches long are ideal but baits pushing ten inches will still produce bites. The biggest thing to focus on is putting these baits in the right locations and being patient.
With fall now upon us, the opportunity for cat anglers to hit the flathead bite is here and you should be ready. Now is the time to be on the river focusing on these key locations mentioned. Keep things simple, keep bait fresh, stay safe and have a great fall catfishing season!