By Nick Johnson
When one talks beyond traditional methods for catching fish, your mind will conjure up ideas of a new trick or an innovative tactic. A tactic that may be guarded secretly by those who practice the technique with wild success. When the words – flathead catfish – are mixed in with this talk, ears begin to perk up.
Let me see a show of hands for those of you who would like to catch a trophy flathead, say, twenty, thirty or maybe even fifty pounds plus. I’m assuming the majority of hands are held high, figuratively speaking. A trophy sized flatty holds the same prestigious status as a fifty inch muskie or a thirty inch walleye; maybe even more so to the avid whisker chaser. Yet, many anglers know so little about the habits of these river beasts that catching one falls into the same category as a myth rather than a quest. A myth that sees many anglers encountering fishless nights at the local dam soaking meat in hopes of battling a monster mudcat.
I’m not saying that fishing below a dam should be avoided. Dams can be very productive – at certain times of the year. In translation, one must realize that the summer patterns of flatheads revolve solely around water levels, habitat, territory, forage and spawning. In this case a dam might be where a flatty finds refuge and food but realistically, other parts of the river offer these same amenities with greatly reduced fishing pressure.
First off I must say that flathead fishing takes an extreme amount of patience. If you are not devoted to spending hours seeking one fish then flatheads may not be your cup of tea. Catching these elusive fish doesn’t happen every day, even for those solely dedicated to fishing for them. Flathead fishing holds a relationship to channel cat fishing yet a more focused approach is needed as one becomes aware of how the river dictates a flathead’s patterns and movements. Many fishermen are familiar with traditional methods for these fish and there are things to be said about the success of some of these methods.
Aside from fishing below dams, most of us have read or seen on TV how effective it can be to anchor or position upstream from a log jam and fish your bait into the front side of it. This is the old standby for flatheads and a method that works very well; however, you are trying to coax a fish out of cover that may be in a passive or totally neutral mood, especially during daylight periods. Your hope is to catch one of these fish as they leave the sanctity of their hide during low light periods to feed and grab your bait. You may have no idea where these fish enter or exit the log jam and the fish may leave to go feed without ever knowing your offering was there.
Flatheads are very territorial fish and their main motive when hiding in cover like a log jam is to rest and defend their space. This is one reason why many fishermen rely on bullheads as a top producing bait in this situation. Bullheads when hooked will try to seek cover if they can find it and if your rig allows the free swimming bait to do so. By fishing into a log jam with a bullhead, you are invading a potential flatheads territory and that fish may find the easiest way to remove the bullhead threat is to swallow it, doubling the effort with a free meal. Load on the heavy line in this scenario as a big catfish hiding within its own domain will be very reluctant to come out.
Pools and Holes
Another traditional tactic for flatheads that many anglers commonly practice, me included, is fishing deeper locations in the bends and runs of a river. These areas are classic nighttime spots as flatheads venture out from cover to feed. Deeper areas such as this may also constitute rip rap banks, drainage tile outlets, the back side of a bridge piling and pools formed behind other river structures. Baits are often sunk into the leading edge of the hole where the actively feeding fish position themselves. Pools and holes are ideal locations in many of our rivers but should be thought of more as “middle of the night” spot as the flatheads settle into to their feeding locations before they venture back to cover towards morning.
You may notice a trend forming in the traditional tactics I described above. When many consider fishing for flatheads, the above locations and tactics most frequently come to mind. These are the obvious, notorious places where a flathead “should” be found. But what about the rest of the river? What other clues does the river hold that might give anglers the upper hand to capitalize on their summer patterns? What can the summer patterns of flatheads tell us about their habitual routines?
Patterns and Movement
Let’s talk about a few general assessments to flathead activity to answer the previous questions. During the summer, research has shown that adult flathead catfish rest for much of a 24 hour period and it has been documented that these fish remain motionless for as much as 23.5 hours within this time frame. They seek cover in locations supporting a fish of their size, defend it and spend much of their time in that one location until a natural or unnatural change forces them to relocate. They generally venture out to feed once a day in low light periods, traveling in a somewhat straight trajectory to an area where they seek food, thereupon returning back to the same habitat hideout when finished. Feeding incorporates a very small percentage of a flathead’s daily routine.
Research within the upper Midwest has also shown that during warm water periods a large portion of a flatheads lifestyle takes place in water less than nine feet deep and much of their habitat preferences correlate to large woody debris and rip rap. The period of time when they move most often takes place between dusk and dawn with active feeding occurring most frequently within the first six hours after dusk. Sure flatheads can be caught during daylight periods and big fish often are. In this case however, conditions within the river ecosystem are often changing such as rising water levels or the migration of these catfish to seek out new habitat and spawning areas. During stable or falling water levels though, the majority of adult fish will feed during low light.
In the summer period when water temperatures reach 70-76 degrees, flatheads will spawn. At this time the fish may be extremely difficult to catch on rod and reel since the vast majority of their time and energy is spent defending their eggs and fry. Not all of the fish in a given reach will spawn at the same time however; maybe not at all, and it’s very possible to still have success within this time period. After spawning takes place and fish have abandoned their fry, the bite will turn on again and remain strong through late fall as the adults strap on the feedbags in preparation for winter.
Now it’s time to break the mold of traditional and talk about a tactic for flatheads that many would not even consider in their fishing approach. Paul Lauderback of Catfish Syndicate describes this technique as one of the top tricks for big catfish and it is one to make note of. This strategy capitalizes on flathead movements during the spring, summer and early fall periods when the fish leave the sanctity of their hides to seek food at key low light times.
Many of you reading this may already know how pinch points and funnel locations in bodies of water can produce fantastic fishing results for certain species. The same logic holds true for flathead catfish in rivers. Flatheads when they move, sometimes move a fair distance to exploit food resources. When the fish venture to feed they will naturally reach obstructions or variations in depth that they must navigate.
The funnel occurs at a shallowing point between two deeper stretches. It may only be a slight variation in depth but this location will concentrate and hold fish that are traveling upstream and downstream over the rise in contour. This funnel location however rarely produces fish if the depth is less than three feet deep. Locating these high spots is best done by boat with a sonar unless you know the river like the back of your hand and know where a scenario like this occurs. The following river illustration shows the funnel and pattern.
The best time period to fish a funnel for flatheads is within the first hour after sunset and also the last half hour of dark before sunrise. It is at these times that flatheads are most likely to be on the move to and from their hideouts. You will still find fish using these funnel areas throughout the night but typically the middle of the night is when holes and structure will produce more bites so pick up and move to these other locations.
To fish a funnel, position yourself or your boat upstream and cast your rig so that it sits right on top or on the leading edge of the shallowest portion. If you are using a boat, a two anchor system is advised with one anchor attached to the bow and one at the stern to keep your boat from drifting side to side, moving your rigs.
Another method that often gets overlooked by boat anglers is fishing mid river holes and structure. Slight depressions in the bottom can hold a lot of foraging catfish through the night. The fish will pull up into the hole and sit at the upstream edge waiting for food to come to them. Even a slight drop in bottom depth can attract flatheads seeking prey. Add a gravel bottom or piece of woody debris and the location becomes a magnet. Trees and debris that rest mid stream will hold big fish. These types of structure naturally create a current break and baitfish will load up around it. The flatheads will be there to eat too.
Yet another location that sees little fishing pressure is a gravel bar or gravel flat adjacent to deeper water. Forage species for flatheads such as small carp, suckers, small catfish and baitfish congregate heavily over shallow gravel areas during the night. The flatheads know this and seek out these areas readily. It might surprise you how shallow a big catfish will venture to consume a meal.
I remember reading a story about a group of flathead fisherman camping on the bank of the Minnesota River. Towards the middle of the night the group got tired and reeled in their lines, leaving the still alive baitfish dangling in less than a foot of water in the gravel area in front of their campsite. Hearing a commotion in the middle of the night, one member awoke to find a large flathead struggling at the end of one of the lines. This fish’s back was almost 2 inches out of the water where it had taken the bait so the story was told.
At The Surface
This is something that may surprise you as much as it did me when I learned of this technique. Flatheads don’t always feed right at the bottom like most would expect them to. They will and often do feed near the surface, feeding into schools of suspended shad or baitfish; maybe even taking a muskrat, struggling fish or duckling from the surface.
This technique is very simple and involves suspending a lively bait below a large bobber or small balloon. Suspend the bait a foot or so below the bobber and drift it around and through cover, slack water and shallow areas. This tactic will cover a lot more water than a stationary bottom rig and is relatively snag free. At night, adding a small glow stick into the balloon can make this rig highly visible to detect any strikes.
A truly sought after fish in Iowa, the flathead catfish is one of the largest game fish that our state has to offer. Their reclusive nature and attitude also makes them very challenging to catch. Many fishermen devote hours upon hours in an unending quest to land one of these magnificent fish. By knowing their patterns, their habits, the river and how the river dictates fish movement, you gain steps towards making this quest a success. Good luck on the river this summer!
Tips To Remember
If you cant fish at night, fish at dawn (4am-8am).
Hardened mud or gravel bottoms are popular with flatheads.
Bullheads, small carp, suckers, drum, large chubs, sunfish and quillback are top baits for most Iowa Rivers.
Keep bait fresh, cool and lively. Lively baits will trigger more bites.
You can sometimes chum flatheads out of cover.
Fishing success may decline during full moon periods.
Smaller holes with a single tree of piece of woody debris are overlooked and can produce good results.
Successful flathead anglers have two virtues; patience and persistence.