It’s not too often that I get to write an article about an actual fishing story. I’m not talking about the tale of Catfish Hunter or a story that grows with age, but rather a story of adventure, taking place right in the heart of Iowa. An annual adventure that started a few years back that has brought many lessons of success, failure, and the trials and tribulations of being a flathead catfish angler.
It all began with a college buddy of mine named Josh Bruegge. If you look up the term “River Rat” in the dictionary his name follows in parenthesis. We joke with Josh that he walked out of the river as an infant to live a terrestrial life, leaving his catfish mother behind. You are beginning to get my point that he is good at catching catfish and anything in a river for that matter. Anyways, Josh brought up the idea of diddy pole fishing for flathead catfish one time at a bowfishing tournament with my other catfish savvy friend, Jarred Marvin. We set out on a quest not long after and Josh showed us the ropes and got the fire going in our bellies for bank pole fishing. Since then, Jarred and I have made it a point to explore various stretches of river around the state on an annual trip for big flatheads.
Jarred and I are avid channel cat anglers and it is a special treat to embark on a long weekend trip for flatheads. We always talk about going more often but adult life, families, and work have long cut back the amount of time we get to run the river anymore. I don’t care what people say, flatheads are elusive and can be downright difficult to catch in any numbers. It takes a lot of time and patience to put all the pieces together, especially when Mother Nature plays such a crucial role in a river system. Part of the fun in all of this for us is the weeks spent planning and preparing ahead of time.
It seems every year we land on a different date to embark. This year was towards the end of May when water temps were just touching the upper 60’s and the water levels were still fairly high from recent rains. We knew the flatheads hadn’t started to spawn yet and this makes for a perfect time to target some of the bigger fish.
Preparation had started weeks before, getting the gear ready, making sure the boat was seaworthy and of course catching the bait. It’s no myth that flatheads prefer big live bait and the most arduous part of the whole deal is catching enough bait and keeping it alive for two weeks leading up to the trip. I have an old deep freeze in my garage (unplugged) which I lined with a plastic liner that is aerated by a bait saver pump Jarred modified to plug into a 110 outlet using a small fan-cooled voltage transformer. Since there is no filtration on this tank or means of biologically removing the ammonia, I have to do daily water changes of 15-20 gallons with the addition of a chlorine neutralizer designed for home aquariums. It’s a lot of work but the effort pays off to have healthy, lively bait. When you get 60-70 bluegills, green sunfish and bullheads in a 100 gallon space there is a lot to lose and the care of this bait will most certainly make or break the trip.
After all the excitement of planning the trip and getting the necessities ready we headed south from Fort Dodge to finally explore the river. I am under oath not to divulge any locations, but I will tell you that it took a fair bit of mudslinging at the ramp to get Jarred’s 20-foot flat bottom in the water. We always try to pick spots that are off the beaten path and away from fishing pressure. I guess it all adds to the story when the trip is done. Sometimes when the weather is nice or we have to run a long stretch of river to get to good looking stretches we just roll out sleeping bags on the boat. Other times we camp at a nearby campground, whichever is most convenient.
On this trip we had a coworker, Chuck Corell along for the adventure so we had 15 diddy poles to set. For our diddys we generally run 7’ long ¾” PVC with an eyebolt at the end. The line is affixed to this down to a large barrel swivel with or without a weight and about a foot of leader ending at a #9 or #10 circle hook. The pole is tamped into the bank using a rubber mallet and the bait suspended just under the surface. It took us some time to pick ideal spots such as the upstream side of a log pile or the back side of a knuckle on a steep cut bank. Once the lines were all set we motored back upstream and headed to camp for a few beverages and a somewhat sleepless night in anticipation for what we hoped would be a few big fish on the lines come morning.
We awoke to bluebird skies and perfect temps for being outside on the water. On this particular stretch of river there were two other groups setting lines so we had to run nearly six miles of water to get to our first set. Our first three poles hung lifeless and when we nosed the boat into each the hook came up bare, with no bait. We began to think that someone had checked our lines which is about the lowest thing a fellow bank pole fisherman can do. There was a sour mood on the boat and we were prepared to discuss this situation with another boat we had seen a few bends back which was heading upriver after checking their sets. We decided to push on and head to the fourth pole.
Approaching the fourth set Jarred noticed that the line was tight and the PVC had a subtle but sustained bend. This is often a clear indication that something of mass is holding on the other end. As he nosed the boat into the bank alongside the pole there was still no movement and the line remained tight. I reached over to grab the line and felt a heavy weight. Chuck had never wrestled with a cat like this so I told him to grab the line and as soon as he put pressure to bring the line up the water exploded in an angry mass of thrashing brown catfish. It was a moderate sized flathead, maybe twenty pounds but it fought like it was forty. Chuck grabbed the fish by the bottom jaw to bring it on board where it thrashed even more leaving a nice rash of bloody memories across his knuckles. The mood on the boat switched in an instant and after a few quick photos he released the beast back to the murky water.
After getting a good fish under our belts we pushed on to check the remaining sets which kept the excitement going. Four more fish were boated including one over thirty pounds which is a respectable flathead for Iowa. We kept a smaller ten pounder to take back to camp for a much needed fish fry and re-baited the poles to check again that evening. It must have been strictly a night bite at this time because when we ventured back out before dark every pole came up empty. It’s good practice to check the lines in the morning and evening as you want lively fresh bait and channel cats and turtles will mess with them during the day. We concluded that evening rod and reel fishing from the boat with limited success before heading back to camp. This night everyone slept hard after a long day on the water.
In the few years that we have journeyed on the river for flatheads we have learned many things. Time of year is key, raccoons are bait thieves and water level plays a big role. Use a little weight to keep the bait under the water in areas where raccoons can access the bank. If the water temps rise into the low 70’s the flatheads start their spawn and the bigger fish become scarce. A rising or high but not flood stage river level is your friend. Most importantly, be safe. No catfish is worth the price of a damaged boat and most certainly not the price of a loved one.
The second morning we had to pack up camp so we were a little later getting on the river but our spirits were rejuvenated from the success of the day prior. We had actually moved a couple rods the evening before to similar looking areas we had caught fish and this turned into a monumental run. Nine of the fifteen rods we set had flatheads, three of which were comfortably north of twenty pounds and one again pushing thirty. You could have handed us a check for the Powerball and hardly noticed a change of emotion. Our hands showed evidence of battling river monsters and this is what makes the story great. Scars to remind us.
Photos poured and texts back home to jealous friends and family had us feeling like kings of the river. All of the hard work catching and keeping bait, planning and organizing, had come together for two days of camaraderie and incredible flathead fishing. It is moments like these, the story… that unites us as sportsmen and carries on the tradition shared with good friends that I am so fortunate to have.