By Brad Durick
In the world of catfishing it seems we hear about the mighty blue cat or the abundant channel cat more often than their big cousins with bad attitudes, the flathead. Ok, the flathead is pretty popular too. The anglers who love flatheads seem to have an addiction for catfish that is a bit different than the addicts of the other catfish.
The true flathead crowd is a group of night owls that lurk the river banks through the night. Sitting for hours sometimes for one big fish. Granted that big fish is the biggest and baddest of the river. The true king of the jungle who will deliver an amazing fight for sure.
So when targeting these formidable foes, what is the best bait to catch the biggest fish? Well just like anything, if you ask 20 people what the best bait is you might get 18 different answers. For this article we only asked four flathead fanatics about bait. Even though they are in four states they tend to like the same baits for their flatheads with a couple different wrinkles.
We will break down five flathead baits and how they should be used to catch the monsters of the river. While bait is a very important piece to the puzzle the bait location is also just as important. Locations and placements are another story for another day.
Heath Stuewe is a hard core flathead man. Him and his fishing buddy Dean are so into what they do that they have a custom boat to get where the average angler won’t go on their river. This means they stay off the beaten path to catch the biggest flatheads. Stuewe says the best bait they use is green sunfish. Next they like carp followed by bullheads. Steuwe fishes mainly in Kansas, where any fish caught legally on rod and reel can be a legal bait.
Niles Bailey aka “Willy” from the MudBum Boys said, “If a fish swims in the river a flathead will eat it.” He was very quick to point out that bullheads are the bait of choice for him and his fishing buddies.
Luke Hentges, agrees with bullheads as the best bait but says that suckers and chubs do work as well.
Three people from three different areas of the United States, guys who are very serious about their flatheads and very serious about their bait to ensure that they catch the prize.
So when listing the top five flathead baits not in any particular order this is what we get. There are many other flathead baits such as goldfish or shad that can be used but none were mentioned as a favorite bait.
Bullheads- The winner of the favorite flathead bait contest for sure. Niles Bailey “Willy” said bullheads and bullheads for the best flathead baits. He went further into using bullheads by saying that early in the year smaller bullheads (3-5 inches) seem to work better than really large ones. He was quick to point out that once the water temperature gets over 60 degrees size really doesn’t matter but bigger is better to lure out the lunker.
Luke Hentges was also very quick to say bullheads are the best bait for flatheads on the Minnesota River. Hentges is still fairly new to the flathead game but probably puts in more hours than most people chasing them. His results in 2015 are proof that bullheads work.
Bluegill and sunfish- These seem to be the second choice of most flathead fanatics. Bailey said that sunfish work well but they are much more difficult to keep alive on the hook for long periods of time. He says that sunfish are not as natural to the river so they are not the best river bait. He said you are checking and changing baits more often when using these baits to keep them in top shape.
Hentges, being from Minnesota cannot use bluegill legally but said when they travel to the St. Croix River (a border water with Wisconsin) they can use bluegill and it quickly becomes one of his top baits for big flatheads.
Chubs and suckers- Chubs and suckers are on the list as a bait but nobody interviewed said chubs are their favorite bait. They said they are a great back up bait when others cannot be easily collected. In most bait shops in Iowa can purchase chubs and suckers from the local bait shop making them a simple solution to getting bait for many Iowans.
Green Sunfish- Heath Stuewe says for where they fish the green sunfish is the bait of choice for them. He says they are easy to catch, easy to keep alive and their catfish love them. While he was the only one to say green sunfish was his favorite, many other anglers bunch them into the umbrella of bluegill and sunfish rather than point them out as one specific bait.
Carp- Most rivers that hold flatheads also has carp living in their depths. Since they live there that makes them a natural food source for a hungry catfish. Kansas flathead angler Heath Stuewe is a believer in this. He says that sometimes carp is the bait of choice and they are right there in the river so they can be caught in a pinch.
To add another twist to using carp for flathead bait how about carp cut bait? Asian Carp are a swear word in most circles because of how they take over a waterway. Greg Wagner, Public Information Officer from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has a different take on how to use Asian carp. He says if one jumps in the boat they kill it and use it for cutbait on flatheads. This goes against most of what flathead guys believe but during certain situations cutbaits can be very effective for flatheads.
The key to success if you have not already grasped it from the likes of Heath and Niles is that flathead bait must remain alive and healthy to attract a hungry flathead. This is why so much care is put into tanks and livewells to keep the bait fresh. This is why most love bullheads as bait, because they stay lively longer.
When hooking your bait on you have to be careful to hook it in an area where you do not kill the bait and that it can stay on and move around. Doing this will help keep your bait fresher longer as well and provide more opportunity for a big fish strike.
Keep in mind that different bait laws exist in every state. Be sure to check the local laws in Iowa or any state you may be planning on fishing so you know you are within the laws. With more issues of aquatic nuisance please do not ever transport live baitfish over state lines.
Flatheads are the meanest of the big three catfish and also the most elusive. Put in the time and use the right baits in the right locations and you will have great success and probably a great story to tell.