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Guide’s guide to flatheads

Jim Hastings shows off a large flathead catfish caught recently off of submerged cover on the Rock River.
Jim Hastings shows off a large flathead catfish caught recently off of submerged cover on the Rock River.

To the average person, flathead catfish can be hard to come by.

This mythical giant of the deep that rivals the muskellunge in rarity of catches can sometimes push a person to simply give up. Spending hours of your time with no results, or getting that rush of excitement when the rod pumps, only to be disappointed with a plump little 4-pound flathead.

The confusion associated with flathead movement and feeding habits alone can overwhelm and confuse a fisherman.

So, for our own sanity’s sake, let’s focus in on what we know, and take a look at a great way of coming face to face with the freshwater freight train. 

The first thing we know to be absolute fact is that these fish fear nothing in fresh water. A great majority of the year, their space is their space, and they don’t care for visitors. The premium spots on cover, or in a hole or a drop are usually occupied by the largest, most aggressive fish. 

The second thing we know to be true is that flathead prefer to sit and wait, and ultimately ambush their prey. They do not like to go out to eat. Lying motionless, hidden in roots or behind a rock or bridge pillar, inhaling the unfortunate fish that ventures too close. At times, they will ram and stun a baitfish before choking it down.   

The first trait of the flathead we are going to focus on is his preference of water characteristics. Remember that No. 1 is current. Secondly, you should be focusing on cover, and then, finally, your depth.

This tends to surprise a lot of people who have preconceived notions of flatheads living only in the deepest holes in a river system.

At certain times of the year, these notions can be true, but from late spring through late summer or early fall, if you find great current on good cover, it really doesn’t make a difference if it’s in 5 feet or 20 feet of water.

Why did I take the time to discuss these habitual facts of the greatest fish on the face of the planet?

Simply because you can use their habitual nature to your advantage, to help you become more consistent in your fishing. This particular style of fishing is, in my opinion, the greatest way to pursue these monsters.

Using what we know about flatheads’ tendency for use of cover as an ambush point, we can break this style of fishing into two categories: exposed cover being one, and submerged cover being the other. 

Exposed cover is so exciting when you begin to take fish regularly. First, find your proper cover: good, solid, bottom-grabbing wood, rock or a manmade structure.

Establish that it has acceptable current on at least one side, but preferably both sides. If you want to anchor 80 feet away from the cover, whisper to your partner, and then lob your poor baits 20 yards, go ahead.

That isn’t the game we are playing. Anchor above your cover and float right back to it. I am not advising you to smash your boat into the exposed cover, but you can get right up to it, rod-distance away.

Drop your bait on one side of the root ball; it could be a rock or other structure, but we will use root ball here. Work your bait from front to back down one side, and then the other. Jigging isn’t exactly what I’d call this motion; it is more like dragging.

Believe you me, this is deadly and oh-so-exciting when a big fish slams your bait not 7 feet from you. Give your effort no more than 10 minutes, and move on.

If you’re on a root ball with no success, release some anchor rope so you can maneuver around behind it. Then, work the trunk and openings in big branches the same way.

One thing you will figure out very quickly is you’re going to want to beef up your equipment. Thirty-pound test line and medium-heavy to heavy rods on a good, solid bait caster will fit the bill.

You’re going to have to bully these fish out of the cover, or you’re never going to see them. Problem is, these fish do not like to be bullied. They are the bullies ... thus the need for heavier equipment.

Remember also when fishing this way that the longer it takes to land a fish, the more his chances of escape are. Not only is beefing up your gear necessary, but you can modify your rigs in many styles.

I prefer a bell sinker, followed by a large bead, and then a 7/0 Matzuo Sickle hook. In this way, you stay in direct contact with your bait, and can move him very easily.

I also find that you have to set hook on these fish quickly. Remember, you took the bait right to them; they may not move far or move at all.

When you feel that pop and have some pressure there, hammer the hook home and hold on. This really makes for some exciting fishing, and by covering more cover in more water, you’ll surely contact more fish ... and come face to face with the flathead catfish.

Fishing submerged cover doesn’t differ all that much from exposed cover. The one major difference is that it may take more work to pinpoint your baits on it.

You can simply rely on sonar, or you can tie your sinker to the end of your line with no hook and drag it over and around the cover to zero in on it.

The presentation varies slightly in certain situations also. If your cover is on a drop, and you have located it, anchor above it and to the side and drift slightly past it.

Lob your bait to the top of the drop and work it back toward you, hitting the face of your cover, and then the sides, and finally the back. Several casts, say four to five, will be good. If he’s there, he’ll eat it. 

Bridge pilings and trash racks are the same thing. Work the front, then the sides, and again finally the back. Moving a bait by a flathead four to five times will many times trigger even an inactive fish to strike. 

So there you have it. A little peek inside the world of flathead catfishing. Stay tuned, as I will touch on this four or five more times this summer.

Until next week, stop talking about going fishing and ... actually go.

Go Catfish!

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