Flathead catfish rank among the largest freshwater fish in North America, but also top the list of the most finicky and difficult to catch. Few people intentionally fish for flatheads, but those few who know how to finesse the mottled monsters can enjoy excellent fishing!
A giant flathead may weigh more than 100 pounds and could stretch more than 5 feet long! Flatheads range from the southern Great Lakes to northeastern Mexico, across the Gulf States east to the Appalachians, and west to Arizona and North Dakota. Whether by accident or design, they also moved into places such as South Carolina, Florida and other states. Flatheads prefer flowing water such as the Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Apalachicola, Red, Tennessee, Arkansas, and other big rivers, but also thrive in many large impoundments and small natural lakes.
“Flatheads are more active at night and it takes live bait to catch them,” said Michael Holley, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, fisheries biologist. “Bass fishermen occasionally catch them on lures that imitate baitfish. They prefer rivers, usually associated with stumps, rocks or some type of cavity.”
Aggressive predators, flatheads almost exclusively eat live fish. Sunfish, threadfin shad and gizzard shad make excellent flathead baits. In coastal areas, mullets provide great whiskerfish temptations. Big flatheads also eat suckers, carp, herring, small drum, river shiners, and smaller catfish, especially bullheads and juvenile flatheads.
“When targeting flatheads, fresh bait is the key,” explained Joey Pounders, a professional catfisherman and holder of the Mississippi state record, a 77-pound flathead. “We normally use live shad about 6- to 8 inches long. A big flathead can eat a huge bait.”
Although flatheads typically prey upon live bait, big whiskerfish occasionally slurp fish chunks or dead bait. When fishing rivers with swift currents, even a dead shad could seem alive. Hooked through the eyes, a dead fish might flap around in the current, giving it the appearance of life. A strip bait or fillet makes another great temptation for big flatheads. Rigged correctly, a strip bait mimics a live fish. To create a strip bait, fillet one side of a shad, skipjack or other baitfish, and run a hook through it. In current, the bait undulates while succulent juices ooze into the water.
Even a flathead resting on the bottom looks up to spot prey. Keep baits 2- to 3 feet off the bottom, where a catfish would expect to find it. To keep bait off the bottom, rig a three-way swivel on an 80- to 100-pound-test braided main line. Tie on two leaders, one shorter than the other to hold a bait higher in the water column, and attach a 3- to 6-ounce sinker to the bottom of the rig.
Carolina rigs also work great when fishing live bait. Thread line through a hollow barrel sinker. At the end of the line, tie a barrel swivel and tie a length of fluorocarbon leader to the swivel. Since the line slips easily through the sinker, a baitfish can swim more naturally.
Some anglers use sliding sinker and cork rigs. Attach a sliding disk sinker to the main line. The disk sinker lays flat on the bottom and doesn’t roll around as much in current. At the end of the main line, tie a swivel. To the swivel, tie a leader and attach a small float halfway between the swivel and the hook.
“I use a disk sinker because it lays flat on the bottom and won’t roll around in current,” said Nick Dimino, a professional catfish angler. “The float helps hold the shad up off the bottom. If the shad gets down on the bottom, it won’t work.”
Before anglers can catch flatheads, they must find them. When looking for flatheads, first find cover. Flatheads often burrow into thick, entangling cover where they use their mottled camouflage to hide in logjams, stump fields, flooded timber, rocks, downed trees, or in holes along the shorelines. Bends in river channels create great places to look for flatheads. Logs and other woody debris often pile up around river bends. In addition, currents frequently scour deep holes on the outside of bends. In river tailraces, flatheads often drop into holes to look upstream and wait for currents to wash food over them.
With excellent sight, acute hearing and the ability to detect sound waves almost like sonar, catfish miss few opportunities to grab bait. When a big one does take bait, hang on for one of the toughest fights in fresh water!
Shop Sportsman’s Guide NOW for a great selection of Fishing Line, Leaders, and Weights!
Top Photo: Tommy Golson holds up off a flathead catfish he caught while fishing on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway near Aliceville, Ala.