Flatheading in Michigan

Discussion in 'Outdoor Articles' started by sal_jr, Jan 8, 2007.

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  1. sal_jr

    sal_jr New Member

    Ithaca, MI
    Flatheading in Michigan....

    Sal Palombo Jr.

    Catching a big flathead in Michigan is the real challenge. The state record here is about the "dern good sized" fish anywhere else. Our record sits at 47.5lbs. They aren't the big bruins that the southern states boast so here I fish for quality of time spent, and when I hook a flathead, then I tell others that this was my purpose for going out in the first place. Every unsuccessful trip however, I pass it off as "just loving to be on the water in seclusion". Such is the justification of the person of my type. It is as though I can rationalize my dismal luck by just saying to myself that if I wasn't fishing for one in the first place, I will not be disappointed to know that I didn't get one. It is a defense mechanism to keep the Flathead aficionado like myself from becoming a river-dwelling troll with little to none communication skills left, and a constant tremor every time we hear what sounds like a bell or a bait clicker. This ‘white-lie-validation’ separates the flathead buff from becoming Tolkien's character, Gollum. Michigan also has many less flatties with respect to quantity than most other places in the USA. Being able to say that you hooked and brought in 25 big flatheads in a year out of the Maple Rivers is quite respectable. Few can say this. I was not one of them last year but I had quite a good year nonetheless. Last year I suppose I was just loving to be on the water in seclusion.

    So I fish Maple River in Central Michigan from ice-out to ice-in for flatheads. The Maple River is a small and mucky, murky, swampy, slow-moving, and comparatively shallow river that spills into the Grand River watershed, which flows out to Lake Michigan through the town of Grand Haven. The place I fish is about a 30-minute drive from the State Capital of Lansing. Just about the geographic center of the state, if you look at the map, (or the base of the main knuckle of the middle finger if you're glancing at the back of your left hand while you read this Yankee's story.)

    Where one drops their bait in the Maple is relative. In the whole 80+ miles distance that the river slogs along, there are probably four or five holes deeper than 14 feet. Those holes are fished like mad- so nothing bigger than a 3- or 4-pounder comes out of them it seems. Looking for one of those four or five holes and then waiting there will not help unless you're really not lying about loving to be on the water in seclusion. A great many potential cat-hounds have pitched their rods into the river out of protest, waiting by one of those holes in dismay.

    I, on the other hand, have either not learned my lesson or can be summed up as a nutcase-diehard, or have a better idea. Anyone wanna bet that the third option is where it is at?

    I don't fish deep holes. I look for sand bars only a foot deep to 18 inches, within 100 yards upstream of a good steep 4-foot to 6-foot bank. Why? Because I am nuts. I also do it because I didn't land 25 small flatties last year. I landed 15 of them between 14 and 25 lbs.. That tells me what I need to know. I also didn't use bug spray. I also didn't use a lantern, and I also insisted that if anyone wanted to fish with me, they better learn the value of sitting still and not even breathing loud. When a flathead is in that shallow of water, a sniffle will destroy a whole night's work. When a 25lb flathead gets spooked, he will thrash around and slap his tail at the surface about 50 yards away from you until he has managed to inform everything from alewives to zebra mussels that there is a fisherman out there. This method of fishing works for Michigan because we don't have many warm days and if a fish wants to do anything but hibernate, it had better seek whatever warm water it can to forage. That eliminates the deep holes almost entirely for the better part of the summer and all of the spring.

    This state does some odd things to its flathead population. In Michigan, you can’t use nets, set lines, limb lines, trot lines, or pickup lines to get them, though the pickup lines work well in bars near any of the 6 or 7 college towns, but only for coeds... another stealthy and voracious target that can ruin your night if not properly and carefully pursued. The Department Of Natural Resources allows you to use no more than 2 poles, with any combination totaling 3 hooks. You can creel-bag 5 flatheads or channels cats in any combination, and they better be over 16 inches. I personally don't agree with the law, seeing as how most flatheads don't even spawn till they reach 2 feet long and Michigan doesn't have many flatheads as it stands, but I do my part to reduce my disagreement with a law designed to demolish the population by strictly supporting catch-Polaroid-and-release,


    catch-keep-it-in-the-bait-tank-for-a-few-days-to-show-off-to-your-buddies-and-release. Either way, Mr. Whiskers is in good hands with me here. So I got a 25 pounder last summer. How? On an 11 inch Red-ear Sunfish hooked through the tail with a 10/0 VMC Cone-Cut Perma-steel hook tied to 85lb Teflon coated Spider Wire on a Penn 210 reel. It was about 2:30 in the morning and I was lamenting the loss of a 6-pack, which I swore I would remember to bring, but forgot at the last minute. Since nothing was biting all night on my other pole either (usually set up with liver or crawlers on a 1/0 Blood-red Daiichi circle hook tied to Cajun Lightning Red 30lb monofilament line on a Shimano corsair 400A reel.) I was trying to talk myself into running to the truck, speeding the 12 minutes home, grabbing the beer and cruising back in time to crack one open before the 3:00 hour. Just as I got to my rod holder to place 2 cinder blocks on it to hold the rod still in my absence, I heard the classic zip of a flathead taking a bit of line out of the bait-clicker. Both blocks slid slowly from my fingers and gently went to the ground. I waited till I heard it again...


    Oh, yes. I knew he was in mid-swallow. I grabbed the rod gently out of the holder and gave it one more foot of slack.

    When that went out, I took a half-step back and WHAMMO! I hoisted that rod tip with as much force as I had in me and set that hook. I like to set the hook with force and gusto. Anything less than an attempt to remove their lips with the first yank is just asking for a bad hook-set. I learned that from chasing Pike and Muskies in the colder waters of Canada.

    Immediately the river came to life. In 18 inches of log-snarled water, a big angry fish sounds like a herd of big angry buffalo. The flathead first went on a single long run, heading right for a bend in the river filled with scrap metal and tractor tires. I dashed through the water in chase so I didn't lose the fish, all the while keeping the line tight and reeling in, in between the classic zipper noise of the Penn star-drag system. I headed him off with a good pull and turned the fish around so he was headed away from the trash pile. Unfortunately for me, that meant reeling in as fast as I could turn the handle because he came right downstream toward me. Even though the Penn 210 boasts a better gear ratio for speed, it is tough to keep up with a moose with fins, especially with a hook in his lips.

    As he screamed past me I kept him in check and loosened the drag a bit to keep the fish from wasting my rod as he went by. He continued on about a good 25 yards and decided to lay down low and outmuscle me. Now my rod is not a noodle. It is a custom-made big water musky rod that I had re-customized for flatheads. It is 9-foot long G-Loomis heavy action saltwater blank with 12 ceramic eyelets, and is spray-foam filled for extra backbone. If a fish bends this rod to a breaking point, he earned it well. None have done it, though a 54 inch, 29lb musky tried really hard once.

    As soon as I put the lift on the rod, the fish realized that he wasn't going to do well against this combination. He went on another upstream run, but this time when he came to me, I didn't give him any slack at all. As he tried to pass, I drew him to the surface. He just could not find the intestinal fortitude to dig down again and run, so he stayed at the surface and lay still at my feet. Believing that the battle had come to an end, I tried to lip the fish and haul him in. As soon as I jammed my fingertips into his mouth, he went crazy. I clamped down, pushed my fingertips, still inside his jaw, right down to the muck, and curled my thumb under. He gave a good 2 minute-long thrash, but could not get out of my grip. I was soaked head to toe- and even inside my waders, ears, throat, and parts unknown.

    The fish measured out at 25lbs and some change. He was 35 and ¾ inches long and well as far as anything else is concerned, he was extra ugly, which is a good thing for flatties. I took him to the bait tank for 4 days of boasting pleasure and after that, released him right where I yanked him out of the water. This year my buddy has already hooked and landed that same fish. I know because a part of his tail fin was notched from another fisherman catching him before me. This year he weighs 26 and a half and ate a 12 inch bullhead when he was hooked.

    If you want to come to the Maple, bring tough line. It is not the size of the fish that dictates the necessity. Years of lacking policing and bad, bad people have made places in the river look like a junkyard. I have personally seen 3 entire snowmobiles, a good half a dozen tractor tires, countless car tires, and 2 whole half-sunken boats within a half-mile area. It is depressing that I have to see it, but I also do my part to keep the problem from getting worse. It is the best I can do. It is the least I should do.

    This year, we had 18 inches of rain in the same period that we ought to have had just less than 5 inches. My good spots to stand and fish are now 4 feet below the surface. My new search for a place to fish has only produced six channel cats and about a dozen "other fish"... bass, carp, pike, and suckers. I have yet to meet a Flathead this year. My buddy, who I admit makes me look like a weekend warrior, has only got that big one and a 4-pounder and that is all. That's okay though, I will have my big stories this year. Besides- I just like to be by the water in seclusion.
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