Flatheading on Small Rivers William A. Sipes As with most things in life, there are very few hard and fast rules for catfishing. The trick is to know the difference in the probabilities. You want to go with the option that will give you the greatest chance of catching fish. In the instance of Flathead catfish, the odds lean heavily towards live baitfish, preferably something caught from the waters you are fishing. Something the catfish is comfortable with, has caught and ate in the past, and knows it to be a part of its diet. Flatheads have been caught on a wide variety of baits, but when playing the odds, you want the numbers stacked in your favor. Catching flatheads is a slow business to begin with. If you're lucky, you might see one or two an outing. With the low percentages of success, every detail of your outing has the ability of determining if you are going fishing or going catching. If you want to catch a flathead, you need four things. Patience, a place to fish that has flatheads present, a type of bait that will get them to bite, and the gear to land them. Of the four, the most important part is patience. You can do everything right, and still not catch fish if you wont stick around for the payoff. You have to make the commitment to spend the time on the water before you can see the results. Get used to the fact that it might take you a good long time to catch your first flathead. The first catch will make all the time spent worthwhile and you will learn how it's done by the simple fact of doing it. The second thing you want to know is do you have water in your area that holds flatheads? It defeats the purpose of spending all that time trying, if there simply are not any flatheads present. The best way to find out is check your state records for flatheads. It will most likely tell you where it was caught, and if there is one, there should be hopefully at least two. Another way is to check the picture board at the local bait shop, and ask the owner of any known flathead waters. And you can also do a search on the Internet, listing your body of water and flathead catfish, see what kind of information you can get. If they are swimming in the waters of your state, you can find where they are if you look or ask in the right places. Listed as number three is bait, but if all other conditions are right, this one will jump to be number one very quick. It'll be the factor that determines whether you succeed or fail. So, what exactly do you want to use for bait? First off, check your local fishing laws and determine what is legal for use as live baitfish. Based on that, your next step is to actually find the baitfish you can use. It might be as simple as going to the local bait shop and buying them, or you might have to catch them on your own. However, you get them, you have to not only keep them alive, but also keep them lively. More information on keeping baitfish lively will be available in forthcoming issues, so we wont spend time now on that issue. The same applies to the actual catching part of baitfish. As far as gear goes, when fishing for flatheads, you want heavy-duty equipment capable of getting the job done if you should reach your ultimate goal of dealing with a trophy size flathead. Large line capacity reels, medium-heavy, heavy-duty to extra heavy-duty rods, high-test line, as high as 60-80 lb is not considered too high. Large hooks, either circle hooks or standard style, but the gap between the hook point and the hook shank has to be adequate enough to go through the baitfish and allow the hook point to do its job on the hook set. A size of 5/0 to 10/0 is in the neighborhood, depending on the size of the baitfish and the size of the intended catch. After you've finally reached the plateau where you can successfully catch a large flathead, you do not want to lose it due to equipment failure. It's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Now, you've gotten the patience and you've got a spot that has flatheads. You have the bait and the proper gear. So where do you go from here? Here is where there are more opinions than the hook size debate, the rod and reel debate and the best bait debate combined. How do you pick a spot on a body of water to set down your gear and attempt to catch a flathead? Let's think about the flathead catfish for a minute. What do we know about it? For starters, this is a predator that can grow very large. It eats other living things. It moves about at night a large percentage of the time, and during daylight, it likes to be hidden a large percentage of the time. It is somewhat territorial, and the biggest and strongest get the best living conditions. So if you are flathead fishing during the day, the place you want to find has to fulfill the flatheads daytime requirements. Big, bad, ugly looking brush piles, hung up on bridge pilings, or several trees piled together in an outside bend. Undercut banks and trees that are still half-attached to the bank, but have fallen in the water. What makes these even better is when they are in close proximity to or actually in, deep water. This is where the biggest and strongest flatheads will be laid up during the day. To have reasonable success in catching them these are the areas you first have to find, and then target. Now we get to where the cheese binds - fishing for flatheads at night. A lot of folks fish the same areas mentioned above at night, when you basically have two chances of finding them. This being when they are leaving and when they are returning. That leaves an awful lot of down time with you sitting on the bank waiting for a bite. At night, when the flatheads begin prowling the waters looking for food, is when you need to think in close relation to the bank. How many times, when walking down to the riverbank at night, have you seen the baitfish go scurrying out of the shallows when you spook them? Why are they in the shallows? It is in an attempt to avoid the large predator fish out looking for a meal. So following this train of thought, where should your bait be - in the middle of the river, or up close to the bank in the shallower water? The one option of fishing the middle of the water is knowing where the river channel is. When moving from point A to point B, the river channel is a built in highway used for travel. The odds are, they will travel in close to the river edge, on the prowl for food while on the move. Another reason for large flatheads to feed in shallow water, that is pure speculation on my part, is the fact of a relatively slow large fish chasing a small lighting fast baitfish. In deep water, that baitfish can go up, down, left or right and any combination of moves. In shallow water, they lose well over half of their maneuvering options, making it easier for their pursuer to succeed in catching them. Is this something a flathead can "learn"? Could this be the reason flathead A, at 15 years old weighs 15 lbs, and flathead b at the same age weighs 50 lbs? The ones who learn these little tricks thrive, the one's who dont, survive, but not as well? In a small river, when the water recedes in the late summer, a good population of flatheads can greatly reduce the number of baitfish in a given area. As this occurs, the fish have to travel greater distances to find food. Those long runs in between holes with nothing to mark them as flathead water becomes a very viable target. A study was once conducted on the Minnesota River, where DNR personnel set trotlines for flatheads. The trotlines that had the best results were those set in long runs, far from what is considered typical flathead environment. I read a couple of possibilities as to why these trotline sets were so effective, but they didn't mention that if the store on the corner is out of milk, you have to travel to another store, or go without. It is just a simple case of supply and demand. Stay home and go hungry, or put the show on the road and eat. Many flathead fishermen have had very good luck fishing the exact opposite of what I have described - fishing the snags and brush piles at night, and waiting for the flatheads to travel, or trying to draw them out or hitting the deep holes. I'm offering a different option for when these methods do not produce. When the accepted method doesn't produce, try the unaccepted. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. An example of this would be chumming for flatheads. When chumming for catfish like channel cats and blues, the idea is to draw them in to the chummed area, to tease them in, not feed them. When chumming for flatheads, the exact opposite is true. You want to use more chum than you normally would, because the object is to feed the fish and keep them in the area as long as possible. Reason being, not only does chumming attract catfish, but it also attracts other types of fish like suckers, carp, shiners, shad, bluegills and minnows - all very typical flathead meals. You would place your chum in a confined area, and place live baits around the perimeter of the chum. The idea is to draw flatheads in to the large concentration of feeding fish, and use a well-placed bait to intercept them. A flathead "ambush" if you will. The intent here is to get you to think outside the box. Taking methods used for other catfish, and adapt them for flatheads or skip the general rules of flatheading and try the opposite. If you are having problems catching them, then your method needs some adjusting. Adjust it with an untried technique and see if you can make it an accepted part of your fishing.