Among the big 3 catfish here in the US, the flathead is by far the most elusive and difficult to catch. Their feeding habits are different from channel cats and blues so, different baits and techniques are necessary. Many new catfishermen simply do not know how to specifically target flats and become frustrated when multiple trips are fruitless. These simple tips can help to tip the odds of catching a flathead in your favor. This will just cover the very basics, we will be doing more articles on rigs and techniques for flatheads soon!
It is a common misconception that all catfish are scavengers and prefer rotting and smelly baits. While stinky baits work very well for smaller (10 lbs or less) channels and blues, it will very rarely if ever catch a flathead. Flathead catfish are a top level fresh water predator so, live baits are almost always the best option. Live fish such as crappie, sunfish, shad, bullhead catfish, and carp are all great baits for targeting flatheads. Live baits are most often hooked just behind the dorsal fin or the anal fin depending on the chosen rig. In heavy current they can also be hooked through the eyes or in through the mouth and out the nostril to keep the presentation as natural as possible.
Certain times of the year, fresh cut-baits are also awesome baits for flats. Even though they are primarily predators, they are also opportunistic feeders. Early in the spring and late in the fall, when water temps are below 65 degrees or so, the flatheads can be a bit lethargic and simply can not pass up an easy meal. Mike’s 66 pounder (pictured above) was taken on a fresh bluegill head My largest flat, 42 lbs, was taken on fresh cut shad.
Live baits are a go-to for most flathead fishermen but, they are also taken fairly often on ratl traps, spoons, and other artificial lures that mimic a live baitfish. I personally have never caught a flat on anything other than live or fresh cut bait but, I do know several people that regularly catch them on artificials. I plan on putting in some serious time this year using swimbaits and crankbaits.
Due to the flathead’s agressive nature, raw power, and potential size having a proper rod and reel can determine whether you land a monster or are left standing there with a broken rod or reel in your hand. A medium- heavy rod, 7-8 feet in length, and a heavy duty spinning or baitcasting reel with a good amount of line capacity is a good place to start. Spool the reel up with 30-40 lb mono or 65-100 lb braided line. This heavy line is more abrasion resistant than lighter lines, and will help prevent fish from breaking your line by running it across heavy structure. Heavy line, stout reels, and heavy action rods give you more control over the fish and the ability to muscle a fish away from heavy cover.
Nearly any rig can work to catch flats but, the Carolina rig is likely the most popular. This rig is very simple: a sliding sinker on the main line, a bead to protect the knot, a swivel, and a leadered hook. This rig presents the bait to the fish on or near the bottom. Float rigs have also worked very well for many flathead fishermen, myself included. Most often, when I am using a float, I will use a slip float above a Carolina rig. Floats allow you to suspend a bait at any depth and can decrease the odds of getting snagged over bottom fishing. You will get snagged, sometimes alot. Snags are just part of flathead fishing.
Where to find flatheads
Although flats can be caught in the same locations as their cousins, they tend to be much more structure oriented. Since they are ambush predators, they like to hide deep in cover waiting for a passing fish to unleash the fury upon. Structure can be nearly anything that they could hide around, under, or inside. Bridge pilings, log jams, root balls, undercut banks, and rocky areas are all good places to try and locate a flathead. Structure can even be something as seemingly insignificant as a hump or ledge on the river or lake bottom. Flats can be found in nearly any depth of water as long as there is proper cover. Shallow inlet creeks, lake flats, and weed beds can also be very productive. Flats are known to be “home bodies” but, when darkness falls, they will often roam these areas due to the large numbers of bait fish congregated there. One last tip here: do not feel like you have to throw your bait as far as you can. Many of my larger flats were caught less than 20 feet from the bank! It is a good practice to work all sides and angles of a specific piece of structure whenever possible.
Flathead fishing is definitely not for everyone. There are many nights that go by with no fish being caught and few or no bites. For the dedicated few, it is a labor of love. The excitement of fighting and landing one of these powerful, beautiful fish makes all the efforts worthwhile. If at first you are not successful, keep at it! Time on the water and trying different locations, baits, and presentations can pay off BIG!