Fall’s fabulous flatties

By Capn. Ted Peck

Jim Van Gorden knows flathead cats weighing 3-5 lbs. are extraordinary table fare.

Clients often ask, “Which fish is your favorite?” A standard response of “The one on the end of my line!” often brings a smile to their face. 

While this statement is absolutely true, they may hear about my personal Manitou “Big Sammy” as the day passes, and conversation becomes both more personal and often cathartic.

Big Sammy is a flathead cat I tussled with on two occasions several years ago. Both times she broke my line – and my heart. The second time we danced, she slurped up a one-pound carp. A half hour later she rolled in the line at boatside and swam away. In frequent recollections of that day, I swear she winked at me first. She hasn’t been bested yet, or folks up and down the river would be talking about it.

Big flatties are the ultimate alpha predator in the immortal river. Other fish swimming in their sphere of influence have just two options: flee or be eaten. Species-specific pursuit of the ugly river king requires considerable patience, skill and serious fishing tackle.

Flathead fishing greatly resembles chasing trophy whitetail bucks with a bow. Folks with a considerable river rat skill set have a distinct edge in this pursuit, which is as much hunting as it is fishing. Modern electronics can be helpful in the hunt, but if you can’t put that magic box in close proximity to a deep-water riffle, or read a boil which electronics can confirm as a boulder or gnarly deadfall on the bottom you haven’t even entered the ballpark yet.

The trolling spot-lock feature on modern trolling motors is far superior to the old school method of flathead fishing; anchoring up at the leading edge of a lair hole or feeding shelf and waiting for Ol’ Ugly to show up for the dance.

My gear of choice is an eight-foot medium heavy rod with a fast tip and heavy butt holding a large baitcast reel spooled with 80 lb. superbraid line and a bait clicker feature.

Several years ago, I made the switch to circle hooks, tying a 6/0 stainless steel Octopus hook to a 10–12-inch dropper line of a large stainless steel three-way swivel. The other dropper is twice as long and a mere 20-30 lb. test – enough to hold a 2-3 oz. pyramid sinker on bottom, directly beneath the boat.

This vertical presentation enables the angler to minimize the number of hang-ups while allowing the bait to struggle seductively where a spade-headed river monster can ghost up and slurp it in.

The reel is left in free spool with the clicker engaged while drifting slowly through the lair hole or along a feeding shelf. When the line meets resistance, the boat is held in place.

If the rig finds a snag – which will happen when fishing where the fish are – the line can usually be jiggled free or quickly broken off and retied. The other possibility is vividly illustrated in the film classic “Jaws” when that malevolent Great White shark picks up the bait and the bait clicker on that big reel accelerates from slow cricket to high-speed buzz.

Fish on! There is no hook set when using a circle hook. When a flattie picks up the bait, combat is joined by standing up with feet shoulder width apart and letting the big cat pull the rod tip to the water before engaging the reel and leaning smoothly back on the rod.

You know you’re into a big one when the fish responds by pulling that rod tip right back down to the water! From this point forward the fight is a basic tug of war. You want to pull the fish into the boat. The flatcat wants to pull you into the river. Don’t expect searing runs or spectacular leaps. An alpha flathead is a finned Abrams main battle tank. She has felt the sting of your hook and is intent on heading back to the lair from which she came.

The period from mid-September to mid-October holds the shortest odds for hooking up with this fish of troubled dreams. Water temperatures are beginning to tumble. Fish sense a need to feed in preparation for winter. Flathead cats are feeding more aggressively now, for longer periods in the 24-hour day. When the fall bite gets going, you can leave the Coleman lantern and bug repellant at home.

Dominant flatheads spend the summer in an optimum niche of River microstructures, often relating to large rocks or substantial deadfalls just off the main channel and deeper holes of the Upper Mississippi’s running sloughs. If you come across a spot which has all the trappings of Catfish Heaven and spend several hours fishing without getting bit, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across the lair hole of an alpha flattie.

She will move to the upstream edge of the hole and feed when she’s good and ready, but can sometimes be tempted by any fish dumb enough to swim too close.

With falling water temperatures heralding seasonal change, many flatheads begin to migrate toward deep holes along the main River channel and scour holes directly below the lock and dam systems where they will spend the winter. A fascinating, comprehensive, multi-year study by Iowa DNR fisheries biologists Greg Gelwicks and Mike Steuck published in 2011 reveals an abundance of information regarding flathead behavior in the Mississippi and several tributaries.

In the study, flatheads were collected by multiple methods throughout the year. Some were fitted with alpha-numeric tags, others with radio transmitters. Biologists were surprised by the individual nature of these fish. Some catfish migrated many miles out of tributaries, past suitable over-winter habitat to spend the winter in the Big River, returning to the tribs when with warming water in the spring to reclaim their lair holes.

Other individuals migrate less than a football field length in a calendar year. In this study biologists found that growth rate and weight are not directly related to size. Some flatties get big, fat and lazy fast. Other individuals grow more slowly.

The average age of the thousands of flatheads sampled revealed over 60 percent were less than five years old, with the oldest specimens living to the ripe old age of almost 30. The size of fish ranged from about five pounds (known by River Rats as swimming roast beef) to over 50 pounds (just a little smaller than Big Sammy).

Among the many fascinating aspects of “Pylodictis olivaris” revealed in the IDNR’s flathead research is the low exploitation of this species by sport anglers. This is understandable as alpha flatheads are often more persnickety and obstinate than the muskie, often called the “fish of 10,000 casts.”

Both of these alpha predators have their own agenda and are not overly impressed with fancy boats and nattily attired anglers. For some reason known but to God, muskies are relatively rare in the Mississippi River mainstem, although they are common in many of the Immortal River’s tributaries. This lack of muskie presence further solidifies the flatcat’s role as Old Man River’s alpha predator.

Another reason flathead catfish have not been exploited by sport anglers is the fact that you have to fish twice for them. Unlike their omnivorous cousin, the channel catfish, flatheads are meat eaters. The hands-down best flattie bait is a bullhead. Improvement in water quality in the Upper Mississippi over the past few years has led to the return of ‘yellow bellies’ as a catchable sport fish species.

Bluegills are also excellent flathead bait, as are leopard frogs. Cut bait from a “greasy” baitfish like the mooneye is also an acceptable meal for a “mudcat” – but the bait must be extremely fresh. Live mooneyes would be great bait, but they tend to die almost immediately after being caught.

With a need to catch bait before going after flatheads, many anglers just don’t have time to hunt the ugly one. Laws in all states bordering the Mississippi prohibit bringing in bullheads or bluegills from other waters or leaving the River with bait sloshing in the livewell to return after lunch in pursuit of cats.

Even though flatheads feed both more aggressively and frequently during early autumn, they still have a fair amount of discretion—even when you read the river correctly and put food right in front of their faces. It is common to get only a couple of serious flathead bites in an entire day on the water. Sometimes you don’t get bit at all. 

Fall flathead fishing is a great tune-up for spending countless hours in a tree with a bow waiting for a trophy buck to come down the trail. If you possess a bowhunter’s patience, iron man stamina and a deep desire for brutal pescadore/piscator combat flathead fishing can easily become a passion bordering on obsession. With a cornucopia of outdoor options whispering the potential for grand adventure along the big river this time of year, I may not have the time to challenge Big Sammy this fall.

But there may come a day when everything falls together just right, and I’ll have time to sling the bullhead gauntlet down at the front door of her lair. Time means nothing to the Immortal River, but there are finite days for both catfish and man. Hopefully, this autumn will bring a convergence of circumstances for one more dance with Big Sammy.

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