Flatheads of the West
by Eddie White
Monsters of logs and ledges
From California to Arizona, all the way up to Idaho, flathead fisherman test their fishing skills on the wily flathead. These western catfish anglers use many different tactics and techniques to seek out these monsters of the logs and ledges.
With the availability and option of using live baits, California and Arizona anglers have an advantage over those in the northern state of Idaho. Live bait is not allowed in Idaho. However, anglers in all three states have plenty of opportunities for flathead success.
Studies of tagged flatheads in Arizona lakes have shown that a majority of the cats return to their initial tagging location. These flathead catfish generally do not migrate, but rather they move out of their main staging area to eat, and move back shortly.
All catfish, whether flats, channels, or blues will have a typical water temperature or seasonally established pattern. While you can fish for them year round in the southern states, waters like the Snake River eventually freeze or become very cold. These colder temperatures trigger lethargic behavior and catching these beasts can be a chore.
The winter thaw starts a spawn migration and heavy feeding. These western rivers tend to exhibit a pattern of three locations through the migration cycle. Cats will move from winter holes, to spawning grounds, and finally into summer haunts. Then, season by season the pattern repeats itself.
Several lakes and reservoirs, as well as parts of the Colorado River, hold good populations of catfish. Most anglers will look for the night bite, though some prefer the challenge of fishing during the day.
Hand sized bluegills, and carp up to a pound, dominate the live bait scene. They are readily available in most locations. However, state law does not allow transport of bait from one body of water to another, so anglers must go out and catch bait prior to fishing.
There are many lakes and rivers in the area that hold flatties, but ten of the best are: Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon, Saguaro, Horseshoe, Bartlett, Pleasant, and Patagonia along with the Verde and Salt River.
The desert lakes are dominated by rocks and boulders, making it a bit more of a chore then the sit-cast-wait method that many anglers prefer. The anglers in these areas have perfected their own unique ways to be successful.
One of the most common techniques among boat anglers in the southwest is anchoring and suspending off the side of the boat. By keeping the rig just off the bottom of the rocky structure, anglers can avoid constant snagging. A basic Carolina rig with live bait seems to be the favorite presentation for this style of fishing.
Many Arizona anglers utilize the balloon rig, from both boat and shore. Another group of anglers are combining this rig with kayak fishing. While often a lot of work, kayak fishing is gaining popularity and offers a great way to put the bait of choice in the face of an aggressive fish.
Most anglers use the same approach in the river as in the lakes, as rocks are still a dominating factor. Some anglers take a different approach. One I was not personally familiar with covers a lot of water and finds hard hitting, active fish.
Because flatheads are known for their aggressive nature, these shore anglers are using a split shot rig, with a Comal or poly ball float on a leader line. They add an 8/0- to 10/0-hook, baited with the live bait of choice. Just enough weight to keep the rig right above the river bottom will help prevent snagging and produce a more natural action and appearance.
Anglers cast up to 30 times on the same location If a flattie is not found they move on and repeat the process at a new location. Using this approach, rather than sit and wait, the angler benefits from the aggression of the fish and the natural presentation. Fresh-dead bait appears more lively and desirable to hungry fish.
Now, here is a new one for you hard core flathead anglers. NO live bait in Idaho. The Snake River runs north through Idaho and Oregon before finding its way to the bordering state of Washington. Without the use of live bait, Idaho anglers have it a little tougher, but still seem to figure out ways to be successful.
After lengthy talks with local anglers I’ve found that a lot of different methods are used to chase the beasts of the deep. While some anglers key in on standard methods, others are adaptable and change it up.
All of us have caught a flathead while fishing for other species. Knowing that, Idaho anglers have used that knowledge to their advantage and have modified other fishing techniques to target flatheads.
Rat-L-Traps have become a go-to hard bait for some. Anglers use slow trolling and rip jigging techniques, while staying on a slow downstream move to cover water.
Deep diving crank baits have also found their way into many tackle boxes. Anglers run them up current, similar to trolling for any type of fish on a river. The fish seem to come few and far between, but when they hit, they hit hard.
Spin & Glows, up to 00 size, tipped with whole dead bait fish, imitates the live pattern and movement that will attract a large flatty. Comal floats with rattle beads will also sway in the current creating a live bait style imitation.
Baits of choice change based on what is running at the time. Suckers can be good in the spring, crappie and bluegill in the summer. No one focuses on any one bait in particular, as the runs change with the rise and fall of water level and temperature changes. With the abundance of a certain run, flatheads will key in on that specific species. So, even though anglers cannot use those baits alive, it pays to identify what the current forage may be.
While flathead waters are as sparse in California as they are in Idaho, large fish up to 60
pounds can be found. The two main waterways are the Colorado River and the Alamo River. The Alamo has more of a congregated area due to irrigation diversion dams that stop the fish from moving up or down river. Often no wider then a two-lane highway, the ease of access on the Alamo outweighs the Colorado.
Winding its way through the desserts of California, the Colorado is taken over by fields of tules overgrowth. Tules are a large bulrush that is abundant in marshy areas of California. Since location is a big part of a successful day of fishing boat anglers gain an advantage over shore bound angers because of the tules. Most pleasure anglers do not want to put in that extra work, preferring instead to pull up and fish. Putting forth that little bit of extra effort has paid off huge for anglers that are willing to travel the distance and put in the time.
A simple Carolina rig works well in the tules. Bait choices match that of Arizona. Carp, live bluegills, and surprisingly tilapia are favorites. Tilapia, not typically thought of as a fresh water fish, are readily available in most areas. Bait cannot be transported live from the Colorado River, so catching bait prior to fishing is essential. Once the bait is secured, the search for the BIG yellows of the tules is on.
Tules, tules, and more tules. Anglers do not seek the flatties in the main channel as a first choice. The abundance of tules, on shore and in the main body of water, provide prime locations for flatheads to hide during the day.
Flatheads also use the tules as highways which are followed as feeding paths. These highways are also found through the root ball systems of this overgrowth.
Finding a tule highway through the main channel and into the backwaters is where most flathead anglers find the best success. Often they will be fishing as shallow as 4 feet, especially in the evening hours when the flats come out of their haunts and go on the feed. Evenings are also when bait fish move into the tules to prevent these predators from finding them.
The overgrowth and root balls of the tules also challenge anglers after hook up. As fast as a fish is hooked, it can also be lost. Putting the brakes on these giants within seconds of a hook set, before they reach the tules, is vital and a key component of a successful trip.
Most of the county is unaware of how many opportunities there are available throughout the western states for prime flathead fishing. Now that you know, it may be time to go.