How To Finesse Finicky Flatheads in Lakes or Rivers

by John N. Felsher

Flat out flattie fun

Nick Dimino and Tommy Golson were fishing on the rope when they boated this Tennessee-Tombigbee flattie. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Nick Dimino and Tommy Golson were fishing on the rope when they boated this Tennessee-Tombigbee flattie. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

By far, most catfish tournament anglers target big blues. But a select few specialize in tempting finicky flatheads, which many consider among the most challenging freshwater fish in North America to catch.

Bass anglers occasionally catch flatheads on lures that resemble bluegills, shad or other baitfish, but most cats desire natural bait. Unlike blues that might slurp anything they can find, flatheads prefer to hunt live fish such as threadfin or gizzard shad, suckers, herring, small drum, river shiners, bullheads and other fish. In coastal areas, mullets provide great temptations for big flatheads.

“I like large live baits, about 3/4- to 1-pound,” recommended Don Minchew of Wewahitchka, FL. “I prefer a warmouth, then a stumpknocker or redear sunfish. If I don’t have any other bait, I’ll use a bluegill. I’ve caught some really big flatheads on large gizzard shad. I hook live baits just above the eyes. If someone tail-hooks a live bait in swift water, the flow goes backward through its gills and the fish won’t stay alive long. I want my bait to be very active.”

Tom Luttrell is no stranger to flatheads. He caught this beauty while fishing on the Alabama River at Selma, AL. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Tom Luttrell is no stranger to flatheads. He caught this beauty while fishing on the Alabama River at Selma, AL. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Dead or Alive?

As ambush predators, flatheads frequently drop into fallen trees, rocky crevices, stump fields, holes in undercut banks and other places where their superb mottled camouflage allows them to ambush anything that ventures too close. Flatheads usually face upstream to watch the currents for something to eat. When they see something irresistible, they swoosh out and snatch it.

“Blues more likely go looking for bait,” advised Tim “Doc” Lange, a catfish angler from Springfield, Ohio, who usually fishes tournaments with his wife, Lynn. “Flatheads typically prefer to wait for bait to come to them so they can ambush it, but flatheads sometimes do get aggressive and go after bait just like blue cats.”

“whiskerfish frequently slurp fish chunks that prove too tempting.”


Although flatheads normally prey upon live bait, most often at night, hungry whiskerfish frequently slurp fish chunks that prove too tempting. When fishing rivers with swift currents, even a dead shad could seem alive as it flaps around in the current. Try different baits to see what the fish want best that day.

“I used to exclusively use live bait for flatheads, but my wife always used cut bait,” Lange recalled. “She outfishes me 10 to 1 with cut bait and also holds the family record with an 88-pound blue cat. Now, I run nothing, but cut bait. I like the head, but my wife likes using the gut cavity.”

Lange prefers to cut up a 2- to 3-pound skipjack and puts chunks on a Carolina rig. He uses 40-pound-test monofilament for the main line and threads the line through a sinker. When a wise old catfish grabs the bait, the line slips through the sinker so it doesn’t feel any unnatural weight or resistance. Tie on a barrel swivel to hold the sinker in place and attach a 16- to 18-inch length of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.

“I try to get the biggest skipjacks I can find,” Lange explained. “The head is my favorite portion. I cut it about an inch behind its head. I like to use drifting sinkers with some buckshot in them to make them rattle. I use as light a weight as I can because I want that bait to look natural. I just want it to barely tick along the bottom looking like a fish just grabbed it and let go. Flatheads like that movement. It also leaves a blood trail in the water. I’ll hook an 8/0 circle hook through one eye and out the top of its skull. I’ll add a bobber to the line about six inches in front of the bait to keep it off the bottom.”

When using the body cavity or gut section, cut the bait into slabs about one inch thick. The body cavity section oozes succulent juices and particles that catfish crave. Cut off the tail about three inches from the end. Some people chop the tail section into tiny pieces to use for chum, but Lange tosses all his leftover baits into a bucket until he finishes fishing for the day. He wants every catfish to grab his bait, not the chum.

Tommy Golson boated this nice flattie on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway near Aliceville, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Tommy Golson boated this nice flattie on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway near Aliceville, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Find Flatheads in Rivers

Big flatheads thrive in major rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Red, Ohio or Tennessee. Even in reservoirs, tailraces near dams retain riverine characteristics. Water flowing through gates in the dam dislodges creatures, which can spark a feeding frenzy. When fishing current, first electronically scan for good hiding places that break the flow, such as fallen trees or rock piles.

Bends in river channels also create great places to look for flatheads. Currents move faster around the outside bends, scouring holes. Logs and other debris often drop into these holes, turning a good flathead spot into an even better one. Place baits down in the holes or slightly upstream from ambush cover.

“I like to fish close to dams because it creates some current moving through the system,” stated Nick Dimino, a catfish angler from West Point, MS. “When the gates open, that stirs up the fish. In current, I like to fish on the upstream side of holes right where the bottom starts to drop off. Fish like to get just over the drop-off edge to get out of the current but look upstream into the current for any bait to wash over them.”

When fishing strong currents, anglers might need to use more weight to keep a bait in place, but use only enough to hold it there. Some anglers use disk sinkers to hold baits on the bottom in current. A flat disk sinker lays on the bottom, creating little resistance to water flowing over it.

At good spots, many anglers anchor, but that could disturb the fish. Modern trolling motors with anchoring modes can hold a boat in place, even in current. Teamed with excellent electronics, anglers can fish exactly where they expect to find fish and lock in the trolling motor. If anglers need to reposition the boat, they just move it with the trolling motor without going through the highly disruptive reanchoring process.


Catching Them in Lakes

Although flatheads love rivers, they also populate many large impoundments and even some smaller lakes. On lakes, look for flatheads along ledges and drop-offs. On a placid reservoir, Lange practices what he calls “dragging.” He rigs several rods with tempting baits and lets the wind blow the boat across the surface. On a calm day, he runs the trolling motor to move the boat along at about 0.2 to 0.5 miles per hour.

“When I’m fishing a river, the boat is still, but the water is moving,” Lange quipped. “When I’m fishing a lake, the water is still, but the boat is moving. On a calm reservoir, I’ll drag baits about 150 to 200 feet behind the boat. I put the rods in the rack up high. That way, the angle of the line helps keep the bait from hanging up. I mainly stay on the ledges because fish use ledges as highways. I try to drag the bait through as much cover as possible with the trolling motor.”

Sometimes, anglers need to hunt for flatheads and then finesse finicky fish into biting. When a big one does take a bait, hang on for one of the toughest fights in fresh water fishing.

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