Flatheads Under the Ice
by Ron Presley
A talent for monster flats.
It was midday, around 4 o’clock or so on Saginaw Bay/River that flows into Lake Huron. The January air temperatures were very cold with the wind chill index around 35 below. The ice had reached a thickness of 15 – 18 inches. Christopher Bauman, a self-proclaimed “Flathead Guy” had been targeting flatheads and other species under the ice when his rod bent over.
“We had fished that day from just before sunrise,” recalled Bauman. “We started out in the morning chasing walleye. We had landed several flatheads and channel cats earlier in the day. My first nice flathead came on a tip up.”
On this day, Bauman’s Shakespeare Ugly Stick Dock Runner Combo was spooled with Hookers Terminal Tackle 20-pound CatCable. He added a slime green 5/8-ounce jig head from Midwest Sinkers. The rig was baited with a live emerald shiner and treated with Bradley’s Bite Enhancer wax.
“I use braid because I can see the line slack up and bow slowly,” instructed Bauman. “When that happens, I apply tension to the line and feel for the weight of the fish. If you feel weight, set the hook.”
As the fishing day was winding down, Bauman felt the rod load up and set the hook. He knew immediately that it was a solid fish just by the way it pulled. Maybe even a once in a lifetime fish?
“I was jigging a couple of feet off the bottom,” recalled Bauman. “I saw my line slack up suddenly. Slack line is often an indicator of hitting a tree branch or bottom debris. So, I began to slowly lift up to avoid getting hung up in the timber.”
“Suddenly it was like being walked by a pit bull,” continued Bauman. “It was an extremely powerful slow-moving fish. Hooking this fish was like snagging a log on the way downriver, but the flat was moving upriver and spooling me quickly.”
The area where Bauman hooked the fish had 4 or 5 holes, all drilled in a group. One was from a 6-inch auger and there were 3 or 4 from an 8-inch auger. Once the fish came up the first time and they saw how big it was they knew they would have to rely on spudding the centers out to make one big hole.
“It came up and turned several times toward the bottom,” Bauman said. “It was right under the hole and quite a battle in the current. After many heart-wrenching attempts to grab the fish, it was finally landed by the tail. It was a relief to get it topside.”
The scales that were used to weigh the fish included a spring scale and two digital scales a few minutes later. The big fish bottomed out the spring scale and bent the pin. One digital scale registered 56.02 pounds and the other one registered 55.81. Even the later weight would have easily beat the current state record of 52 pounds, which incidentally was also caught under the ice in Barron Lake on January 12, 2014.
The DNR was contacted and was on the phone with Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator, before the fish was on the ice. Unfortunately, Bauman would have had to transport the 49-inch fish to Plainwell, MI for weighing on a certified scale and completion of the survey. With no livewell and temps of 35 below, he felt the health of the fish would be in jeopardy. Bauman chose not to make the trip in favor of releasing the trophy flathead.
“This is not the first time I have let a record flathead go,” said Bauman. “I just like to watch them swim away. I’m pretty well known for it around here.”
“I have not seen Christopher’s flathead catfish in person,” said Wesley. “But I have seen several amazing pictures of catfish that would probably break the Michigan state record. Some anglers get lucky —not Christopher. He has a true talent to be able to catch these monster cats on a regular basis.”
Up Your Chances of Flatheads Through the Ice
Bauman enjoys catching flatheads, but also enjoys sharing his passion for catching them through the ice. His experience has proven that flatheads do not have to be a rare catch if anglers adopt a few proven principles and spend some learning time on the ice.
“Flatheads through the ice are finicky creatures,” offered Bauman. “We’ve had days where we have jigged flathead haunts all day and never came up with a fish. We’ve also had days where we would find dozens of them feeding on a secondary flat because of a string of unseasonably warm days in succession. Appropriate conditions and structure are important and there is no substitute for knowing the layout of your holes.”
Bauman is referring to what’s under the ice as a guide to where anglers drill their holes. He explains that with time on the water anglers will locate the primary and secondary feeding flats, the main holes, and the structure. It is not different than what boat anglers refer to as learning to “read the water.”
Bauman is typically using 3/4- to 1/15-ounce ball jig heads with heavy gauge sickle hooks. He likes a heavy head to help him maintain bottom contact, but light enough to mimic a natural bait presentation as closely as possible.
“The sickle hooks help keep the live bait or plastic on the hook,” explained Bauman. “Sickle hooks also sit shallow on a bait and reduce foul hookups on fish that are stacked in a hole.”
“My favorite bait is an emerald shiner or a small shad,” said Bauman. “Hook it through the eyes and turn the hook back through the belly. I also like soft plastic minnow or shad replicas. It’s fun to try and fool them with plastic. I have noticed that cut minnows usually reward me with a channel cat or big walleye where a 3- to 4-inch emerald minnow will produce a slow-moving giant flat if one is to hit.”
He describes the presentation as slow or “obnoxiously slow.” Bauman’s strategy is to move so slow that he is imitating a dying shad or baitfish as he presents the bait to a flathead that is itself moving slowly.
“The water is so cold under the ice that the flathead’s metabolism is slowing,” instructs Bauman. “So, it makes sense to slow down the presentation. It also makes sense to use a good scent attractant and fish close to natural forage.”
“Honestly,” continued Bauman. “The only difference between targeting a walleye and a flathead is the cadence. I use a dead stick approach to get a flat to bite. They are without a doubt much slower to take a bait under these cold conditions. The bite is more subtle too. I go from trying to feel every bite, like I would when channel catfishing, to watching my hi-vis yellow line for movement.”
“Anglers looking to target flatheads responsibly in midwinter should be prepared for lots of time on the water and lots of disappointment,” concluded Bauman. “Catching flatheads under the ice is challenging, but once anglers get the hang of identifying feeding patterns and the mechanics of presentation they will be hooked!