Anglers who view the flathead catfish as a worthy adversary, but one best pursued on dark, steamy, mid-summer nights are missing the boat, literally, on what might well be the best shovelhead bite of the year.
“During the summertime it’s usually necessary to fish at night to catch river flatheads,” noted Koinonia Guide Service owner Rod Bates, who targets big cats on the lower portion of the Susquehanna River. “But by late fall and early winter big flatheads are migrating to deeper wintering holes, and can be consistently taken during the daytime. This is especially true during cloudy, rainy days.”
|Koinonia Guide Service owner Rod Bates and a big winter flathead
While flatheads have a reputation for being most catchable when the water temperatures soar, experience has shown Bates that this species, as with most other gamefish, increases its feeding activity as winter approaches. Big numbers of fish concentrate in defined areas. They become competitive for the available food sources, which is good news for the cat-man.
The water temperature was in the low 50s as Bates and I, along with fellow guide Dave Neuman, pulled up to the edge of a deep Susquehanna River hole, one that bottomed out in the 18 to 20 foot range.
The morning was windless, which meant we could get by with only the bow anchor, as no breeze was present to swing the boat.
“This is one of the biggest, deepest pools in this section of the river,” explained Bates, in response to my question of what was special about this particular place. “It’s also the first big hole downstream from a dam. And there’s a major warm water discharge a couple miles upstream that slows down the cooling process as fall gives way to winter.”
With the boat settled in, Bates and Neuman pulled four pre-rigged rods from a locker. He prefers seven-foot Pinnacle Catfish rods mated with beefy Quantum level-wind reels. Reels are loaded with 50-pound test Bass Pro Shops Excel braid, which is finished with a three- to four-foot section of 80-pound test Offshore Angler Dacron to serve as a leader.
|Flathead guide Dave Neuman and a respectable flathead
In terminal rigging, Bates uses a couple options. Hook-wise, it’s either a 7/0 O'Shaughnessy or a 5/0 circle hook. Though he likes the O’Shaughnessy, many of his clients don’t have the experience necessary to consistently take in the slack and then provide a powerful set. The big circle hook has been a productive alternative in such cases.
Whether using an open gap or circle hook, Bates snells it to the leader (shown in video
). In a four-rod setup he’ll also rig one or two rods with a “rattlin’ bobber” as an attractant. He removes the spring clip from a standard round bobber, drills a hole big enough to insert three BB split shot, and then epoxies the hole shut. The bobber is slid on the leader, and pegged in place with a split shot.
“As far as sinkers go, I’ve found the flat bank sinker to be the most snag resistant,” added Bates. “Round sinkers tend to roll along the bottom until they hang up.”
Bates uses bank sinkers as heavy as four ounces to hold the bait in the correct position on the bottom. The sinker is threaded onto the main line, and is kept from sliding down to the hook by the swivel that makes the line/leader connection.
Flatheads like to kill their prey, so quality live bait is always an issue. Bates, along with family members, uses rod-n-reel to catch sunfish and small bullheads, which he stores in a cache in a spring-fed pond. A below-the-dorsal fin hooking properly presents the bait.
|Where legal, fish with small bluegills or sunfish, hooking them directly under the dorsal fin
During our mid-fall trip, which started at dawn and concluded late-morning, Bates, Neuman and I boated 18 flatheads, including two over 35 pounds. Half of the fish took the bobber rig, including one of the 35 pounders.
“One of the real keys is being mobile,” added Neuman. “When things slow down, reposition the boat.”
By moving, Neuman doesn’t necessarily mean motoring miles to a different spot. Simply moving 20 yards upstream or down, or to one side or the other, gives the fish a different look at the bait. It was uncanny how quickly fish would bite when we adjusted the boat position. Rarely were all four rods out before the clicker was sounding on one of them.
Bates said he catches river flatheads until the water temperature drops into the mid 40s, which means river cattin’ well into the early winter in much of the species’ range.