Ellenbecker prefers to fish jumbo cats in the smaller rivers that feed these massive flows. Giant cats from any big river will move up feeder streams to take advantage of easy pickings from spawning forage fish and to escape powerful spring flows in the main river, Ellenbecker contends. He has caught and released dozens of huge flatheads in rivers only 50 to 100 feet across.
Smaller rivers offer the major advantage of being much more manageable, Ellenbecker points out. Big rivers have currents that can be dangerous, especially in spring. And those currents make it extremely difficult (or impossible) to anchor properly and keep baits near the bottom in good spots. Productive areas are also much easier to locate than they would be in a vast waterway.
Ellenbecker's favorite small rivers flow directly into the Missouri River in southeastern South Dakota. But he has taken his small-river approach on the road several times and found it to be effective in little-known waters flowing into other major rivers. Although every river is a little different, Ellenbecker's basic strategy remains the same.
What to Look For
Ellenbecker prefers a stream that pours into a major river no more than 30 miles downstream of a dam, or close to a series of wing dams or riprap banks on the big river. Preferably, the small stream should have a dam to limit the distance the cats can move upstream. With or without such a barrier, he typically focuses on the lower third of the river.
Small rivers don't necessarily have to be deep to hold big flatheads, Ellenbecker notes. Most of the river can average only 4 feet deep, as long as there are washout holes 10 or 12 feet deep below shoal areas and along outside bends.
Ellenbecker uses live bait exclusively when he targets big flatheads, favoring wild creek chubs and suckers. "Wild," he stresses, is the key word. "Pond-reared baits just don't have the fight to attract big flatheads."
Most flathead veterans agree that live bait far out-produces any other kind of offering. Specific bait preferences vary dramatically depending on a river's natural forage species, baitfish types that anglers can catch or buy, and state fisheries laws governing legal baits. Some river fishermen will use gizzard shad up to 18 inches long or carp that weigh 3 pounds, but Ellenbecker prefers to stay a little smaller, even in summer when the cats need a lot of food.
A 50-pound fish will hit an 8-inch bait," he explains, "and that bait also gives you the opportunity to catch a 10-pound flathead. I'm out there to have fun catching catfish, so I prefer a bait that any flathead will take."
Seasonal conditions cause cats to behave differently, Ellenbecker points out, so anglers need to change their methods depending on the time of year.
Most catfish anglers believe flatheads don't bite in frigid water, but Ellenbecker begins catching them shortly after ice out. In early season, however, heavy current makes large portions of any river off limits to flatheads, which favor slack water even more than other kinds of cats. The flathead's penchant for slow water explains why the fish often move into smaller rivers and stack up behind current breaks, especially major structures like low-head dams.
Large numbers of big predators concentrated in small areas translate into heavy competition, explaining why they're feeding so aggressively despite the cold water. "The fish are concentrated and willing," Ellenbecker says. Even so, flatheads favor a fairly small bait through early spring. Because their metabolic rate is low in the icy water, their food demands are small and they are less able to handle larger prey, Ellenbecker believes. A 4- to 6-inch live bait usually works better than an 8- to 10-incher. With a large bait, you would get fewer bites and hook a smaller percentage of the fish.
As the season progresses and water levels moderate, flatheads begin spreading through prime holding areas in small rivers, and fishing becomes more of a hunting game. Logjams, hard-bottom areas, deep holes, outside bends and current breaks all enter into the equation. To maximize his chances, Ellenbecker looks for spots that combine several of these elements.
"I look for a complex, with at least three elements in place," he explains. "Just a logjam or a deep hole is not enough. You'll find those all along the river." The common denominator in every spot that Ellenbecker fishes is an abundance of woody cover, either right in the spot or close enough that the catfish can move easily to it. He noted that one South Dakota study showed catfish relating to woody cover up to 90 percent of the time.
During late spring and summer, Ellenbecker uses two different strategies, depending on the type of spot: "slipping timber" or "ambushing" the fish. Slipping timber involves working your way down a river, probing potentially productive logjams for roughly 20 minutes apiece. Ambushing means stillfishing in an area where you expect big cats to move through during the night. Ellenbecker compares it to stand-hunting for deer.
To find a good ambush site, Ellenbecker looks for a major daytime resting area, such as a dense logjam near a deep hole He then seeks out a nearby nighttime feeding area, like a low-head dam or shallow flat, and sets up on a travel route between the two spots.
Determining the most likely travel route requires careful study of the river bottom. If there is an unobstructed channel between the two spots, for example, catfish will follow it. Set up on the edge of the channel, closer to the feeding area than to the resting area, and position your boat so you can keep your bait right on the upper portion of the channel lip.
Most of Ellenbecker's largest flatheads, including one that missed the state record by only a couple pounds, were caught using this ambush strategy.
As summer gives way to fall, the water cools and cats begin feeding heavily in preparation for leaner times ahead. Throughout the fall, Ellenbecker focuses on deep holes below major current breaks, including wing dams and deep cuts in the bank. And because cats tend to migrate downstream in fall, he fishes almost exclusively within the lower 10 miles of a river's course.
Ellenbecker has found that fall fishing is usually best in morning or evening. It's also important to pick the right day. He prefers fishing when the weather is mild and has been that way for at least a few days.
The smaller baits that work well in spring are also effective for flatheads in late fall. Whether he's fishing a current break in early season, slipping timber, or ambushing cats, Ellenbecker first checks out a potential fishing spot by making a few casts with only a sinker tied to his line. "That helps me locate the channels I should fish and snags I need to avoid. If I lose a sinker or two in a spot, I know not to go there," he explains.
Ellenbecker relies on the same rig for practically all of his fishing. Rather than using the traditional method of hooking live baitfish through the back, he hooks the bait (usually a chub or sucker) on the lower side of the body, near the tail. This keeps them swimming upright and off the bottom more effectively than the back-hooking method.
He normally uses a slip-sinker rig consisting of a 1- to 3-ounce bell sinker, a plastic bead, a heavy swivel, a piece of monofilament leader and, depending on the size of his bait, a 3/0 to 5/0 hook. His favorite hook is a heavy bronze, wide-gap Eagle Claw (model LO42).
Ellenbecker arms himself with heavy gear, so he's prepared when a trophy takes the bait. He prefers a stout 6 1/2- to 7-foot muskie rod matched with an Ambassadeur 6500C reel.For fishing tight to the timber, he spools up with 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game line. For fishing below a low-head dam or other snag-free area, he may drop down to 20-pound test, which works better in strong current because it has less drag.
Although Ellenbecker catches more than his share of giant cats, he is a conservationist at heart, releasing almost all his catfish. He has proposed regulations to restrict the harvest of large cats; although those regulations have not yet been implemented, the state has commissioned flathead research that could provide the scientific basis for such regulations in the future.
Ellenbecker has also initiated a public-awareness program to encourage other anglers to release larger fish. Signs have been posted at sites he believes are threatened by over-fishing; they point out that a 10-pound flathead is typically at least 10 years old. He does not say anglers should release all cats, he simply would like them to limit their take of large catfish to preserve the quality of future fishing. Good ideas in today's world.