A forest of stubble shaded the angler’s sun-reddened face and his hip boots must have been fused to his jeans after three nonstop days of wear. He’d slept sprawled across his boat deck the past two nights, dozing between the howls of coyotes—if you can really call that sleeping. After all that, he still held the hulking baitcaster with the intensity of someone who’d just started fishing that morning.
I’m dedicated—my family would say obsessed—but fishing with this guy was humbling. My boots hadn’t felt anything but boat deck and riverbottom mud since the previous morning and I was feeling it—mentally and physically. But as the already reserved angler’s words trailed off and I saw his eyes lock onto his green mono suddenly twitching in the current, I knew exactly why I was there.
Let’s back up. I was in that boat, that morning, on that stretch of lonely prairie river all because a few years earlier, two brothers from Hull, Iowa, Life Member Ryan and member Vaughn Wassink, began flooding Club Headquarters with Catch & Release Contest photos of huge flatheads and channel cats. Today, the contest files bristle with their entries.
Then, during summer of 2004, I sent out a request for select members to send me a description of their top techniques—for what separates them from the masses when it comes to catching more and bigger fish. Most responded—some with an email describing a unique, go-to rig; others with a letter detailing a hot presentation they pioneered.
The Wassink brothers sent an 11-page, handwritten masterpiece of flathead fishing gospel, complete with instructional photos, detailed illustrations and hardcore information on how to catch huge cats. It was a testament to their fishing fanaticism.
I knew I had to fish with them.
So last summer, after playing a bit of telephone tag, Ryan offered me a spot in the boat during one of their weekly trips to the Minnesota River, where he and Vaughn have fished hard for more than a decade.
Ryan, a 28-year-old bricklayer now living in Sioux Center, Iowa, fishes cats every weekend from late April through fall—down only slightly from the five days a week he put in before he married his wife Jean in June 2004. “Getting married changes things, I suppose. She’s still pretty lenient, though,” he laughs.
Younger brother Vaughn, 25, earned a wildlife and fisheries degree at South Dakota State University and now works for Wynia Fish Replicas in Spicer, Minnesota (access their link via NAFC Links at fishingclub.com), an award-winning replica taxidermy studio.
Although jobs have geographically distanced the brothers, they still get together about every other weekend.
The mission on this overnight trip together, we decided, would be to fish the “Wassink Way” for trophy-class flatheads. To make matters more interesting, we added one crucial catch—a deadline! We wanted to boat at least one big fish in time to have award-winning fishing photographer Bill Lindner meet us on location to shoot the cover photo for this issue.
We had till noon on Day 2 to produce a fish because he was scheduled for another photo session the next day. On top of that, because Vaughn was in Canada on a pike trip, he wouldn’t be able to meet us until late next morning.
The plan was for Ryan to fish solo for two days, then meet me at a remote riverbottom boat launch near his core stretch of flathead water at 9 a.m. on Day 1.
The pressure was on, but we were ready.
The Best Laid Plans…
Unfortunately, a late-summer cold front had hammered the cats the morning I met Ryan. He was unfazed. I wasn’t surprised.
Each summer, he boats an average of 1,000 pounds of flatheads, and al-though he meets most of them when the stars shine, many go down in daytime. That’s thanks to his run-and-gun approach through an ever-changing milk run of spots.
We immediately began hopping from spot to spot—mostly deep, snag-filled bends and runs, fishing 3-inch chunks of cut sucker under 11/2-ounce slip sinkers. It didn’t take long for us to put several good channels, including an absolute brute that went 19 pounds, into the boat, but as the day progressed, the flatheads refused to cooperate.
Despite the rough crowd, Ryan’s total dedication to all things catfish was ever present—even in his gear. It was impossible, for example, to not notice all the boat’s camouflage; the hull, the seats—even his gear bags—they all sported waterfowl camo. It was easy to picture a bag of decoys, a limit of mallards and a damp yellow Lab piled where the cooler of cutbait sat.
“I suppose this is a stupid question,” I asked, “but are you a big duck hunter?”
A wry smile spread across his whiskers. “No, I’ve never hunted ducks in my life,” he laughed. “It probably doesn’t look like it with the duck boat, but this was exactly what I needed for flathead fishing—right size, shallow draft, right layout—so I got it,” he said with a matter-of-factness that made me believe he would have bought the “Queen Mary” if it suited his catfishing needs.
After fishing downstream through a maze of snags and bends throughout the day, we eventually began backtracking through Wassink’s spots as the sun began to touch the western treetops. Then, we anchored in a bottle-necked flat between two deep, snag-filled holes.
“The trick to choosing a night spot—any spot, really—is to picture the river without any water in it,” Ryan said while adjusting the anchor rope. “Then it’s just a matter of thinking where you’d be and go if you were a flathead. Take this area—it’s a perfect funnel. Above us and below us are cover-filled holding areas. To get from one to another, cats have to come right by our baits.”
For this spot, we re-rigged with 3-ounce slip sinkers, 10/0 circle hooks and 10- to 12-inch live suckers, and pitched them to the shoal between the holes. The blackness wrapped around us.
Nighttime is traditionally the right time for the Wassinks. However, ask Ryan and he’ll tell you that simply fishing a few hours of the night shift doesn’t cut it. “Most people just aren’t patient enough,” he says. “A lot of guys fish till midnight or 1, then head home. That’s a mistake—most of our biggest fish have come between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.”
Sit in a boat with him, and you’ll understand exactly what he means by “patience.” You’ll also likely find you don’t have it by comparison. While he donned a sweatshirt and calmly crossed his legs like he was sitting in a living room recliner, I noticed I fidgeted and moved more than I’d ever realized.
By the time I started to hear leathery bat wings flapping above us, it was as dark as Irish beer—and after 12 hours of staring at the swirling currents, my eyes could barely focus. Still, I thought I spotted my rodtip flex in the low light. Probably nothing, I thought.
But as I stared, I actually did see the tip arc in several quick jerks before diving toward the water in a steady pull. The clicker began to drone.
“He’s there—hit him,” Ryan hissed from the dark. I pulled the rod from the holder and wrenched the reel handle, tightening down on what felt like a stock car speeding away from me.
The circle hook did its job and the fish charged downriver toward a skeleton of cottonwood timber piled up along a bend. Just then, I felt the line see-saw through the cover and suddenly go slack. The flathead was gone, the line sliced neatly somewhere above the sinker.
I was livid but more worried that I had disappointed my host for ruining our shot at a monster. Ryan somehow remained as mellow as always. “That’s okay, there will be more,” he said, reaching for another sucker while I tied up a new rig.
But there weren’t. The wee hours of the night passed dark, cold and aside from one small flathead and a few timid bites, fishless. I felt about two inches tall for blowing our chance.
Several hours and a sunrise later, here we were, back at the last hole before the boat landing, where Vaughn was probably waiting for us. When dawn broke, we’d pulled anchor and headed back upstream, hitting the run of holes we’d fished the day before. As always, Ryan did everything in his power to put us on fish, even hopping out of the boat to push us into difficult-to-reach waters.
But now there was a glimmer—Ryan’s line was twitching in a way completely different than we’d seen in the past day. Looking like a bird dog on point, he stared holes in the sandpaper-silty water of the Minnesota and flexed forward at the waist.
A split-second later he snapped back, setting the hook (Ryan prefers standard hooks to circles during daylight) into a fish that doubled over his heavy-action stick. The reserved man suddenly talked in excited gasps. “Flathead—pretty good one.”
And it was—a 20-plus-pound black-and-tan brute. After a white-knuckle net job and a long-awaited handshake we tucked the cat into the livewell and motored up to the boat launch. As expected, Vaughn was there waiting for us—and of course he was already fishing, despite the fact he was going on no sleep after an all-night drive.
Energized by our success, I raced to the nearest town and made the call to Lindner for him to meet us. While he made the trek, Vaughn, Ryan and I got back on the river, making a long run upstream to spots we hadn’t hit the previous day. On our second setup, we lobbed cut suckers to an elm deadfall and settled in.
As we enjoyed the warming sunshine, the Wassinks proved they’re typical brothers, kidding each other about everything from their choice in equipment to fishing ability. “He thinks he’s a better fisherman than I am,” Ryan chuckled.
The minutes passed quickly, though, and it wasn’t long before we faced another time crunch. It’d been a couple hours since the call to Lindner, and so we had only moments before we’d have to pack up and run back to the launch. Just as Vaughn looked at his cell phone for a final time check, the clicker on my reel started to whine as a cat began peeling line off the spool. “He’s there,” both Wassinks said in unison.
I set the hook, and like the fish the night before, the cat cut downstream, obliterating the distance to the timber. “Keep him out of there,” Vaughn called out from behind me.
I kept the pressure on, sometimes feeling the line wind and unwind around the tangle of sunken deadfall, but I eventually turned the fish back toward the boat.
A torrent of adrenaline had turned my knees and forearms to mush by the time the leopard-spotted flathead surfaced at the side of the boat, scarcely hooked in the corner of the mouth. Ryan hoisted it aboard—that’s when I started shaking.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Lindner had heard our shouts from the road as we held the 34-pound flathead high and snapped a few hero shots. We arrived at the launch as Linder pulled in and the photo session commenced.
Dedicated catch-and-release catmen, the Wassinks handled the cats gently while Lindner snapped away, and it was gratifying to see both cats swim away strongly.
After the photos were shot, cats released, and mission accomplished, deep gray clouds gathered in the West and wind poured into the river valley. It didn’t take a meteorologist to see rain coming.
“Weather permitting, are you planning on spending the night on the boat and fishing for the rest of the week?” I asked as I gathered my gear for the trip home. Before the words left my mouth, I realized I already knew the answer.
The Wassinks looked at the sky, smiled and replied, “We’ll be here even if the weather’s not permitting.”
I should have known better.