The rodtip twitched slightly. I had cast the bait cross-current less than two minutes earlier, so I suspected it was still rolling along the bottom, but I had to know for sure.
Holding my breath, I braced my boot against the gunnel and grabbed the rod, making sure not to put additional tension on the line. A few seconds later I felt the taught line slowly pump down a few inches. “It’s a flathead,” I proudly announced as the circle hook sunk into something so solid that the rod grudgingly stopped halfway into my usual swing. “It’s huge!” I exclaimed, passing the rod to my eager client, Jeff.
He’d been waiting for a monster like this all day and had missed two brutes just 20 minutes earlier. The angry flathead buckled the rod and peeled line off the spool. Jeff started pumping it like he was strapped to a fighting chair on a tuna boat.
“Easy with that fish. You’ve got all the time in the world.” I said patting him on the shoulder.
“I don’t want it to get hung up!” he countered.
“Don’t worry, there’s nothing out there to hang on.”
After a monumental tug of war, Jeff brought the fish alongside the boat. I sized up its bottom lip, thrust both hands into its gapingmaw and heaved it aboard.
“Wow, what a fish,” Jeff kept saying as we examined its size. Not only was the cat 4 feet long, but it was stocky from whiskers to tail. Its massive bottom jaw capped a cavernous mouth that could easily swallow a Christmas goose. The dorsal fin was as big as Jeff’s hand and a slab crappie could hide behind its tail fin with room to spare.
After a few photos, we released the fish and watched it disappear into the murky Mississippi River.
Reading that, it would be easy to assume that the big cat capped a banner day and had come off a gnarled root ball in a typical flathead haunt. But that would be dead wrong.
Fact is, it had been a tough-bites and we didn’t hook the brute in anything close to a stereotypical flathead spot. But there was a method to our madness—we were following an ultra-aggressive approach I refer to as “gridding,” which I’ve refined over the past five years.
In its simplest terms, gridding involves taking a section of water and mentally dividing it into a grid of equal-size squares—like a chessboard. That basic concept isn’t nearly as difficult to master as the intricacies of when, where and how to do it.
That’s because, unlike so many tactics we’re taught, gridding is anything but a first-string tactic. It is only practical in certain situations, and how it works isn’t easily defined.
Why is such a niche concept so important?
Because it is the way to catch big flatheads when all else fails.
Be A Cat Whisperer
Gridding works to a degree virtually always, but it is most potent when you have a clear picture of the cats’ strike zone, location in relation to cover, and whether the fish are moving or stationary.
The first step in doing this is to pay close attention to how cats react to your baits. Flatheads display different moods daily within their detection zone, which I envision as an elliptical bubble that extends a few feet right and left of the fish, about 4 feet above and approximately 10 feet from the middle of its pectoral fins out in front of the cat.
Place a bait within this zone and the cat knows its there. The important question is whether the flathead is willing to move for your offering.
How fish react to baits within that response zone will tell me if gridding is a practical option, and which of three general types of gridding I need to use to be successful. I also need to draw conclusions quickly in order to exploit the situation.
This is critical: Grid at the wrong time or at the improper speed and you’ll not be very efficient. Use it too late in the trip and there may not be enough time to cover enough water tomake the plan work.
If the traditional tactic of placing baits directly in front of heavy cover isn’t working, it’s time to begin what I consider the first phase of gridding. This involves focusing less on the cover itself and placing baits out and away.
If you’re still taking a few flatheads (that are hitting aggressively) on coveroriented baits, but also a few off the cover, visualize where the cover is and grid the remaining area within casting distance. Visualizing the grid keeps track of where baits have been, maximizing fishing time and eliminating unproductive water.
How large of a grid you overlay depends on how the cats have been behaving. When flatheads have been hitting baits a good distance from the cover with a solid “pop,” and move the bait with authoritative pulls, it suggests they are willing to momentarily leave their holding spots and move to a bait. In response, I’ll grid the area in 10- to 12-foot squares. If baits are sitting untouched for 15 to 20 minutes before they take a hit, this further reinforces what the flatheads are doing.
When the time period is up for an individual grid square, move the bait into a new one by dragging it toward the boat, hopping it along in the current or recasting.
Phase 1 gridding usually produces more flatheads than the following two phases because it employs the best of both worlds—flatheads are likely to be located tight to cover on most days, but often set up far to the side or in front on the same days.
If it flops, however, and produces just a few flatheads, I keep some baits near cover and grid with the outside rods only. If fish on cover don’t bite, or only grab and spit my baits without moving (a territorial, not a feeding, response), and the baits are only taking a few hits within a couple minutes of the cast, I move to the second phase of gridding.
This approach uses the same basic principles as the first, but varies in location and intensity. I move farther from cover and focus on areas with moderate current in depths from 10 to 17 feet. Cover-free basin areas, channel ledges and small isolated holes are top spots.
Although every new spot is an experiment, the activity you saw during Phase 1 should have supplied enough insight on what the cats are doing to change tactics. For example, consider one of the most likely Phase 2 scenarios: The only flatheads you’ve boated bit more than 20 feet from cover, and those fish were unwilling to move for a bait and were only hooked because you set the hook immediately after the first sign of a strike.
This should tell you that the cats aren’t moving or aggressive; if they were, you would have caught at least some fish on baits that sat more than 15 minutes.
Knowing this, decrease the soak time for one grid square from 15 to 20 minutes to less than 10 minutes, and decrease the grid size by about half (to about six feet square). In essence, the cats have shown that you need to hit more bottom area in less time, and this approach lets you do just that.
To begin, anchor the boat about 20 yards from the leading edge of an isolated hole, drop-off, basin area or channel ledge on a flat that is at least seven feet deep. Initially cast the baits as far you can, fanning them out and covering as much water as possible.
After 10 minutes, pull each of your rodtips from their 3 o’clock position up to 12 o’clock, then take up the slack and return them to 3 o’clock. This will give each bait about a five-foot hop. The current will swing the bait downstream and into the adjacent grid square. If you’re also running baits 45 degrees to the side of the boat, pull each up a bit, letting the sinker roll and settle into the next square.
Repeat this three to four times on each anchor till you’ve covered the grid. If you get a few hits or catch a fish, invest more time and work the area more than three times before moving to the next area. Your next anchor should begin just downstream of where your farthest casts landed on previous anchor.
If Phase 2 doesn’t produce, it probably means a recent rise in water is washing too much current through classic flathead habitat, forcing the fish to move, or the cats are simply so inactive that they won’t take a bait. Whatever the case, it’s time to shift into high gear and Phase 3.
Its tactics are more like a military operation than a fishing strategy. It may require anchoring as many as 30 times and casting each rod more than four times on each anchor position—all within the last few hours of a trip.
That’s because it involves breaking from conventional spots, leaving cover and structure and quickly gridding vast, seemingly featureless flats.
Think of these areas as featureless, however, and you’ll do yourself a disservice. In rivers with good current like the Mississippi, sand gets pushed up into rolling, dune-like structures on large flats. Look for these “dunescapes” on inside bends near the main channel or between wingdams that are spaced far enough for the current to be heavy during high-water periods, but settle to moderate flows during normal levels.
These “roller coaster” runs can be packed with flatheads seeking the right current, especially during the kind of high-water episodes that would render traditional, Phase 1 and Phase 2 tactics useless. Although the subtle dunes don’t look like much, cats often position on bottom, just downstream of the humps. There they find desirable current and a perfect ambush point for prey washed over the lip of the dune.
Grid these areas correctly and it’s not unusual to catch more than 10 flatheads in just a few hours.
When you’ve found a potential flat, motor over the area at about quarterthrottle, watching your sonar carefully. Look for the bottom dropping and rising at consistent intervals, toward the main channel from seven to 12 feet, down into 20 to 25. Fish those spots first.
Motor to the upstream edge and anchor using about a 20-pound, fourtine anchor. This style holds a big jonboat securely on even a short rope, but be sure to have at least 100 feet of line. It lets you anchor short on the first anchor, then let out all the rope for the second, which saves time—two anchors for the time and effort of one.
Grid the area within casting range, reducing the square size to less than four feet. Let your baits soak for less than five minutes; drag, hop and recast each rod until you’ve covered each square on that stretch of the flat. Pay extremely close attention to where the baits have been placed before and listen to what the flatheads are telling you through their behavior.
Although you’ll never know exactly where you’ll find flatheads when you begin the pattern, you can slowly pin down their location by eliminating areas as you fish. For example, if you don’t connect with fish after a few anchors where you’re tossing a bait in the main channel, a bait on the ledge, and four more scattered within the sand humps, move laterally toward shore. The depth is usually shallower, but you’ll find a different current speed, which tends to be the factor on which these cats key.
Once you’ve eliminated current speeds that aren’t producing fish, and identified the belt of currents that are, you can keep moving directly downstream for as much as several hundred yards (depending on the size of the flat) and likely stay on fish.
Hooking Phantom Flatheads
When fishing Phase 3, you’re essentially dealing with inactive fish that aren’t moving to eat a bait, and thus aren’t going anywhere after they hit it. That’s why it’s essential to intensely examine each bait when you reel in between casts.
If baits from rods that showed a suspicious bump that never developed into a typical strike have flathead bite marks on them, you’re missing fish.
The most common giveaway of one of these phantom strikes is if the rodtip taps slightly then stops wiggling entirely. The tap occurs when the flathead first picks up the bait, after which an inactive fish will just sit with the bait in its mouth, pumping the rod down just a few inches, if at all. Jump to a rod that shows these telltale signs and pick it out of the holder without changing the tension on the line. Feel for subtle pulls and for the erratic vibration of the struggling baitfish. The lack of a wiggle doesn’t always mean its time to set the hook, but coupled with unnatural tension, it means a fish is there. Set the hook immediately before the cat spits the bait.
A System, Not A Scramble
Gridding isn’t just frantically flailing baits and haphazardly covering water— it’s a systematic approach that consistently pinpoints flatheads that aren’t doing what they’re “supposed” to. Whether it’s because of their mood or something else, these fish break the rules, and that’s exactly why they’re virtually impossible to locate or fish effectively using conventional tactics. Gridding, however, evens the playing field. So the next time finicky flatheads stump you, gut it out and really take it to them. It’s neither easy, nor simple, but the system, used correctly, will put big cats into your arms when nothing else will.
While Phase 1 gridding, the author stays close to traditional flathead-holding cover, and even places near it. But he also subdivides the water within a cast length cross-current and downstream of his boat, which he anchors approximately 20 yards upstream of the cover. The size of his grid squares depends on how the cats have been behaving, but is generally 10 to 12 feet. The cats are most likely positioned near the cover, not moving around it, so he lets baits sit for 15 to 20 minutes before recasting, hopping or dragging them to a new grid square.
Phase 2: Structural
In Phase 2, the author focuses on cover-free basins, channel ledges and isolated holes with moderate current in depths from 10 to 17 feet. Depending on cat behavior, he decreases the soak time for one grid square to less than 10 minutes and cuts the grid size to six feet. That’s because if he’s resorted to this phase, it means cats aren’tmoving to baits,making longer intervals useless. He anchors 20 yards from the leading edge of the structure then casts the baits as far he can, fanning them out and covering as much water as possible. Reposition the baits till you’ve covered each grid square.
Phase 3: Open
If Phase 2 doesn’t produce, the author abandons conventional spots and grids vast areas where sand has been pushed up into rolling, dune-like structures on inside bends near the main channel, or between widely spaced wingdams. Hit stretches where the bottom gradually drops from seven to 12 feet, dipping into 20 and 25 toward the main channel. Flatheads here usually hold on bottom, just downstream of the dunes, using them as ambush sites, although many fish will also position themselves near the tops of the humps. Grid the area within casting range, reducing the square size to less than four feet. Let your baits soak for less than five minutes, then move each until you’ve covered the entire grid.
Why Not Drift?
When encountering scattered, inactive flatheads, some anglers drift-fish or troll the same areas I choose to grid. Although these methods certainly produce a few fish, I feel they fail to manage time well. And as a result, these approaches catch fewer fish than gridding. Flatheads in relatively inactive feeding moods rarely make reaction strikes. I’ve found that, if they eat at all, they ambush prey in a slow, methodical manner. For example, I’ve often placed a bait just inches from a flathead’s face, and it almost always takes two minutes or more before the cat finally bites. Admittedly, anglers catch sedentary flatheads while drifting and trolling, but the pattern doesn’t seem consistent. I’m much more confident in giving fish a two- to 15-minute time period than whizzing a bait past them.