On my summer guide trips on the Mississippi River near Davenport, Iowa, my clients boat an average of 10 flatheads per trip, and some of those are real trophies. Last season’s biggest fish topped 70 pounds and many went between 25 and 60. Surprising to most of my clients is the fact that we find and catch these fish exclusively during the daytime.
It’s no fluke. Through 20 years of trial and error, I’ve learned that flatheads don’t always move from cover and feed at night. My first clue was that while nightfishing, I caught more flatheads in daytime-holding areas such as sunken trees, boulder fields and traditional holes, than in nighttime zones such as flats near a deep hole or the lips of drop-offs.
I began fishing specific spots with the right combination of cover and current during the day and caught as many or more flatheads as during the ink-black hours of night. Years of refining techniques have let me put together a step-by-step pattern that will help you catch more and bigger flatheads in daylight.
Pick The Right River
The daytime pattern doesn’t play out equally well on every river. The bite on a small river that lacks cover, for example, will pale compared to that of the Mississippi. Still, daylight fishing will increase your odds.
The first step to ensuring success is narrowing your search to stretches of river with very diverse habitat—scour holes below dams, wing dams, drop-offs, humps, islands, side channels, sunken wood, expansive flats and holes.
But don’t get too distracted by such structure and cover. Flatheads are first and foremost current-oriented; cover comes second. They will sit on a featureless flat if it provides the right current and food.
What constitutes the “right” current? As a rule of thumb in normal water levels, it’s the fringe areas of the fastest current. Generally, the ideal flow speed is halfway between the river’s fastest and slowest currents. Whenever you catch a high-noon cat, note the current velocity, but realize it’s often not the same on the bottom as on the surface. Obstructions slow current near the bottom, creating subtle bands of current that attract flatheads.
The best way to find and capitalize on such spots is to pay close attention to how the bait feels as it falls—note the “weight” of the line and the vibrations of the current pulling on the rig. If you catch a good flathead on a hump with current that “feels” a certain way, then key on similar spots with the same current.
If the current increases significantly, look for fish on the fringes or the downstream side of the structure. If it increases more than 20 percent in a day or two, cats may vacate the area, but they usually won’t move far. Scour the closest area with decent cover and current speed similar to where you previously caught fish.
Make A Milk Run
To increase my odds of catching daytime flatheads, I form a list of diverse areas that I’ll visit in particular order throughout a given day. Each spot will tell me something about how the cats are behaving. I start out in the spot most likely to hold active fish, then move down the list as the day progresses and conditions change.
In general, if the flow is slow, I focus on the area close to the dam. If the flow is high, I’ll fish more downstream.
I can’t stress the importance of not spending too much time in a specific area. Flatheads aren’t movers—if you’ve anchored in the right spot and cast your baits near actively feeding fish, you’ll probably get bit within 10 minutes. If you don’t, then move on; the fish aren’t there.
Or, if you’re fishing four rods and one rod catches a cat while the other three sit for more than 10 minutes, re-cast them.
Spending more than an hour on a spot during the day is far too long unless you’re consistently boating fish. Rather, fish an area quickly and thoroughly, then eliminate it or add it to your milk run.
Flathead activity is different from day to day, and even by the hour, so be ready for anything in terms of strikes. Sometimes flatheads smoke the baits; other times they barely move the rodtip.
Also be flexible so you can make strategy changes throughout the day. Use your milk run to hit a new hotspot, say if dam operators begin putting out more water through one gate, changing the flow characteristics.
Above all, have confidence—remind yourself that flatheads do eat during daytime. What’s more, unlike in the nighttime, you’re holding the cards—you can switch spots easier, see better, perform fishing tasks faster, and place baits with the utmost accuracy.