Having heard many times about the flatheads other fishermen caught on bluegills, James “Big Cat” Patterson used to wonder why these baitfish continually failed him. When the accomplished guide noticed he was consistently catching flatheads on other baitfish—sometimes with untouched bluegill-baited lines set beside them—he concluded that the problem wasn’t his technique or his spots; it was a matter of taste.
Although flatheads are opportunistic predators whose favorite prey is whatever swims past their mouths, anglers on certain waters have found that matching local forage can increase their catch rates. Patterson’s findings with Mississippi bluegills are a prime example. “There aren’t a lot of bluegills along the main channel of the Mississippi River, where I do most of my fishing,” he says.
Although small green sunfish, or “rice slicks” as they are known locally, work well in oxbows and other backwaters along the Mississippi where these little sunfish live, Patterson catches few flatheads when using these for bait in the main river channel. Instead, he goes with live skipjack, gizzard and threadfin shad, drum, buffalo and carp, which are common in the areas he fishes, especially near wing dams and revetment banks.
Not so a few states east, where Kevin Davis, guide and fish-camp operator on South Carolina’s legendary Santee-Cooper lakes, does the bulk of his flathead fishing. Although the world-famous cat waters have a highly diverse forage base and have been probed with virtually every kind of bait, perch and bluegills repeatedly come out on top.
Part of the reason certain baits might outperform others, especially on particular areas of larger fisheries, might be how flathead locations relate to baitfish patterns in a given water. For example, although Santee-Cooper flatheads may seem to prefer bluegills and white perch, it’s not for lack of other species. Lakes Marion and Moultrie have huge populations of shad and herring—where those species live, however, is crucial.
Most Santee-Cooper flatheads hold near woody cover along inundated channels, at the edges of the canal that links the two lakes, and around brush throughout Lake Moultrie. The water’s six shad and herring species, however, cruise the lake’s open water and are far less structure-oriented than bluegills and white perch. These species, as well as crappies, abound in the shallow, cover-rich flathead strongholds, and the cats gorge on them.
Just as Florida largemouths prefer wild shiners over bait-shop versions, Davis and other guides consistently find that flatheads typically take these offerings over shad and other live baits.
That’s a highly specific example, but experienced catmen like Davis and Patterson believe the principle can apply in more general terms across a range of waters. For example, in small rivers, prevalent forage species often include various chubs and suckers and some sunfish. In large rivers, shad and assorted rough fish often are more important. For medium-size rivers, bullheads, small carp and assorted sunfish species often fit the equation.
Coastal river systems commonly contain a huge variety of cat food, but forage species dominance varies by season, and flatheads sometimes follow suit. Eels and anadromous shad and herring dominate the menu when they run up the rivers to spawn, but redbreast sunfish rule between the seasonal runs. Because flatheads are accustomed to seeing a variety of species, veteran anglers on big tidal rivers such as North Carolina’s Cape Fear often rig several types of forage fish on their lines.
Size can also matter. Davis, for example, prefers palm-size bluegills on the Santee-Cooper lakes. Wherever you fish—even if it’s a water in which flatheads don’t seem to exhibit marked baitfish preferences, be sure to match your baits’ size to that of the primary forage. Resist the temptation to use huge baits—you’ll be eliminating fish.
To get a better feel for all aspects of a water’s forage makeup and where unusual concentrations of certain species might be, ask pointed questions in local bait shops, including what kinds of smaller fish anglers usually catch. Also speak with local fisheries biologists. Their information is invaluable.
Probably the best way to find suitable baits for any river or lake is to catch it fresh from the same water, whether by net or rod-and-reel. If a fish is reasonably sized, legal to use as bait and came from flathead cover, it’s probably perfect.
As always, it’s critical to remember that location and bait placement are the most important factors in getting flatheads to bite. Even on waters where flatheads seem to have baitfish preferences, they’re probably not going to swim past a bluegill three inches from their mouth for a skipjack a foot away, or vice versa. If you remember that and make necessary baitfish tweaks when unique situations warrant, you’ll be in for awesome action.
CATCHING FLATHEAD BAIT
White perch: Perch hold near the bottom in creeks and canals and over humps and points. To catch them, make a modified drop-shot rig, using just enough weight to hold bottom, and tie three or four No. 8 hooks to the line with Palomar knots. Put the bottom hook 6 inches above the weight, and each additional hook spaced every 6 inches above that. String half an earthworm on each hook, drop the rig to the bottom and drift with a tight line.
Bluegills: Crickets, redworms and little balls of white bread make great bait for bluegills. Use simple float rigs, and fish around shallow cover. Where chumming is allowed, throw a couple of pieces of bread around a dock or a blowdown. Crowds of ’gills typically show up quickly, making for easy bait collection.
Gizzard shad: Catching gizzard shad requires a cast net or long-handled dip net. Look in eddy areas within tailwaters, beneath bridges, along revetment banks and on flats in creeks for schools of shad, which often darken large areas of the surface. If the shad are deep, you’ll need to use your sonar to locate them.
Chubs: Assorted chub and sucker species make great flathead bait in waters where these species abound. Put a small piece of earthworm on a No. 14 long-shank hook and drift it in the current. Try split-shot rigs, bouncing the offering off bottom, and simple float rigs with the bait a few feet beneath the surface.
Baitfish reminder: Species that may be used as bait, and legal means for attaining them, vary dramatically by state. Check regulations before stringing anything on a hook.
WANT TO GO?
To fish with James “Big Cat” Patterson, call: (901) 383-8674. To learn more about Santee-Cooper or plan a trip with Kevin Davis, visit NAFC Links or call: (843) 753-2231.