The gold-colored instrument Denny Halgren plunked into the water looked like a cross between a ladle, spatula and something you might find aboard a flying saucer. The quick “ker-plunk” it caused was followed by a gurgling swoosh and a splash. “It’s all about the sound,” Halgren said.
“Does it really work?” I asked.
“You tell me in 15 minutes,” he replied.
Although the odd-looking instrument and activity looked bizarre to me, Halgren was actually wielding a tool successfully used for centuries to catch European Wels cats: a “clonk.” Old World anglers plunge them into the water to produce a combination of sound and vibration that stirs inactive catfish into investigating the area.
Despite their longtime popularity in Europe, clonks haven’t largely crossed the Atlantic until recently, when serious catmen like Halgren began experimenting with their effect on our catfish and fine-tuning uniquely North American clonking techniques.
The American Test
It’s been a long road. Although Halgren was intrigued when he began studying clonking and its apparent effect on Wels catfish, especially when he casually noticed the outward similarities between them and American flatheads, he was initially skeptical that clonking could cut it in America. “A flathead isn’t going to leave the bottom for anything,” he remembers saying.
But one night about 15 years ago began a process that would eventually change his mind. Halgren was fishing Illinois’ Rock River in a spot he knew held monster flatheads. He placed his baits perfectly on the perimeter of the cover and settled in. Nothing happened.
More time passed, and still no activity. Finally, convinced fish were there but simply unwilling to bite, he reached for a wooden clonk he’d been waiting for the right opportunity to try. He tried several stroke techniques, eventually settling on one that seemed to produce the most vibration and sound. A few minutes later, he boated a 40-pound flathead.
Was it coincidence or the clonk? To answer that question, Halgren began extensive experimentation that continues today. “I fish flatheads almost every- day of the season—sometimes as many as 120 days, many of them back-to-back. I know where big flatheads live, what presentations to use, and am consistently accurate with bait placement.”
Such familiarity with his go-to catfish waters and experience fishing these spots in virtually every set of conditions gives him a unique opportunity to test clonking.
Admittedly, this isn’t simple. No one can get into a catfish’s head and know what’s making it bite, so it might be easy to initially think test results are inherently unreliable. But Halgren’s careful methods, combined with his knowledge of catfish behavior, make his findings speak volumes.
He believes flatheads fall into two very general behavior patterns: feeding actively in specific areas, or inactive and holding tight within those same areas. The rate at which you get bites indicates the pattern.
When cats are feeding actively and moving, you’ll get brief bursts of activity separated by dead periods of varying lengths. And when cats are inactive, you simply won’t get bit, or bites will come so rarely that it will be impossible to attribute them to any particular pattern.
In the first scenario, says Halgren, it’s impossible to tell if clonking is working, because it’s unnecessary. Actively feeding cats are going to eat a bait dropped in front of their face, regardless of clonking.
Because of this, Halgren only clonks when he believes he’s on truly inactive cats—clonking at other times would lead to skewed results. “Some days big flatheads simply won’t take a bait,” he says. “I started using the clonk at these times and was amazed by the results.”
Although he’s caught many fish while clonking, he says five trophy flatheads stick out in his mind as fish that were undeniably caught as a result of clonking: a 40-pound flathead pulled from a sunken tree, a 25-pound fish he landed while being interviewed by Illinois Department of Natural Resources writer P.J. Perea, and 42, 59, and 70 pounders caught on film during two taping sessions.
In all of these cases and more, Halgren was fishing high-quality spots he was intimately familiar with. His baits were placed properly and fish were there. After thoroughly fishing the cover or structure and not getting any strikes, Halgren would clonk, repeating the motion three to five times in 60 seconds and then stopping. Within minutes, fish hit—although the baits hadn’t moved, nor had conditions changed.
Halgren isn’t alone, nor are flatheads the only cat species that cutting-edge anglers are triggering with clonking. Guide Mike Cook of Wichita, Kansas, is another clonking pioneer who uses the technique on channel cats. “I’ve primarily used it on tough days, when the fish weren’t active,” he says. “During cold fronts, for example.” Cook says the clonk is an invaluable tool at times like these. “I won’t be getting bites for a long period, then clonk the area and get a flurry of activity,” he says.
He has also had success with clonking cold-front blues. “If I know a spot holds fish and I don’t get bit in 15 to 20 minutes, I’ll clonk it,” he says. “We once had a cold front come through and the temperature dropped 35 degrees in just a few days. I had marked a lot of fish in a brush pile but couldn’t get a bite.” Faced with the bad conditions, he used the clonk about half a dozen times, and pulled four big blues from that brush within a half-hour, plus a few channel cats.
Despite results like that, it’s important to emphasize that the clonk is not a catfish “caller” in the literal sense of the word. If you look at these tools like that, they will hurt your efforts more than help them, because they will prevent you from giving necessary attention to other aspects of your presentation.
Even on its best days, clonking probably won’t bring distant fish to your boat. It will only work when you’ve located fish and haved placed your baits right in front of them. Think of it as a cat stimulant—a catalyst to spur inactive fish to bite.
However it works, there must be something to it. Like so many times in the past, the evidence dangled on the end of Halgren’s line as he deftly lipped a 30-pound flathead within minutes of introducing me to clonking that day on the Rock. If seeing is believing, hearing is just as convincing.
Where to buy Clonks
Telephone: (877) 749-1292
The Predastore Webshop
2454 BA Netherlands
Telephone: 06 212 67-828