Hooking into a flathead catfish should be characterized as the title refers. “The Fresh water freight train”. The shear brute strength and fight these fish give are challenging to say the least. Keeping the fish from taking you to a snag or jagged rocks once hooked is the challenging part. A forty pound flathead does what it wants, so using good equipment to turn and control the fish is a must.
One of Kentucky’s least talked about flathead Catfishing river systems that actually hold our state record for flathead catfish is the green river. Not the lake!
But the river system, that stretches over 360 miles through central Kentucky and joins the Ohio River near Henderson Kentucky. I believe there is a 100 pounder waiting to be caught between Central City and Munfordville Kentucky.
Targeting and catching a flathead catfish is a little more time consuming than fishing for the channel cats or blue catfish. I would categorize targeting flatheads as more of a stalk and hunt, understanding there patterns and feeding habits much like deer hunting, figuring out where and when to intercept them.
Flatheads are loners and very territorial and their habits of ambush feeding is somewhat different that other catfish species however they are also an opportunist when it comes to feeding as is all catfish, but their appetite tends to be a bit more finicky than the other catfish species.
Most folks think flatheads can only be caught at night but for the guys who chase the flatheads will tell you different. Flatheads can be taken in the day; you just have to put the bait in front of them where they hold up during the day which is generally heavy cover. Flathead prefer live bait over the dead bait, however they will take a piece of fresh and I mean fresh cut, still bleeding piece of cut bait.
A flathead catfish will take up residence in or around a good baitfish attracter such as rock piles of log jams and protect and ward off any competing flatheads, generally the bigger fish calls the shots.
Other good ambush points are tributaries that feed the main river, scour holes, drops and ledges along the river channel, flathead will lay tight against the ledges and wait on an unsuspecting prey to pass by for the ambush. A drop in the contour of the river bed as small as 1 ft. can hold a forty lb flathead.
Flatheads will tolerate current but prefer some slack water. I will generally target eddies, current breaks and current seams in the spring and summer when there is current flow. These types of places allow the flatheads to rest and take advantage of the food that washes by them in the current.
But this time of year the green river is pretty much void of current which makes anchoring on a hole or brush pile a little more difficult. A double anchor technique will be required to fish these spots efficiently.
The equipment required for targeting these fresh water freight trains is a medium heavy seven foot rod, either a bait cast or spin casting combo which ever you prefer, spooled with at least 65 lb braided fishing line. The heavy pound test will help you pull the flathead away from cover or possible snags.
I use a 50 lb. mono leader with a #9 Mustad demon circle hook. If I do get snagged the leader will break before the mainline keeping me from having to retie the whole rig again, I just replace the leader and hook and I’m fishing again quickly.
The best rig for search for monster flatheads is the slip rig /Carolina rig, it allows the flathead to take the bait and feel little resistance. I like to use a short leader and at least a 4 oz egg or no roll sinker, the heavier weight and shorter leader helps keep the lively baitfish from swimming of into nearby cover getting you tangled up.
The bite of the flathead is not at all like other species of catfish, and I think this is why a lot of anglers miss them.
The first indication of a flathead bite might be a short subtle pull of the rod and a pause if the fish is interested after that you will get another slow pull with a shorter pause, this is when you should carefully pick up the rod and get ready.
As the fish takes the bait and you feel a strong steady pull as if he’s just swimming off which it is, this is when you just start reeling, slowly putting pressure against the fish and let the circle hook do its job and hook up. Setting the hook while using a circle hook is not recommended, you will lose the fish every time if you pull back hard and to set the hook.
The bite may even be more subtle if you happen to put your bait close to one that is tucked in cover. A lot of times when that happens the flathead will move out take the bait, you will see that initial pull down and that’s all, giving you the indication that he didn’t take the bait.
But you have sit on that spot and had no action and you decide to move to another spot, you start reeling in your rods and the one that got that subtle bite but no commitment you thought, has a fish on the other end.
What happens is, you have put your bait close to where it’s laying and it eased out took your bait and just backed back into the cover only moving a bit, the flathead is the dominate fish and is at the top of the food chain and doesn’t have to swim away from home with the bait like other species do.
Usually the fish that you catch like that has swallowed the hook.
The best baits for flatheads are shad or pan fish. I prefer the pan fish because they are easy to catch and will stay alive on a hook a lot longer than shad. Hook the bait in the tail portion at the top near the dorsal fin. Sometimes I will cut the bait to make it bleed and create a scent trail.
In the summer months I will target the flatheads at night simply because of the heat factor, fishing shallower water around cover but as fall rolls around and the water begins to cool I will target them in their deep water lairs throughout the day.
The bite of this freshwater freight train will be subtle but the fight will absolutely be powerful and full steam ahead.