How To Successfully Fish For Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish

In a perfect world, every angler would have no shortage of big fish to catch from one day to the next. But the reality is far from perfect. At the end of the day, what are you left with?

Me, I'm left with one thing: gut-busting meat that makes a chef out of just about any other fish I put it in.

But what about those days when you have no idea what the heck to do, and you're the only person standing at the end of a long drift net with two jugs of bluegill, a cardboard sign, and a battered old beat-up backpack?

That's when things get rough.

Which is why I like doing flats fishing so much.


Fishing for Flathead Catfish Is All About Reading the Water

River image

Places I like to fish on flathead catfish: the Kansas river, the Missouri river, the Bitterroot river, or anywhere flatheads can live—like ranch lakes or creek mouths.


In some places, you can find just a few, and in some, you can only fish at certain times of the year. As a guide, I like to fish the higher elevations and the shallows, for that reason. One place I'm always interested in is a place called Big Brainer Lake in Worland, Wyoming. It has a huge surface area, tremendous weeds, and all the flats fish you could want.


In this article, I'm going to share the best way to know exactly what's going on underwater at any given spot and in any given river to maximize my chances of catching these amazing creatures.


It's not like I've got the greatest memory or even a high IQ. If I can't remember it, the odds are the fish won't remember it either. They have to be able to see the bait on the bottom to be able to track it and take it. They have to know that the bait means food and that it's only going to be there for a few seconds before it disappears underwater. The catfish use their eyeballs to determine what's going on underneath them. They can also tell that the food that's swimming in front of them is full of energy, so they can understand that they need to chase down the bait to get to it.


They also rely on sound. I know, you're probably thinking "What? What do fish need to hear to catch a fish?" and the answer is that they need to hear the bait being offered and the bait being taken to know that the food they're swimming up to is edible. If the bait is not being offered or being taken, they're not going to bother chasing it down.


These guys are usually equipped with powerful gas grills to get a good bite on a fly. The biggest challenge with them is remembering to toss the flies every few seconds in the right direction.


The fishing bait I'm using in this article is pretty simple and only exists in two forms—puppy food or live bait.


Puppy food is exactly what it sounds like, but it's food that's practically breaded and is laced with a smelly seasoning. It can be prepared in a variety of ways, and what makes it a no-brainer bait is how tough it is. For this reason, it's also the best bait for trying to catch a flathead catfish while fly fishing.


The live bait is easy, but it can be tough to find. Sometimes it's available from bait shops, sometimes you just have to call someone up and ask them if they've got any. Sometimes it's free like I had to do when I was fishing the Missouri River.


In any case, it's best to call the bait shop to make sure they have some live bait available since I think most of the time they won't just give it to you. Sometimes the bait is fresh out of the river, and some places will just pull the whole bag out of a hole and let it sit for a day or two. Other places will only allow you to have live bait for an hour, or an hour and a half, and that's a little annoying. Also, sometimes the bait shop will only sell live bait to clients, so you'll have to schedule a visit ahead of time.


Live bait is usually pretty easy to find, but it's different everywhere you go. Sometimes I'll find it hanging from the trees on the side of the road. Sometimes I'll be standing in a river or creek and a fish will walk by, just strike a moment before I can reach it, and take it with him. Other times I'll be trolling a fly, and suddenly I'll see a fisherman walking by with a nice flopping flathead catfish in his fishing basket.


The best way to get around live bait problems, and solve a lot of other fishing problems, is to stop obsessing about your flies. Be confident that there will be another spot, in the next river, or in the next river downstream from where you are right now, where a catfish will take a fly that looks good.


Then get your line out and start casting.

Not every river is going to have a world-class fishery. Some of them will have only one or two of these incredible catfish, and you need to find them. Use your common sense, don't be an idiot, and don't ruin it for someone else. The fishing will be more fun if you don't go around acting like a buzzkill. This includes playing around with all the same flies that everyone else is using. You should probably just stay away from flies altogether and go for the bait unless you're after an extremely large flathead catfish. Then, by all means, go for the bait.


I wouldn't spend more than $40 on a set of live bait, but if you're strapped for cash, you can buy your live bait for a lot less. Most of the bait shops around here will sell a dozen or so live slabs for $5 or $6, and the great thing about these little smelly things is that you can do a lot more with them than you can with a dozen flies.


They're cheap and easy to store, too. You can keep them in a bucket of water in a 5-gallon plastic milk jug for a long time and not worry about running out of bait. Plus, once you get your gear set up and have several fish in the boat, all you have to do is toss the fish overboard with a little weight in the bottom of the boat to make sure that you get some good pulls in on the live bait. I'd recommend some waterproof cork weights to get some good pulls on your baits.


If you're worried about catching a catfish that's bigger than the bait, don't worry about it. The live bait is probably going to be good right now anyway.


Unless it's an ice fish. Then you probably don't want to worry about it.

Another stuff I have to look for is rocks. Small round rocks, about two to three inches in diameter. In the river, I usually find them under ledges that have gotten covered by the muck that dries out. Sometimes I'll find a pretty good-sized chunk of concrete floating down the river.


Another thing I look for is markers. A lot of places mark where the fish are every couple of hundred yards, and a little marker helps a lot. Also, some places mark the depth of the water, like the Missouri River and the Mississippi River in northern Missouri. Sometimes I'll see a place and wonder if the fish are in there, so I'll try to do a little studying and then look for a small piece of asphalt or concrete where I know the fish should be. Most of the time, the fish are where the markers are.


There are other places, though. Sometimes some old railroad ties get deposited in the banks. I always know where the fish are in these cases.


There are places I still haven't found. The fish can be found where there are coal mines, sometimes long ago and now covered with trees. And there are a lot of places where there are breakwaters in the river. Those are hard to find unless you know exactly what you're looking for.


Then there are some places that I find out there on the river, right where I'm supposed to fish. I used to try to fish for them, but then I started using a gas engine and all the trouble was gone. I can use a gas engine to find some of the deep holes and tell whether there are fish in there or not because I'll know where to stop the boat.


You don't have to get the best boat in the world. I've had good fishing on boats that didn't look much better than a houseboat. Once I had the boat, it was mostly a matter of getting rid of the competition that I had to fish with. Sometimes the boats are bigger than the fish, so you have to catch them first before you can go after the boat.


My main boat is a six-horsepower mono hull with a U-shaped swim deck. It's 17 feet long and had to be stretched quite a bit to get it in the water because the bottom is pretty much made out of some kind of cement. It was custom built to get me in there, and it does take some work to get it rigged up.


I have the old steering gear and that's the only thing that's original on it. There are some things about it that I like, but there are some things I would change.


The good thing is that it's very simple to get started on a boat like this. Once you get the basics figured out, you can go pretty much anywhere in it. I once found some catfish that was caught about a mile from where I was, so I just cast out and went out there and started pulling.


I had a little puller on the end of the line, and if it pulled, it could make a rod out of the thing. And I know what you're thinking: How do you throw a reel with a catfish in it? Well, you don't. You just let the thing go, grab it with the rod and pull it out, and that's how you catch a catfish.


You have to be pretty good with the boat. It's easy to fall out of the boat if you go fast enough, or you can easily overturn it. There is some kind of life ring, but I have to be careful about throwing it out there. I got lost once, and this guy saw me on the river, but I don't know where he was. And I was riding the shore at a pretty good speed. I don't know how long he was there watching me, but he eventually left. I was lucky that he was there.


There are some places in the river where the current is pretty rough. It's mostly straight-line currents, but there are places where it bends around rocks. I have to pay attention to where those currents are because if I take the boat too close to it, I can lose it. I have to have the motor going and stay in one spot. I also have to be careful of the catfish around the rocks because they bite pretty hard.


I always have the life raft along with me and use it a lot. I haven't had to use it a lot in the last year and a half. A lot of the places I fish have barbed wire around them, and sometimes when I hit something I just break the line.


When I go into a nice spot, sometimes I just pull the motor off the boat and swim around. I don't have a lot of set-up time on the river because it's so rough. When you pull the motor off and you're in your suit, it takes a lot of effort to swim around, and that doesn't always help.


Of course, if you find a spot where you can fish and you can stay on the water, there's no time to worry about the water being so rough, or not being able to get out of the water because you didn't have enough life preservers. If you're in a spot where you can swim in and out, it's not bad. If you want to get down into a hole you're in, you have to stay still and make sure the water doesn't come up underneath you.


If I get too far out in a hole, I have to blow the motor a little bit and try to find a new spot. That's the only time the motor's not used. I just put it back on and turn the motor on again.


If you just sit still on the bank and don't move, it's not that bad. It's nice because there are no mosquitoes on the river. You have to be careful of predators like rattlesnakes and copperheads.


When I'm running, I take along a lot of fishing gear, because I don't have enough to last me a whole day. I carry a lot of food and a camera, so I'll have enough things to catch the fish with. My boat is a good size. The back is 12 feet wide, and the front is 9 feet wide. It's not too big. I bought it used, but it works well.

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