As the hot summer months take hold over western Pennsylvania, its many rivers will be experiencing rising water temperatures and changing fish activity. These rising water temperatures are the trigger to a predator lurking in the depths. Even though they remain on the bottom of deep holes, and below dams for most of the year, flathead catfish make an aggressive statement when warmer water presents itself (above 70 degrees). Though these fish will eat just about anything, having a complete understanding of the supplies and tactics needed to catch these giants will increase your catch rates and fishing success this summer.
Many rod and reel combos can be used to target flathead catfish, but the ideal setup, in my opinion, can be broken down into two categories, baitcasting, and spinning. For a spinning rod, I prefer a 9 foot or longer rod such as a Daiwa Emblem Pro Surf Spinning Rod EMP1202HFS paired with a large spinning reel such as a Daiwa Emcast Bite N’ Run Saltwater Spinning Reel EMCBR5000A. The bait feeder feature of this reel is a key component that allows for the fish to pick up the bait and swim with it without feeling resistance, and then with the simple flip of a switch, the reel is engaged and the fight is on! Spooling this reel with 50lb PowerPro Braid with a 40lb Berkley Big Game backing will allow for smooth long casts with limited line slip. The longer spinning rod allows for long casts if the angler is fishing from shore or needs to cast where a boat cannot be placed. For a casting setup, a rod that is roughly 8 feet long, such as the Okuma Shadow Stalker Casting Rod SDS-C-801H paired with a Shimano Cardiff 400 will allow the angler to have the power to throw large baits and fight fish, and the bait clicker feature on the reel will allow for fish to take the bait without feeling resistance. This setup should be spooled with 65lb power pro and a 40lb Berkley Trilene Big Game backing.
There are endless amounts of hooks available for catfish, but they can be broken down into three main categories; trebles, circle hooks, and J-hooks. Each style has its respected use, but for our purpose, we will focus on circle hooks and J-hooks. Both hooks should be attached to the leader via a snell, and the leader attached to the main line by using a large swivel tied with a Palomar knot. The snelling of the hook will allow for the hook to “kick out” when pulled allowing for higher hookup rates when a fish takes the bait. Common size hooks range from 3/0 for small cut bait and live bait, all the way to 10/0 and above for whole live and dead bait. An important tip to remember is to hook the bait in a manner that will allow the hook to hold the bait when casted, but also allows for the hook to break free from the bait to penetrate the fish’s mouth for the hookset. Weights are dependent on the situation and bait being used. A good all-around weight for moving current and lakes is a 3 ounce Eagle Claw No Roll sinker. The shape of these sinkers allows them to lay on the bottom and not “roll” around like other round sinkers if there is current.
More times than not, flathead catfish will be holding close to a variety of structure that can easily break even the heaviest line. To prevent this, a very heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon leader of 50lb or greater, such as Gamma 100% Fluorocarbon Leader Material, should be used. Not only will the leader provide excellent abrasion resistance, but its thick diameter will also make for better snell knots. In most cases a leader between 12-16 inches is ideal.
Many people swear by using live bait for flathead catfish, and it does work, but what I have found is that using fresh cut bait is much easier than trying to keep suckers or other large baitfish alive. Common baits used include carp, suckers, bluegills, large creek chubs, shad, and skipjack. Typically these baits can be used whole up to 12-14 inches in length, but also can be cut into 5-6 inch pieces to target slightly smaller fish. Though a 12-14 inch bait seems quite large, a 30+ pound flathead can eat a 4-5 pound carp whole. Baits can be fished directly on the bottom (most common), or suspended over structure.
A very successful rig for large cut bait utilizes a large J-hook, a 50lb monofilament leader, a barrel swivel, and a no-roll sinker. The hook is snelled onto the leader, and then the leader is attached to the main line via a barrel swivel. Above the barrel swivel on the main line, a no-roll sinker is attached, and a bead/ bobber stop can be placed over the running line knot to keep the sinker from rubbing on and weakening the knot. What this rig allows for, is the full holding capacity of the no-roll sinker, but with the finesse of a weightless presentation. This rig should be fished on the bottom with a loose bait clicker/loose drag setting on the reel. This allows for the fish to take line when it first picks up the bait. The finesse is provided by the “slip” action of the sinker. When a fish picks up the bait and decides to run with it, the reel does not engage, and the line slips through the sinker while the sinker stays in place. The fish does not feel the weight of the sinker, which makes the fish less likely to drop the bait from feeling increased line tension.
The theory that catfish only live in deep water is true in some scenarios, but in the currents of rivers, the large flatheads make their way into areas as shallow as 4 feet during the hours of the night to feed on schools of baitfish. Targeting the transition points of these areas near the mouths of creeks can produce numbers of large fish. Fishing transition zones between deep water holding areas and shallower feeding areas will present your bait to actively feeding fish, and also produce success. Fishing deep oxygenated water can also produce large numbers of fish due to the amount of baitfish that use the areas as their home. Any sort of current break, dropoff, trench, or structure can hold large catfish, so no fishing area should be overlooked.
To make your fishing trip safe and successful, always check the conditions of the body of water that you are fishing. Rivers can be very unpredictable and dangerous. Keeping a close eye out for floating debris and other obstacles will ensure that you have a successful outing. A very useful trick that I like to do if I will be fishing at night from a boat, is entering the water when it is still daylight and using GPS waypoints to mark any obstacles such as channel buoys, bridge pilings, and other potential obstructions. After the sun sets, these items become very difficult to see, and having them on GPS will allow you to drive your boat with confidence knowing there is nothing harmful in your way.