Catching Indiana’s Flathead Catfish

This 51-pound bruiser came from the West Fork of the White River . It was released to make someone else's dreams come true.

Analan garbersytime catfishin’ is spoken of it won’t take long until the conversation turns to flatheads.  The stories of pole bending, reel grinding, and line stripping action are the stuff of legends. A fight with one of these bruisers will stick with you for life and can make all other fishing seem dull.

Like other catfish, the two places to find big flatheads are: where they live and where they eat.

Unlike other catfish, they rarely hit on stink baits.  Flatheads are predators and they want fresh meat.  “We always use live bait”, said Kenny Lewis, president of the Dura Cats Tournament series, “The bigger, the better.”  Chubs, goldfish, and suckers can be purchased at some bait shops, but serious flathead hunters catch their own bait using a hook and line or cast net.  In Indiana, gamefish such as crappie, bluegills, and green sunfish have to be caught using a hook and line.  Shad, chubs, suckers, and other rough fish can be caught with a cast net.  (Check the regulations before going out.)

During the day, flatheads live in deep holes or in log jams.  Lewis likes to work the log jams to get his bait in front as many likely spots as possible.  This means hitting behind every log that breaks the current, down into any deep holes, and even anchoring above the log jam and hopping baits down river and under the logs.  On some occasions, he runs his boat up against the logs and dips a line down between the logs from above.  On occasions, this results in a fish too large to pull through the openings.  “I lose a lot of tackle working a good log jam,” Lewis said.    The rule is, the more likely to lose a hook, the more likely to catch a fish!

As darkness falls, things change.  Flatheads head out like vampires looking for something to bite.

Lewis likes to find a shallow sandbar near a deep, log-filled hole in the river.  The flatheads cruise the shallows looking for prey.  “I’ve caught thirty to forty pound flatheads in six inches of water,” Lewis said.

Another method is to fish the scour hole below a dam after a heavy rain. The dam concentrates fish by blocking their migration upstream.  During heavy flows, small fish, and small animals caught in the flooding, are swept over the dam and into the froth. In the process they are often stunned and are easy prey.  This combination attracts huge flatheads like lawyers to a train wreck.  Throw a live bluegill or shad into the mix and hang on tight!  The best spots to target are current breaks or slack water seams next to the heavy current.  These are the spots fish can station without expending huge amounts of energy.

Lake fishing for flatheads isn’t much different than river fishing.  Like other fish, they want cover and food.  Put those two items in close proximity and you have a hotspot.  Experienced catfish hunters that fish in man-made lakes find where channels, stump rows, rock ledges, or timber meet.  Structure is good, two or more types of structure are better.  It’s like this:  If you owned a convenience store, would you want it to be on a busy road, or on an intersection of two busy roads?  The answer is obvious.

Some flathead hunters find places where a creek channel swings close to a beach and fish there at night as the flatheads go hunting for dinner.  Often the flatheads feeding there at night are bigger than the kids swimming there during the day!The chances of catching a monster are high. While techniques may vary, one thing remains the same; gear to catch flatheads has to be rugged.  With fish weighing close to 80 pounds, poles have to be able to withstand heavy fighting and casting hefty sinkers with full-sized baitfish long distances.  Seven to twelve foot surf-style rods are common.

Reels must be able to hold hundreds of yards of heavy test line, plus be able to winch a big flathead upstream against heavy current.  Having a bait-clicker or bait-runner feature is a must.

Flathead gear needs to be stout to winch monster fish away from structure.

Many think circle hooks are the way to go with catfish.  The circle hook is designed to be “self-setting” so catfish often set the hook themselves as they swim away, and the circle hook is designed to catch in the corner of their mouth, making catch and release easy and sustainable.

When fishing in rivers you will want to use a flat “no-roll” sinker, or one of the many bottom grabbing styles to keep the bait where you want it.  When catfish pick up the bait, the line slides through the sinker, so that they don’t feel it.

Rigging for flatheads is usually done in a Carolina rig, with a twelve to twenty-four inch leader.

Once you hook a big catfish, hang on.  They fight, twist, and roll in an adrenaline pumping good time.

Please, take only pictures and release the big cats quickly because they can take decades to reach trophy size.

 Gear and Tackle Needed

  • Braided lines and heavy monofilament work best for river and stream fishing for channel catfish. Flatheads need 50-pound test or higher.
  • Flat or spiked slip sinkers keep bait where you want it. Weights go up to eight ounces for some models
  • Heavy-duty bait-caster reels with a bait-clicker are preferred. Abu Garcia Ambassador or Record reels are common.
  • Rods need to be stout so heavy fish can quickly be pulled away from logs and roots.
  • Heavy-duty circle hooks are preferred for catch and release. The hooks are self-setting and pull to the corner of the fish’s mouth as it swims away. Gamakatsu, Mustad, and Eagle Claw are all good choices.  Sizes run up to 12/0.
  • Swivels need to match or exceed the line strength, especially when fighting big flatheads.

If you need fishing gear, be sure to swing by The Outdoorsman Shop in Greenwood. While you’re there, be sure to thank them for sponsoring this article.

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Alan Garbers Sponsored by the Outdoorsman Sport Shop
Alan James Garbers – Alan is passionate for the outdoors. He enjoys fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing, photography, writing, woodworking, and more. He loves exploring the BWCAW in northern Minnesota, roaming the deserts of Arizona, or hiking the mountains of Colorado. He has lived in Minnesota, Hawaii, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and Indiana. From hunting rattlesnakes to black bear and fishing for catfish to muskie, he loves it all. Since 1989 his writing credits have included Indiana Outdoor News, Indiana Game & Fish, Muzzle Blasts, Outdoor Guide Magazine, Fur-Fish-Game, Boundary Waters Journal, Boys’ Quest, Fun For Kidz, Mother Earth News, Cricket, Small Farm Today, American Careers, Arizona Hunter & Angler, Old West, and others. Fiction credits include StarTrek Strange New Worlds Anthologies IV, V, and 08. Alan recently complied an anthology of his popular column, Behind The Badge: True Stories of Indiana’s Conservation Officers. It is available in e-reader format and found at Amazon and other on-line book retailers. Alan is a member of AGLOW and HOW.

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