In the wavering light of his head lamp, Austin Soots watches thick line slowly pay out from his reel. With the rod in both hands he rears back, setting the hook; then all heck breaks loose. After a lengthy battle of tug of war in the flickering moonlight he finally grasps the bottom jaw a huge flathead catfish writhing at the water’s edge.
When it comes to fishing, some people develop a special affection for one particular species. There are those that primarily fish for bass, while others prefer trying their luck for tasty bluegills. Some may spend the majority of their time angling for walleyes and for others it may be crappies.
Growing up on near Wildcat Creek, Soots fished for anything he could catch. He loved pulling in smallmouth bass, walleyes and anything else eager to take his offerings. But then something happened that would alter his angling efforts forever.
In 2006 he was fishing with his older brother Andrew on the Wabash River. “I watched him catch a 40 pound flathead catfish and the fight he had and that changed my life,” said Soots. From that day forward the 27 year old Kokomo resident now spends every opportunity fishing for one of the largest fish the Hoosier state can offer. “I basically gave up fishing for everything else,” he added. “Those huge flatheads captivate me.”
In Indiana flathead catfish can grow to behemoth proportions. The state record currently stands at over 79 pounds and was taken from the White River. They inhabit almost any good sized river, lake or reservoir.
When it comes to flatheads, Soots prefers fishing area rivers and smaller tributaries off large flowing waterways. Several weeks back the Kokomo Resident enjoyed a night time fishing trip where he pulled in three, his largest weighing 41 pounds. Together they totaled just over 89 pounds. That’s a lot of fish in anyone’s book, especially when taken in central Indiana.
The success Soots has encountered didn’t come without some setbacks. “A while back I had eight rods and all of my fishing tackle stolen,” he recalled dejectedly. “My equipment was good quality and very sentimental and I knew there was no way I could afford to replace everything right away.”
Just when he thought his fishing exploits would be sidelined his friend Kris Workman stepped in. Workman’s late father Ron was an avid catfisherman “He gave me three of his dad’s catfish rods and I was back in business,” he said with sincere appreciation hanging in his voice. “Now that equipment is sentimental to me as well.”
When it comes to trying his luck for big flatheads Soots opts for stout rods and heavy duty reels spooled with 30 pound monofilament line, equipment made to stop the freight train like runs from a giant catfish. “I’m not too fond of braided line, especially when fishing around rocks,” he explained. What he puts on the end of his hook consist of worms or other types of larger sized live bait.
Flatheads, sometimes called mud cats or bank cats, love cover. During daylight they seek shelter among submerged logs, downed trees and underwater cavities. Once darkness covers the landscape they leave their sanctuaries searching for food where they feed primarily on crawfish and live fish. This is why Soots fishes strictly at night.
When it comes to a boat, he keeps it as simple as it gets. He doesn’t have one. “I fish strictly from the bank,” he explained. “I am sure I’ll get a boat someday but for now I do pretty well from the bank.” Soots also refuses to use a net when landing giant catfish. “I prefer to grab them with my own hands,” he added.
Soots also expressed appreciation for his longtime friend and fishing partner Craig Hulsey. ”He’s a really good fisherman and I have learned a lot from him,” he stated. “We fish together almost every single weekend.” The pair has built many memories together. Several weeks back Soots caught his largest fish to date tipping the scales at 41 pounds. “Then the very next night Craig pulled in his biggest with a 35 pounder.”
“I think there is more of a challenge when you target strictly big catfish,” explained Soots. “If you want to go out and catch a few bluegills or bass for example, most of the time that’s fairly easy to do,” he explained. “But if you want to tie into big flatheads, well, that’s a lot more work and never a guarantee, so when you catch one it’s pretty exciting.”
Although catfish can be quality table fare, Soots and Hulsey release every fish. “We weigh, measure and photograph the fish then release them,” said Soots. “They take so long to get that big so we try our best to conserve the resource,” added Hulsey.
Soots also believes a bit of prestige comes when catching tackle busting fish. He says it’s one thing to come home with a stringer of bluegill or crappie. “But when you catch only one fish and it weighs 40 pounds, now that’s a fish,” he stated with a laugh.