Selecting the right circle hook and catfish rig is critical when using livebait presentations to entice big flatheads. When used properly, the hooking percentage with circle hooks is high and catfish are almost always hooked shallow — an advantage for those who intend to release their fish unharmed, or at least prefer to have that option.
Livebaits for flatheads range in size from several inches up to a foot or more, requiring circle hooks from about 4/0 to 14/0 to match bait size. Hooks should be large enough so the bait doesn’t obscure the gap between hook point and shank, requiring relatively large hook sizes to be effective. In a situation where a 4/0 J-style hook would suffice, a circle hook needs to be about twice that size.
Where I fish in the Colorado River, on the California-Arizona border, I bait with mostly bluegill, tilapia, and small carp, and find that 6/0 to 10/0 circle hook sizes cover most situations. The Owner Super Mutu circle hook works well for me, and Eagle Claw’s Lazer Sharp L2022 and the Gamakatsu Octopus Circle are other good options.
A livebait should appear as natural and lively as possible on a hook, but much of this depends on hook size and hooking location. The traditional choice has been to hook baits in the upper back to the tail area for slipsinker and float-rig presentations. Large circle hooks, however, are heavy, and, when hooked this way, baitfish become topheavy and tire easily fighting both the current and the weight of the hook. Also, using a larger hook means fewer hooking locations in a smaller baitfish.
Another problem, perhaps unique to flathead fishing, is that they reject baits quickly if something doesn’t feel right to them. If they clamp down on a 6-inch bluegill with an 8/0 circle hook stuck crossways through its back and feel a hook and not a fish, they reject it immediately.
When flatheads feed on spiny fish like bluegill and tilapia, they attack and hold it in their jaws and swim off, waiting for it to stop struggling or die, the bait being swallowed more easily when the spiny fins relax. So it’s sometimes necessary to let flatheads run longer with larger spiny baitfish before setting the hook, as opposed to when soft-rayed baits like carp, suckers, or goldfish are used.
Colorado River Rig
Thinking about ways to improve hooking rates for big cats on circle hooks produced an idea based on two different fishing situations — trolling for offshore big game such as marlin, and European-style carp fishing. It’s common when trolling for big game to not actually insert a hook into the baitfish. Instead, the hook often is tied to the bait’s nose with thread like dental floss, leaving the hook free and unobstructed, increasing the chances for a solid hook-up.
It’s becoming common here to fish with a boilie (cooked doughball) on a hair rig for carp. The boilie is attached via a retainer and a short piece of line to a single hook — so that when the carp sucks in the doughball along with the closely attached hook and swims off, the unobstructed hook sinks into the corner of its mouth as the line gets tight.
My original experiment for flatheads, which I call the Colorado River rig, was to attach a short piece of heavy braided line to the bend of an 8/0 circle hook and then attach a 1/0 short-shanked O’Shaunessy-style livebait hook to the other end. The bait is hooked on the smaller hook, leaving the circle hook free for better hookups.
Baits are more likely to stay lively longer when impaled on small hooks, and their movement in current is less restricted. The rig also expands options for bait hooking. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense to nose-hook a 4-inch bluegill with an 8/0 hook and expect it to last long or appear natural, but this is easily done using the smaller attached hook. Baits hooked in the area above the anal fin or through the pelvic fin area retain the ability to swim upright, even with the added weight of the detached heavy circle hook.
The small attached hook should be about as wide in the gap as the thickness of the bait — large enough to hook a bait securely for a good cast and the initial strike, but small enough so it won’t be detected by the fish as it takes off on the initial run. For flatheads, I use the Mustad 92677, a heavy-wire short-shanked O’Shaunessy-style livebait hook, in either 2/0 or 4/0 depending on bait size. The Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp L317MG (3X strong) and L318N (extra strong) are short-shanked livebaiters that fall into this category.
The bait attachment hook should be made of heavy wire, making it less likely to tear out on the cast or on the initial strike. That’s also important if a big catfish gets hooked on the bait hook. I once landed a 42-pound flathead on Colorado River rig’s bait hook, when the circle hook missed its mark, and I’ve landed numerous fish on the smaller hooks of other double-hook rigs when the main hook failed to connect.
The downside of using two hooks is that one of them is more prone to finding a snag, when fishing close to brush or other cover. Often, a hooked catfish heads for timber with one of the hooks dangling outside its mouth, increasing chances for fouling on a limb.
There’s all kinds of room for experimentation here regarding hook sizes, styles, and presentations. Nose-hooking dead baits with this rig works well, as does nose-hooking livebaits in current that’s too strong for baits that are back-hooked in the traditional manner. When using this rigging below floats or other vertical presentations, hooking baits through the dorsal fin area can be very effective.
Nowadays there are many shapes, sizes, and styles of circle hooks, not to mention colors — tinned, chrome, bronze, black, and red. Although circle hooks like the Owner Super Mutu are heavy and super-strong, those that are strong yet lighter work fine for bigger catfish. The circle hook design makes it inherently stronger than a J-style hook made with an equivalent wire thickness.
I recently fished with Mustad’s #39951 extra-fine-wire Demon Circle hook (8/0) in red with excellent results, boating fish up to 40 pounds. Lighter wire hooks weigh less and are less likely to impair the action of smaller livebaits, especially when hooked in the upper back part of the bait. Going light or heavy in hook design has its trade-offs, with the biggest consideration being how large the catfish grow in the rivers you fish.
Rods and Line
Fiberglass rods shine for circle hook applications, especially those with a softer, more parabolic action as opposed to fast-tapering models. A soft-action tip is key, as the trick to getting a good set is a slowly increasing tension on the line and hook after the reel is engaged while the fish is running with the bait.
It takes some practice using circle hooks to get it right, but it’s worth the effort, as the majority of hook-ups are in the corner of the catfish’s mouth, making for easy hook removal. After a strike, I let the fish run until I think it has the bait inside its mouth, then with the fish running and the reel in freespool, I hold the rod at a 45-degree angle, put the reel in gear, and let the fish pull the rod tip down until it’s pointing at the fish, finishing with a slow, sweeping hookset.
I prefer monofilament line because the slow stretch helps for proper sets. In the snag-laden waters I fish, I typically use 50- to 80-pound-test mono mainline with a heavy-braid leader — 130-pound-test Spiderwire has worked well for me. Catfish are less likely to reject baits on softer, limper braided leader, as opposed to stiff springy heavy mono.
Braided line is best to make the connection between hooks on the Colorado River rig, enabling the circle hook to twist freely. I’ve had the best results by using a snell knot to attach a circle hook, particularly when the mainline exits the hook eye on the same side as the hook point.
This rig is, for the most part, still experimental, but I’ve had positive results so far.
Kirk McKay, Winnetka, California, is an avid angler who has written previous articles for In-Fisherman publications.