Fall Fishing for Flathead Catfish

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Video how to catch flathead catfish

Big, trophy catfish are difficult to find, and especially catch. Make it happen this fall. Image by M. Huston

Autumn is my favorite season. From early September, when crimson flames first set the black gums and sumac ablaze, until mid-November, when the last of the mountain oaks transform from summer’s green to the oranges, golds, and reds of autumn, I’m absorbed with being outdoors, enjoying the coolness and ever-changing scenery. Who doesn’t love standing on a mountain overlook or sitting beneath a woodland canopy feasting the eyes on a medley of dazzling hues?

It’s not only the fiery colors of the leaves that cause this annual stirring, though. I also love autumn because this is the time of year I’m most likely to set a hook in the monstrous maw of a heavyweight flathead catfish. Many of my friends start hunting deer, ducks, or other game animals as summer turns to fall, and I do likewise. But I’m more of a catfish fanatic at heart, and I know my catch rate for trophy-class flatheads will steadily improve as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. Most wild-game hunting will have to wait until the flatties go into a state of semi-hibernation that lasts through the coldest parts of winter. I want to be on the water as often as possible this season to take advantage of Mr. Flathead’s gluttonous feeding behavior. And if you’re hoping to catch a trophy-class flathead, you should consider a fall fishing trip, too.

Catching a trophy flathead catfish like this often requires fishing in dense cover, a much different tactic than might be used to catch a blue or channel catfish. Image by Keith

Why Fall is Best

Flatheads tend to be inactive when the water temperature falls below 45 degrees in winter, but spring, summer, and fall fishing can be extraordinary. The autumn bite is particularly amped up because these brutes are bulking up for the cold months just ahead. Flatheads gorge day and night during this period, and savvy anglers who know the best places to present their baits can count on powerful strikes from ravenous fish. Landing those fish is rarely easy but can be done if the angler comes prepared with the proper line and tackle.

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Where to Fish

If you go after a trophy flathead, it’s important to remember that these predators differ considerably from their channel cat and blue cat cousins. For example, flatheads don’t have streamlined physiques well suited for chasing down prey like blues and channels. Instead, they are ambush predators — bushwhackers, if you will — that spend their days hiding in dense, dark, near-shore cover like toppled trees, driftwood piles, and cavities beneath logs and rocks. One often will squirm its way inside a tangled pile of brush, then turn to face outward from its hiding place so it can dart out and catch unwary fish and other forage.

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Big flatheads tend to be loners, too. When fishing for channel cats or blue cats, you’ll often catch several fish that are actively feeding in loose schools near one spot. But adult flatheads tend to be territorial and aggressive toward one another. A parcel of prime cover is unlikely to produce more than one full-grown fish — perhaps two if you’re extremely lucky.

If you tie into a big fall flathead, be ready for a fight. Image by Stephen McNelly / Realtree

Flatheads don’t move around much either. Blues and channel cats may migrate many miles each fall, moving downstream to seasonal areas just like ducks fly south to their wintering grounds. Flatheads are homebodies instead, roaming very little and doing so primarily at night or when rains create turbid high-water conditions in spring.

Knowing all these things, you can immediately improve your odds for fall flathead-catching success by focusing your daytime fishing efforts near thick cover such as blowdowns and drift piles, and continuing to fish near such cover at night.

Flatheads are most active from sunset to sunrise, leaving their brushy sanctuaries when it’s dark and moving into more open, shallower waters to feed. This is when you’re more likely to catch them on live-fish baits presented on the bottom near structure features that guide their movements. Creek-channel edges, tributary mouths, and underwater humps often prove productive after the sun goes down.

You’ll want to keep on the move, regardless of where you fish, and the best way to do that is in a boat — fishing each spot for 15 to 30 minutes and then motoring to another place you scouted out earlier. In this way, you’re much more likely catch several nice flatties during your allotted fishing time. The angler who fishes one spot only will often come up empty-handed unless conditions are such that flatheads are roaming more in search of dinner.

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Live-fish baits like this bluegill work best on heavyweight flatheads, which rarely scavenge or eat invertebrates. Image by Keith

Bait and Tackle

A meat-and-potatoes meal for a giant flathead is another fish — a live fish — so that’s what you should use to entice them. When available, good choices include live suckers, bullheads, carp, goldfish, and chubs. My favorite bait, however, is a chunky bluegill, green sunfish, or other bream caught on hook and line and kept lively in a bucket full of cool water. These are abundant, easily obtained, and hardy on the hook — all good characteristics that make them great baits.

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It may seem best to fish your bait on bottom, and that works just fine at times, as I’ve mentioned. But flatheads tend to be very attuned to the sounds of prey in the water. For this reason, I’ve found it best to use a float that will keep the baitfish near the surface where it will splash and attract the attention of hungry catfish. Floating your bait also allows you to better control its positioning so it doesn’t get tangled in cover.

I typically rig a 6- to 8-inch-long sunfish on a short line (6 inches or less) beneath a big slip float like a Thill 6-inch Big Fish Slider. Hook the baitfish just behind the dorsal fin with a 5/0 to 7/0 wide-gap circle hook, running the point completely through so the barb is exposed.

I always carry a multi-tool with built-in scissors that I use to snip off a large corner of the baitfish’s tail before casting it out. This makes the fish struggle to swim, and its erratic I’m injured actions quickly garner the attention of hungry cats.

The rod you use should be at least 7 to 9 feet long so you can lift your line off the water and steer your bait to hotspots while keeping free from hang-ups. Pair the rod with a sturdy, high-capacity baitcasting reel spooled with line that will handle a brawling catfish weighing 50 pounds or more. When it’s flatheads you’re after, your next hook-up could be with a fish of that size, or one even bigger.

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Tactical Advice

Cast your baited rig near cover and then give the line a short tug at regular intervals to disturb the sunfish and get it to struggle and splash on the surface. Remember that flatheads tend to bury themselves deep in wood cover, and try to keep your bait near enough to attract their attention while avoiding snags. Move from one likely hidey-hole to another, carefully placing the bait where you think it might draw the attention of well-hidden catfish.

Be attentive at all times. If a big catfish does come out to strike, your baitfish will likely try to race away to avoid being eaten. When it does, you need to keep it from wrapping you up in the cover and prepare to reel hard to set the circle hook in the corner of the catfish’s mouth. If you get a solid hook-up, you’ll have to pressure the fish as much as possible to drag it away from the cover. This will give you the best chance of netting it. You won’t win the battle every time, but paying close attention to movements of the live baitfish and reacting when necessary will put the odds more in your favor.

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Catfish anglers seldom use artificial lures, but trolling crankbaits along riprap edges often nabs big flatheads like this. Image by Keith

Try Crankbaits

If you’d like to try a fantastic flathead tactic that’s totally different from the norm, try the unusual method often employed on the Tennessee River impoundments by long-time Mississippi catfish guide Phil King. In summer, many flatheads spawn in cavities that form in the riprapped banks along many man-made lakes and waterways. According to King, the flatheads generally stay in these areas after spawning and well into fall.

The technique for catching these fish is trolling crankbaits that will dive to the bottom where the riprap stops, he says. The flatheads wallow out holes to spawn where the mud meets the rocks. I use deep-diving crankbaits and a variable-speed trolling motor that will drive the lures down to the bottom. When the lures start hitting bottom, I back off the trolling motor and allow the lures to skim the bottom. If a flathead is in the area, it will come up and smash the crankbait. Troll two to four rods with lures of different colors, and when the catfish show a preference for one color or another, rig all your rods with that particular color. Natural shad, blue-back shad, bright orange and green work well for me.

Conclusion

That’s a wrap for now, folks. Autumn is upon us, and it’s time for you to get out on the water and try to nab that fat flathead monster you’ve always dreamed of. You’re now well armed with knowledge that should help you succeed. Just put what you’ve learned into play, pay attention while you wait and, when you set the hook in the jaw of your monster, be ready for the fight of your life. You’re sure to make memories that will last a lifetime.

Get your fishing gear at the Realtree store.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>