Big Flathead Catfish Fishing How To’s
The flathead, jewel of the Alabama catfish clan, ranks as one of the great paradoxes in nature. The contradictory but truthful expression “so ugly that they’re beautiful” comes to mind when closely inspecting a big flathead catfish.Yes, blues grow bigger and outnumber flatheads in most Alabama waters. Yes, channels, usually the pond-raised variety, are kings of the Saturday night fish fry. But there’s something special about flatheads despite their appearance, a certain allure, perhaps even romance associated with them. Their nocturnal habits typically add to the mystery although flathead fishing after hours is not a prerequisite to when you are thinking about how to catch flathead catfish.
It’s commonly known that flatheads are less numerous state-wide than their cousins, the blue, and channel cats.
Physically, flatheads contrast with the other catfishes in coloring and also in the shape of their head and lower jaw. The fish is a mottled mix of yellow, olive, black, and brown with white or yellow bellies. Flatheads are aptly named with the characteristic flat head, which tends to be a bit outsized compared to the rest of the body. A protruding lower jaw adds to the distinctive look of the flathead, and a gaping maw allows them to engulf prey that seems disproportioned to their overall size.
Most casual fishermen never encounter a flathead, know little about how to catch flathead catfish, and more than a few catches are mistakes, the byproduct of fishing for another species. Just about everyone knows the story, the crappie fisherman who battled a 50-pounder on a tiny jig and eight-lb. line or the bass fisherman who caught a monster flathead on a Rat-L-Trap.
Mike Mitchell, one of the foremost catfish experts of north Alabama, says catching a 40-pound flathead is like catching an 80-pound blue, a rare trophy worthy of celebration. His clients almost always catch bigger blues; they almost always inquire about the possibilities of catching a big flathead.
“I always tell them that they better be patient and better be prepared to go out there at night,” Mitchell said. “Even then, you might catch a flathead and you might not. I can usually pinpoint and predict where a blue catfish is going to live and feed. It’s not that easy with flatheads.”
That’s not to suggest that flatheads are rare. Places exist that offer a good chance to land a flathead. They are native to most of the state with good populations in the Tennessee, Coosa and Alabama rivers.
Only that portion of lower Alabama east of the Mobile basin has no native flatheads, and even there they have become quite abundant after being illegally introduced to the small river systems that thread through the region.
For anglers wishing to catch numbers of flatheads and the occasional trophy fish, the Alabama River is likely the best possible destination. For bigger flatheads, just about any of the Coosa River impoundments can produce a 50-plus fish on a given day. And the Tennessee River has its share of bigger flatheads with the biggest usually topping out in the 60s.
Know Where They Live
River systems with consistently flowing water produce the state’s best big flathead catfish fishing. The Alabama River, especially Jones Bluff and Millers Ferry, ranks at the top of the list. It grew the state record, an 80-pounder caught in 1980 near Selma, and consistently delivers a steady supply of 20 to 30 lb. flatheads.
Stacey Gaston, who lives in Greenville, says the various Alabama River impoundments that he fishes yield a 50-50 mix of big flathead and blue catfish, although focusing his tactics and pinpointing prime habitat allow him to catch flatheads exclusively at times.
“There’s nothing really mysterious or rare about them on the Alabama River,” Gaston said. “There’s plenty of them to be caught, and there are those days when I catch nothing but flatheads.”
From the Columbus, Mississippi area, Joey Pounders pairs with Jay Gallop as a B’n’M catfish team in tournaments around the Southeast. Pounders lives near prime flathead territory on the Tombigbee River but fishes extensively in Alabama waters.
His favorite place? Lay Lake on the Coosa.
“I tell people all the time that the Coosa River is like the Tombigbee, but the fish are twice as big,” Pounders said.
That comment comes from an angler who holds the Mississippi record for flatheads, a 79-pound giant caught in 2009.
For Pounders, a favorite anecdote about Lay Lake involves the one that got away. On a trip a few years ago, he and Gallop had already boated several bigger flatheads, including a couple in the 40s.
“In the midst of all that, I hooked one that might have weighed 100,” Pounders said. “I’ve never felt a fish like before. Jay witnessed it. I never had a chance. I’ve caught 60s and 70s, but that fish was different.”
Pounders said he doesn’t necessarily think that fish would have pushed the 123-lb. world record, but he definitely thinks he had a new Alabama record on the line.
Phil Ekema, District I Fisheries Supervisor, notes that all tailrace areas below Tennessee River dams are likely spots for flatheads, with “Wilson probably being the best,” he said.
Mitchell likes the current-dominated stretches below Guntersville and Nickajack dams. His biggest flathead weighed 73 pounds and came from the Guntersville Dam tailrace.
Mike Holley, the District II Fisheries Supervisor, points out the good fishing all along the Coosa. “In addition to Lay, the more riverine lakes like Jordan and Mitchell would probably rank at the top of the list,” he said.
Other rivers with native populations include the Tallapoosa, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee.
Regardless of the fishery, both Gaston and Pounders use their electronics expertise to pinpoint holding areas. Almost all include some type of current break, mainly wood but also rocks, rock piles, ledges, and mud banks.
“We’re targeting a lot of trees, maybe some rocks, but usually trees in the mid-20s down to 45 foot deep,” Pounders said. “That’s our best spots, 25 to 45.”
Ideal locations include those types of structures near the bank that allow him to tie up if the angle allows. Otherwise, he relies on his trolling motor and rarely anchors. Pounders stressed the need to focus on the angle of a tree and avoid pulling a hooked fish through heavy structure.
Gaston’s strategies differ in that he anchors most of the time, moving upstream of good structure and attempting to work baits back to the prime locations. Avoiding spooking fish, he wants to put his baits near but not in the middle of structure.
Submerged wood is the common feature of almost every spot for Gaston. He focuses on creek mouths, especially those that are known to hold good bass and crappie populations in the creek; on areas that he knows people have recently caught bass or crappie; on any dip or depression in the bank, and on clay banks. He particularly likes banks that are “washed out and have a hole underneath.”
What’s for (Flathead) Dinner?
The standard thought about flatheads is that they love bream. That conception is true, but the application is not always realistic. It’s easy enough to (legally) catch a good-sized bream and thread a hook through it. Pounders, Gaston, and Mitchell, however, prefer alternatives.
For Pounders, it appears to be a passionate approach to finding the best live shad for the job. First of all, Pounders wants big bait and follows the philosophy that “a five-lb. flathead can take down a 10-inch shad.”
Pounders has refined his bait-catching expertise through years of practice. He catches most of his shad in a throw net and places them in his livewell, an important step because they void much of their waste there and keep his bait tank relatively clean. Only after they have been in the livewell for about 20 minutes does he place them in his 70-gallon circular bait tank.
The big tank has been “a game-changer,” Pounders said because it eliminates the need to make repeated trips to catch fresh shad during a tournament, something he once did up to three times a day.
Not all fishermen follow the “flatheads-eat-nothing-but-live-fish” rule, however. Indeed flatheads don’t scavenge in the same way as channels. But they will eat fresh cut shad regularly. Both Gaston and Mitchell catch plenty of flatheads with cut bait.
A trick for Gaston involves filleting one side of a shad, starting from the tail but leaving the strip of meat connected near the head. The filleted side creates a flashing, vibrating action in the water that flatheads appear to love.
“It’s flapping and flopping around,” Gaston said. “I want it moving around. That may be a key to these flatheads taking a dead bait.”
Mitchell creates a similar look by slicing off a sliver of skipjack about four to five inches long and one to two inches wide. Mitchell also catches big flathead catfish on the same chunked skipjack that he uses for blues.
The use of shad in some form appears to be the easiest bait choice. Catching bream requires tackle, bait, and time. They cannot legally be used when caught with a throw net. A couple of throws with the net, however, can produce dozens of quality shad.
“We’ve tried a few things, but never consistently caught what we want with other baits,” Pounders said.
Equipped for Success
Boating a trophy flathead demands more than just finding the right location and the right bait. Anglers not only need to know how to catch flathead catfish; they need to have the proper equipment.
In many cases, bigger flathead catfish live their entire life in current and develop power and strength that transcends their size, much the same way that saltwater fish are generally more powerful than freshwater fish.
Trophy fishing demands quality, heavy equipment. “We use 65- to 80-lb braid with a three-way swivel tied on,” Pounders said. “To one side of the three-way, we had an 18-inch mono hook line of 50- or 60-lb. test. To the other side of the swivel, we add a four- to five-foot weight line about 20-lb. test.”
Pounders uses 7/0 Team Catfish Circle Chunk hooks.
The combination of weight size – usually three to five ounces – plus the length of the weight line requires the use of a long rod. Pounders relies on 10-foot models by B’n’M, which provide the leverage to “finesse” the whole package in the right direction. His reel of choice is a Daiwa 7000C spinning reel.
“A lot of people don’t understand how to catch flathead catfish, but if you sling that bait out there, it’s half dead before it hits the water and the hook is halfway jerked out of it,” Pounders said. “With the 10-foot rod, you can toss that bad boy out there.”
Gaston stresses the need to come equipped for success and also the need to check and re-check all equipment features. He uses seven-foot, medium heavy rods “with a little play in my tip” and Abu Garcia bait-casters with clickers.
“There are times when these flatheads can be very finicky,” Gaston said. “They will pull your rod tip down and let it back up. I don’t want that tip to be board-stiff. That’s also why I use reels with clickers. Only when I hear that click, click, click I engage the reel.”
He spools with 40-lb. test mono and creates a Carolina rig set-up with a three- or four-oz. weight, a homemade bumper that protects his knot from the weight, a heavy swivel, an 18-inch 40-lb. mono leader and a 7/0 to 10/0 Eagle Claw Kahle circle hook.
“I want to be able to eliminate all the failures that I can when I hook up with a big fish,” Gaston said. “A big flathead catfish is hard enough to hook up with. I don’t want to fish all day and lose the big one because I didn’t pay attention to the little details.”
Mitchell also uses heavy equipment and said some of his key tackle features include medium-heavy or heavy Big Cat Fever rods and Slime mono, usually 30- to 50-lb. test. He uses Team Catfish circle hooks, usually about 8/0.
Invading New Territory
Big flathead catfish have always experienced relatively stable populations across their native range, but one section of the state, in the river systems of southeast Alabama, has traditionally been devoid of the species.
That began to change several years ago, and the flatheads quickly acclimated to their new home.
“We noticed in our sampling of river systems that we were started to see flatheads in the Choctawhatchee back probably around 8-10 years ago,” said Ken Weathers, District IV Fisheries Supervisor headquartered in Enterprise. “Where the Choctawhatchee and the Pea River come together at Geneva, we started to see a lot of flatheads.”
They were soon found in neighboring river systems like Perdido, Conecuh, Blackwater, Yellow, and Chipola. They also appeared in the Chattahoochee below Walter F. George Dam near Eufaula, and in the last three years, above the dam on Lake Eufaula. Flatheads up to 54 pounds have been documented in the region.
Invasive species are generally not welcome in new habitats. There is a mixed reaction to flatheads in these new areas. Weathers said local fishermen took a while to appreciate flatheads and also to learn how to catch them.
Among several negative possibilities, flatheads have likely negatively impacted the numbers of both redbreast and various species of bullheads in most of the southeast Alabama rivers.
“We really haven’t heard a lot of complaints, but some of the guys who do a lot of bream fishing on the river tell me that it’s not what it used to be, especially the closer you get down toward Florida,” Weathers said. “It’s pretty well documented that redbreasts are one of the favorite foods of the flathead, and they are voracious predators.
“We’ve noticed in the sampling that we once saw lots of bullheads, yellow and brown bullheads. And you don’t find any of them now. You can tell the big flathead catfish are eating them up.”
“Eradication is probably not an option at this advanced stage of the invasion,” Weathers said. Some attempts were made in the early years to shock and remove all flatheads, a process that did little to stop their spread.
“They’re here to stay,” Weathers said. “Pretty much, their numbers continue to increase. They have a high reproductive rate and seem to do well in the small rivers down here.”
Because flatheads are considered non-native species, normal Alabama size limits do not apply in these rivers. Elsewhere in the state, fishermen are limited to harvesting one 34-inch catfish per day.
“The size limit does not apply here, and we’re glad for fishermen to get them out. Those big flatheads eat as well as the small ones.”
Depending on the judge, big flathead catfish may or may not win a beauty contest among catfish contestants. They are, however, a formidable adversary, one of the most challenging among Alabama freshwater fishes. Follow these tips on how to catch flathead catfish and give them a chance, but be prepared for a fight of a lifetime when the big one bites. Only then can you determine if they are beautiful or not.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.