December 21, 2020

How To Catch Flathead Catfish

Scott Kimball

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Scott Kimball

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Few freshwater fish are as impressive as the Flathead Catfish.  They are monstrous fish that get up over 100 pounds and make for an exciting day on the water.

Have you ever gone to an aquarium or sporting goods store with a fish tank and seen a massive looking yellowish catfish swimming around? Odds are that it was a Flathead Catfish. A prehistoric looking fish, with a mouth that resembles an English Bulldog, more than any cat I’ve ever seen.  

Flathead catfish go by several names, shovelhead, yellow cat, mudcat, and johnnie cat. No matter what you call them they are a fun fish to pursue and something you should try. To catch flathead catfish you need to know a couple of things. Where to look for them, what time of day to fish them, what bait to use, what gear you need, and rigs.

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Few freshwater fish are as impressive as the Flathead Catfish.  They are monstrous fish that get up over 100 pounds and make for an exciting day on the water.  

Have you ever gone to an aquarium or sporting goods store with a fish tank and seen a massive looking yellowish catfish swimming around? Odds are that it was a Flathead Catfish. A prehistoric looking fish, with a mouth that resembles an English Bulldog, more than any cat I’ve ever seen.  

Flathead catfish go by several names, shovelhead, yellow cat, mudcat, and johnnie cat. No matter what you call them they are a fun fish to pursue and something you should try.

To catch flathead catfish you need to know a couple of things. Where to look for them, what time of day to fish them, what bait to use, what gear you need, and rigs.

Where Are Flathead Catfish Found

Flathead catfish are found in most parts of the United States, however if you live in New England or Alaska, you’ll need to travel to catch a flathead. Flatheads are most prevalent in the Southeast and Midwest.

Bodies Of Water To Catch Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish can be located in any fresh body of water, such as streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.  Smaller Flatheads will be more prevalent in smaller bodies of water.

However, after the monstrous Flatheads, you’ll want to fish large bodies of water as they are going to be most prevalent in large rivers.

What To Look For To Locate Flathead Catfish

Like most freshwater fish, flatheads prefer cover.  They will search for debris or cover in the water, such as overhangs in the bank, logs, trees, rocks, branches and so forth.

They also like deep holes, where they can lay down in the bottom undetected, before attacking their prey.

When To Fish For Flathead Fish

When to fish for Flatheads is a continuous topic among the yellow cat fishing crews.  There are basically two schools of thoughts when it comes to catching flatheads.

Fishing At Dawn And Dusk

This method is basically stating that flathead catfish come out at night to feed.  They use the cover of darkness to leave their homes, to locate bait fish and prey in shallow water.  Then they return home while it is still dark.

This method makes sense to me.  Research has shown that Flathead Catfish are sedentary during the day, barely moving from their homes.

If you plan on fishing dawn and dusk, then you really open up the fishable areas.  You will want to look for areas, in which a flathead could cruise from his home into a shallow area undetected.  Then toss your bait in that general area.

Day Fishing

This method is the complete opposite of fishing them at dawn and dusk.  Daytime Flathead fishers believe you can have great success if you locate their homes.

The idea is flathead catfish aren’t moving much during the day. So if you can place some bait right near their mouth, then they will bite.  

Some argue that flatheads are not hungry during the day, so they won’t bite.  However, daytime fishers have caught massive trophies, so they must have done something right.

This side also makes sense to me.  I could have just eaten dinner, but if someone walks by and offers me a plate of chicken wings, nachos, or bowl of ice cream then I’ll make room for it.

If you plan on using this technique then use the information above to locate a spot where you suspect Flatheads could be holding up.  Drop your bait down to the bottom and wait. If you don’t get a bite within 15 minutes or so move on to the next hole.  If you do land a massive catfish, then you’ll also want to move to the next hole.  Flathead catfish prefer to be solitary, so the odds of catching more than one from the same hole is highly unlikely.

Which Method Is Right For You

Now that you have two surefire ideas to catch flathead catfish, you will need to decide which method works best for you. Life is short and the fishing season is even shorter! So try both methods and fish as often as possible.

Flathead Catfish The Bait Needed

Flathead catfish are predators.  So they prefer live bait over lures. Baitfish are the most common bait used. Common baitfish for Flathead Catfish are:

  • Bluegills
  • Perch
  • Goldfish
  • Smaller catfish
  • Large frogs (think Bullfrog)

Many people reported their greatest success at catching flathead catfish comes from using bluegills.  If you plan on using goldfish for bait, then you make sure you check local laws and regulations.  Many states restrict the use of goldfish, because they are an invasive species.

For smaller flatheads, basically 10lbs and under (I know, I would hardly call a 10lb fish small), then you can use other baits such as:

  • Worms
  • Minnows
  • Crustaceans
  • Crayfish
  • Frogs

Basically, anything you would use to catch a bass or other catfish.

Lures For Flathead Catfish

Lures are not as productive as live bait.  However, some lures can get the job done.  Flathead catfish have a strong sense of smell, so baits that have a strong odor can allure a Flathead.  Baits that may rattle or make sounds, can also attract Flatheads.

You will want to play around with different lures and see what works in your area.  This could be a lot of trial and error.

Gear Needed To Land A Massive Flathead Catfish

Odds are if you are reading this article, then you don’t have the right gear to catch a massive Flathead Catfish.  While you may hook a Flathead on your bass outfit, you aren’t going to land a big Flathead.

Flathead Catfishing Rods

If you plan on catching a massive flathead, then look at big, burly, and stiff rods. A good starting point for the length for a flathead fishing rod is going to be 7 to 9 feet, however some people will even look for a 10 plus foot rod.  Here are some decent Flathead rods:

  • Ugly Stik Catfish Spinning Rods
  • Kastking Kat Tech
  • Eagle Claw Catclaw

Flathead Catfishing Reels

As a whole you’ll want to look at spinning reels and bait cast reels.  

Spinning Reels For Flatheads

You can catch flatheads on a spinning wheel, but some people complain about their limitations, such as selection of heavy duty reels and bait clicker reels.  However, if you are not an avid Flathead Catfisher, then you can land some decent fish with a spinning reel.

When choosing a reel, look for a reel that is overbuilt, with great line capacity, and handling. There are several companies who make spinning reels specifically for catching catfish, they are essestianly a hybrid of spincast and baitcasting reels. Here is a list of a couple that had high reviews:

  • PENN Battle II
  • PENN Conflict II
  • Shimano Sedona

There are countless others, but in reality it will come down to cost, availability to you, and comfort.  You will need to hold and handle rods and reels to see what you like.

Bait Casting Reels For Flatheads

Baitcasting reels are the most popular among Flathead Catfishers. Baitcasting reels are overbuilt and made specifically for targeting larger fish. They have good line capacity, which will hold more line, drag systems that are meant to land larger fish and a few other perks.  

If you plan on getting serious about flathead fishing, you should look at a bait casting reel.  Here is a list of a few baitcasting reels with high reviews online:

  • Shimano SLX DC
  • Abu Garcia X Lew Profile
  • Daiwa Tatula SV TW

These reels are going to be more expensive than spinning reels, but will hold up to heavier fish.

Line And Tackle For Flathead Catfish

Picking the right line will be based on what type of Flathead you plan on catching. If you are fishing for smaller flatheads then you can use 15-30lb line, as the fish get bigger so should your line.  Serious flathead catfishers will use braided line that is rated for 80lbs plus. If you plan  on going after trophy catfish, then look at some braided lines.

Tackle For Flathead Catfish

With Flathead Catfishing you will want to stock up on weights, leaders, cigar floats, swivels, and circle hooks.

You will want to look at different size weights, some fishers will like to drift their bait, so they will use a light weight that will keep the bait down, but still allows the bait to drift. Others will use a heavy weight that keeps the bait in one area.

You may also want to utilize swivels, so the weight can hit the ground and you can have a lead line, connected to your hook and bait.  This will allow your bait some room to play around in, but still keep the bait grounded.

I like circle hooks, because it makes it hard for fish to swallow them.  Circle hooks are also fairly decent at holding onto bait fish and can securely hook big fish.

Rigs To Land Flathead Catfish

There are so many different types of rigs and setups to use when flathead fishing.  Here are a couple basic ones, that work fairly well.

Carolina Rig

With this set up you are going to slide a weight onto your line.  Attach the line to the swivel, make sure the swivel is big enough to prevent the weight from sliding over it. Then attach your line lead to the swivel.  Attach a hook and bait and you’re ready to go.

Floating Rig

With this method you are going to attach a 3 way swivel.  Imagine you are looking  directly at the letter T. This is what the swivel will look like. The left top half of the T, will be connected to your main line. You will also put a cigar float on this end.  The right top half will be connected to a lead line and weight.  The bottom portion of the T will be connected to a lead line, hook and bait.  The weight will keep the bait planted, but the float will suspend the bait.

3-Way Rig

This is similar to the floating Rig, however, you will get rid of the float. You want the weight to bottom out, but the lead line to have some play.  This allows bait to swim in the current and have a playroom.

Putting It All Together

Like any type of fishing, you will learn as you go by trial and error.  You may decide you want your bait to drift or you like your bait to stay put with a longer lead.  Again you need to read the river and just give it a shot.

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About THE AUTHOR

Scott Kimball

From a young age I was introduced to fishing, hiking, camping, snowboarding and more through family, friends, and scouting. After 20 years of learning and participating in these outdoor activities, I share what i've learned (and continue learning) with you.

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