A primer on giant flat­heads



So,you want to catch a big flat­head catfish. That’s a laud­able goal. Th­ese brutes com­monly ex­ceed 50 pounds. World-record-class fish top 120. While in the same fam­ily as chan­nel and blue catfish, th­ese shovel-headed gi­ants dif­fer so much in their habits and phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, they’ve been placed in the genus Py­lo­d­ic­tis, to which no other fish be­longs. Learn­ing how they dif­fer from their kin al­lows you to fish for them prop­erly, in­creas­ing your suc­cess rate.

LES­SON 1: Think Like a Preda­tor

▶ The first con­cept to grasp is that flat­heads are bush­whack­ers. In day­time, they hide around or within sub­merged logs, drift­wood piles, top­pled trees, snags, and river­bank cav­i­ties, wait­ing to am­bush pass­ing prey. Flat­heads aren’t built for ex­tended chases like their stream­lined cousins, pre­fer­ring in­stead to dart out from hid­ing and de­vour un­wary prey. Flat­heads roam very lit­tle, and when they do, they roam at night or when rains cre­ate tur­bid,

high-wa­ter con­di­tions, never ven­tur­ing far from their pre­ferred home quar­ters.

Chan­nel cats and blues some­times act like­wise, but not nearly as of­ten as their big brown cousins. Know­ing just th­ese things can im­me­di­ately im­prove your odds for flat­head-catch­ing suc­cess—fo­cus your day­time fish­ing ef­forts on dense, shady nearshore cover such as blow­downs and drift piles, and con­tinue to fish near such cover at night. Ex­tract­ing fat flat­ties from th­ese spots isn’t easy, but it can be done if you fish with heavy line on tough tackle. Drift in a bait be­neath a float or on a tight line, and stay alert.

LES­SON 2: Learn About Lon­ers

▶ Jumbo flat­heads are testy beasts. Un­like blues and chan­nel cats, which fre­quently gather in loose schools, flat­heads are ag­gres­sive to­ward oth­ers of their kind. As a re­sult, a prime piece of flat­head real es­tate rarely har­bors more than one heavy­weight adult, so you’ll prob­a­bly find it fruit­less to con­tinue fish­ing a sin­gle spot of cover af­ter catch­ing a good fish.

Catch one here; move over there. That’s another key to suc­cess.

LES­SON 3: Don't Drop Deads

▶ Many an­glers are un­der the im­pres­sion that big flat­heads will eat vir­tu­ally any­thing.

Flat­heads of­ten scav­enge and aren’t picky about their food. But this ap­plies pri­mar­ily to small in­di­vid­u­als. Ju­ve­nile fish up to a few pounds will hit stinkbaits, chicken liv­ers, worms, craw­fish, and other nor­mal catfish baits with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

If you’re seek­ing heavy­weight flat­heads, how­ever, th­ese baits rarely work. The big guys sel­dom eat in­ver­te­brates or rum­mage for din­ner. 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. Good choices in­clude live sun­fish, suck­ers, bull­heads, carp, gold­fish, and chubs.

LES­SON 4: Keep It Clean

▶ Flat­heads can taste and smell cer­tain com­pounds in the wa­ter in ex­tremely minute quan­ti­ties. This can be good be­cause it helps them zero in on your bait. But be sure to avoid han­dling things such as gaso­line, sun­screen, tobacco, and in­sect re­pel­lent, which will send them scur­ry­ing away from even the most tan­ta­liz­ing baits.

LES­SON 5: Feed the Bear

▶ To­day’s an­glers have learned that chan­nel cats and blue cats feed ac­tively through­out win­ter, even when lakes and rivers ice over. Not so big flat­heads. Th­ese fish en­ter a hi­ber­na­tion-like state when the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture drops below 45 de­grees, ly­ing in­ac­tively on river and lake bot­toms un­til spring warms things again.

To com­pen­sate for win­ter’s pe­riod of lean ra­tions, how­ever, flat­ties gorge in spring to ease their wakeup hunger pangs and again in fall to gain weight like bears pre­par­ing for hi­ber­na­tion. Fish th­ese sea­sons for an in­creased chance of a hookup.

A Kansas River flat­head waits to am­bush a meal.

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