If you were to cater a gourmet meal for a convention of flathead catfish, the menu might center around a lively 6-inch green sunfish presented on a 5/0 hook. Other entrees might include feisty bluegills, bullheads, or creek chubs served on sliprigs constructed with 12-inch leaders. Appetizers such as a writhing ball of river worms on an 8/0 hook, a lip-hooked waterdog, or a juicy section of a large sucker also would be welcome. Dessert could be a back-hooked mudpuppy or a crankbait trolled through a school of gizzard shad.
This menu is courtesy of some of America’s leading flathead catfish bait anglers. All of these experts agree that green sunfish, where legal, are the premier bait for flatheads. “Green sunfish are tough, and they constantly fight the hook, which produces lots of vibration,” says Denny Halgren, who guides flathead-loving clients on the Rock River near his home in Dixon, Illinois.
Jigging sunfish—Unlike most flathead anglers, Halgren fishes almost exclusively during daylight hours and aggressively jigs his sunfish to antagonize inactive flatheads into attacking his baits. He anchors his boat above a hole, baits with a 5- to 6-inch green sunfish back-hooked on a 5/0 or 6/0 Tru-Turn Catfish Hook, then casts at a 45-degree angle to the back of the boat. He uses a 2- to 4-ounce slipsinker pegged 10 to 24 inches above the hook with a lead shot.
Slow currents allow for less weight and longer leaders; stronger currents require more weight and shorter leaders. Halgren’s clients cast a similarly rigged sunfish off the other side of the boat at a 45-degree angle. The current and a jigging motion moves the baits downstream into the daytime resting hole of the resident flathead. A slow, methodical lifting-and-dropping action moves the sunfish into the hole, then works it back to the boat.
“During the day, these flatheads aren’t in feeding mode,” Halgren says, “so I show them the bait, then take it away, over and over again. We may work a bait through the same hole 15 or 20 times in an hour, but eventually the fish will grab the bait.”
Jigging for big flatheads requires specialized tackle. Halgren uses Pro Cat II graphite catfish rods developed and marketed by Aurora Sports in Elmhurst, Illinois. “I use 20-pound Stren line and those Pro Cat rods to give me the sensitivity to feel exactly what my bait is doing as I jig it, ” Halgren says. “Twenty-pound line is strong enough to handle a big flathead. It’s not necessary to horse him back to the boat. All you have to do is hold him when you set the hook, keep him from getting back into the snag, then use the current and steady pressure to guide him away from cover so you can work him back to the boat.”
Other sunfish tactics—Live green sunfish also are the preferred bait of Gene Murray, a well-known catfish angler from southeastern Iowa, who has lived on the banks of the lower Iowa River for over 30 years. Murray, who has fished with Halgren, agrees that Halgren’s jigging technique can be deadly—under certain conditions. “Most of these rivers have a soft bottom littered with debris, so jigging tends to produce lots of snags,” Murray says. “I agree with Halgren that green sunfish are a top bait, if you can get them, but I also have a lot of luck with 6- to 8-inch bullheads.
“My fishing partner Craig Whittaker is a little more adventurous and will put anything that’s legal on his hook, just to see if a flathead will take it,” Murray adds. “He’s used small sheepshead, carp minnows, crawdads, chubs and has caught flatheads on all of them. But I usually catch more and bigger flatheads by using proven baits like green sunfish or bullheads. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m also a better fishermen than he is.”
While Murray and Whittaker enjoy long discussions about who is the better angler, they agree that they have discovered a way to dramatically increase their catch rates for flatheads. Iowa regulations allow two hooks per rod, so Murray and Whittaker use either a 3-way swivel or a Kentucky-style twisted-monofilament leader rig to put a chunk of fresh cutbait—usually a small shad or herring fillet—on the same rig with a live sunfish, bullhead, or chub. “Rigs with both cutbait and livebait almost always get bit before a rig with two livebaits, ” Murray says. “I think the flavor of the cutbait draws the cats’ attention, but they almost always take the livebait once they get close enough to see it.”
The trouble with mudpuppies—Murray admits that while his favorite bait for flatheads is live green sunfish, his dream bait, when he can find them, is mudpuppies. Mudpuppies are the larval stage of salamanders; they’re only available during certain seasons and usually difficult to find. “I grew up with an old river rat who knew a spot where we could seine mudpuppies,” Murray recalls. “We’d bait bank lines with those mudpuppies and catch lots of channel catfish; we’d also find broken lines and straightened hooks where big flatheads had broken off. The only problem with mudpuppies is that every fish species in the river likes them too.”
Great gobs of worms—Virgil Agee, of Chamois, Missouri, has a favorite bait for flatheads that deals with the problem of bait thieves. He uses river worms, a sluggish, blackish-purple-brown worm found along riverbanks from Oklahoma to the Carolina coast. “I don’t know any other name for them except river worms,” Agee says. “I dig them in sand or gravel areas along the river bank. They’re about a quarter inch in diameter and up to a foot long. They’re slow-moving, tough-skinned, and their slime kind of glows in the dark. Sometimes I dig for hours to get a dozen, and other times it’s possible to get three dozen in 15 minutes.”
Three dozen river worms equates to about three “baits” for Agee. He threads a baseball-size gob of river worms onto an 8/0 or 10/0 hook below a pegged slip sinker, then casts the slow-writhing mass into a prime flathead lair. “Little fish start working on the tips of the worms, but those river worms are so tough that small fish can’t do much more than nip off the ends, ” Agee says. “All the juice and activity attracts larger fish that in turn eventually attract the big boy in charge of that particular hole.
“Those little “shakers” will keep that wad of worms bouncing from the minute you toss it in the water, ” Agee adds. “But be patient and ignore all that shaking, even if you leave it out there for an hour or more. Have faith that the river worms are tough enough that the small fish won’t clean the hook. Just leave it out there, and when all the shaking stops, it’s time to start paying attention. Something has scared away all the little fish, and it’s probably a big flathead. Flatheads don’t mess around with river worms—they just up and grab the wad, so be ready to set the hook as soon as you detect a steady pull.”
Eels, dead or alive—Ed Davis of Fayetteville, North Carolina, hasn’t boated any 100-pound flatheads, but in the past three years he has caught more than 100 flatheads in the 40- to 70-pound range from the Cape Fear River. Davis fished for flatheads all across the United States during a 21-year military career. He baits his line with green sunfish where they’re legal, and eels whenever possible. “I’ve often fished with two rigs, one baited with live sunfish and the other tipped with 6- to 8-inch chunks of a 1-inch-diameter eel,” Davis says. “The chunks of eel always outfish the live sunfish.
“Live 6- to 8-inch eels are good, too, but they’re hard to fish because they crawl into holes and get you snagged a lot. Live eels can be kept alive for months if they’re kept on ice,” Davis says. “They go dormant as soon as they’re chilled, then they perk right up as soon as you put them into warm water. The secret is to prevent them from burrowing through the crushed ice and to the melt water at the bottom of the container where they’ll drown.”
Bully for bullheads, too—Davis also is fond of baiting with bullheads. He usually hooks an 8- or 9-inch bullhead through the back near the tail, so the bait is off-balance and must constantly fight to stay level. “Bullheads are tough, they put a lot of vibration in the water, and they’re easy to find,” Davis says. “Anyone who doesn’t fish with bullheads for flatheads is handicapping himself, particularly in states where sunfish aren’t legal and eels aren’t available.”
The cutbait crusaders—Ryan Wassink of Hull, Iowa, and his brother Vaughn frequently cross the Minnesota border to fish the bait-restricted Minnesota River. Last year they caught and released 102 flatheads from the Minnesota that weighed up to 50 pounds. The Wassinks have developed an aggressive approach to catching flatheads with cutbait. “We buy 8- to 12-inch suckers from bait shops and cut them into halves or thirds, ” Ryan says. “For flatheads, I like to use the gut section, but Vaughn likes to use the heads. We save the tail sections for channel cats.”
The Wassinks put the juicy chunks of fresh sucker flesh on a 4/0 or 5/0 Kahle hook with a 12-inch leader. An appropriate-sized sliding egg sinker above a swivel keeps the chunk of sucker on the bottom. “The secret is to keep moving, ” Wassink says. “If we’re fishing during the day, we’ll hit 40 or 50 snags in an afternoon. We average about 5 minutes per snag. It has to be a really hot-looking spot for us to spend more than 15 minutes in one spot.”
The Wassinks have learned that the older the snag, the more attractive to flatheads. “We look for the old snags that have so much debris in them that grass and weeds are growing out the top, ” Ryan adds. “It doesn’t have to be deep—four feet of water under a snag might hold a nice flathead if sunlight can’t penetrate the snag during daylight hours.”
Artificial offerings—While most flathead anglers swear that lively livebaits or fresh cutbaits are the only sure-fire way to catch flatheads, Eric Anderson of Phoenix, Arizona, disagrees. “I’ve taken lots of flatheads on crankbaits, ” Anderson says. “In Horseshoe Reservoir, we clobbered flatheads that were suspended 12 feet down over 30 feet of water, following schools of shad. We caught them on #9 Shad Raps; that’s 15- to 20-pound flatheads on spinning rigs spooled with 8-pound line.”
Anderson says his goal when trolling is to trigger impulse strikes from aggressive flatheads already bent on feeding. Crankbait color doesn’t seem to make a big difference in murky water. “Thump or vibration is what matters,” Anderson adds. “Flatheads live in dirty water, and they depend on vibration to find food.”
The waterdog option—While Anderson has had success trolling crankbaits for flatheads, 9-inch waterdogs pitched into nooks and crannies along shoreline cover also have been deadly flathead bait. “I thump a waterdog on the head to kill it,” he says, “then hook it through both lips. They’re too active and hard to control when they’re alive. I pitch them into nooks and crannies along the shoreline as if pitchin’ for bass. I can give dead waterdogs enough action on the retrieve so flatheads think they’re alive.
Anderson agreed with our other experts that no single bait will catch flatheads in every situation. Weather, water temperature, water levels, time of day, and a dozen other factors all influence the sometimes finicky taste buds of flatheads. But flatheads find certain baits difficult to resist. If green sunfish aren’t legal in your waters, then bullheads, river worms, mudpuppies, eels, or fresh chunks of cutbait definitely should be on the menu.