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OUTDOORS FEATURE: Flathead catfish are big, bad, ugly and fun

The flathead catfish, though decidedly unglamourous, provides worthwhile sport and great table fare.

The flathead catfish, though decidedly unglamourous, provides worthwhile sport and great table fare.

The flathead catfish, which continues to thrive in the region’s river systems, offers southwest Georgia anglers a realistic opportunity to catch a very large fish. The average flathead weighs between 5 and 25 pounds, but individuals over 40 pounds are common.

The big cats are plentiful as well, even to the point of being introduced pests in some waterways. Maligned by some anglers for decimating bream and bullhead populations in some locations, the flathead is nevertheless a worthy angling opponent and a true battler on the end of a fishing line. In Southwest Georgia, the species is found in varying stages of abundance in the Flint River, Lake Seminole, and over the past few years have begun showing up with more and more frequency in the Chattahoochee River, most notably in the tailwaters below the George W. Andrews Dam.

Flathead catfish, often called appaloosa or Opelousas cats, have a flattened head with small eyes, are yellowish to brown in color, and do not have sharp spines. They can live as long as 20 years, but most adults in Deep-South populations range from 4 to 10 years old.

“Unlike other catfish species, flatheads are almost exclusively predators and prefer live prey, although they are opportunistic and will scavenge just like other catfish from time to time,” said fisheries biologist and avid catfish angler Jerry Bitterman. “Smaller fish up to 3 or 4 pounds can be caught with worms, aquatic insects, crayfish, and minnows. Larger flatheads prefer bigger, livelier baits such as large bream, shiners, goldfish, or suckers. Flathead catfish will eat fish up to one-half their own length, so large baits will not necessarily discourage even the smaller flatheads.”

When fishing for flatheads, it is important to fish areas that contain the best flathead habitat. The fish exhibit a strong preference for flowing water and are most often found on the outside bends of a river channel. Areas containing large rocks, rock shelves, and fallen trees or other snags are excellent flathead territories. Holes and depressions in the river bottom will also hold fish.

“Don’t limit your fishing to deep water exclusively,” Bitterman said. “Actively feeding flatheads will often move into the shallow water at the head or tail end of pools. Like other catfish, they are nocturnal and the best fishing times are evenings, nights, and in the early morning.”

There are a number of successful bait rigs that can be used while fishing for flatheads with a rod and reel. Bottom fishing with a bell or egg sinker or drift fishing with a float are two traditional favorites.

For successful bottom fishing, anchor upstream of likely spots such as snags and stumps in deep, flowing water. The size of the hook (3/0 to 7/0) and sinker (1 to 4 ounces) is determined by the size of the bait and the strength of the current. Use enough weight to keep the bait on bottom. This will result in fewer snagged hooks.

“A split shot or swivel can be used to keep the bait at a known distance below the sinker,” Bitterman explained. “This distance can be from 3 inches to 2 feet. Faster current requires a shorter distance between the bait and the sinker. Don’t be afraid to move the bait every few minutes. This will allow you to cover more area, improving your chances to entice a flathead to take the bait.”

Another good bottom-fishing technique for flatheads involves drifting with the current in a river. Drift-fishing anglers “bounce” their baits along the bottom while using a trolling motor to maneuver the boat near snags and other fish-holding underwater structures. Moving with the river will increase your likelihood of finding actively-feeding flatheads.

“The float-fishing method is one of my personal favorites,” Bitterman added. “Fishing a float rig enables a fisherman to cover a lot of catfish habitat and can be a very successful technique when bottom fishing is slow. Tie the hook about 12 inches below the swivel and position a 1-ounce to 4-ounce egg sinker (depending on the size of the bait) just above the swivel. Attach a large float 3 to 4 feet above the sinker and drift back and forth over likely flathead-holding structure. Relatively few anglers have picked up on this method, but it can really pay dividends. Many people think flatheads and other cats are exclusive bottom feeders, but they aren’t. More often than you might think, they’ll go into a free-swimming mode between the bottom and the surface when they’re actively feeding. If a bottom bite just isn’t happening, try float fishing. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Baitfish, according to Bitterman, should be hooked through the back near the dorsal fin. The vibrations of a bait so impaled will attract hungry flatheads. Allow the float rig to swirl around holes, steep banks, and stumps.

Flatheads are easily caught on single-hook or multiple-hook trotlines, too. Attach them to slightly flexible objects such as tree limbs to prevent larger fish from tearing the hooks loose. Leave lines out overnight and retrieve them the next morning. Checking lines often will result in fewer lost fish. Remove trotlines at the end of your trip and be familiar with state trotline regulations.

Not only are flathead catfish fun to catch, but, table-wise, they may be the best-tasting catfish of all. Even large flatheads are delicious. The meat is similar in texture to other catfish, slightly flaky when cooked, but firmer than bream or bass.

“If you haven’t before, go out and meet the flathead this year as the weather warms,” Bitterman concluded. “I guarantee you’ll have a lot of fun, and you’ll definitely enjoy the fruits of your labor at the table.”