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Out There: Flatheads of fall

12/1/2006
James Patterson shows off a hefty fall flathead caught in the river near Memphis. 

It's November 2000 on the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tenn, and in a shallow backwater adjacent the river, logs and debris have been sucked into a huge slow-moving eddy, creating a gigantic wooden raft a half-mile across.

James Patterson, owner of Mississippi River Guide Service, tells me the river's flatheads have moved into the cove and under the raft to feed on baitfish there.

"This is an ideal situation for catching flatheads," he says. "But these logs are moving all the time in a big circle.

"We'll put our baits out and leave them a while, then move our sets whenever the logs move in such a way that they might tangle our lines."

The baits he speaks of are shad, fresh-caught from the river in a cast-net. We each grab one from the baitwell and impale it on a 5/0 Kahle hook.

Two types of rigs are used — three-way and egg-sinker.

The three-way rig features a three-way swivel with short leaders tied to two eyes, and the main line to the other. On one leader is the hook, on the other a 1-ounce bank sinker.

The egg-sinker rig is fashioned by placing a 1-ounce egg sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel. To the swivel is tied a leader and hook.

Both rigs work well in this situation, as we soon discover.

Patterson casts to the edge of the raft.

"You want the current to catch your rig and pull it out and toward the raft so it sinks beneath the outer edge of the logs," he says.

"Then let it sink to the bottom, and hold on tight. If a catfish is there, he'll bite pretty quick."

The words have hardly left his lips when Patterson hooks a 5-pound flathead and brings it in. He releases it with a pat, telling it, "Go get Papa, and bring him to us."

Over the next two hours we catch a dozen more catfish, including Papa, a 21-pound flathead with a potbelly and Fu Manchu mustache.

Occasionally, as the log raft revolves, we get tangled in debris or must move our sets. But such annoyances are minimal.

We watch the driftwood and avoid it by maneuvering the line with our long rods. The action is not fast, but rarely does one catch so many flatheads in such a short period.

We're pleased to get a hookup every few minutes, a sign that log rafts like these are indeed good hotspots for fall flatheads.

I've usually had my best luck hooking flatheads during spring when rivers and lakes get high and muddy after heavy rains.

This is a phenomenal time to fish for these big brutes. They're moving more than usual, often at shallower depths and feeding ravenously while food circulates in the agitated waters.

But autumn flathead fishing shines, as well, running a dead heat with spring in terms of action.

In fact, many died-in-the-wool flathead fans like Patterson will tell you I'm full of hooey. "Fall," they say, "is the best time for flatheads, bar none."

There's no doubt that feeding activity increases in October, November or December, depending on the latitude.

My catch rate improves as summer's heat dissipates and days grow shorter. And I've spoken to dozens of flathead men who experience the same thing.

Why the bite improves is a matter of speculation. But like many cat men, I believe flatheads feed more in autumn because they sense that a season on low rations is about to begin.

"Flatheads are like bears," one old-timer told me. "They have to fatten up in fall because they're gonna hibernate till spring. That's why the fall bite is so good."

Some dispute that claim, saying flatheads feed actively throughout winter. Maybe in some places, they do.

They don't where I fish, however, and I don't know a single flathead man who actively pursues his quarry when the water temperature drops below the mid-40s. There's just not enough feeding activity to justify the effort.

Two scuba divers I know provided additional evidence that flatheads become inactive in cold water. Both men noted they often see flatheads congregated in deep water during winter.

Invariably, they say, the flatheads are laying on bottom, sometimes covered with silt. The fish are so lethargic, the divers actually can touch them without spooking them, something that's impossible during other seasons.

The flatheads, they report, appear to be in suspended animation.

All this evidence lends veracity to the old-timer's hibernating bear analogy: There's a distinct peak in flathead feeding in autumn, because these fish follow instinctive urges to put on weight before the cold "starvation" period ahead.

Of course, the reasons why flatheads go on a feeding binge in fall are not as important as the fact they do. Autumn is prime flathead time, and if you want to waylay a trophy specimen, fish as often as possible until harsh winter cold sets in.

"The flathead is the king of big rivers," Patterson says of his beloved cat. "I sometimes hear people call it 'mud cat,' but I assure you it doesn't deserve that title like a lowly bullhead.

"The flathead is a true predator, a sprinter that can run down the fastest fish. It has a monstrous mouth and can swallow a fish 25 percent its size. This fellow can give you one of the best fights of any catfish, and he is, by far, the finest table fare of all the cats."

"Patience is a virtue you must have to catch flatheads consistently," he concludes. "It's never easy.

"But when fishing big rivers for this incredible fish, the next flathead you tie into could a 50- or 60-pounder, maybe even bigger. That makes all the extra effort worthwhile."

Amen to that.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.