High Water Flatheads
Catching big flathead catfish when rivers are full
Catching big flatheads consistently is difficult. Factor in all the rain that has hammered most of North America the last two years and difficult suddenly becomes nearly impossible for many of us. Don't fear though, just because the rivers are running full does not mean that flatheads disappear, they just move to different areas.
First things first. Safety should always be your number one priority no matter what kind of fishing you are doing. Safe is often dictated by the conditions of the river and the type of boat you have. Use your best judgement when taking out a boat or kayak. If you aren't sure about the safety of others and yourself, don't do it. If you do have a boat capable of handling flood waters, always wear your PFD, and bring a friend. Even on a big, stable boat, if you slip and fall without a life jacket on, especially at night, this can be a death sentence.
There is nothing wrong with fishing from shore. It is simple, effective, and often more comfortable than fishing from a boat. My largest flathead ever was caught while fishing from shore. If the river is too wild for your vessel, leave it at home and chase them from the bank.
Where did they go?
When rivers become swollen, particularly in mid to late summer, flatheads do not move far. There are different parts of hole that congregate flatheads during above average flows. Even when flatheads are really on the move, such as spring and fall, certain locations always seem to produce during high water.
The first question you need to ask yourself is, "Is there a small creek that flows into the river near one of the holes I usually catch flatheads?" If there is, this is usually the first place I begin my search. Creek mouths are excellent locations for fish of all species during high water, and flatheads are no different. Small baitfish have a difficult time handling the fast water, so they move to skinnier water to get out of the fast flows. This in turn attracts slightly larger fish, like bluegills, crappies, and bass that feed on the baitfish. The flatheads then move into the area to feed on whatever fish is unfortunate to cross their path.
It never ceases to amaze me how far up a small creek flatheads will travel at night. I have heard the suction of flathead catfish eating baitfish on top of the water as far as 50 yards up a creek only a couple yards wide. The point is it pays off to spread baits out along the whole area. Set a bait or two set where the main current meets the creek mouth and another one or two within the first 20 yards or so of the creek itself. This provides a little more insurance a big boy doesn't slip past one of your baits.
If there are no creeks dumping into the river near where flatheads normally frequent, don't worry. Another prime spot during peak flows is the inside bend of the hole. The best inside bends are similar to the best holes for flatheads. They have at least some depth. 10 feet is not necessary, but I wouldn't be confident putting my baits in only a foot of water (you never know though). They also have some cover to block current, usually logs and other timber that has been caught in the sandbar. The more cover the better. This provides pockets of calmer water that attracts smaller fish trying to avoid the blasting main current and therefore attracts hungry flatheads. These area are great places to put your bait.
What if your favorite flathead hole has none of this? There is still hope. Fish on the inside bend of the hole and put your baits right along the bank. This is particularly effective in early summer and fall when fish are moving up and down the river. If the water is high, flatheads travel right along the bank. Even though they are on the move, they have a tough time turning down a free meal on their journey.
Bait and Tackle
Bait during high water is really no different than any other river level, except for one little difference. Live baits still catch fish, but for some reason I have not figured out, fresh cutbait seems to become more effective than under other water conditions. I'm not sure if this is due to the reduced visability from the muddy water, or if the increased current gives it enough action it appears to be alive. Regardless, when waters are high I generally have at least one rod baited up with a big, bloody baitfish head.
Unlike bait, tackle needs an upgrade during high water. The river is bank full, maybe even outside its banks, and there is much, much more structure in the water than during more normal flows. In addition, current is flowing faster than any other time, making it difficult or impossible to turn a big fish that is allowed to escape from the protected waters you are fishing. Due to this, I always use stouter tackle during high water. A good rule to follow is to bump your line strength up 20 percent. I normally use 50 pound line, but when the waters are swift I use 60 pound line.
You gotta try it
With all of this being said, a river at flood stage can still be intimidating. As the old saying goes, "you can't catch 'em on the couch!" If you don't go out and try it, you definitely won't be catching anything. These strategies, like all strategies in flathead fishing, are not foolproof. Fishless nights will happen, even when everything is right. Flatheads are the kings of small rivers, and they do things on their own time, not man's. However, those who dare to chase them when the river looks like a stream of chocolate milk flowing from a garden hose are often rewarded with spectacular fishing and a shot at landing a fish they may have never had the opportunity to otherwise.