Flathead catfish still hitting down-river

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

Mid-September was about as late as we have fished for flathead catfish in Pennsylvania, so there was a fair amount of curiosity attached to this fishing trip. Our destination, on the Allegheny River at Kennerdell.

Herb Wagner said we were getting started too late. He would have preferred that we get the anchors set while it was still light. Stopping for dinner along the way ruled that out. I ordered fish for good luck. Then it was pitch dark, no moon in the sky when we were ready to set out our baits.

Herb baited both of his lines with live chubs. I used a live chub on one line and cut bait on the other. I had a pretty good idea when I opened the plastic bag holding the cut bait that it was going to be worthless. It did not have the strong garlic aroma as it should have. Thinner sections of flesh along the lower sides and belly were gone. It looked like a partially decomposed fish laying on a creek bottom. The remainder of that bag of cut bait went in the garbage.

Reminder to self- do not try to keep cut bait until a second summer, especially after it has been partially thawed the previous summer.

Just about any local fish will be ok for cut bait. Chub, horned dace, common shiner have worked well. The size of the bait will determine whether it will even be cut. Minnows less than 6 inches in length are left whole. As I am discovering that bigger baits tend to catch bigger catfish, I have been cutting large baits in halves rather than in thirds as before. Guts are pulled out of baits that are cut but are left in the whole baits. The final steps are adding a generous amount of garlic scent, mixing and triple bagging.

That garlic odor will leak into the freezer if the stuff is not adequately bagged. Quadruple bagging is certainly not too much.

Use garlic scents made specifically for fishing. Three brands we have been tried all worked fine. Also, Mike’s Lunker Lotion Anise caught at least as many flatheads when used in comparison to garlic. Mike’s Fluorescent Smelt Oil Glo Scent is very good at Lake Erie for channel catfish. This is also effective when used on trolled lures for steelhead, lake trout and walleye.

Flathead catfish do not seem to be fussy about what kind of fish they eat. For several years we used riffle runners, which are very lively chubs, in pairs on each line. This is very effective. However, riffle runners are not always available. We have learned that most any chub will do. Herb has been using bluegill during the last couple of his flathead catfishing trips with fine results. Keeping bluegill alive in a bait cooler is easier than keeping most other baitfish alive.

You will have to catch your own bait in most cases. Be certain it is caught from the same watershed where you will be catfishing. This is not difficult once you find a few places to catch bait. Some can be caught in minnow traps. Most are caught on a small hook, barb pinched down, and a piece of worm.

Outflow from the Kinzua Dam was about 3,700 cfs, but that was not enough to make the river high at Kennerdell. However, the air was cooler than usual for flathead catfishing. Rather than a balmy midsummer feel, it had the feel of fall, which would begin the next day. Water temperature at the outflow of the Kinzua Dam was in the high 60s.

Jim Reitz caught a nice flathead catfish at Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, while we fished for striper in April, and I am not sure if the water temperature then was above the 40s. The local wild natives still sing his praises as the Great Chief of All Striper Fishermen. Maidens throw rose petals at his feet. All hail the king of striper fishermen- Hail. Hail. Hail. Hail yea.

We boated about 10 flathead cats that night by 11:30 p.m. None were especially large, all from 5 pounds to maybe 8 pounds. But I did lose a big fish. Herb had two hits at the same time. After setting one of the hooks he handed me the other rod. When I felt that fish taking outline I set the hook. It clearly was the heaviest fish hooked that night. Judging by the throbbing caused when the catfish flopped in the current, it was a long fish. I had worked it close to the boat, but still too deep to be seen, when the hook came out of its mouth.

Losing a flathead catfish, as with channel catfish, once hooked is unusual. Most often the hook is set into the tough, rubbery lips.