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Interesting Read If You Have Time "Frosty Flatheads"

15 posts in this topic

It is a little long, but it is pretty good smile I am not sure if it has been on here before!

Frosty Flatheads

The Hole Truth About Flatheads In Rivers Right Now

by Steve Hoffman

The season for channel cats on the Minnesota portion of the Red River extends from early May through the end of February. I mention this in an article about flatheads because it's the only legal season for catfish that I'm aware of in North America. Most parts of the country, though, have at least an informal season. Most veteran flathead anglers, for example, begin fishing when water temperatures warm into the low to mid-60F range in spring, and they hang up their rods when water temperatures cool below 50F in fall.

Translating those water temperatures to a calendar can be difficult because weather and water conditions never are constant from one year to the next. During a typical season, though, I'd guess the traditional flathead season in Minnesota extends roughly from mid-May through early October. Heavy cold spring rains might slide the opener back, and a few warm fall days may extend the fishing for a week or two, but northern anglers can expect about six months of fishing during a typical year. Probably add a couple weeks to each end of your season in Missouri and a month or more in South Carolina.

Regardless of where you fish, though, cooling water eventually pushes flatheads into wintering holes that afford them some level of comfort and security. The start of what we call the Coldwater Period is characterized by nearly constant cold water temperatures. Again, how cold depends on geographic location. In the north, some river sections may be covered by three feet of ice, and water temperatures range from a low of 32F to a high of about 39F. Winter temperatures in the mid-South may run in the mid-40F range, and the high 50F range in the deep south.

It follows, then, that a flathead's need for a separate winter range would be strongest in the northern two-thirds of their range. In rivers like the Tallahatchie and Big Black in Mississippi, where water temperatures remain above 50F throughout winter, flatheads may remain in the same areas they occupied during summer. In the Minnesota, St. Croix, Wisconsin, and other northern rivers, though, they usually drop into moderately deep holes when water temperatures dip below about 50F. And so long as these holes aren't filled in by changing river dynamics, fish may inhabit the same wintering holes from one year to the next.

Studies on the Minnesota River conducted by biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that channel cats and flatheads favor different wintering holes, though some overlap occurs. While channel cats tend to congregate in the deepest available water, flatheads favor holes with heavy wood cover or rock structure that blocks current, usually in water 12 to 18 feet deep. Most fish in the Minnesota River don't move far, but a long migration may occur in some rivers.

It has long been assumed that these wintering flatheads--especially those at the northern edge of their range--seldom bite, though they're occasionally caught by anglers fishing with jigs or bait for walleyes or some other species. A reliable pattern has been difficult to establish, though, because most of these anglers weren't targeting flatheads, and most of the fish they reported catching were snagged.

In recent seasons, though, we've met anglers like John Lehto and Terry Hansen who do indeed target flatheads in northern rivers during the coldest times of the year. Both are coldwater catmen to the core. Neither pursues flatheads during the traditional summer season, but both routinely break through ice at the boat ramp thick enough to support an ice fisherman, and they brave temperatures cold enough to send ice fishermen in search of a propane heater.

JOHN LEHTO'S METHOD

John Lehto, as we've already established, is not a typical flathead fisherman. He doesn't care much for night fishing, and he claims to lack the patience he assumes is necessary to stillfish with livebait. What's most unusual about Lehto, though, is that his season doesn't begin until his neighbors in Somerset, Wisconsin, are putting their boats in storage and rigging their ice rods.

But he does like to catch big flatheads. Fishing from mid-October through the end of March, Lehto and two partners boated more than 250 flatheads in the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Their remarkable catch included 15 fish over 40 pounds and two that topped 60. "My biggest fish was just under 70 pounds," Lehto adds, "which would have eclipsed the current Wisconsin record (65 pounds)."

Most of his fish are caught in main-river holes from 20 to 30 feet deep. "I usually drift through a hole at current speed," Lehto says, "using an electric motor only to correct my drift and keep the bait directly beneath the boat. Several drifts may be needed to find where the cats are holding. Sometimes most of the fish push toward the head of the hole, but at other times, they're lined up along the channel ledge or scattered throughout the core of the hole."

Lehto sometimes uses sonar to locate fish holding on or near the bottom, but they're difficult to discern from the bottom because of the sunken timber, rock, and other cover that litters the hole. "Flatheads usually hold behind large objects like wood and rock that deflect cover," Lehto adds, "but they also line up behind each other. At times, they're packed so tightly into prime holes that jigging without snagging a fish is almost impossible."

Most of the flatheads caught during the Coldwater Period are, as we've said, snagged, usually by anglers targeting walleye or sauger. This has made many anglers skeptical of those claiming to catch numbers of flatheads in water colder than about 50F. "I keep a detailed record of all my catches," Lehto counters, "including notes about how the fish was caught. I estimate that about 25 percent of my fish are snagged, but that's definitely not my intent, and most of the fish definitely are taking the bait."

Lehto's choice of bait may be the most remarkable aspect of his approach. His initial catches were made with the same plastic grub and minnow combinations used by walleye anglers, but he soon learned that soft plastics were enough to trigger strikes from semi-active flatheads. "I've had success with 3- to 5-inch shad imitators like Mister Twister Sassy Shads, Berkley Shimmy Shads, and Banjo Minnows.

"I always add some kind of scent to the bait--usually Berkley's Walleye Power Bait Attractant or Baitmate Catfish Scent--but I'm not sure how important scent is," Lehto continues. "I've also experimented with rattles inserted into the plastic baits, but again, I can't say for sure it produces more strikes. The whole key to this presentation seems to be keeping the bait near the bottom and jigging fairly aggressively to trigger strikes--just like walleye fishing."

Unlike walleye anglers, though, Lehto uses heavy-power muskie bucktail rods and large-capacity casting reels spooled with 40-pound monofilament. "Snags are so common that I've started using a 30-pound mono leader,"Lehto says. "I lose a few more jigs each season, but I'm not shortening my main line every time I break off. Heavy tackle also means more landed fish. Flatheads tend to be much more lethargic in cold water, but I still expect a battle to last about a minute for every three pounds of fish."

TERRY HANSEN'S METHOD

Terry Hansen, owner of Apex Tackle in South Sioux City, Nebraska, has for years been making spectacular catches of big flatheads during the coldest times of the year. He fishes the lower ends of major Missouri River tributaries. Runs on these rivers average 4 to 8 feet deep, and most sharp bend holes are about 20 feet deep. Most of these holes are 100 to 200 feet long and drop and rise gradually at the head and tailout sections. Most also contain little wood or rock cover.

Hansen says most of the bend holes he fishes hold at least a few flatheads, but he prefers to pinpoint their location with a flasher. "You can pass right over the tops of these fish without seeing them on a liquid crystal graph," Hansen says, "but a properly tuned flasher will separate fish from the bottom. After spotting a fish, I use my electric motor to hover over the fish, holding my bait right in front of its nose until it decides to eat."

We've long recommended flashers for precision tasks like reading through dense vegetation or vertically jigging through the ice. Before you trade in your LCG for a flasher, though, realize that spotting fish holding tight to the bottom isn't always easy. "I know how to tune and interpret my flasher through years of experience," Hansen adds. "Most importantly, though, I know what I'm looking for. That flickering bottom signal may look like a stump to the untrained eye, but I usually can pick out the fish."

Like Lehto, Hansen also has found that large numbers of flatheads tend to congregate in prime wintering holes. "If I catch a fish or even see a fish on my flasher," Hansen says, "I'm confident that at least 10 or 15 other flatheads are present in the hole. Most of the fish I catch in late winter are covered with sores, scrapes, and have chunks of their dorsal fins chewed off. One fishery manager I fish with speculates that the fish are taking pieces out of each other, due either from hunger or territorial battles in tight quarters."

Hansen also finds walleyes, sauger, and saugeyes sharing real estate with flatheads. During the first six weeks of 1999, he caught more than 1,500 saugeyes in the 2- to 5-pound range and dozens of flatheads to 50 pounds. With the balance of his catch so clearly on the walleye side of the ledger, he continues to use walleye tackle and tactics throughout winter. "I use medium-power spinning gear spooled with 4- or 6-pound line," Hansen says. "My bait is a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Apex Crystal Ball Jig tipped with a 4- to 6-inch shiner.

"Most hardcore flathead fishermen can't believe I'm able to land big fish on such light line," Hansen adds, "and I admit that I probably couldn't do it in warm water. In the winter, though, the current is almost imperceptible, and the cold water really saps the strength of a big flathead. I'd guess that Lehto's estimate of one minute per three pounds is about right for me too, but I use much lighter line.

"These fish just don't fight like they do during summer," Hansen adds. "I was bringing in a fish last season when my line frayed and broke on a cracked guide. I reached over the gunnel and grabbed the terminal end of the line that was still floating on the surface and brought the fish in hand over hand. The fish weighed almost 50 pounds but felt like dead weight on the line."

FLATHEADS FOR THE FUTURE

On his best day last winter, Lehto and a partner boated 35 flatheads for a total weight of more than 600 pounds. Regulations on the river section they were fishing permit each angler to keep 10 fish, but farther downstream (in the Iowa stretch of the Mississippi River), they could have harvested all the fish. "Not only can these fish be caught during the coldest time of the year," Lehto adds, "but also, they probably can be caught in greater numbers than at any other time of year. I release all the fish I catch and encourage other anglers to do the same."

Unfortunately, not all anglers voluntarily follow Lehto's example. We're committed to covering topics like this one because it's part of the whole catfishing experience. It certainly appears, though, that flatheads--particularly big flatheads--are extremely vulnerable in cold water.

Editor In Chief Doug Stange, a longtime proponent of bringing catfish regulations into line with regulations for other important gamefish, agrees. "These consolidated fish probably need protection from harvest during winter," Stange says. "Certainly, they need protection from overharvest. The problem remains that we have little definition of what constitutes overharvest in most areas. Even in conservative states, such as Minnesota, the limit on most waters is five catfish of any species, never mind that those five fish could be 40-pound flatheads with a combined age of well over 100 years.

"Never mind, too," Stange continues, "that these fish might be taken from a winter concentration that numbers in the hundreds, these hundreds being the fish that will, once spring arrives, spread throughout the river and tributaries to provide recreation for the masses. But I'm reaching here. All I know for certain is that we need to know more so we can protect appropriately in order to ensure good fishing for this incredible big gamefish. In the meantime, anglers need to exercise discipline by practicing selective harvest. Until we have a better handle on how fragile these fisheries are, let's release the big fish and on occasion perhaps keep only a small fish or two."

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Lots of opinions on this one, so I guess I'll give mine. I've watched some pretty compelling videos of these "slumbering flatheads" to think that it's probably best to leave them be. They are very vulnerable piled up like cord wood.

Having said that it's perfectly legal to target them by means other than snagging. The law is the law.

But...even the guys that say they will bite a bait, admit to snagging a good percentage of them.

I'm not going to judge anyone, but it's just not my cup of tea.

Also, if I remember right, this is a fairly old article and nothing has been changed since.

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"These fish just don't fight like they do during summer," Hansen adds. "I was bringing in a fish last season when my line frayed and broke on a cracked guide. I reached over the gunnel and grabbed the terminal end of the line that was still floating on the surface and brought the fish in hand over hand. The fish weighed almost 50 pounds but felt like dead weight on the line."

I dont know how it is for others, but for me the fight is the prize; weight of fish is secondary.

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I like dtro have seen videos and read articals on the winter slummbering flats and think they should be protected in some sort of way. I also live for the fight that a big cat has to offer and will continue to fish for flats in the warmer season.

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Ahh, you guys just don't know what fun is. I skip the summer bite altogether and target them strictly in the winter. The key is to jig aggressively. Sure, you might snag a few here and there (25% !!!)....but you'll get a few of the aggressive biters too. Yeah, they're stacked in like cordwood -- so much that it's almost impossible NOT to snag a few if you drift through there, but hey, I wouldn't call that "vulnerable". It's sweet being able to bring a 50 pound fish like a dead weight too. I mean, some people go to the health club and pay good money to lift dead weights, I can do it all on the river.

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I'd love to fish with Lehto, just to see how he does it. I'll take his word that he's getting them on plastics, but it does seem a little unorthodox, maybe even straddling unbelievable. I'm glad I'm not the only one that's not crazy about winter fishing for these beasts. 25% snagging is too high. And if they come in like a wet sack of trash with no fight, what's the point? Call me a snob, but I'd just as well like to see the season closed in the winter to discourage those that are snagging with intent. But that would be like protecting, gasp shocked , a large predatory gamefish. Right now nobody has the gall to put big cats in the same class as pike, bass, walleye, and muskie. I think Stange's comments are the ones that are more concerning: When will cats be afforded more protection in stricter bag and size limits?

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If anyone drags a jig or aggressively jigs in a hole with the intent of targeting catfish in wintering months I would place them as violating this (Link Below) - if you admit snaging them %25 of the time then your above the "accidental snag %" If your out fishing walleye using a jig I would place your chance of snaging a cat to maybe 2%, not sure you would be fishing mid winter for walleye in a 25 to 30 ft hole? maybe Sauger that deep, but if you have a walleye/sauger bait on they will bit way befor a wintering cat will. I would relate it to this, your sleeping and someone jerk-baits you out of bed and drags you across the room, No fight just dead weight.. If you know the cycle of a fish I say respect the fish and let them get the rest they need for a fair fight in the summer..

https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=97C.331

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Interesting read. How extensive is any fish examined in a river system.

Makes a good point are these big guys slumbering south and do they venture north when the water warms. And what about the other species of fish like say walleye and sauger do they migrate also. And are these people who limit out in open water durring mid winter hurting the fishery further north. I ask this because the St.Croix is no longer the fishery it use to be in years past. The St.Croix in my opinion has gone through one of the worst years ever in recant memory that includes summer and winter. Maybe last year was an of year but it warrants a study and better regs for the winter months.

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I support whatever will help the Flathead populations in these rivers, and if that means creating a season and also making them C&R only I am all for it.

No need to go after them while they're vulnerable in their winter holes.

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I've caught plenty of flatheads on plastic. Under the right conditions, its (almost) consistant. They do become very agressive towards artificials but winter is not a good time to pull them out of their beds I don't think.

I'd like to take Mr. Hoffman out and show him "Dark's Mudeye Method" He looks a little too clean cut to lick one tho grin

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So after the release of these fish, are they even coherent enough to swim back to their hole, or do they just tumble around in the current until they get caught in a snag and die? Doesnt sound to sportsman like if you ask me!

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But that would be like protecting, gasp shocked , a large predatory gamefish. Right now nobody has the gall to put big cats in the same class as pike, bass, walleye, and muskie. I think Stange's comments are the ones that are more concerning: When will cats be afforded more protection in stricter bag and size limits?

thats because we know that cats are a class above all others the others just dont know it yet.

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I agree with dtro ... I don't think that winter catting is for me ... if someone else wants to give it a whirl, be my guest. I just don't know how ethical it would be to catch a weakened fish in a hole literally stacked fish on top of fish ... kind of reminds me of the 'trout fishing' they always have at the state fair!

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Its like snaggin fish in the barrel or hunting bears while they hibernate, except all the bears are sleepin in one cave.

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Haha I was going to use the 'fish in a barrel' line myself, just figured it was cliche ... such a valid point though!

hey off topic but what did that pig measure out at in your avatar? Looks like a monster!

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