Friday, May 24, 2013

Flathead Catfish: Delaware, Schuykill, Susquehanna Rivers

Flathead Catfish

Three Rivers’ Native, Here to Stay in NJ and Eastern PA

Structures and Tips

Heavy bodied with monstrous, shovel-like heads, flathead catfish are the second largest catfish species in North America. The world record 123-pounder caught in a Kansas reservoir fell just shy of the world record blue catfish, 124 pounds, from the Mississippi River. Pennsylvania flatheads are native to the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. But the Pennsylvania state record, 48 pounds, 6 ounces, came from Blue Marsh Spillway near Reading, in 2007.


Flatheads are an invasive species which surely have taken permanent hold in the Susquehanna, Schuykill, and Delaware rivers. The only way to get rid of them is for anglers to catch and kill them, a losing battle. But they serve good table fare, often considered the best among catfish. Flatheads devour live fish, which would seem to have to do with the tastiness for us, since forage includes river gamefish species. Thus Flatheads are unwanted.  Nevertheless, they add some interest for anglers. By August 2011, the largest on record from the Susquehanna weighed 40 pounds, 1 ounce, considerably larger than what can be expected from channel catfish populations. Big ones swim the Delaware too.


Two major differences between flathead and channel catfish: flatheads prey almost exclusively on live creatures, and will not be taken on stink baits or chicken liver as channels will, and they tend to be found in deeper sections of long pools, rather than immediately below a set of rapids. Both species orient themselves to currents; moving waters are native for them, not still water and mud bottom suited to bullheads. Big flathead catfish like boulder strewn, rocky bottoms, and if sunken logs, trees, discarded refrigerators or auto engines get lodged among boulders as big as a kitchen, all the better for the fishing within sensible limits, if dubious for the environment.


During daylight flatheads hide in such thick cover. It’s possible to tempt them out with live bluegills or fallfish, but most fishing is at night when they leave to travel long distances. Radio telemetry shows flatheads may move for many miles. At night, and only at night, the largest flatheads may move into shallow riffles, exposing dorsal fins above surface, opening mouths wide to lure fish that mistake them for caverns.


Most flatcatfishermen in the Southern United States swear by live bluegills hooked under the dorsal fin. In our region, large chubs take preference, which survive on a hook about as long as panfish. Fallfish make excellent bait, as do eight to 10-inch suckers. Live eels will attract flatheads, but eels easily make their way into snags, although they often make their way out, also. Some anglers prefer fresh cut bait, which does work despite flatheads’ predatory inclinations.


Weighted bottom fishing is standard, whether from a bow-anchored boat with lines extended from the stern and from the sides downriver, or from shore using heavier weight, since current will drag line, and carry light weight into snags. Look for holes 15 feet or deeper, boulder strewn with a persistent current. Bridge abutments positioned in deep stretches make great catfish structure, whether immediately upstream, downstream, or to the sides. On the Delaware above Trenton, bridge abutments are usually situated in water too shallow, but Dingman’s Ferry is the great exception. Make sure you have plenty of terminal tackle on hand since rigs inevitably will be lost to snags.

No-roll, bank, and egg sinkers from an ounce to as many as four ounces anchor a rig on bottom. The double-chub rig is popular. Cut what will make a 2 1/2-foot length of leader attached to a barrel swivel. Attach the sinker to that barrel swivel with a short length of weaker line. If the sinker gets snagged, it breaks off. A one-foot length of leader secures the second hook.


Wire frame sinkers reduce snags when fished behind a boat. Resembling a spinnerbait frame, the weight is in lower position, main line tied to loop-eye. A leader attaches behind. For either rig, Matzuo sickle hooks, size 1/0 to 4/0, Eagle Claw King Kahle, same sizes, especially prove popular, although more now use circle hooks.


Heavy monofilament or braid, 25 to 30-pound test, takes strain necessary to muscle a heavy fish from dense cover. In the South, 60-pound braid is choice, but flatheads grow twice as large. (We don’t need huge flatheads here devouring full grown bass.)  A medium-heavy power spinning rod, seven or eight feet, fitted with a matching reel will suit the size of most our flatheads—a 10-pound fish is a good struggle to match. And make sure to bag your catch!



Thursday, May 23, 2013

Another Season Passes at Round Valley Reservoir and Pond

So it's over at Round Valley for another season, the area open without fee until Memorial Day and then again after Labor Day. I'll try around the rocks on both the reservoir and pond sides into June, but I've never succeeded after Memorial Day, except by boat.

Caught four smallish bass as large as close to a pound in the reservoir, sighted an 18-incher, and caught nothing in the pond. This year, the only hit I had in the pond came on April 25th, apparently a big one.

Holding the bass as photographed, the fish felt cold. The water's still chilly in the reservoir, but today sunfish flushed the shallows en masse. Last year this happened earlier of course.

This marked the third May I fished Round Valley, besides once fishing the pond May 3rd, 2009. I've caught a few over three pounds, one of them nearly four, but most have been about the size of the bass photographed. Larger bass have been coming from elsewhere. But when you sight a six-pound smallmouth as I did a while back, you know they're in there. When I fished the reservoir by boat in June 1978, we caught a lot of bass and they averaged 2 1/2 pounds.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Surprise Lake Pickerel and Largemouth Bass, Watchung Reservation

No sooner had I begun fishing Surprise Lake for the first time, I came upon another angler.

"Catch any?" I said.

"Not yet," he whipped out a cast. I watched as the surface erupted on the weedless frog and he battled a 23-inch pickerel.

So Surprise Lake it is.

This salad-like scene is the narrow, 25-acre lake in Watchung Reservation, Union County. If you put it on your plate, you might have very healthy results, but I wouldn't want to try lily pad and the stringy weeds that attached to my inset-hook Chompers in my stomach.

I reeled the worm right over weed mats and while a couple of small pickerel threw their bodies against it, I really didn't get a hit. I don't mean to discourage. This lake has some fish in it. I had only about 40 minutes to fish and must have walked only half the pond's length. The angler I spoke to told me the other end has more open water, but the bite is on the end we fished. Nonetheless, I would have been interested in plumbing slightly deeper, open water with the worm.

Spotted a female wood duck and heard its call. Haven't seen one of these in awhile.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

First Brown Trout on a Tiny Fly

Quickly released it by grasping the mouth and jaw since my hands were dry. Only trout I caught fly fishing around sunset, North Branch Raritan River. Found some risers and they wouldn't hit the #10 caddis, so I tied on a #18 ant, which this trout took and no more. I noticed risers upstream as darkness began to fall. The rising steady, not so many as last Friday fed.

I need to use a headlamp. Perhaps one or two of these fish would have hit the larger fly. At least I could have seen a parachute #10 on the surface, not by shining the headlamp on it, but with enough light left in the dusk.

Fly fishing can get complicated. I also need to bring along reading glasses to tie these flies on. It felt good walking out, as it had as I approached the spot where I caught the brown. Felt glad I caught one.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

North Branch Raritan River Evidence of Brown Trout Reproduction

Thursday and Friday evenings at sunset, riding my bicycle along the river, North Branch Raritan that runs through town, I stopped at a stretch to view whatever was happening. Thursday lots of browns rose; no one around. I felt impressed enough to eagerly tell my son later. Friday, I felt utterly astonished. I've never seen anything like it in all my life. As many as 10 trout rose together in a section of the stretch in one moment.

Having planned the Tilcon and Lake Musconetcong outing, I changed nothing, only added that maybe Sunday evening we would fly fish. Matt felt exhausted from yesterday's long day. We had awakened early to do a three-hour Scout service project, then departed for places northward after returning home and gearing up. As things unwound, he had an essay to write for school and couldn't fly fish this evening. I went alone.

Sulfates rose from stream bottom as I waded and roll cast, water on my thighs. Nothing much else rose but the river with today's rain, a stain darkened the water and I wondered if I'd encounter anything. So I went downstream and tried some fast water. Nothing happening in relation to my size 10 brown caddis, or otherwise; I set my rod on gravel and took in the whole environment, drawn to some flowers I haven't looked up in Newcomb's Wild Flower Guide. I photographed them and heard the wicked cries of night hawks overhead. If you've never heard their piercing cries, you'll notice when you do. Night hawks are not true hawks, but members of the swift family, which only feed on insects. But watching their sleek profiles cut the sky above possessed marvelous presence. They sound like miniature dragons. You would think a giant dragonfly with a sharp bill like a swordfish's pointed at prey.

I returned to my rod and camera bag to move back upstream when a trout rose. I false cast, listening to a Carolina wren, beautiful. Soon I missed a hit, cast again, and a brown broke off. I tied on another caddis. Soon I hooked a small fish I thought a little smallmouth bass, no, a chub, no, a baby rainbow. Rainbow? How could rainbows reproduce here? I took a closer look. Brown.

I've heard lots of stories I've always been skeptical about. I'm certain browns reproduce in the South Branch at Long Valley because I've caught the same little ones, and the literature on wild browns and native brook trout in the Claremont section just above is established. But this catch this evening is certain evidence that browns do reproduce in this river at Bedminster, which I've come upon no such established literature about. Long Valley is at much higher elevation. At least Chester to the east of Long Valley is 600 feet, and Schooleys Mountain that shadows Long Valley from which the South Branch flows must be well over 1000. The figure I have for our house's elevation in Bedminster is 81 feet above sea level, and the river flows somewhat beneath this level. No six-inch trout is stocked by the state or anyone else I know of, and if any were, they wouldn't have the wild color hue.

I saw more rises, cast and spooked the trout even with water stained. I'm no artist with a fly rod, at least not yet. Plenty claim fly fishing is an art, but then I'm a real hack, or really a novice. I haven't done much of it, but I'm excited about this river within walking distance. Giving up on this fast water, I walked back upriver and found a section where a few rose. In another 15 minutes or so as it really got dark, I caught two regular 11 and 12-inch browns and missed two solid hits. These two I quickly released, vaguely thinking that maybe since they had undergone the struggle, they would be less likely to get caught and taken home, more likely to reproduce.