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!