There is a short time in the summer when big female flathead catfish prefer small meals. Exhausted from the spawn, big flatheads don't feel up to chasing big bait fish but more importantly due to the fact that big flatheads don't eat while spawning their digestive system just isn't ready for a big meal. Learn these big flathead tips and target those big female flatheads this summer.
Small Baits Big Bites
when big flathead catfish prefer smaller baits
Every angler has heard the old saying “big baits catch big fish” well there are times when smaller baits catch bigger fish and here is just one example of that. This article is about big catfish and namely the flathead. The flathead is a predator from birth and it is this predatory instinct that enables the flathead catfish to know its limits as far as energy expended vs nutrition gained. I learned about this while fly fishing in Alaska an old timer told me that the rainbow trout knows how much energy it will use to catch a certain meal and this is why you might think your fly is close enough but the trout won't even take a swipe. This is also true for other species and at certain times an easy meal means a smaller baitfish that might be a little easier to catch.
Flathead catfish begin their spawning activity when the water temperature climbs to around 70 degrees. During the spawn, like other species, the flathead catfish does not eat. The male creates the bed for the female to lay her eggs and will ferociously protect the bed from anything that comes near. This is why in the spring bass anglers catch so many catfish on a jig because the male is protecting the bed and/or eggs. This lack of feeding not only creates a hungry post-spawn flathead but it also causes their digestive track to shrink.
This is a situation much like the early spring when the flathead has been sitting in the cold water of winter. The flathead, being cold blooded, doesn't need near the food during the winter and this is why you can find them in those wind blown coves in early spring. The flathead will cruise these windblown coves in search of dead shad from the winter kill because they are an easy meal until their digestive track is back in order and their energy is restored. Once the flatheads energy levels are back up and their stomachs can handle larger prey they will begin to consume their preferred meal, live baitfish and carp or suckers. There is another time that the flathead experiences a similar situation and that is the post-spawn.
It will take a week or so for the flathead to finish its spawning ritual and much like those winter months their stomachs have shrunk and their energy levels have been depleted from the work involved during the spawn. It is during the spawn that flatheads can be very difficult to catch and you must hunt your body of water to locate some fish that are not on the bed. This is possible because flatheads don't all spawn at the same time and there is always a section of the lake that will have either post-spawn or pre-spawn fish available.
Most anglers, myself included, will use large baitfish when targeting big flathead catfish but during this short post-spawn period smaller baits will produce more bites. I am talking 1 to 2 inch shad as opposed to 4 to 6 inch shad or suckers we normally use. Big post-spawn females are tired and lethargic as they lazily recover from the spawn. These big flatheads are hungry but will not expend or do not have the energy to pursue large baitfish. Their minds are programmed to not even bother with the larger baitfish at this time because the energy needed to get that baitfish could do more harm than good so she will just lazily swim around in search of an easier meal.
Flathead catfish, being a true predator, prefers live fish over dead but during the post-spawn period, much like the early spring when it's gulping up winter killed shad, the flathead will resort to eating dead fish until they have their energy levels up and their digestive tracks can handle the larger prey they so desire. This is when a smaller bait can get mean bigger bites. You can catch the males with any size bait during this time period because they are guarding the nest and/or eggs inside. The females on the other hand are so exhausted from the spawn that they really aren't in any shape to chase prey so they take what they can get and smaller baitfish, especially those that are dying, make for a great recovery meal for them.
When I fish for flatheads I always have a large baitfish on my hook but during that time when the water temperature is between 68 and 75 degrees I always offer the flathead an easy meal with a 1 to 2 inch shad or bluegill (where legal) and I always present it under a large bobber. I like this set-up to offer the easiest meal possible so I set the depth on my slip bobber to about a foot from the bottom. This presentation will hopefully entice the spawned out flathead to take the small bait as she lazily cruises the shallows for an easy meal.
It's important to understand your body of water and what the flatheads are doing where you fish. This will come with experience and if your like me you will never fully understand it all because as soon as you think you figured something out something will change your mind. The great thing about figuring out the flatheads on your home waters is you can apply that knowledge to other lakes as well. Old time flathead cat fisherman tell me they can tell by the smell if flatheads are spawning in a particular cove or not I am far from this level of knowledge but I still try new things and try to understand why something is working and why something else isn't. So during this time of year, when the flatheads are spawning, try using that half alive 2 inch shad in your bait bucket and see what happens.