Catching flatheads consistently requires the right bait placed precisely on target.
Flathead Catfish Bait Strategy
By Terry Madewell
Deploying the right bait, in the right size, is only part of the solution for consistently catching big flatheads. Presentation of the bait to a specific target is crucial.
Marshal Hughey is a 43-year-old catfish angler who grew up fishing the Alabama River, particularly the Elmore County area near Wetumpka, Alabama. He’s fished throughout the river over the years and primarily targets flatheads during the spring. He considers April prime time to hook both quality and quantity of flatties.
When Hughey talks about flathead catfish fishing on the Alabama River, he conveys a passionate, personal tone. It’s important to him.
“This area is home to me,” he said. “I grew up here, and it’s totally fair to say I’m obsessed with flathead catfish. Don’t get me wrong. This river has an excellent population of blue catfish, and during the winter, when flathead action slows, I’ll target those big blues. But it’s the flatties that rule my catfishing soul.”
The Alabama River is chock full of flatheads, offering anglers a prime catfishing playground in which to succeed. This winding river also produced the Alabama state-record flathead of 80 pounds.
Hughey has an action plan every time he pursues flatheads on this, or any, river or lake. When he boards his boat, his first thoughts are about having the right bait for the day, time and place he’s fishing on that specific trip.
“Bait, and bait size, is of paramount importance and may vary based on whether I’m trying to catch lots of catfish or if I’m targeting quality fish,” he said.
During April, he’s typically on his home waters near Wetumpka because every type of flathead habitat he needs is nearby. He said bait is crucial for all catfish species, but to Hughey, bait is the cornerstone to a successful day fishing for big flatheads.
“I believe fresh bait is the single most important key to success anywhere I fish for flatheads,” Hughey said. “I keep a cast net handy just for that purpose, and I want to load up with ample bait for a day of fishing prior to beginning the flathead hunt.”
Not just any bait will do. It needs to be the right size and species for the targeted fish. The day we fished, Hughey’s first action was to put multiple gizzard shad into his huge live-bait tank via the use of his cast net.
“As far the best bait species is concerned on these waters, gizzard shad is king,” he said. “Bream and shellcrackers are good bait choices, too, and offering catfish different bait options is a good plan. But if I can only have one, it’ll be gizzard shad in the 5- to 8-inch size class.”
Based on his experience, live gizzard shad of this size seem ideal to produce plenty of fish while also tempting trophy flatheads.
“If I catch larger shad, I’ll certainly use them. But, most of the time, I’ll use them as large chunks of fresh cut-bait,” he said. “Cut-bait is effective on flatheads and will produce bonus blue catfish, too.
“Once I have this bait, I don’t waste it by not putting it exactly in the right spot,” he continued. “Having the right bait is only part of my bait strategy.”
Hughey employs electronics to pinpoint those targets. The river is full of woody snags and deep holes, ideal for targeting flatheads.
“The best flathead bite is usually found with a combination of wood along with deeper water, such as that found on the outside bends of the channel or any deep hole,” he said.
Hughey doesn’t randomly cast bait to those targets, hoping catfish will find them. He concocts a plan while graphing the area, and he pinpoints specific high-potential targets before he anchors. Once anchored, he casts his bait to those targets.
“Current is part of the flathead-finding solution, too, and good current flow is crucial to fishing success and proper bait placement,” he said. “I’ll cast just upstream of underwater clusters of wood along the edge line to deeper water. This is a prime ambush point for a big flathead. If that doesn’t lure them out, I’ll risk a tighter cast to these targets when I check the bait and reposition it.”
He said close is often close enough because the current moves the scent to a big flathead just a short distance away. But he’s willing to make a risky cast to put it in front of their lower lip to get a bite. On those days, that’s the difference between a slow day and catching multiple catfish.
“I may get snagged more often and have to re-rig, but that’s a small price to pay to hook big flatheads,” he said. “I’ll move the bait around until I get it positioned so a flattie can’t resist if they’re present or in a bite mode. But once I’ve thoroughly fished a spot with no action, I’ll pull anchor and hunt another target.”
If he’s marked fish on the graph in that tangle of timber, he’s likely to pay a return visit later in the day.
Hughey said it’s not all about woody cover because, depending on the section of the river being fished, rocky shelves and large boulders can be prime areas, too. As with wood, these areas are best when associated with deeper water nearby.
“It takes a combination of factors to make a successful trip, including finding the right cover, whether wood, rock or deep holes, as well as having ample current,” he said. “But bait is the first and final link to catching those catfish.
“Having the right bait, presented in the right position, sprinkled with patience is the formula for flathead success,” Hughey said.
(Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C. has been an outdoor writer for more than 40 years. He holds a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager. He is passionate about sharing outdoor adventures with others.)