Hunting Flathead Catfish

By Doug Clemons | May 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: May 1997

The silence of dawn was interrupted only by the last calls of a whip-poor-will and the drone of the outboard motor powering the boat down the muddy Grand River.

No one spoke as the boat glided into the brush pile. A hand reached forward to retrieve a line that descended into the water. The angler slowly pulled and a tug of war was on.

He brought the monster to the surface three times, only to have to give ground to the fish's power and stamina. Finally the angler was able to hook his thumb over the lower jaw of the fish and lift. Leaning backwards, he slid the 28-pound catfish over the gunwale and into the bottom of the boat.

Fishing for flathead catfish is a hunt, a game of strategy. Patience is an absolute necessity. If you hate waiting hours for a couple of bites or sitting around a campfire telling tall tales and waiting to check set lines, then flathead fishing is definitely not for you. However, everyone may want to try it once. A word of caution, however: Flathead fishing may get in your blood and become an obsession.

Where to fish

Look for flathead catfish in Missouri's two large rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, and most of their larger tributary streams, like the Grand and Osage rivers. If you're looking for a good flathead stream close to home contact your nearest Conservation Department office for advice.

Once a river is selected, take a couple of days and float different sections to see what habitat is available. Flatheads use both swift water and calm water, but they will almost always be near some kind of cover. Large brush piles, log jams, single trees and large rocks provide good feeding and resting locations for flatheads.

Find a section of river with the most habitat or diverse habitat and fish that area several times to give yourself the greatest opportunity to learn. You can fish a familiar section with the methods that worked on a previous trip, while saving a few hooks to experiment with new locations and depths.


For the beginner, $60 will buy the supplies and $15 a year will keep them replenished. Hooks should be stainless steel. A large catfish will straighten anything else. The size should be 7/0 or 8/0. I know this sounds too large, but with the characteristically wide mouth of the flathead catfish, even a small fish can be caught on a big hook.

Two large rolls of 360-pound test braided twine, one roll of braided 150-pound test and a large roll of 240 pound test twisted twine should last you all season. You will also need two or three large window weights (approximately 5 pounds each), available at a metal salvage yard, and 15 or 20 8-ounce teardrop sinkers.

The sinkers can be purchased at many tackle shops. If you get serious about flathead fishing you may want to buy a mold and pour your own. These weights cost 60¢ a piece and you will lose a few each year.

Ask a local tire store for two or three ruined tractor tire inner tubes. You need to cut these into 5-inch sections, so tears won't matter. You should get 10 or 12 complete rubber circles, 5 inches wide from each tube. Finally, buy a roll of duct tape and a permanent magic marker.


To make a throwline, cut off 40 feet of 360-pound test braided twine. On one end, tie a large window weight. At 3-foot intervals tie 4-inch loops in the line using overhand knots. Leaving 3 feet between the window weight and the first loop, you should wind up with 7 loops and 16 feet of line left to tie to a tree, brush or rock on the bank. Wrap the throwline around the window weight.

Cut seven 32-inch pieces of 150-pound test braided twine. Put the two ends of a piece together and tie them with an overhand knot. This should leave you a doubled line 16 inches long. Pinch the line together and poke it through the eye of a hook. Spread the line that was just put through the eye, and bring the end of the hook through the created loop. Hold the hook and pull on the line to secure the hook. Place the hook point in a piece of plastic foam and repeat the process six times.

When setting the throwline, unwrap a few feet of line from the window weight and tie the loose end to a secure object. Use the duct tape and magic marker to label the line with your name and address.

When you reach the first loop, remove a hook from the foam and place the tied end through the loop. Spread the line (just placed through the loop) and bring the hook up through it and pull tight. Bait the hook and move to the next loop.

An experienced boat driver can make this job easier by moving the boat away from the bank as the hooks are put on. This takes some practice, so don't get discouraged if you tangle the line. Once all the hooks are on, move the boat until the line is perpendicular to the bank or dike (completely stretched out) and gently release the window weight. Strong currents will often move the line; it can be adjusted by releasing the line at different angles. Remember, state regulations limit you to a total of 33 hooks.

Locations for throwlines

On a big river, rock dikes are good locations. Tie the throwline to a large rock at or near a low spot where water is running through and stretch the line perpendicular to the dike, or try angling the line so it runs along the main (strongest) current. Rock banks are also good locations, but look for large rocks to tie to that are in the water and deflecting the current.

Locations where tributary streams enter are also good. When setting throwlines in these locations, tie the line to a rock or tree on the main channel and allow the current to take the line across the mouth of the tributary stream. Log jams can also be productive, but you may get tangled in debris under the water.

The main advantage to the throwline is that you can quickly set your limit of hooks, and if a fish steals a bait there are still six others. The disadvantage is out of the seven hooks perhaps only three are in a prime location.

Flathead sets

Flathead sets are modified limb lines or drop lines and are the most effective way to catch flathead catfish. When constructed and set properly, more than 90 percent of the catch will be flathead catfish. To save time on the river, place some duct tape on each inner tube and write your name and address with the magic marker.

Flathead sets are placed near log jams, brush piles and downed trees in water depths of 2 to 25 feet. Pull the boat up to a brush pile and use the oar to check for underwater obstructions that may prevent you from setting a line. Tie an inner tube to a secure limb or log using 240-pound test twisted twine. Place a 7/0 or 8/0 hook on the 360-pound test braided twine and slide it 18 inches up the line. Create a 4-inch loop for the hook by tying an overhand knot.

Tie on an 8-ounce sinker 8 to 12 inches below the loop, at the end of the line. Cut off the excess line and bait the hook. Lower the weight to the bottom, cut the line from the spool and tie it to the free end of the inner tube.

The weight should be firmly on the bottom with a tight line going to the inner tube. The 4-inch loop will allow the bait to swim around the tight line. Slack in the line will allow the bait to be too close to the bottom and make it easier for the line to get tangled.

Location for Flathead Sets

Flathead sets are limb lines that have been modified exclusively for fishing log jams. Unlike the springy branches that limb lines are commonly tied to, logs provide no flexibility. The inner tube compensates for this flaw. The inner tube not only aids in hooking the fish, it provides flexibility. Fish are less likely to get off when pulling against something flexible. This modification allows flathead sets to be placed in prime locations like brush piles, log jams and single trees.

Large brush piles or log jams will be the most consistent locations for catching flatheads. These areas often provide room for multiple flathead sets.

When fishing large rivers, cut banks immediately below dikes are the best place to find large log jams. On smaller rivers, tight bends often collect woody debris.

Single trees or logs farther out in the channel provide good locations for single flathead sets. Often, when flathead catfish aren't actively feeding in brush piles, they are moving through the channel to other feeding areas.

Flathead sets are effective because flathead catfish prefer the cover provided by a brush pile, so each hook is in a prime location. There are drawbacks, however. Flathead sets get tangled at times, but experience and an oar with an eye bolt (bent to provide a gap) in the end that can be slid down over the line will get them free. But with only one hook and one bait you have only one chance to catch a flathead.

General Information

Other methods, like trotlines, limb lines, bank poles and jugs, will catch flathead catfish, but throwlines and flathead sets will consistently catch more. Good bait is also important. Flathead catfish are finicky and will only consistently accept live bait. Goldfish, common carp, bluegill, green sunfish and bullhead are all good choices. If you have trouble keeping bait alive, try a well-insulated cooler and a frozen milk jug of ice to lower the holding water temperature.

Flatheads spawn in late June and early July and generally don't bite well during that time. They can be caught throughout the day, but the larger fish are generally more active at night. Flatheads can be difficult to catch, but they are among the most palatable fish, so the effort is definitely worth it.

Flathead catfishing is a lot like hunting. You must try to outguess your opponent. Try to figure out where catfish rest and where they may feed. Set your lines and begin the waiting game.

Flathead Fishing Tips

  • Live bait and good habitat are the most important ingredients for catching flatheads.
  • Bait will stay fresh and lively longer if kept cool.
  • Larger bait catches larger fish. Small bait may catch large fish, but by using big bait you exclude fish that are not large enough to take the bait.
  • Checking and rebaiting your lines once or twice during the night will net you less sleep but more fish. Bare hooks do not catch fish, and many times a large portion of your bait will be gone by midnight.
  • Lots of cover combined with deep water often produces larger flatheads.
  • Flatheads will use brush piles in slow or little current, however the odds of catching gar and other rough fish increase in calm water.
  • A full moon generally means poor fishing. Large flatheads are primarily nocturnal feeders and do not move well during the near daylight conditions of a full moon.
  • In smaller rivers and streams, flatheads generally will not bite well if the water level is falling, but may bite more readily with rising water levels.
  • Flatheads often feed heavily before and after spawning but seldom feed while actively spawning. In north Missouri, they generally spawn between the last week of June and third week of July.
  • Tag each line with your name and address.
  • Experience and experimentation will teach you much more than words from even the most experienced catfish angler.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer