One of my current yakangling goals is to catch and land a trophy flathead catfish. I thought it might be interesting to simply chronicle my quest, sharing my research, my efforts, my results, etc. I started this pursuit last season, so I'll recap from the beginning and catch up to this present season.
My history is primarily bass fishing. I started in farm ponds when I was younger, and moved to lakes when I got my kayak. A couple of years ago I got on a lake that had a population of very healthy channel cats, and I spent some time chasing after a trophy-class citation channel cat. I really enjoyed the fight of the bigger fish from the kayak - like the way Jim Morrison really enjoyed heroin.
I had sort of maxed out on what was a realistic-sized fish to chase when it came to channel cats, and wanted to hunt something bigger. Being land-locked in the heart of the Midwest doesn't leave a lot of options. If I wanted to go bigger I'd have to stay in the catfish family, and since we don't really have access to blue cats here in Central Iowa, flathead catfish won.
I decided at the beginning of last season that I'd make a serious effort to catch one. I had never caught a flathead before. I had very little river fishing experience, and zero experience river fishing from my kayak. In short, I had my work cut out for me. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into, and the obstacles and challenges began presenting themselves before I was ever close to wetting a line.
I won't even begin to chase a new species without feeling like I've put together a solid gameplan. Part of that is researching the places where I'm most likely to acquire my target. Since I was a lot more comfortable on lake settings and I'm less than an hour's drive from a couple of different large river impoundment reservoirs, I checked into targeting my prey there.
It didn't take much research to see that flathead fishing on very large lakes can be a challenge, even for seasoned anglers. I'm not really the type to go paddling around on thousands of acres of water like a lost duck, just hoping I accidentally cross paths with a trophy fish. Besides, I live just minutes from the Des Moines River, which has a fairly healthy flathead population. Thus, I had the information I needed to define my first set of constraints.
1. Rivers: If I was going to hunt flatties, I needed to do it where they were the most abundant and accessible. That meant river fishing, which came with it's own set of challenges and limitations, especially since I frequently fish alone. How this would affect me wasn't entirely clear, but it was a factor I had to keep in mind when it came time to start scouting specific locations.
2. Daylight: My hours of opportunity don't really allow for all-night fishing with any regularity. I can put in in the dark to catch the sunrise period, or I can put in during the day and catch the sunset period, but most of my angling is restricted to daylight. The majority of flathead anglers choose to pursue these fish at night, which meant I needed to do a lot of extra research and make sure I had a solid plan for chasing them during the daylight.
3. Kayak. It should go without saying that I wanted to pursue these fish from my kayak for this particular challenge. I was not at all interested in trying to catch one from the bank, or from a boat with a motor.
Testing the Waters
As I began my researching and started building my criteria for spot selection, it became increasingly clear that I needed to get myself out on some flowing water and get a feel for my options and limitations. It was spring. The rivers were all high, and I was very uneasy about doing any paddling on my own. I was beginning to think that I might forced to look at late summer or even fall as my starting point.
It just so happened that someone from one of the local sportsman forums posted something about floating a section of the Des Moines River on an upcoming weekend. I messaged him, mostly just to inquire about what section they were going to tackle, and it turned out they were going to float a fairly short stretch that was close to where I live. He offered to let me tag along, and I jumped at it. (My IM to this user turned out to be something of a game-changer. Together, we later laid the foundation for a local kayak angler's club - but that's a different story.)
The Des Moines River was definitely swollen but by no means near flood stage. That short run gave me a good overview of what sort of conditions I could expect and what I thought I could handle. The Des Moines at low flow is mostly manageable in a kayak. As it swells and approaches flood stage, well... I wouldn't say that its sole intention is to do you in, but it would clearly rather kill you than try and do you any favors.
The Des Moines River
I made a few follow-up posts on the local sportsman's forum about flathead fishing on a couple of different stretches. I got hit with an instant message from someone who said he fishes the Racoon River for flatties out of his kayak, and that the bite was picking up in his area. He could never convince any of his friends to kayak fish for them with him, so I was welcome to join him.
The Racoon River is a slightly smaller tributary river that dumps into the Des Moines River right in the heart of downtown Des Moines, upstream a few miles from where I live and have quick access to. It was about an hour drive northwest up the Racoon to get to where he fishes, and he was fishing weeknights after dusk. I knew I had to jump at the opportunity, despite the price I would pay the next morning at work.
We ended up only spending about three hours on the water for that trip, but it was another huge learning experience. The Racoon, it turns out, is an entirely different experience, even when swollen. It was high, but it didn't feel like I was under constant threat the way I did on the Des Moines River. I had a good opportunity to tap into some of my host's knowledge and experience, and that smaller river got me to rethinking my options. There are some even smaller tributary rivers down close to me, and he suggested that I look them over.
The Raccoon River
The next weekend, I followed up on that advice and set out to float a stretch of one of the smaller rivers that dump in to the Des Moines River near me. Up until this point I didn't have much to work out in the way of shuttling. For the first trip, since I was joining a group we just shuttled vehicles from the put-in to the take-out. For my trip to the Racoon, my partner's spot was only about 100 yards from where we put in, so we just paddled up and floated back when we were done. The smaller rivers in my area would require a different option. I have a 16-year-old son at home, so I figured I could just put in where I wanted and leave my truck. I'd have my wife bring my son and pick up my truck at their convenience, and drop it off at my take-out so it would be waiting for me by the time I got there. As it turned out, this option worked pretty well for me. It does require that I make sure that I'm not interfering with anyone else's schedule, and I have to stay close enough that it's not a giant inconvenience for them. For this first run, I picked access points that were within ten minutes of my house.
I should mention here that in the spirit of being helpful, I want to try and give as many specific details as I can. At the same time I'm not exactly trying to out every good location that I've put the time in to scout, so I'm going to be deliberately vague in some instances. The truth is that anyone from the area who really wants to will probably be able to extrapolate the exact spots I end up referencing - but I'm at least not going to just hand them over on a platter.
The three smaller rivers that run through my area are known simply as North, Middle and South Rivers. None of them are navigable by an actual boat, so they have no boat ramp access points. There are some kayak/canoe access points but they all tend to be several miles upstream. All this means that I'm crawling under bridges to get in and to take out. Thats okay with me. It also means that the likelihood that I see even one other person all day is very, very slim. That's even better with me.
For my first solo scout I picked my bridges, waded through the mud, and set off downstream with my depth finder running and my notebook and map handy to make notes. At the end of the day I had marked four places that seemed like highpercentage spots. I also noted another half a dozen spots that might be worth a quick check before passing by.
Smaller tributary river nearby
These trips all took place between the last week of April and the first week of June. In retrospect I couldn't have asked for a better series of trips to really feel out my options. In just three outings, I pretty much ran through the Three Bears of area rivers.
The Des Moines River, being the primary river in the area, would certainly have the most abundant population of flatheads. It also posed some of the greatest difficulties in terms of navigation, anchoring, traffic, and access to spots, just because of it's size. The Racoon was probably really more in the heart of the Goldilocks zone, but I wanted to try to stay closer to home and on my side of the Des Moines Metro area. I had really enjoyed my scouting trip on the small river nearby. These smaller rivers were close, accessible, unpressured, and offered a variety of spots that might have potential. What sort of flathead population they might hold was still up in the air, but I felt pretty confident that there had to be some in them since they all dumped into the Des Moines River less than five to ten miles downstream. I decided that I'd start my pursuit on these baby-bear rivers and see where it led me.
I point this all out because readers won't all have access to the same opportunities, but with a little research and exploration, you may find that you have access to places that hold more promise or access than what were the obvious first choices.
I was now at a point where it was time to formulate a game-plan and make my first real run.
In my next post I'll outline my opening strategy and the results of my first trip out.
Below are some images of the river systems in my area.
The 'local' stretch of the Des Moines River runs from Saylorville Lake to Red Rock Lake. Saylorville is a 26,000 acre impoundment that is used for flood control and drought prevention, so the water levels in this stretch can fluctuate quickly. The river flows through the heart of downtown Des Moines where there are a couple of low-head dams. These are the only dams on the stretch before Red Rock Lake and they're heavily fished by bridge anglers when the fish stack up under them. Flathead catfish are caught with some degree of regularity. The only designated access points in my area SE of the metro are marked with the red dots.
The Racoon River dumps into the Des Moines right downtown.
The three smaller tributary rivers that run through my home range and flow into the Des Moines River nearby.