So with my last post I sort of went on at length about the process I went through to determine what stretch of which river was going to be the starting point for my quest. It was a lot to wade through, but it was an important phase, and getting past it gets us closer to the good stuff.
The smaller tributary river I finally chose had an average depth of probably around 4-6' at normal levels and the holes I found were in the 10 - 12' range. I just needed a basic game plan to start off with.
I imagine my approach for coming up with a plan was pretty much in line with what most of you would do. I read everything I could on the subject and took the most basic underlying constants to lay down as the foundation.
In my research, as expected, I found that the majority of flathead anglers fish at night. I was surprised to find though, that there were a number of them who specialize in catching these fish during the day, and that they're quite successful at it. This was very encouraging, since daytime angling was going to be the norm for me.
The common theme from most of what I read was pretty straight-forward and not exactly earth-shattering. Flathead catfish, for the most part, appear to actively hunt for food for a relatively short period sometime after dark. During the day they are very sedentary and usually holed up tight in a snarly logjam, typically close to a hole. Hunting them at night meant trying to place baits in position to intercept their movements to, or on, feeding flats or shallows. Chasing them during the day meant that one had to go after them, finding them in their snaggy lairs and either enticing, or irritating them, into striking.
Daytime fishing for them, then, was going to require more of a seek-and-destroy approach, and the battle with any hooked fish was likely going to be won or lost in the first few seconds, depending on whether or not they could be turned out into 'open' water before they got buried back in their cover. It also meant that I'd probably be getting up close and personal with these logjams too, not just casting to them from fifty feet away. It was going to be close-quarters combat on the enemy's home turf. All this just made it more exciting for me. I'm willing to sit and soak a bait for a long time to catch a big fish if need be, but this active, tactical approach appealed to me a whole lot more. I felt like the stealth of the kayak was going to be a big plus here too.
One thing I noticed in my research is that there is also a lot, and I mean a LOT of 'exceptions' and contradictory information on flathead behavior. I like to try and form a basic model of behavior for my target species and then use this model to extract guidelines for how to approach different situations. I wasn't ready to over-complicate it at this point though, so I just made notes and bookmarked all of the divergent information, knowing I'd come back to it when it came time for some fine-tuning. Which I'll get to later.
Game Plan V1.0
For the time being, I was coming at this a lot like bass fishing in heavy cover. Prime targets would be logjams in bends next to deeper holes. I would start off by staying back away from the cover as far as I could. I'd cast to the edge of the cover and soak my bait for 15-20 minutes at a time; Once to the upstream side of the logjam, once to the edge by the hole, and once on the back side, roughly. After this I would move back to the front of the log jam and slowly maneuver my way around it, fishing vertically and probing underneath it with my bait, repositioning frequently and not letting my bait sit still for more than a couple of minutes.
As I did this I would pay close attention and be on the lookout for drop-offs or ledges, either right under the logjam or out further into the hole in the bend. Drop offs would get a little more attention, both on the top edge and the bottom.
Targetting a typical logjam on a bend
This plan would put me on each spot for as much as 90 minutes. I felt like that was probably more time than I needed to thoroughly check an area but I decided that it was a good starting point and that I could always work on shaving it down to closer to an hour later if I determined that was an adjustment that needed made.
For this first trip I had caught some bluegills from 4 to 8 inches from a nearby pond that I would be using for bait.
I planned to drop in at dawn and work over each spot I had scouted, the primary ones at length, and some other spots in passing. I estimated I'd arrive at my take out bridge around 2:00 pm.
The Maiden Run
I can show up home from work and be pulling back out of the driveway to go hit a nearby lake and do a little bass fishing with nothing but a 30 minute turnaround, easy. Probably with my eyes closed. At least one of them anyway... This whole backwoods-river-catfishing-put-in-before-the-sun-in-the-weeds-and-mud thing was, well, there was no system in place yet, you know? EVERYTHING was taking longer than it should have that morning. "What am I forgetting? What am I forgetting?" ad infinitum. I was running behind schedule, but it wasn't really getting me down. I was still getting that little-kid-going-to-disneyland feeling from the novelty of it all.
I finally floated up to my first hole just shortly after the sun had finished cresting the horizon. This was one of two spots that I thought had the most potential. I hit the front side as planned, then the outer edge, then I crept up on the backside where a little backwash eddy had set up. I didn't have my bait soaking for more than 10 minutes when my rod loaded up.
WOW! This flathead fishing thing is EASY!
Ok, ok... This one was a gift from the fishing gods, right? I can accept that. I can't tell you how excited I was to land this fish though. I had been mentally preparing myself to spend all summer looking before I managed to actually land a fish like this.
Clearly there was a lot of luck that put this fish in my kayak. It was very rewarding, though, to know that I had done my research, scouted and picked some spots, put together a plan for fishing them, and that my instincts and strategy had put me in a position where luck could at least find me. I mean, I wasn't kidding myself, ANYONE can stumble onto one good fish. The real test would be my ability to improve on it. The Iowa DNR sets the qualification for trophy class flathead catfish at 35 inches, and while this fish was close (reeeeeaally close), I had set my own personal target at 40 inches.
I mean really close...
No, this quest wasn't suddenly over as quickly as it had started. I was still just a newbie and this was still just the beginning. I was a pretty excited newbie though, and I was off to a great start!
A Brief Analysis
Take a look at that hero shot again. I'm facing upstream and you, as the viewer, are standing right on the back, inside edge, of a big logjam. I'm sitting in a backwash eddy so the current is gently pushing me towards the jam. Just on this back edge of the jam I found a ledge. It wasn't like a scour hole, where it would be deeper under the jam itself. Instead, it was like the debris was sitting on a shelf that suddenly dropped sharply about 3 or 4 feet. I pitched my bait right at the bottom of that ledge and at the seam of the two opposing currents. Also note that I'm not more than 8 or 10 feet from where I tossed my rig, which was probably 6-8 feet deep.
More than anything this fish confirmed a couple of very important assumptions I was making.
These little tributary rivers did have flathead populations of some sort and clearly held trophy class fish.
The stealthy nature of my kayak would absolutely allow me to get very close to these fish without spooking them.
I now had the great benefit of being able to move forward without having to deal with a bunch of second-guessing about my approach. In short, I had confidence, and we all know how important that can be.
Despite my rediculously good fortune on this first trip out, by the end of my second float it was clear that I had a couple of serious issues that I needed to address if I wanted to be a real player in this game. The first one was a matter of bait maintenance. My bait wasn't surviving the course of the day in the hot sun. This was a BIG problem. The second was anchoring, or more specifically, positioning. I was frequently either struggling to hold position where I wanted to in order to make the best presentations, or I was making a commotion in the process, losing any tactical advantage I would have had if I had maintained my stealthy approach. This was especially true when I was right up against the jams, where it would likely cost me the most.
In my next entry I'll outline these two problems and how I overcame them.