Fishing For Clarks Hill’s Untouched Flatheads

Clarks Hill has some giant flatheads, and it seems very few anglers fish for them.

Brad Gill | May 1, 2005

It took about 30 phone calls before I finally began to tap into a few folks who backed a boat into the gin-clear waters of Clarks Hill with the sole purpose of trying to hook into a flathead catfish.

The flathead makes its most famous Georgia home in the Altamaha River, where it’s known for sucking down the highly targeted redbreast. The state record rod-and-reel flathead came from the Altamaha in May of 2000 — a 67-lb., 8-oz. fish. Bigger fish have been caught on limb lines. On the Altamaha, these brown, olive- to yellow-colored cats are highly sought after, but at Clarks Hill they are mostly ignored. In fact, I talked with some of the lake’s hottest bass locals who didn’t even know the lake was a host for big flatheads. Trust me, it is, and some of these fish are down right huge. A 63-pounder caught in 1998 by Steve Sellers is the Clarks Hill record.

Mike Arrington, of Augusta, is one fisherman who can testify that the lake has plenty of big flatheads. He said the next two months are great times to be on the water trying to catch one.

“Flatheads have been in there for years,” said Mike. “I’ve seen some pictures from back in the 1960s.”

Clarks Hill is home to some monster flathead catfish. Spring is the time to find them shallow on rocks.

Mike, who works for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, has been fishing Clarks Hill for 37 years, but it was only eight years ago when he got hooked on the lake’s big flatheads.

“A guy I used to fish with started telling me about how they were real aggressive,” said Mike. “We just started putting some lines out while crappie fishing, and we started picking up a few here and there. The fish fight so hard. It’s not a real hard, fast pull, but it’s a hard, long pull. They’ll fight to the end.”

Mike’s biggest Clarks Hill flathead weighed 52 pounds, but he says he’s caught about 60 in the 30- to 40-lb. range. With giants like this, it’s amazing only a few try to catch them.

“Most of the people accidentally catch them when fishing for hybrids or stripers,” said Mike. “I don’t know why more people don’t fish for them. I love to eat them — they’ve got big fillets. With a 40-pounder, you’ll get 10 to 12 pounds of good meat.”

May and June are the easiest months to catch a coolerful of flathead and channel cats.

“The lake is full of channels,” said Mike. “You’re going to catch 10 channels to one flathead, but you’re going to catch a few big flatheads along the way if you use enough live bait.”

Mike Arrington (left) and James Haynes caught these Clarks Hill cats last month. The biggest of the 17 cats was the 40-lb. flathead.

Starting this month, Mike will target rock — boulders and rip-rap where catfish congregate to spawn.

“I have caught them in July (around rocks), but they’re a little thinner then,” said Mike. “May and June is their prime spawning time. I think the flatheads usually start a little later because I’ve caught plenty of channels in April on the rocks when we’ve had a warm winter. This year we’ve had these cool spells and all the rain. I fished it the other night and didn’t even get a strike.”

Flathead catfish usually spawn when water temperatures reach 70 to 78 degrees, and they do spawn later than the channel cats. Flatheads build nests in natural cavelike depressions in the bank, or they may hollow out a cavity under an underwater object, like a log or boulder.

Malcolm Free (left) and Tanner Free, from Fitzgerald, struggle to hold up these two Clarks Hill flatheads. The fish weighed 40 pounds each and were caught on jugs.

“The rip-rap at Little River bridge is excellent,” said Mike. “There are some good areas from there to Little River Marina. You want to look for any rocky points that run out.

“I’ll catch them, and they’ll have scars all over them where they’ve been rubbing up against the rocks.”

Head west from the Little River bridge and go into Grays Creek on the north side. The left-hand bank has some big chunk rock 10- to 12-feet deep when the lake is full.

Mike Arrington caught this 42-lb. Clarks Hill flathead on May 20, 2001.

“You’ve got several acres of big boulder rocks there,” said Mike. “That’s a real good place. You can pick the rocks up on the depthfinder.”

Mike fishes big-sized live bait.

“I like bream, gizzard shad, shellcracker, suckers and blueback herring,” said Mike.

Mike either catches his own bream on a hook or throws a castnet for shad. It’s illegal to keep any gamefish — bream — caught in a cast net.

“I catch bream with a No. 6 hook, a BB shot, a float and a piece of worm,” said Mike. “The bigger the bait the better. I’ve caught flats on pound-and-a-half gizzard shad. I have a good aerator in a 150-gallon livewell. You want fresh, lively bait.”

Mike catches shad with a cast net, and he’ll do it the night before he plans to fish. He looks for six-to eight-foot flats. Trying shallower could result in spooky, harder-to-catch bait. Stay in clean areas to avoid ripping the cast net.

“I put a light out and wait for them,” Mike. “Gizzard shad are plentiful in Clarks Hill, so it may only take an hour for them to come in. When it’s real warm, they’ll be in there in just a few minutes. Sometimes you can just go around docks and marinas and catch them.”

A sharp hook right below the start of the dorsal fin, about one inch behind the head, is where Mike prefers to hook his bait. If he’s using a small, 1/4-lb. bream, he’ll use an Eagle Claw 5/0 hook. For a 1-lb. shad, he’ll upsize to an 8/0 hook.

Mike fishes for big flatheads two ways — a Carolina rig and a slip-cork rig. For both he uses 30-lb. test.
For the bottom rig, try an 18-inch leader, a No. 12 barrel swivel and just enough weight to keep the bait stationary. Weights will vary from one to 2 1/2 ounces depending on bait size.

“You want it just heavy enough that the bait can kick around but can’t swim off with the rig,” said Mike.
The bottom rig is appropriate for long, rocky points where you have scattered rocks. Mike said you can fish it straight down if you’ve got some brushy areas around the rocks, which cats like too.

These 53 channels and flatheads came from Clarks Hill last May when the cats were spawning.

In areas like rip-rap bridges, where you find layers of rock, you’ll need to use a slip-cork rig to avoid staying hung up. Use an 18-inch leader with a 1-oz. weight. Set your slip cork up so that you’re fishing four- to five-feet deep.

“Throw right up next to the rocks and let the bait drift on out,” said Mike.

For both rigs you need stout equipment.

“You want a good baitcaster, something with good gears in it,” said Mike.

Mike said most any reel that holds plenty of 30-lb. line, something like an Ambassadeur 7000, will work fine.

“A Zebco 808 with 20-lb. test will handle one, but it’s a lot of work,” said Mike.

Mike likes a seven-foot Penn Power Stick rod.

“You’ll need something you can torque him with,” said Mike.

With bait in the water, Mike leaves very little slack in his line and sets his drag loose.

“When he hits, let him run with it,” said Mike. “On big bait you want him to run about two minutes to make sure he gets the bait down. If you’re around some stumps you don’t want him running long. If you’re just on a flat you can let him run.”

Mike said a flathead will sometimes attack a bait like a striper, knocking it hard to kill it. Then the catfish will turn back and eat the bait. Once Mike has decided the catfish has the bait in his mouth, Mike sets the hook.

“You’ll know it’s a flathead when you hook him,” said Mike. “He’ll shake his head back and forth, and he doesn’t run off like a channel cat does. A flathead will normally go straight to the bottom.”

Mike caught a 30-pounder last year at Raysville Marina that didn’t move outside a 10-foot circle. This hard-fighting, saltwater-like fight may get you in shape for tarpon season.

“It usually takes 30 to 40 minutes to get in a 30- to 40-lb. flathead,” said Mike. “With a 20-lb. channel, it’ll take only eight or 10 minutes. They don’t have the long-lasting power like a flathead.”

If you decide to begin targeting these big cats, you may want to invest in a new freezer. After only a few fishing trips you may be supplying the meat at your church’s next fish fry. Remember, it’s only the next two months when these big catches normally take place.

“We’ll just wear them out,” said Mike. “You’ll catch from high teens to 40 or 50 a night. Sometimes we have to go back and ice the fish down and get another cooler. I have a 150-quart cooler, and we caught it full twice last year. We’ll catch 150 to 300 pounds, and they’ll be between three and 15 pounds. Every now and then you’ll hook into a big flathead. I probably caught 3,000 pounds on rod and reel last summer.”

Amazingly enough, there is no state limit on channel or flatheads.

Fishing can be successful during the day and night. During the day Mike prefers to fish from daylight until noon.
“Your best night around the rocks is three days before and three days after the full moon,” said Mike.
On a clear night there’s enough moonlight to see without having to use float lights.

“I don’t like to fish with lights when I’m catfishing,” said Mike. “I have better luck in the dark. I’ve caught fish under the lights, but the big ones seem to stay in the shadows.”

Mike usually backs his boat in at Raysville and fishes out toward the Little River bridge. With his success he doesn’t see any sense in going elsewhere. However, there’s big catfish all over the lake.

“They’ve caught some awesome fish up the Broad River at the Elbert County line,” said Mike. “Last year my brother caught eight fish that averaged 25 pounds apiece — channels and flatheads — at the dam.”

With a lake full of big channels and flatheads, with the outside chance at catching a monster flathead in the 50- to 60-lb. range, it’s hard to understand why these hard-pulling cats aren’t being targeted. They sure get plenty of attention in the Altamaha River.

“Once you find out where they’re holding in those rivers, they’re pretty easy to catch to some degree,” said Mike. “You just have to have the right tackle. When you have a 71,000-acre lake with holes that range from four feet to 140 feet, it makes the hunting territory a little bit different.”

True. However, the information Mike just revealed says the next two months will push fish into some obvious places for us to go fishing and tangle with one of these big freshwater beasts.

And, there’s no limit!

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.