Flathead Catfish On The Lower Flint River
Scott Ellis talks techniques and locations for summer flatheads on the Flint River.
Scott Ellis and I had been trying to get together to go on our catfishing trip for a couple of weeks. When I would be able to go, he would be tied up, and vice-versa. My deadline was fast approaching, and I knew we had to set a date and stick to it. I called Scott, and we locked in the date of July 10th. Little did either of us know what we would have to face on this day.
Scott Ellis lives in Albany, and he has fished the Flint River for years. While he enjoys catching bream and bass, flathead catfish have always been his first love. Catfishing is not the “run-and-gun all over the river” type of fishing that bass fishing is. Catfishing is a waiting game. A laid-back type of fishing that requires patience, knowledge and skill. Maybe that is why Scott is so successful. With his easy-going personality he is right at home sitting on a catfish hole.
When Scott and I made plans to go on our trip to the Flint River, we had no way of knowing what would await us on this day. We set the date a week and a half in advance. I knew that the date would be pushing me close to my deadline, but because of schedule conflicts I had no other choice.
As the days passed by, The Weather Channel began to talk about a tropical depression that had formed down in the Carribean. This tropical depression quickly strengthened into a tropical storm, and just as quickly became Hurricane Dennis. I started to monitor the storm’s progress each day. Soon it was evident that Hurricane Dennis would have a major influence on the weather in south Georgia. Two days before our trip it was predicted to make landfall near Pensacola, Florida. And as you might have guessed, the day it was to make landfall was the day of our trip!
I called Scott the evening before our trip to see what he thought. I had been monitoring the weather, and I knew that conditions were going to be less than favorable to say the least. We agreed to monitor the weather further, and after checking conditions the next morning at 5 a.m. we would make our decision. Now all the while, I am thinking that there is no way we would get to go fishing. Furthermore, the tremendous amounts of rain associated with this storm would quickly raise the Flint to flood stage or above, preventing a trip later during the week. I was already worried about the phone call to Brad Gill, my editor, telling him I would not be able to do the story.
My phone rang at 5:30 the next morning. “Wake up and let’s go,” Scott yelled! “I’ve been looking at the Weather Channel and there looks like there is a break in the rain. I think we’ll have a window between some of the rain bands. We’ll have a little time before the real bad stuff gets here. Let’s shoot the gap.”
After meeting Scott, we headed to the bait store to buy some crickets. Scott uses live bream for bait, and crickets are his number one choice for catching them. We were surprised when we learned that the bait shop didn’t have any crickets. If that wasn’t bad enough, they didn’t have any worms either. I suggested that we use Beetle Spins, and without any other options, Scott begrudgingly agreed.
“I either fish above the dam or below the dam. I think we’ll do better today above, so we’ll put in at Jungle Jim’s,” Scott said. Jungle Jim’s is a public boat ramp just upstream from Lake Chehaw. It is located near the Turner Field golf course off of Turner Field Road in east Albany.
After launching Scott’s 16-foot Bass Tracker, we headed up the river. “We’ll be running up to the shoals,” Scott said.
Now I’m not an expert catfish angler, but I thought I knew enough about it to know that you fish for flatheads in deep holes. So why in the world were we headed to the shoals?
“When I first started fishing for flatheads years ago, I really didn’t know a lot about it. I read all of the articles I could find, and most of them said that you had to fish in really deep holes. Not knowing any different, that’s what I did. I caught a few fish, but I never caught as many as I thought I should. I began experimenting some with different areas, trying to find a better way to catch fish. I decided one day I would fish some of the deeper water around the shoals, and I almost immediately began catching more fish,” Ellis explained.
“When you fish the deeper sections of the river, the fish have more room to spread out. They could be anywhere. When you fish around the shoals the water is a lot shallower. The few deeper holes you find tend to congregate the flatheads,” Scott says.
When you have a set of shoals, the water is usually fairly shallow. But upstream and downstream of a shoal there is almost always a deeper pool. Keep in mind that deep is relative. The top of the shoal might be one- to four-feet deep, but the pools on either side may be eight- to 20-feet deep or deeper. These pools are where Scott concentrated his efforts. The shoals are alive with bream and other baitfish, and he believes that the flatheads stage in these deeper pools and periodically move up to the shallower shoals to feed on the abundant food.
After a 7- or 8-mile run up the river, we reached the first set of shoals. The rain was steady, hard and sideways. We were experiencing sustained winds at around 30 miles per hour.
“Let’s go down this bank and catch some bream to use for bait. I think we’ve got a couple of hours before the really bad stuff gets here,” Scott said with a sly grin.
Yeah right, I thought to myself!
After about 30 minutes of pitching Beetle Spins to the river bank we had about 10 bream anywhere from three fingers to hand sized. With bait in the livewell we motored a short distance to one of Scott’s holes. He idled over the hole while carefully watching his Humminbird graph. After pinpointing the exact location he wanted to fish, he positioned his boat upstream about 50 feet and anchored the boat in the front and back. Scott started getting out his catfish rigs, which were 3/0-sized saltwater reels with stout six-foot, six-inch to seven-foot rods. He spools his reels with 20- to 50-lb. mono. A large barrel swivel separates the 3- to 8-oz. egg sinker from the leader, which is 12- to 24-inches long. To the business end of the leader he attaches either a 4/0 Kahle or 5/0 circle hook. The size of the sinker is determined by how strong the current is flowing. It is always best to use the lightest sinker you can. As for the length of the leader, Scott says he gets more bites with the shorter leader. Scott fishes four rods at a time, which he places in rodholders attached to his boat. After he gets his baits in the water, he puts the reels in free-spool and turns the bait-clicker feature on. This allows the catfish to run with the bait and not feel tension.
When Scott was finished preparing the rods it was finally time to put a bait in the water. Scott rigged a rod for me, and explained what we would be doing. “I like to hook my bream through the back, right under the dorsal fin. This lets the bream swim around better. You just want to make a lob cast about 30 feet back and let it sink to the bottom. After it hits bottom, put the reel in free spool and turn the clicker on,” Scott coached.
After making a couple of very ugly casts, my rigs were placed in the rodholders and I was ready. “If the fish are here they will usually bite pretty fast. I will usually give a hole about 30 minutes. If they don’t bite by then it’s time to try another spot.”
Soon after getting our baits in the water, one of Scott’s rods began to jump a little. Either it was a little fish, or it wasn’t in the mood to eat because it would never take the bait. True to his word, after about 30 minutes Scott told me to pull in my lines. After getting our lines reeled in we moved a little farther up river to another deep pool. This pool was 14-feet deep and between two sets of shoals.
“A couple of weeks ago I caught about a dozen fish from this one hole. They weren’t big, between eight and 12 pounds, but they were fun to catch,” Scott said.
After anchoring the boat in place we again set our baits out in the hole. It didn’t take five minutes before we both began to get bites. At first the bites were like the ones we got in the first hole we fished. They didn’t really want to take the bait. Finally, after losing several bream, I had a fish take the bait, and begin to peel line off of the reel. I asked Scott what to do.
“Take the clicker off and leave it in free spool. You have to let a flathead eat the bait. He will try to scale it before he actually eats it, so you have to be sure he has it long enough before you set the hook,” Scott said.
This fish was really peeling off line, and the anticipation was about to kill me. After what seemed like five minutes, Scott instructed me to put the reel in gear and let the line come tight. Just as I did what he had said, the line went slack. The fish had spit the bait out.
“Sometimes they just want to mouth the bait and won’t eat it,” Scott explained. Now this deal was personal. I had a taste of what this was like, and next time I would be ready. We had noticed that all of the bites we were getting were on the two rods that were positioned where the current made a small eddy, so we concentrated on this area. We got several more bites, and I actually had a fish on just long enough to feel its weight. It felt BIG!
By the time we had fished up all of our bait, the “bad stuff” Scott had alluded to was on top of us. The weather had really gotten bad, to the point where we were concerned for our own safety. A couple of close lightning strikes sent us racing back to the boat ramp. Unfortunately, our day was over.
Since our day was cut short, we took some time to discuss some of the methods that Scott uses to put flatheads in the boat. Scott is very knowledgeable about catching flatheads, and his advice should be carefully considered.
“Like I said before, I don’t like to fish the real deep holes. You might catch bigger fish, but you won’t catch near as many as you will fishing around the shoals. I concentrate on fishing eight- to 20-feet deep. I never fish deeper than 20 feet. Fresh-caught bream is the best bait day in and day out, but there are times you will catch them on pond worms. Just put a big glob of worms on the hook, and fish it on the bottom just like you would with a bream. You will also catch some channel cats this way. I usually fish from daylight until around lunch. I don’t know if this is the best time to fish, but it gets me back to the house before it gets too hot. The best months for bigger fish seem to be April and May. The average-sized fish are from eight to 12 pounds, with an occasional fish 20 pounds or better.”
Scott usually fishes, as noted earlier, either upstream of Lake Chehaw or below the dam. When he fishes upstream he puts in as we did at Jungle Jim’s. When he fishes downstream he puts in at the Marine Ditch, which is located off of Radium Springs Road (SR 3). In either location, find a set of shoals and look for a deeper pool either upstream or downstream. Anchor the boat in place and drop a live bream to the bottom. Give it 30 minutes, and if you haven’t gotten a bite, move to the next hole. It won’t take long before you find the fish.
One word of caution about the Flint River. If you aren’t familiar with this river, be careful! The shoals will absolutely destroy the foot of you motor, your propeller, and even your boat. Take your time.
The flathead is a tremendous sportfish, and it makes wonderful tablefare as well. I can’t wait until the river clears up so we can go back. The catfish won the first round, but I’ve got my mind set on redemption. Next time, however, I can guarantee you that I won’t be on the river in the middle of a hurricane. I guess it could have been worse.
At least we got off of the water before the “real bad stuff” hit!
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