Head Upriver For Giant West Point Flatheads
These heavyweight catfish add a new twist to an old fishery.
When an angler thinks of West Point Lake, perhaps the first things that come to mind are the vast hybrid bass runs each spring or the heavy bass-tournament sacks. However, there is a burgeoning new fishery up the Chattahoochee arm of the lake. Flathead catfish have staked a claim in deep holes on the northeast end of West Point, and these heavyweights can provide arm-tiring, sometimes frantic action for those willing to make a run up the river.
The first time West Point guide Paul Parsons took serious notice of the flatheads in his home lake on the Georgia/Alabama border was three or four years ago when clients began hooking up with them while fishing live shad for hybrids during the spring run up the Hooch. In an area historically devoid of flatheads, they managed to boat some specimens in the 20-lb. range on the small baits and lightweight hybrid set-ups. That caught Paul’s eye. But it wasn’t until about a year ago that Paul started chasing flatheads in earnest. Since then he has hauled in some no-nonsense fish.
When talking flatheads, a 20-pounder is not necessarily a monster. The state record, caught out of the Altamaha River by Carl Sawyer in 2006, weighed 83 pounds. But for most fishermen a 20-pounder is certainly a respectable fish, and Paul and his clients have caught five fish closing in on 30 pounds over the last three years. Keep in mind, flatheads on West Point are a relatively new development. They are native to many Georgia drainages, but small ones first started showing up on West Point in biologist’s sampling nets in 1998. Since then the size and frequency of catches has increased.
The West Point Lake record for flatheads, a 33-lb., 12-oz. fish, was caught by Tomy Booker in July 2006. Paul thinks he will put a fish in the boat that breaks that record very soon. UPDATE: The West Point flathead catfish record was broken in 2012 with a 37-lb., 14.7-oz. fish caught by Justin Tomlinson.
“I think there are some 40 and 50 pounders in there. I had a client hook into one that sat on the bottom for 30 minutes while we did everything we could to get it up,” Paul said. “It finally threw the hook, and I went out and got some rods with more backbone.”
Armed with those new rods, Paul and I launched out of Ringer Access before daybreak in mid May. He had spent the previous day fishing around bridge pilings with crickets and minnows to catch a bait tank full of hand-sized panfish, and his intent was to catch the lake record with a writer on board to document it.
“I’m no catfishing expert,” Paul admitted after we ran about 10 river miles up the Chattahoochee to the bridge at Franklin. “But once I catch the lake record, I will be.”
Paul may not claim to be an expert, but he has talked with plenty of experts to refine his techniques. He is also one of only a handful of anglers who specifically target flatheads on West Point. It quickly became apparent that he knows where the fish are when we made our first stop of the morning just above the Franklin bridge. He dropped anchor at the top end of a hole where a rock ledge angling upstream and out from the bank created an 18-foot-deep cut in the river bottom as the flow circled back around the shoal. The surface water temperature read 69 degrees, the air was warming from a chilly spring morning and Paul was confident we would catch some fish.
He began putting out his spread of new, heavy-duty catfishing gear. Paul uses four 7-foot Ugly Stick Tiger Lite rods rated for 40-lb. test line. He spools his Ambassador 6500 reels with 30-lb. P-Line, and his bottom-fishing rig is simple.
“It’s just basically a big Carolina rig,” he said while hooking a 6-inch bream through the eyes.
Depending on the current and the size of the bait, Paul slides a 1 1/2- or 2-oz., flat-sided, river sinker on the main line then follows that with a sinker bead and a barrel swivel. He ties about 2 to 3 feet of 50-lb. leader on the other end of the swivel and finishes the rig off with an 8/0 circle hook.
After heaving an 8-inch crappie and two 4- to 6-inch bream — one of them cut — out into the hole, he set the rods in holders spaced across the stern and set the reels on free spool with the clickers engaged. He was working on the fourth rod, spacing the baits in a fan across the hole at different distances from the boat when the clicker with the cut bait gave a sputtering run. Before we could get to the rod, the fish put the bait down.
“Doggone! That was a hard hit,” Paul said. “They’ll usually come back and hit it again, but when he really gets it, there won’t be any doubt.
“Have you ever fished a circle hook?” he asked. “When he first hits it, cut the clicker off and let him have it on free spool for a little while. Use your thumb to brake, but don’t let him feel the rod. When you’re ready to set the hook, don’t jerk. Just swing the rod back slow and steady and reel. It’ll catch right in the corner of their mouth every time.”
Paul got all four lines out, turned to me and said, “Now we’re fishing.” We didn’t have to wait long before a fish picked up the same cut bait that had been hit before. Paul picked up the rod and hauled in a 13-lb., 8-oz. flathead, not the 30-pounder we were hunting, but it still put a deep bend in his rod.
He went into the bait tank and began hooking another live bream through the eyes. I asked him if he wanted to throw out another cut bait instead. So far, the cut bait seemed to be producing the most action.
“They’ll take a cut bait.” Paul said, “But a really big one, like that 30-pounder we’re after, is gonna take that live bait probably.”
The next fish came on one of the live bream. With no action for about 20 minutes, Paul had picked up one of the rods intending to check the bait. He started reeling up an unusual amount of slack line, then the line went taut. The fish had picked up the bait and swam it back to the boat, giving no sign of a hit when it inhaled the bream. Paul brought it over the side and put it on a set of digital scales. The weight of the fish appeared to be leveling off at about 8-lbs., 7-ozs. when a stream of brown, viscous liquid splattered over the tops of Paul’s sandled feet. The weight dropped to 8-lbs., 5-ozs.
We had several more runs at the first hole, but had not landed another fish when Paul’s confidence in the hole dropped at about 9:30 a.m. It was time to switch spots, and Paul ran us downstream a few hundred yards past the bridge to an unlikely looking spot on the east bank at the tail of a shallow bend in the river. Without electronics you would never know it, but the bottom dropped off to 28 feet, and the hole stretched out about 75 yards downstream of us.
“I’ve had my best luck here in the middle of the day. Those were like early bonus fish,” Paul said. “I’m sure they get down in the holes early in the morning, but I think there are more of them in there when the sun gets up.
“This is the best flathead hole on the whole river. I usually don’t fish it until about 11:30. We’re a little early, but you never know, that ol’ moose could be down there.”
Catfish do most of their cruising and feeding in low-light conditions, Paul explained. They retreat to deeper holes and hunker down when the sun gets up, and that’s when they are easiest to target in the deep holes.
With the slower current on this section of the river, Paul put out two anchors — one from the bow and one from the stern — to present the baits in a wider spread and cover more of the hole. Waiting on his 11:30 prime time, he threw only one bait out at first, a 10-inch crappie.
“If you think your bait’s too big, it’s probably not,” said Paul when I balked at the size of the bait.
Again, he was right. Almost immediately the clicker started singing, but when he picked up the rod and began reeling to set the hook, the fish came unbuttoned. At some point, the hook had turned and impaled the bait instead of the fish.
“That’s the bad thing about those circle hooks; sometimes they’ll get turned back on you,” he said. “Man, I hate that. With that big bait, that might have been our chance at the big one.”
From there, the action got pretty fast. In about three hours, we had fish pick up and run with the baits 11 times. We managed to land a mixed bag of five fish — two stripers in the 5- to 6-lb. range, a blue cat that went about 10 pounds and two more flatheads. One of the flatheads weighed in at 13-lbs., 10-ozs. The second was a little lighter than 5 pounds.
“That’s it. It’s time to pull up anchor,” Paul said. “They tell me once you start catching those little guys, it’s time to move. If there was a big one down there, he’d chase all those little ones off.”
Besides, the wind had picked up and was blowing upstream into our faces, and Paul said a steady upstream wind creates the worst conditions for this kind of live-bait bottom fishing with a good flow.
“You use the current. It holds your boat still and keeps your lines tight,” he said. “The wind will blow your boat around… pulls your baits all over the place. It makes it really hard to fish.”
Paul said other conditions to look for are water temperature and clarity. These big cats bite best when the water is warmer than 70 degrees, and they like a good stain. That means, even though we didn’t catch the lake record, Paul will have the rest of the summer to chase it. If you want to join him in his quest for what he called “the moose,” call him at (800) 224-8892 or (706) 302-4778. Paul also guides for any other species on the lake. See the proof at his website <www.fishwestpoint.com>. He can also be reached by e-mail at <[email protected]>.
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