Oconee’s Flathead Kings
Jason Knight and Kenny Scott are probably the most die-hard flathead fishermen on Oconee. With GON in the boat on May 17, this 41-pounder was pulled from a trot line.
“There’s one on there… it’s a good ’un, too,” Kenny Scott said.
Kenny, who lives in Madison, was looking up at his flathead fish- ing buddy, Jason Knight of Good Hope, with a giant grin on his face. I was standing in the back of the boat with my camera in hand, just dying to know what in the heck was mak- ing our trot line bounce up and down.
These two guys get together several nights a week during the summer specifically to go after flat- head catfish at Lake Oconee, and they’ve had tremendous success doing it. In four years they estimate catching over 30 flatheads 30 pounds and better, with several of those coming on a rod-and-reel. Their biggest flathead to date is a 44-pounder caught on a trot line several years ago.
“We’re after that 50- and 60-pounder now,” said Jason.
The state rod-and-reel record for flatheads came from the Altamaha River in 2000 and weighed 67-lbs., 8- ozs.
WRD estimates that flatheads have been in Oconee since about 1995. Oconee’ s rod-and-reel record was caught in 2004 and weighed 34-lbs., 15.2-ozs.
Before we get back to what had our trot line violently plunging for deep water let me back up.
To get this story I had to go fishing with these guys twice. I first met the two flathead fanatics on May 12 at the Redlands boat ramp an hour before dark with a plan to string two, 25-hook trot lines across some timber above the train trestle. Then we’d fish with rods and reels while giving the trot lines time to get hit.
“We like to run our trot lines in about 15 feet of water,” said Kenny. “Having that river channel close, where it’s 30 feet, is good.”
In the bottom of the boat was a 150-quart cooler filled two-thirds of the way up with crappie and bream, prime bait for flatheads. To keep the bait alive, they used an aerator in the cooler that continually churned the water.
Jason is lucky enough to have a pond near his home that’s loaded with crappie and bream, so catching enough bait never poses a problem. If you don’t have access to a pond, flathead fishing just got tougher. You’ll have to catch your own bream and crappie at Oconee or catch gizzard shad with a cast net.
“Flatheads want a big bait, and that bait has to be alive,” said Kenny.
On that first trip Kenny threw a cast net hoping to catch gizzard shad. He caught several-dozen threadfins and shook every one of them back in the lake. These two have played the flathead game long enough to know that a hook isn’t worth wasting with a small bait.
“We’ve had our best luck on crap- pie,” said Jason. “There are just so many crappie out here in all these trees that I think they’re used to feeding on them. Bream work, too, but they need to be big, probably bigger than your hand.”
Quickly, the two flathead hunters had a trot line connected to two trees.
“Structure is the key, flatheads get in timber, stumps, bridges, rock, any kind of structure,” said Jason.
Their trot line came from Wal-Mart, however, they both laugh about the hooks that come with those rigs.
“A flathead will straighten their hooks out real quick,” said Jason. “We use a No. 6 circle hook on black cord and hook the bait through the bottom of their mouth and out the top. This gets the hook exposed good. Most people who flathead fish hook bait in the tail, but we miss a lot doing that.”
Jason said they use the clips that come with the trot line to attach the foot-long leader of black cord and hook to the trot line. In two or three places on the trot line, Jason adds a 4- oz. weight to get the line down. State regulation says trot lines must be at least three feet below the surface.
By dark we had two trot lines loaded and were gearing up for some rod-and-reel fishing, however, they both began to complain about the bright, full moon.
“We do best on dark nights,” said Jason. “Any light seems to spook the fish.”
This was further acknowledged when I turned on my bright, white- lighted headlamp.
“Whoa,” was all Jason said.
I knew what he meant when I saw that both of them had headlamps with subtle, red lights that the fish couldn’t see through the water.
“You can talk, but you don’t want to be shining lights, banging around in the boat or anything like that,” said Jason.
After throwing out two anchors, they baited five Abu Garcia 6000 reels with bream and crappie. Fished on 40- lb. line and 4-oz. weights they dropped the Carolina rigs below the boat one foot off the bottom and put the rods in the boat’ s rod holders.
“You don’t want a rod that’s real stiff, you want them to bite it without feeling it,” said Jason. “If it’s real stiff, they’ll bite and let go real quick.”
When they fish with their eight- and 10-foot Night Stick rods around rocks or bridges, areas they’ re less likely to get hung, they throw the bait away from the boat. As spooky as flat- heads are, having a bait farther out gives room for error if something bangs around in the boat. However, we were fishing timber, which meant high target potential for a tangled mess, so we had the baits straight down. We were set, quiet and ready for a bait clicker to sound as the last bit of day- light disappeared from the sky.
“During the week we don’t see anybody out here at night,” said Jason. “I don’t know anybody who fishes just for flatheads regularly with a rod and reel. You’ll get people who run limb hooks up the river some.”
Kenny said they fish for flatheads in the Oconee River from Sugar Creek to Dyar’s Pasture and then up the Apalachee River around Swords.
“You have to keep bumping around, especially after you catch a few 30-pounders out of one spot,” said Kenny. “It seems that when you catch a few from one area you quit catching them there. On a new spot we expect to catch three or four flatheads, most of those over 15 pounds.
“You’ll catch some big blues and a few channels that hit a dead bait, but we’re after flatheads — they’re bigger and they fight better than blues.”
We didn’t catch one on a rod and reel, although we had one fish hook up that came unbuttoned.
At 11:30 p.m. Jason and Kenny were speechless: the only flathead on a trot line weighed eight pounds, a small catfish for these guys. After photos they threw him back.
“We let the little ones go so they can grow up,” said Kenny.
Five days later I was back in the boat with Jason and Kenny. By 9 p.m. we had two trot lines baited up the Oconee River near Dyar’s Pasture, both of them running along a deep bank where several holes, hopefully holding flatheads, were present.
If you fish at night above the Indian Mounds, this area is full of tim- ber and is a dangerous stretch of water to run. Go slow and make sure you have a spotlight on board.
For 90 minutes we fished with rod and reel around a steep, rocky bank. One time we had a fish take some drag, but for some reason the fish never committed to eat the bait. At 11:30 p.m. it was time to check the trot line.
“We like to let the trot lines sit for at least two hours,” said Jason.
As we approached the first line we were all pretty darn cold from the slow ride up the lake. The lower-than-normal temperatures had us pretty worried about the flathead bite.
“We like days in the 90s, the nights in the 70s — that’s when the bite gets good,” said Kenny. “We keep doing this until about July, when it just gets too hot.”
Ten minutes later our flathead kings were stressed: the first trot line was empty. These guys are serious about this sport, they’re very good at it and they really wanted to show GON readers what Oconee had to offer.
Life took a turn.
Approaching the deep-water bank we could see the bush that held one end of our second trot line shaking. One minute later Kenny had the line in his hand.
“There’s one on there… it’s a good ’un, too,” Kenny said.
The big fish was manhandling the trot line, making hard dives down deep.
“That’s a real good one,” he said.
As Kenny neared the center of the line, he kept looking up at Jason, grin- ning, excited and ready to see what in the world was attached.
When the flathead’s wide, yellow head surfaced it was almost intimidat- ing to look at those black eyes and long whiskers. It was a good ’un.
“Think we need the gaff on this one?” Kenny asked.
For only the third time in their flathead careers, Jason slipped the gaff inside a flathead’s mouth and lifted it into the boat. The 41-lb., 44-inch-long flathead was the second-heaviest they’d ever had in the boat.
As we eased back toward the boat ramp, we kept shin- ing our lights down on the monster flathead, pretty much in amazement at the huge fish that would provide five-inch- thick steaks, two-feet long. Think about it… this fish weighed seven pounds more than the rod-and-reel record!
We talked about the possibility of catching flatheads all over Oconee. They said everyone concentrates up the river, but our catfish kings are slowly venturing south.
“The other night we had three hooks broke down around Sugar Creek,” Jason said.
If you can find a way to catch bait and keep it alive, try trot lines and rod and reels for Oconee flatheads this summer. Before you go, buy a gaff… I hope you
have to use it.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy