High Falls Flatheads With The Sultan Of Slime

Jonathan Herndon uses broomstick-sized rods, 8/0 hooks and unconventional tactics in his quest for a 60+ pounder from High Falls.

Brad Bailey | June 1, 2008

Catfishing specialist Jonathan Herndon of Jackson, aka “The Sultan of Slime,” with his favorite fishing target .. a big flathead catfish.

The High Falls lake record for flathead catfish stands at 60 pounds. When that record is broken, you can expect to see the name Jonathan Herndon of Jackson installed as the new lake-record flathead angler. Jonathan, who specializes in catching giant catfish, has set his sights on breaking that record.

Jonathan is an avid participant on Woody’s Taxidermy forums on the GON website. On the Internet site Jonathan goes by the name “The Sultan of Slime,“ in reference to his passion for catching big catfish, including tournament fishing for the big, whiskered fish.

In early May, I was on High Falls with Jonathan and his fishing buddy Rick Michell of Griffin. We launched from the Buck Creek ramp and headed toward the dam for a look at how Jonathan goes about catching flatheads. He catches big flatheads in two primary ways: he fishes live bait or fresh cutbait in deep holes or log jams or he trolls for them.

Right… Trolls.

“People say I am crazy,” said Jonathan. “They say, ‘You don’t troll for catfish,’ but a big ol’ flathead has what it takes to come up and get a moving bait.”

His trolling rig begins with a 3/4- or 1-oz. drift sinker above a heavy-duty swivel. On the other side of the swivel he ties a 4- or 5-foot leader with a slip float in the middle. At the end of the leader he ties on an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Hook. The circle hook allows the catfish to hook themselves. When a fish hits and loads up the rod, you pull back and start reeling.

“With a 2/0 hook you could catch small catfish all day, but that’s not going to win any tournaments,” he said.

Jonathan isn’t fishing for small cats with an 8/0 circle hook. His goal is to break the High Falls lake record for flathead catfish of 60 pounds.

Jonathan took a 12-inch frozen skip jack herring, acquired elsewhere, from a cooler, made a cut behind the gills, then fileted the side of the fish back to the tail. That strip of fish goes on the hook with the thin end trailing. The thin drift sinker keeps the rig down, and it usually comes through bottom obstructions without hanging. The float lifts the bait off the bottom, and the silvery filet flutters enticingly along just over the bottom in places where big flatheads lurk.

Jonathan isn’t fishing for numbers of fish. He is looking for 20+ pound fish, with a goal of a monster over 60 pounds. Generally, he says he might catch from two to four fish a day, and 20-pounders are common.

Jonathan uses stout tackle. His rods are 8-foot, heavy-action Diawa Beef Sticks.

“My wife calls them broomsticks,” said Jonathan. “When you get a fish that loads that rod up, you’ve done something. You want some backbone. Dealing with a 20- or 30-lb. fish is harder than it sounds. You want it out of a log jam in a hurry. The tackle looks like overkill, but I finally had to conform after I lost some big fish.”

Jonathan’s unusual rig for trolling for flatheads consists of a drift weight that comes through underwater obstructions well, a float that suspends the bait just off the bottom, and an 8/0 circle hook baited with a skip-jack herring filet that flutters over the bottom. Note the stout rod and massive, saltwater-style spinning reel.

Jonathan’s biggest flathead from High Falls weighs 42 pounds. He has also boated a 15-lb. channel cat.

With two rigs ready, we began trolling in front of the state-park dock heading uplake over the deepest channel.

“You want the baits to follow channel ledges,” said Jonathan.

Rick used the trolling motor to keep us over deep water, and the speed was surprising, about the speed you might slow troll for crappie.

We did not have a bait hit after trolling half way up the lake, and by mid-morning Jonathan was ready to head for a log jam.

Flatheads forage mostly after dark, said Jonathan. Early in the morning they move into cover, usually under logs or ledges to wait out the daylight hours.

We went to the back of a cove where the remains of a blowdown lay in the lake to try bottom fishing. The primary difference in the bottom-fishing rig is a shorter leader, and the float is removed. Jonathan cut chunks of skip jack to bait three rods. He does not use tails for bait, but the head, with a hook through the eyes, works well. With the hooks baited, Rick lofted the heavy rigs toward the submerged log jam. Then we waited.

For fishing live or cutbait on the bottom, this is the kind of place Jonathan looks for. The downed trees still have lots of limbs to provide cover and attract baitfish. The nearby docks and a brushpile also offer shade, cover and a place for baitfish to hide.

Jonathan often uses live bait, either bream or crappie, and he uses big fish. A 10- or 12-inch bait is just fine. When he hooks a live fish, he hooks them above the anal fin rather than behind the dorsal fin.

“When you hook them below, they will swim upward,” he said.

Little things can matter. Jonathan avoids washing his hands with any scented soap before going fishing.

“Flatheads are basically one big nose,” he said. “They use their sense of smell to find food, and if something doesn’t smell right, they won’t hit.”

When using live bait, he sometimes scrapes the side of the fish to release more fish scent into the water.

When using shad for cutbait, Jonathan slits the body cavity to put more scent in the water.
If there is a big flathead around, you usually find out quickly.

“I usually give a spot the 15- or 20-minute rule before I move,” he said. “If there is a big flathead in a hole, he will usually hit pretty quickly. And if you catch one big fish you can move on. A big one will usually run everything else out of his log pile.”

We fished several deep holes during the day, keying on places with thick cover, but the fish didn’t bite for us.

Jonathan, you may have noticed in the photos, is a wheeled sportsman. He doesn’t let it slow him down. He also hunts deer and turkeys. He often attends the wheelchair deer hunts at Piedmont NWR but usually, he said, to help beginning wheelchair hunters get started and help them see what they can do.

One of his hunting friends is blind, and Jonathan sometimes assists him deer hunting by helping aim the rifle.

“You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a blind guy and a guy in a wheelchair pull into a deer cooler with a nice 10-pointer,” he said.

The man doesn’t act handicapped.

“Going from point A to point B may take you five steps,” he said. “It might take me 15 steps, but I get to the same point B. It just depends on how much you want it,” he said.

When it comes to fishing for giant flatheads, Jonathan wants it a lot.

High Falls Lake, located south of Jackson near I-75, is a state-park lake that restricts engines to less than 10 hp. Boats with larger engines may be launched, but the motor may not be run. Fishing is allowed during daylight hours. For more information on regulations, contact the park at (478) 993-3053. A daily parking fee or annual state park pass is required.

Jonathan and his tournament catfishing partner Joseph Northrup fished the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament on the Coosa River on April 26. Jonathan and Joseph placed sixth among 64 teams with 20.7 pounds and qualified for the Classic on Alabama’s Lake Pickwick in October.

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