It was mid-June of 1999 and Don and I were setting up for another night of flathead fishing. The daytime heat was starting to interfere with our sleep and we were both a bit grumpy. Don had been fishing for trophies for four weeks and I had been with him for the last two. We had isolated a channel used as a pathway to a spawning area over the last couple of nights. Although we had caught several big flatheads we felt the spot we fished from was not all that good.
We ran our baits out over 200 yards and this presented several problems when trying to catch the big flatheads. The drag of the line might cause them to drop baits before we decided to set the hook. The drag also kept us from detecting bait movement which usually meant our baits were nervous. When a bait suddenly wants to move in the night it usually means a large predator is frightening them. We also feared that the stretch in our lines at that distance might prevent us from getting a good hook-set. Some of the fish we caught had the hook pull out as we netted them and others were lost because the 7/0 kahle hooks did not penetrate into the hard mouths of the flatheads.
We decided to get closer to the channel by fishing the other bank of the bay. We had scouted the bank, but all the overgrown brush gave us no suitable spot to fight the big cats. We ate a meal at the marina and loaded our boats a bit early this night. We knew we had a job clearing a spot to fish. We arrived at a level spot on the bank and tied off our boats. We spent two hours with loping shears and a machete removing enough willows briars and weeds to give us ample room to fight the big flatheads. When we were satisfied, we sat down for a cold drink and a well deserved break. Don seemed pleased with our new spot as he sipped his drink and sweat poured off his face.
We unloaded our gear and ran the big flathead baits to our designated targets. I dropped two lines to the left for Don. Both 7/0 kahle hooks with a 6-inch goldfish hooked through the tail. We knew from experience that the goldfish would struggle all night, calling big flatheads from a long distance with their vibrations.
I took my two lines to the left. The first had a 7-inch goldfish and the second was baited with a bluegill about 9 inches long. The bluegill line ran along the bank, which made it easier for me to drop the bait in the middle of a bay to the left of our spot.
I returned to our new spot and put the remaining bait into a live basket. Don and I checked our reels’ drags, made sure they were in gear with the clickers on and extended the big dip net. We stood the dip net nearby for convenient use–hoping it would be necessary. Don unfolded his lawn chair and I opened us a cold beverage. Don sat in his chair and I used the cooler as a seat. We watched the sunset as the last boaters of the day made their way to shore. As darkness fell our anticipation grew. The night is the time of big flatheads. They leave the spots they have rested in during daylight to prowl the darkness in search of unwary fish. They cruise slowly with all their senses alert for a meal that might include any fish small enough to fit into their cavernous mouths. The darkness allows them to swim slowly through the water and be undetected by their prey until they are close enough to engulf, crush and swallow them.
As we talked quietly, we heard the clicker of Don’s Okuma reel click a few times. Since it had been set out for a few hours now we both new this meant a flathead was cruising near enough to his goldfish to make it want to move. As he knelt down near the rod I looked in the area behind him to make sure there was nothing he might trip over if he had to back up to get a good hook-set.
Don waited for the bait to move while I quietly moved the cooler out of his way. The reel clicked some steady clicks. Don picked up the rod and took the clicker off. He held his thumb gently on the spool to feel the fish run. I felt my belt to remind me I had a small flashlight available in case it was needed.
As the fish began a steady run, Don leaned forward and pushed the lever drag into gear. As the line came taut, he leaned back with a hard grunt and crossed the eyes of a big flathead. He gained a little line before the big catfish came to life and decided to pull some line of its own. Don jammed the rod butt into his stomach and held on with both hands as the flathead stripped line. As soon as it would quit stripping line against the drag he would begin reeling it to us. Slowly the flathead began losing strength and inches of line would be gained.
The fight of that big flathead reminded me of trying to reel in a 50-pound pit bull with a rod and reel. The flathead displayed no jumps or fast swings, just brute power in the tug-of-war. Don’s rod had a big arc and every once in a while it would dip a few times as the fish swung its huge head. Finally Don said, “Got her comin’ my way now Pallee!” I got the big net straightened out and into position. The water was shallow in front of us so the last few feet of the battle left the back of the big cat exposed. As I netted it, the clicker on my Penn 309 started clicking.
Don shouted, “Something’s after your bluegill!” As I held the flathead’s mouth open for him to remove the hook I said, “I think your fish might have scared that big bluegill.” Don started removing the hook and the Penn clicker sounded a steady scream. I left Don to deal with his flathead and ran to my rod. The fast run continued so I set the Penn in gear and hauled back. I felt the solid feel of a good fish arc the rod. I turned the handle to gain line from the hook-set and discovered that I hadn’t disengaged the clicker. I flipped the clicker off and began trying to gain line on the fish. I asked Don, “Are you finished with that net?” Don was slipping a rope on his flathead and I could feel his grin as he responded, “Yea, did you want it for something?” I said, “Well, I might want to use it in a few minutes.” I gained line quickly. The fish was in deep water and probably felt confident it could handle himself well. The line brought him to our side of the small bay and now he was in the shallow water along the bank. He swam into some willow limbs from a tree overhanging the bank. I was worried that the flathead might tangle the line in the limbs and break the line or tear the hook out. My worries were short-lived as he thrashed and tore off to deeper water.
Don had tied his fish to his boat and was now beside me with the net. He said, “Looks like we should have trimmed a couple more limbs.” I told him the flathead was tiring and I thought he was about ready to net. He laid the big dip net in the water and I led the catfish into it. We grabbed the hoop of the net and dragged the fish onto land. As I removed the Kahle from the cat’s mouth, I was glad that our buddy Hans had suggested we bend down the barbs of our hooks to make them easier to remove. I roped the flathead to my boat and sat down next to Don. Don’s parents were coming to see him in the morning so we figured we would take the fish back to camp, instead of weighing and releasing them on-site. We spent the rest of the night discussing the easiest way to get them to camp while causing the least stress to the fish.
The next day Don’s parents arrived and watched as we weighed and released the big cats. This was the first time they had seen the trophy catfish live and they were impressed as Don’s fish pulled the scales to 43 pounds. The big female was evidently healthy and strong. My fish was a long male, but not as skinny as most, and pulled the scales to 47 pounds. After weighing and a few pictures we released the pair to swim away. We knew they would spawn and provide others with opportunities to fight their offspring. We also knew they would grow and we would have the opportunity to catch them again–when they were even bigger!