Friday, June 22, 2012

CB Goes Flatheading

We got to the river's edge, armed with two rods, two chairs, bait, and some beers. It was around sunset. Sam and I walked into the river, looking more like we were going to a barbeque than going fishing. Opening our camp chairs up and setting them down in the gravel, we were glad the river was so low. About an inch clearance between our butts and the water.

Put a green sunfish on each hook and Sam showed me the casting technique for getting the bait where you want it without it flying off the hook. Once our bait was swimming around in the water, we sat down, cracked open some beers, and got down to business. Waiting for the fish.

I can only imagine what we looked like from shore, or from the bridge above us; two dudes relaxing in some foldout chairs who must have mistaken the river for the tailgate party parking lot. The water flowed around our ankles as we held the long white catfish rods in one hand and a beer in the other.

It didn't seem long at all before I felt something at the end of my line. This wasn't the greenie swimming around, this was a definite hit from something... A few seconds later my rod tip started to bend toward the horizontal, toward the fish that had taken my bait. I stood up, Sam stood up, and I prepared to set the hook... Just like I'd seen Jeremy Wade do so many times before when a giant catfish had taken his bait, just like Sam told me to do. When my rod was parallel to the water, I quickly cranked the reel and pulled up on the rod, setting the hook into the beast.

It knew immediately, and with the full force of every pound of its muscular body, it fought. Suddenly, it changed direction, coming directly toward us. Standing in water up to my ankles, I wondered if the fish was coming to ram me. Teach me a lesson. Get me off its property. Out of its territory.

Once it saw us, with a burst of energy its tail shot out of the water, slapping down, propelling its streamlined body away. Sam tried to grab the lip, but the fish had other ideas. After another short run, and a few tries, Sam grabbed the line and lipped the fish. He pulled out a beautiful creature, built like a tank and painted in camouflage: my first flathead catfish.

I tried to stiffle my giggling; after all, Sam is a serious river fisherman and this was a serious fish. No place for giggles, this was hardcore. Flatheads aren't messing around, they know what's up.

Sam grabbed some pliers and worked on removing the hook from the flathead's bony lip- I stood there like a little kid catching his first panfish, holding the rod, not sure what to do next, but excited.

Suddenly the catfish made its characteristic roll, getting free from Sam's grip and splashing back into the water. For a moment it just sat there, but when Sam reached down to grab it, it swam away like a torpedo. I watched the whole thing, standing motionless, in awe of the animal I had just seen.

He guessed it had been 23/24", an average specimen for the river. Average!? That was a BIG fish, wider, heavier, and longer than 99% of all the fish I catch. It could literally eat any of the 17 green sunfish I caught earlier in the day. It did, in fact, eat a green sunfish I caught earlier in the day.

I congratulated Sam on putting me on fish, he congratulated me on my first flathead, and we quickly re-hooked, re-baited, and re-cast the line. It was on.

I tried to focus, but was too excited by what had just transpired. The one that got away, but we certainly got a good look at it. We drank some more beers, utterred some more words of congratulations, and then 14 minutes later another THUMP on my line. A few seconds of nothing. Then another THUMP and my line took off.

My drag squeeled as the second monster of the night took off downstream; even in the dark we could see epic splashes coming out of the water. I gripped the rod as hard as I could, the powerful fish- definitely bigger than the first- using every ounce of its muscle to take my line and get away.

Then my line went slack, and I realized the fish was coming toward me. Ramming speed! Man your battle stations!

I adjusted my stance in the water to something I imagine baseball players doing before they get a pitch. A giant rock-colored fish-shaped pitch. I don't know much about baseball.

I quickly reeled in my line, trying to keep the tension on the aquatic rocket that was barreling toward me, against the current, perhaps aiming right for my knees where it could knock me down in the water. I realized my iphone was in my pocket and wondered why I hadn't brought a waterproof container for it.

And then the flathead saw us, and took off downstream once again. Every second I thought it was going to rip the rod right out of my hands, but somehow I managed to hold on for dear life. Every chance I got, I reeled in the slack line, keeping the pressure on my adversary.

Not so much adversary, more like sparring partner. To me "adversary" implies a lack of respect or contempt for the opponent; I have a huge amount of respect for this amazing fish, and certainly didn't want to hurt it. I simply wanted to spar a little, get our picture together, and put it on its merry way.

I got it close enough (read: the flathead decided to come closer to us) and Sam grabbed it. After a quick grab of the pliers, he held the most badass fish I've ever caught. We checked for tags and clipped adipose fins- the DNR in conjunction with the Fox Valley Flatheaders is doing a study of flathead catfish in the river- we got out the tape measure and it came in at 27". Not my longest or biggest fish, but without question the heaviest and beefiest, and certainly the most badass. This time Sam got a picture for me. (Sam also did a write up about the adventure on

What a fish. 27" Fox River flathead catfish
I held the muscular fish, admiring it's beautiful patterns. Up close it looked to me a lot like brown trout skin, although not quite as colorful. Just as striking though. A dark brown background with little black spots of varying sizes. I can only imagine how terrified a little sunfish would be if the rocks underneath him suddenly floated up, revealing a veritable river monster.

We released the fish, and what a fish it was. Once in the water, it didn't swim away. It calmly parked itself between Sam's feet in the water, as if to challenge us to a rematch. After a few moments, it swam away, probably giving us the finger.

Thanks to Sam for landing
and documenting this awesome fish
with some pictures
We didn't catch anymore flatheads, although Sam had a few hits and misses throughout the night. Waiting for the fish to bite we spent some time tag-team-hunting the bullfrogs that seemed to be everywhere. We both caught some, but we figured they were to scrawny to keep. For a moment we considered using one as flathead bait, as our supply was running low, but then reconsidered. Maybe next time.

We watched a wake circle the area in front of us that was almost certainly a flathead patrolling its spawning grounds. It was a big, calmly swimming fish near the surface, slowly cruising the waters in front of us. There were carp and some bass jumping, but this was a different kind of wake. A big badass of a fish looking for a meal, looking for a mate, or both. Maybe looking to pick a fight with us, sitting in camp chairs on the edge of its territory.

After we ran out of bait, we packed it up and waded to shore in the dark. Our butts soaking wet, beers empty, and big grins across both our faces, we headed down the dark path that lead to my car. An awesome experience to be sure; and an experience it was. A different, slower-paced style of fishing than I'm used to, but with a big payoff in the form of a giant apex predator. I can't help but respect this tank of a fish, the flathead catfish. If we ever met face to face I'm sure it would kick my ass.

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