Flathead fever

Jeff Lampe

The spring peak is drawing to a close for most Illinois fish.

Crappie and bass have spawned. Channel catfish and bluegill are shallow and biting well despite the rain — but for how long? Hot weather is here, after all.

Despite the 90-degree days and humidity to come, the prime time to catch flathead catfish in Illinois is still ahead. While other species are backing off and recovering after the rigors of spawning, flatheads are just gearing up to hammer baits.

As if on cue, flatheads have re-emerged from the depths in the past few weeks. Earliest reports came in late May from the Kaskaskia River in southern Illinois. This past week flatheads showed up everywhere. A 50-pounder out of the Spoon River. A 53-pounder out of the Illinois River. A 46-pounder out of the Rock River.

The sudden flow of flatheads is no accident. As water temperatures rise above 65 degrees, the big catfish become much more active. This spring's unseasonably cool temperatures slowed the flathead bite a few weeks, but action should only improve through mid-July.

'They are moving out of wintering areas. Males are moving shallow and looking for spawning areas,' said Matt Jones, a Rock River guide based out of Prophetstown. 'And the big females will move up and start feeding to get ready for the spawn.'

As a result, now's a time when you can target these whiskered bottom dwellers. To find flatheads in June, guide Tim Scott of Bradford advises river anglers to target water that has current and drops quickly from shallows of 3-4 feet to deeper holes of 20 or more feet.

In early July, Scott said spawning fish will move to water 8-10 feet deep with isolated wood. After the spawn flatheads migrate back to deep drops.

'Focus on the upper third of a pool, from the dam to about 6 miles downstream,' Scott said. 'And move your baits. Don't just sit there.'

In lakes the focus is more on ledges, creek channels, drop-offs and mouths of bays. Another prime area is adjacent to the spawn beds of other fish species.

Unlike other large trophy gamefish in Illinois — most notably muskie and blue catfish — flatheads are widely distributed throughout the state. 'Everybody in Illinois has a body of water near them that has flatheads in it,' Jones said.

Prime waters for fish pushing 50 pounds in the Peoria area include Powerton Lake, Canton Lake, Lake Bloomington, the Spoon River and the Hennepin Canal.

Wherever you fish, live bait is a good choice to entice flatheads, which are predators and not scavengers.

While many flatheads are caught on hand-sized bluegill or crappie, Jones' top choice is live bullheads — the fish he caught his largest flathead on in August of 2005. Jones estimated that 51-inch fish at 77 pounds but let her go because she was short of the state record.

'She had already spawned,' Jones said. 'If I'd have caught her two weeks earlier, she would have been pushing 90 pounds.'

Scott favors cut bait, particularly cut mooneye, but also uses live bait 'as long as a 3-ounce sinker can hold it down.'

Sometimes that means extra time hunting for bait. The payoff can be worth the extra effort.

'You could catch a 6-pounder one minute, and the next could be 80. That's what makes it so exciting every time a pole goes over,' Jones said. 'I call them the freshwater freight train. They are just so powerful and they never quit.'

JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. He can be reached at or 686-3212.