Flatheads: Big, good eating and challenge to anglers

catfishing LITTLE ROCK (AGFC) - Of the three species of catfish in Arkansas, the flathead may rank at the top, at least in fishermen's interest.

Flatheads aren't the most numerous. Channel catfish hold the lead there. Flatheads aren't the largest since the blue catfish state record is considerably heavier than the flathead record.

But flatheads are more difficult to catch, many anglers believe. Others like them for their table quality.

Like many Arkansas fish, flatheads are known by other names here and there - Opelousas cat, Appaloosa cat, yellow cat, shovelhead. Three distinguishing features are the head that gives the fish its name, a square instead of forked tail and a mottled yellowish-brown color in contrast to the bluish gray color of the blue catfish and the dark spots that denote the channel catfish.

Flatheads are native to Arkansas, primarily the larger river systems. Anglers in the state use three methods to catch them. One is with rod and reel or pole, and the advice is to use heavy line. A flathead of even modest size can put up a stiff battle when hooked. Trotline fishing and jug fishing are used also and so is snagging. The third method is one that eliminates many anglers right off the bat. This is hogging, meaning going after the fish with bare hands, or noodling, using bare hands and a snare underwater.

Most Arkansas flatheads are found in flowing water - but this is not an absolute. Lake Conway, for instance, has produced big flatheads for nearly 60 years. Flathead fishermen often look for submerged wood like logs and root wads as likely spots for their quarry. If these objects are close to flowing water, chances of finding a flathead may improve.

Flatheads also are usually taken on live bait - but, again, this is not always the case. Many anglers seeking flatheads bait up with small bream including "ricefield slicks," more formally known as green sunfish. Gizzard shad in bigger sizes are frequently used for flathead work.

Many flathead anglers follow the axiom of "big bait for big fish." Add hook to the suggestion. Use large, strong hooks for flatheads, and pick out a good-sized bream or a big shad for the bait. The weight should be heavy enough to get the bait and hook to the bottom of the water quickly.

Like other forms of catfishing, patience is an asset. Flatheads feed by both sight and smell, and fishermen usually toss out the baited hook, let it sink to the bottom and wait. Bobbers are used, and so is the tightlining method. When the line begins to move, the fisherman waits. Catfish of all species have a habit of moving off with the bait in their mouths for several feet, sometimes many feet, before stopping to swallow it.

The general rule is to let the fish take the bait with an open reel. Then when the movement stops, close the reel and set the hook - hard.

Daily limit for catfish set by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is 10. This is for any species or a combination of species. A few waters in the state have more generous daily limits but for channel and blue catfish, not flatheads.

The state record for flathead catfish is 80 pounds, set in 1989 with an Arkansas River fish by Wesley White of Hartford. World record is 123 pounds, set in Kansas in 1998.