American River Monsters: Flathead Catfish on the Fly

My name is Andy Howard and I live in eastern North Carolina. I am an avid fly fisherman with a passion for a lot of the overlooked fish species found in the southeast. Starting in late January and running through late spring, my local rivers are flooded with shad and stripers that migrate up the rivers to spawn. At that time of the year, those are my target species. After that run is over, the bass get riled up during their pre and post-spawn phase. I target them specifically for 3-4 weeks, and again in the fall and early winter months.

Flathead Catfish on the Fly

By early June the rivers are running significantly lower than the rest of the year. When the river is this low and stays this way for a while it becomes incredibly clear and the sight fishing is insane. This summer has been one of the wettest ones in my memory and the river was the third-highest ever recorded last month, peaking at around 19,000 CFS. It was completely flooded. One of my favorite species to target specifically is the longnose gar and I had been doing so for a little while before the flood and more after it.


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On Tuesday, July 7th, the river finally dropped to the usual level of this time of year, and the lowest level I have fished it this year. The river level read at right around 200 CFS. The forecast called for rain at 3 in the afternoon and said it would continue for the next 4 or 5 days. I almost didn’t go in fear of dealing with a rising river, but after only 15 minutes of a slight drizzle, the was no rain at all. I called up my buddy, and after grabbing some tacos, headed out to target gar. The part of the river we fished was pretty close to the dam and has tons of really big boulders with relatively deep holes surrounding them. Because of this I am not able to boulder hop and wade this section during any other time of the year due to the very fast water and depth. It is an excellent spot for really big gar and bowfin, and a very visual one as well.

My buddy was in front of me and reached the pool we had in mind first, and yelled that there were 4 or 5 GIANT CATFISH. I didn’t realize how big he meant until I caught up with him and looked where he was pointing. These absolute giants were congregated and slowly cruising around at the top of the hole, and we both started freaking out. I had broken my 9wt earlier in the week and was using my 8wt with a slightly sinking tip. I tied on an EP brush fiber & deer hair gamechanger fly I tied the night before. I cast to the closest fish and just hovered it in front of its face, with a few short and abrupt strips. I immediately froze for a moment as I saw its mouth open and engulf the fly. The fish kind of turned in confusion for a slight second and shot downstream as it realized it was hooked.

Flathead Catfish on the Fly

I held on to my rod and barreled downstream after it, tearing my legs up in the process. I knew this was the biggest catfish I’d ever hooked and my mind was just racing. The pools are closely connected and are very deep so I had to plan on where to step accordingly. This didn’t really work out as I fell many times just to keep up with this fish, but I didn’t care. It seriously felt like I had hooked into a truck, and I was the one being controlled. I get crap constantly from my buddy’s because I use straight 35-pound mono as my short leader (for toothy gar and bowfin) but I was glad I didn’t have anything less than it on. I truly did not think I was going to land this fish because for every inch I got on him, he took back two feet or more. At the bottom of the third or fourth massive pool, the catfish realized it couldn’t go any further downstream as the river started to shallow up, and decided it was heading back upstream. I obliged. After a fight close to 45 minutes, and when fish was finally growing tired I managed to guide it into one of the open rock crevice areas where I felt I could most safely unhook it and admire it.

My buddy Eli snapped some pics and, worn out, we just stared at it in disbelief. I have caught a good number of catfish but this was by far the biggest I had ever landed, as well as my first flathead. I honestly think it was a perfect storm of having the flood the month prior, the low water levels, the insane clarity, the low pressure of the next 4/5 days of rain coming in, and luck. I let the fish go and watched as it swam off. I sat and just caught my breath in my slightly delirious post-fish state. After about 15 minutes or so I threw again at the remaining group of flatheads who were seemingly unfazed by all of this commotion. And it happened again.

Flathead Catfish on the Fly

This one gave a pretty similar fight and after landing it I continued to be both exhausted and dumbfounded. This flathead was even bigger than the first and was more of the yellowish color I’ve seen flatheads in pictures have opposed to the jet black first one. I did catch a few bowfins after both of my catfish but my mind wasn’t all there. I had caught by far my biggest and second-biggest catfish ever. The bowfin, which I would’ve been ecstatic with any other day, just didn’t compare after all of that. That is my first experience with flatheads, and only the second time I’ve ever seen one. I hope I get to wrangle with them again, but honestly, I’m content knowing I will probably never catch another that size.

Photos and story courtesy of Andy Howard, @andy.724 on Instagram!

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