Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Search Of "The Big Ugly"


I was an impressionable kid. Jaromir Jagr became my life-long, favorite hockey player after I read an article titled "The Kid From Kladno" in Sports Illustrated. I was probably no more than 11 or 12 years old. Around the same time, I read an article in the In-Fisherman magazine titled "The Big Ugly." There was a page-sized picture of a monster catfish, a flathead catfish. I don't remember anything else about that article except for that picture, but it didn't matter, I was hooked.

Flathead catfish, also known as flatties, shovelhead or mud cats are neither the smallest nor the largest species of catfish that swim in American waters, but I think they're the coolest. They are not native to New Jersey, and if you set aside recent "invasive species" warnings by the New Jersey Department of Fish, Game and Wildlife, they are not found in New Jersey at all. One must travel at least a few hours west or south to find any water that would give them a shot at catching one of these brutes.

I have only caught 3 flathead catfish in my life, but have spent more than a few hours fishing for them. All three fish came in the span of a few hours, after nightfall on the James River in Virginia. The largest was no more than 5 or 6 pounds, a far cry from the 120+ pound world record. I lost what was probably a 20 pound flathead that same night, and have been heartbroken ever since.

Although I have not caught many of these fish, I have learned a thing or two about them by reading about them, fishing for them and catching some of their smaller relatives, the channel catfish, here in New Jersey. The most important thing that I have learned, is that first and foremost, these catfish are nocturnal predators. That means, leave the chicken livers and the stink-baits at home. Although channel catfish and the big blue cats will readily take stink baits, cut baits and liver, flatheads prefer to hunt. Live fish such as gizzard shad, goldfish (yes, goldfish), chubs, bluegill and other sunfish have a better shot at hooking a flathead. The night that I caught a few of them, I had a dozen bites on the nightcrawlers that I was using, and nothing touched the dead, stinky stuff. Also, waiting until after nightfall is almost a must. I have caught channel cats during the day, and have seen shows where blues are taken during the day, but to up your chances of catching a flathead, you'd better wait 'til the sun goes down.

So, why am I telling you this? I have not been within 50 miles of flathead territory in over 3 years. In 3 days, I am leaving for West Virginia and will wet a few lines in primo waters such as the West Fork River and the Kanawha and Little Kanawha Rivers. Lindsay and I have some pretty cool stuff planned, hiking, camping, biking, visiting relatives, Mountaineer football and minor league baseball. There is a lot that I am looking forward to, but undoubtedly, when I think of my 10 day vacation, the first thing that comes to mind is fishing for flathead catfish.

I hope that everyone has a happy and safe Labor Day weekend.

I'll let y'all know how I did when I get back.

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