The Fabulous Flatcats of Vernon County

By Ted Peck - October 1, 2009
Every serious angler has a favorite fish which they pursue with some degree of passion. Many chase Wisconsin's state fish: the muskie. DNR surveys indicate the walleye is our most popular gamefish. Some find happiness in a nice stringer of panfish.

Bass are a favorite target in this part of the state, but don't cause much of a stir in the northcountry. Smallmouth bass are generally considered more worthy adversaries than largemouth bass. Although these two species are both members of the sunfish family, they are entirely different critters.

The same dichotomy is clear in catfish. Channel cats are more abundant. They tend to run smaller than flathead catfish and will eat just about anything. Flatheads are more selective. They are carnivores. The alpha predator of flowing waters.

Although my favorite fish is whatever happens to be on the other end of my line a tremendous amount of effort goes into chasing smallmouth bass and walleyes. Both species are active in October. But given the choice I'll chase those ugly old flatcats every time. Flatties are the closest thing we have to Great White sharks in the Midwest. The theme from "Jaws" plays in my head when one of these powerful fish announces combat with deliberate, steady clicking on a baitcast reel. The whiskerfish may be four pounds or 40. You never know until you set the hook. But either way you're in for a helluva fight.

Rock River down in Illinois has perhaps the biggest concentration of huge flatheads per surface acre of any river in the Midwest. Flatties which are now swimming in our neck of the Rock were transplanted here from the Sterling-Rock Falls run of Rock River about a dozen years ago. Some of the fish now swimming in Koshkonong are close to 20 pounds. Mere kids compared to the 40-50 pounders which call Illynesian waters home. The Mississippi River has more fish of these dimensions. Old Man River coughed up the state record of 74 lbs, 6 ozs for River Rat Stan Hackensack back in 2001. Hackensack's fish came from pool 9, downstream from the dam at Genoa. Although the Mississippi River has bigger cats and more of them, the density per surface acre is less than found in the lower Rock-except during the month of October.

At least half of the clients I will guide over there this month want to chase flatties. So far this season only one flatcat has topped the 20 pound mark. But fish 10-15 pounds find a bluegill struggling on a hook near the bottom on almost every trip.

Wisconsin's VHS rules have put a considerable cramp in flathead fishing on the Mississippi the past several years. There are stringent controls on livebait use. You can't bring livebait to the River or take it home when heading back east.

The first hour of a flathead trip is spent doodling around deadfalls with a small pinch of nightcrawler looking for 3-5 inch bluegills. When a dozen are in the baitwell it is time to tussle with the flathead king. A #1 salt water hook is the weapon of choice. Salt water hooks have a little more beef to them than standard steel. Bluegills are impaled just behind the dorsal fin then lowered to the bottom in deeper river holes with assistance of a one ounce sinker on a Wolf River rig. A baitcast reel with a "clicker" spooled with at least 30 lb. FireLine and a stout rod complete the weapons package.

Fishing is a simple matter of drifting through the holes with the bait directly under the boat. When a flatcat ghosts up to the sacrificial bluegill, the bait responds with frantic attempts to flee. When the rod tip stops bouncing, the baitcast reels starts to click accompanied by the "Jaws" theme playing in my head. I usually follow the unsuspecting flattie for several minutes before demanding a dance, using the trolling motor to get directly over the fish before setting the hook. With feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, gears on the baitcast reel are engaged, followed by two fast, hard hooksets. You can tell it's a big-un when the fish pulls back with more vigor than you gave her with the hookset. The next five to 15 minutes will provide an epiphany on why you love to fish so much, often followed by reassessment of your personal favorite fish.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.