Now's the time for the St. Joe's big flathead catfish

Capt. Todd Brill shows the hybrid hook he often uses when targeting big flathead catfish on the St. Joe River.

Three things a lot of folks might not realize about the local fishing scene:

First, the St. Joesph River offers terrific opportunities to catch big flathead catfish.

Second, flatheads put up an incredible fight when hooked.

Third, late August through the end of September is one of the best times of the year to catch them.

Those facts, along with specific advice on how to catch these fish, were part of a presentation Capt. Todd Brill made Thursday night to about 20 members of the Southwest Michigan Steelheaders at the club’s regular monthly meeting at the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Elks Lodge.

Brill, who makes a living mostly by chasing salmon and trout on Lake Michigan, revealed his growing passion for chasing the big cats on the river—and his initial reluctance to impart his knowledge of how to catch them to a group of anglers.

“Flatheads aren’t stocked and it’s best if we release all the big ones,” Brill told his attentive audience.

Brill said he started fishing for flatheads five years ago and started taking some of his big lake and river steelhead clients after them just three years ago. This season he also competed in a couple of Michigan Catfish Anglers Trail (MCATS) tournaments on the river, 12-hour affairs that start in the evening at 7 p.m. and end the next day at 7 a.m.

He noted that MCATS events are also strictly catch-and-release, with big-time emphasis on care of the fish until they get weighed and released. Brill told how he puts a horse trough with aerators and lights aboard his pontoon boat he uses for river steelhead.

Much of Brill’s presentation addressed specific gear to wrestle these fish, which can grow to 50-plus pounds in Michigan, into the boat.

“When I first started I used rods and reels with 20-pound test line,” Brill said, “I soon found out I was severely outgunned.”

Now he uses heavy-action rods specifically designed for catfish, reels spooled with 80-pound test braided line, terminating with a 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader. He is a fan of 5/0 Whisker Seeker Triple Threat Hooks, a hybrid design that combines a circle hook with a J hook. Like a circle hook, it can set itself in the corner of a catfish’s mouth; like a J hook, anglers can rare back and set if they wish and still sink the hook point in the catfish’s lip.

Brill said that unlike channel catfish (also abundant in the St. Joe), flatheads don’t readily take stink baits or dead bait.

“Flatheads are predators and hunt live baitfish,” Brill said. Favorite baits are live bluegills, legal to use if they are caught in the same water where they are used. He said 8-inch bluegills help target big fish.

During daylight hours, the flatheads hang in deeper water and move up to hunt the shallows as the sun sets.

“Flatheads are always on the move, hunting,” Brill said. “it’s usually best to stay in one spot with your boat and let the fish find your bait.”

He noted the sport is not for the angler who likes his line stretched constantly. “A good night is three catfish over 20 pounds,” Brill said.

He also said that flatheads sometimes do take dead bait, such as fillets of sucker meat, if a rattle is attached. He said the small rattles sometimes also help catfish find live bait.

He noted that he’s caught some individual flatheads more than once — as many as a dozen times.

“That’s because I release them,” he said.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com