Big Cats: Flathead Wrangling On The Delaware - The Fisherman

Big Cats: Flathead Wrangling On The Delaware

The author with a chunky flathead that he wrangled along the Delaware River one balmy summer evening.

An invasive species that fights hard and tastes great!

My interest in the invasive flathead started morning about 13 years ago while shad fishing along the Delaware. I remember it was late like around 11 a.m. or so, when these two scruffy guys approached me. They looked like they had been out partying all night. I asked them what they were up to.   “Looking for some places to nail a few flatheads,” they said.

“Flatheads,” I asked curiously, “In here?”

As I started to walk out of the river towards them, one guy pulled out his phone and proceeded to show me the monsters that they had caught the night before. I was absolutely shocked at how massive these fish were.  This more than piqued my interest and started my quest for Delaware River flatheads. I researched them and found out that they had been in the Delaware River for quite some time; actually the first recorded catch by NJ Fish & Wildlife of a flathead was back in 2008.

As the years passed, I only actually tried one time at night and then sort of let it go by the wayside. Until I caught my first one by accident about 4 years later while fishing dead eels for channel catfish early one morning. I remember the fight this fish put up like it was yesterday and when I finally was able to bring it to the surface, I realized this was definitely not a channel cat. I had just landed a first for me, a 12-pound flathead!

Years later, on a Facebook fishing group, I struck up a conversation with an interesting fella by the name of John Fasanello. “Flathead Johnny” as he’s known by on the river, has certainly caught more than his share of monster Delaware River flatheads for sure. He graciously invited me to run the river with him one night and to have a go at some flats and we`ve been good friends ever since. And let me tell you, Johnny knows where these fish lurk and how to catch them.

The author prefers Gamakatsu Big Cat Circle Hooks when rigging for flathead catfish.

Time To Fish

Flathead Johnny and I usually meet up a few times during the summer to chase flatheads, so I shot him a text to see if he was around and if he was up for an all-nighter flathead excursion. He told me he had scouted out an area about 2-1/2 miles or so, south of Riegelsville that looked very promising. So we made plans to meet up that upcoming Saturday evening around 7:30 to paddle down river in the kayaks to set up on the Pennsylvania side of the river for the night. Even at that hour, we figured we`d have enough daylight to pinpoint exactly where we wanted to go.

Now here is an interesting yet sort of bizarre fact about flatheads; in New Jersey you are required to kill the invasive flathead as is stated in the NJ Fish and Wildlife compendium, however, right across the river in Pennsylvania you are not required to kill it. For that matter, the flathead is considered a gamefish in Pennsy as they actually have a state record listed for this species. Which doesn`t make a lot sense since both states share the river. Kind of ironic right?

It was an ideal summer night in July, about 72 degrees with a very light breeze blowing off the river. The river depth where we had chosen to fish, was approximately 10 to 13 feet deep.  We beached the yaks and got set up for the night and had our lines in the river by 9 p.m. We used live sunnies and eels while we fished in about 12 feet of water.

Speaking of bait, live bait is the ticket when it comes to flathead fishing. While I have nailed a few on chunk bait, live bait always works out better. As for eels, John picked up about 20 pencil eels at a local shop earlier that afternoon. Pencil eels are about 10 inches long or so, and are extremely hardy and also a good way to pick up an occasional striper while night fishing on the Big D.

A spinning reel with a baitrunner feature will allow better mobility with your live baits while providing the time for a flathead to take the bait before locking up and letting the circle hook do its thing.

Fish On!

We hadn`t been fishing much more than an hour, when one of John`s bait-runner reels began to click as it started to burn some line from the reel. First flathead of the night had grabed the eel! John quickly picked up the pole as the flat ran out some more line, as the fish headed up river. Flathead Johnny clicked the bail and with a sweeping motion the circle hook found it`s mark, as he landed the first 23-pounder of the evening! When it comes to a flathead bite, they pretty much pick it up and just pull like hell. It`s usually not a tap-tap kind of bite for the most part; They just grab it and go.

By 1 a.m. or so, we had landed four really solid size flats, all over 20 pounds. We had a lull in the action the next hour and a half as we waited along the bank of the black river in the light of the lanterns.  John had mentioned earlier that, how on certain nights, he had caught some pretty big flats in the very early hours of the morning. “You never know when a few are going to move through the area” he said.

Then around 3 a.m. something happened. I had two live sunnies out on each rod when suddenly both set-ups got hit, with John grabbing one and I the other!  We had two flatheads on simultaneously, until John’s got off and he jumped down to the edge of the water to give me a hand as I tried to wrangle in my beast which I could tell was a really good fish.

Now, I have a really bad habit of leaving my drag cranked way too tight. And just when I thought I was gaining on this huge fish, about 15 feet from shore, he suddenly dove deep making the drag scream; I couldn`t believe he was pulling drag!! I fought the gallant fish for about 10 minutes, slowly working him towards the shoreline. Once in sight, Flathead Johnny reached in the water and grabbed the river monster by the mouth.  “Holy cow,” I thought, landing the largest freshwater fish in my lifetime, a 32.2-pound Delaware River flathead! And I was so thankful John was there, as I might have not landed it my fish-of-a-lifetime without his assist.

After taking a bunch of pictures, I returned the beast of a fish back into the dark depths of the Delaware.

“Flathead Johnny” Fasanello has caught a good number of monster Delaware River flatheads.

The Set-Ups

I use a Shimano 6000D Baitrunner spooled with 65-pound Power Pro braid. I have the reel paired with an Ugly Stick 6-foot, 6-inch heavy action rod. John on the other hand, uses an Okuma Avenger 6000 Baitrunner that he spools with 40-pound mono which he pairs with a 7-foot heavy action rod. I run the braid through a 2-ounce No-Roll sinker which generally works well, although it will depend on the depth that you are fishing. If you’re in a boat fishing in say 35 feet of water, you may very well need to use a 5-ounce sinker due to the current.

After I slide the sinker on, I then slide the braid through a fluorescent bead and tie on a high-strength swivel to the braid. The bead protects the sinker from sliding down to the swivel. Then I attach about a 20-inch piece of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader to the other end of the swivel. You don`t want to run straight braid (although I have) simply because if you get snagged, you may lose a ton of line not knowing where the line may finally break. Then I run the braid to a size 6/0 Gamakatsu Big Cat Circle Hook.

Something worth adding is that flatheads make superb table fare!  I have filleted a few flatheads and they are absolutely delicious.  With their finely textured flesh, I have steamed, pan-fried and grilled this delicious tasting fish on several occasions.   And they are an outstanding fish to smoke as well, as I have prepared them this way as well.

According to the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife, the flathead catfish is considered an invasive species capable of causing ecological damage by out-competing other recreationally important species for food and habitat.  A top level predators that may negatively impact the structure of indigenous and established fish populations, NJ Fish & Wildlife states ask anglers to kill flatheads “if encountered while fishing and are asked to submit specimen(s) to Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries personnel for verification.”

According to NJ state Fish Code the flathead is among several species considered to possess the potential for becoming a significant threat to indigenous animals, the environment, or public safety, which is why “Possession and/or release of live potentially dangerous fish species is prohibited and if these species are encountered while angling they must be destroyed.”

Fish and Wildlife’s fisheries biologists can be reached at 908-236-2118 for northern New Jersey, and at 609-259-6964 for southern New Jersey.

The flatheads have been documented being in the Delaware River for the last 15 years or so, and who knows how much longer they have been lurking in the river before that.  Yes it is indeed an invasive, river-eating machine; but they have become so established in the river, why not acknowledge them as a gamefish like other states? Like snakeheads, another invasive species, they are so over-established it doesn’t appear as if they’re ever going away at this point.

In my opinion, administering a regulation to “kill immediately” has no bearing on the impact of the population whatsoever. Like it or not, the fact is these controversial, invasive species of fish now inhabit New Jersey waterways throughout the state and they are likely here to stay. So, how about getting creative to make something positive out of this? How about NJ Fish and Wildlife`s statewide Snakehead or Flathead Tournament?

With the popularity of these two fish, you may indeed be surprised at the response.  This is indeed a very exciting fish to catch and I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to land a real river monster in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania region.



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