Spotlight on catfish / Increase the odds of catching big flatheads by intentionally targeting them

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In mid-May, Emily Adair of Ingram learned to trust in the old angler's adage -- to get the fish to bite say, "OK, last cast." ■ Moments before packing up and leaving a spot on the Allegheny River in Allegheny County, she hooked into a flathead catfish weighing nearly 40 pounds. ■ "That was my first catfish ever, and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do with my arms," she said. "It was about a 10-minute fight. The guys kept saying, 'One more picture,' and I said, 'I don't know if I can hold it up anymore.' "

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Adair was fishing with her Strip District restaurateur friends -- Luke Wholey of Wild Alaskan Grille and Nick Colangelo of Colangelo's -- whose routine Monday passion is Allegheny River fishing for big, big fish. Those trips target muskies, northern pike and giant shovel heads.

"It's amazing what's in these rivers," said Wholey, while night fishing recently on the Allegheny in Armstrong County. "Some of these fish are giant."

Flatheads topping 40 inches are not uncommon in Pennsylvania. The state record is 48 pounds, 6 ounces. Native to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage, flatheads are perhaps the perfect Western Pennsylvania fish -- 15 million-year-old fossils from the Miocene Epoch are indistinguishable from modern flathead catfish.

In addition to its big flat head -- wide, depressed and shaped like a shovel -- the fish has an olive skin and square, slightly indented tail. Channel cats generally have slate-colored skin and a deeply forked tail; brown bullheads average 12 to 15 inches.

Flatheads prefer deep, sluggish pools with submerged structure in large rivers, streams and lakes. Using very large live baits, heavy tackle and tactics tailored for big fish, Wholey and Colangelo have released five flatheads over 20 pounds in 2014.

"If you target them specifically, you can get much higher numbers," said Colangelo. "We like to increase our percentages as much as possible."

Shovel heads tend to hold deep in daylight and hunt after dark. A flathead night-fishing trip on the river with Wholey and Colangelo starts on a creek in the early afternoon with hours of strenuous seining for live bait. The bigger the better.

"Chicken livers, blood baits, stink baits work well for smaller channel cats, but they aren't going to be as effective on the larger flatheads," said Wholey.

"By having a live bait that's more than 6 inches long you're going to decrease your chances of [accidentally] catching bass, hybrid striped bass, walleye," said Colangelo. "We've used creek chubs and suckers as big as 18 inches. Best bet is probably a 10-inch sucker. You can't find them in bait shops that big, and if you do they're extremely expensive."

Medium-heavy and heavy weight spinning and bait casting rods -- one or two per angler -- are spooled with 30- to 50-pound line. Wholey rigged up with a bead above an 8-inch wire leader and 3/0 to 8/0 octopus hook (depending on bait size), and weighed it down with a 3- to 6-ounce slip sinker. He pulled an 8-inch sucker from a water-filled aerated cooler, hooked it through the lips and nose and dropped the rig straight down off industrial structure in about 10 feet, 20 feet from shore.

"Bait fish relate closely to structure," said Wholey. "You want your bait to hang right off the wall so it looks natural."

When the strike occurs it can be quick and savage.

"Pound for pound, once catfish get really big they can be some of the most voracious predators in the water," said Colangelo. "They have the weight that makes them probably the toughest-fighting fish that you're going to catch out of these fresh waters."

When a yard-long flathead opens its bucket mouth, it practically inhales its prey.

"Usually, they don't partially bite your bait. Their mouths are so big, most of the time they engulf the whole bait at once," said Wholey. "They're moving fast and when they open their mouths it creates a suction that pulls the bait in."

When a fish takes the bait in that manner, firmly setting the hook can take practice.

"Generally you want the drag set loosely," said Wholey. "When the line starts paying out, point your rod at the fish and let him run with it for a moment before setting the hook. Only set the hook right away if the fish is moving straight away from you. That's the key -- when anything hits, you want to position yourself so you get behind the fish so you can set the hook and it hits him right in the corner of the mouth."

Anglers who understand catfish will get a chance at cash prizes in the Field & Stream Catfish Classic, Aug. 2. Registration and weigh-in will be at the Monaca boat launch. The tournament benefits Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Fishing boundaries extend throughout the Ohio River and its tributaries.

"Catfishing is my No. 1 passion," said tournament organizer Ben Sladick of the Field & Stream store in Cranberry. "One key thing is going to be location. In daylight they're going to be down deep in a hole, hanging out where a tributary comes in, or at lock and dam areas if you can get close enough in tailrace areas."

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Tournament details at 724-601-4167.

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