Published June 19, 2010, 10:00 PM

Flathead catfish: They only come out at night

So hard was the deluge, so persistent the downpour, that a couple of flathead catfish fanatics almost pulled the plug on a long-planned river excursion. And when it comes to flathead catfish, it takes something pretty serious to keep these guys off the water.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

CARVER COUNTY, Minn. — The pouring rain that ushered in this Friday morning in early June didn’t bode well for spending a night camping and fishing along the Minnesota River.

So hard was the deluge, so persistent the downpour, that a couple of flathead catfish fanatics almost pulled the plug on a long-planned river excursion. And when it comes to flathead catfish, it takes something pretty serious to keep these guys off the water.

Once or twice a summer, usually in June, Ron Nelson, Don Dittberner and Kenny Nyquist will go through the effort of loading a small boat with camping gear and firewood and fishing equipment. They’ll navigate logjams and whirlpools and head for a favorite shore fishing spot a few miles upstream on the Minnesota River. They’ll make camp on a wide bend in the river that looks like something straight from the pages of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” bait up with live bullheads, prop the fishing rods into holders stuck in the river mud and they’ll wait.

All night.

To pass the time, they’ll build a fire, swap stories and wait for a clicker on one of the reels to start screaming as a behemoth somewhere down there in the murky depths tears into a nighttime bullhead snack and peels off line.

When it comes to flathead catfish, nighttime is the right time.

“They’re definitely nocturnal,” said Nelson, 42, of Eden Prairie, Minn. “You’ll get one here and there during the day, but it’s pretty rare.”

No wonder, then, that the anglers who fish flatheads frequently call themselves zombies. There’ll be plenty of time to sleep come daybreak.

Flathead addicts

Co-workers at the outdoors publication Outdoor News, Nelson and Dittberner, 39, of Elk River, Minn., caught the flathead bug about a half-dozen years ago, when a friend and longtime fanatic turned them on to this particular spot on the river.

“They don’t get much respect around here until someone catches one,” Nelson said. “Then, the addiction kicks in.

“For being 30 miles from downtown (Minneapolis), it’s pretty cool.”

Dittberner uses the rods he bought several years ago for muskie fishing. That was before he discovered the power of the flathead.

“I turned them into cat rods,” he said. “I’ve got about 30 muskie baits, and I never go.”

The best time to fish, they say, is early June, before the flatheads have spawned and when they’re intent on crushing just about anything that gets in their way. Nelson’s biggest flathead weighed more than 40 pounds, and Dittberner last June released a 48-inch river monster that would have weighed more than 52 pounds, based on length-girth estimates.

That explains why these guys spool their reels with 80-pound Power Pro braided line.

“It’s just a different fight — they take some wicked runs,” Nelson said. “There are times you think your rod is going to snap — or fly out of your hands.”

Flatheads 101

Bigger, meaner cousins of the channel catfish that inhabit the Red River, flathead catfish are aptly named for the large, flat heads that seem to take up half their body.

The Red River doesn’t have flathead catfish, but the Minnesota River is full of the whiskered brutes. Also known as “mud cats” in some circles, flathead catfish make channel cats looks like creatures of beauty, by comparison.

For flathead aficionados such as Nelson, it’s definitely one of those “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” things.

“They’re a very interesting and cool fish,” he said.

Because of their predatory nature, flathead catfish favor live bait, where channel cats are more apt to hit cut bait. Dittberner says he prefers live bullheads, which are legal bait in Minnesota and available commercially, because they’re hardier than sucker minnows.

Minnesota’s state record flathead, caught in 1970 on the St. Croix River, tipped the scales at 70 pounds. But it’s the Minnesota River in recent years that has gained a reputation for producing not only size, but decent numbers of catfish.

Nelson said they’ve had nights when they landed a dozen fish. There’ll be the occasional 7- or 8-pounder, he said, but most of the flatheads will weigh 15 pounds or more.

Weather break

As if by magic, the morning downpour that threatened to drown the fishing trip subsided and the skies brightened. By the time

Dittberner and a flathead catfish newbie from Grand Forks met at Nelson’s home shortly before 1 p.m., harmless-looking clouds dominated the afternoon sky. The sun even peeked out occasionally, sending the humidity to uncomfortable levels.

It felt like catfish weather, if there is such a thing.

Hauling all of the gear and several large chunks of firewood to camp in a lightweight, 14-foot aluminum boat took two trips and a couple of close calls, but Nelson and Dittberner had everything set up and lines in the water shortly after 4 p.m.

Nyquist, of Wyoming, Minn., would arrive later that evening after work.

“You can see why we only do this once or twice a year,” Dittberner said. “It’s a lot of work.”

As expected, the remaining daylight hours were a waiting game. We passed the time enjoying our surroundings from a panoramic campsite high above the river. A pheasant rooster cackled in the distance, a cardinal warbled its melody somewhere back in the thick mass of cottonwood trees and a rambunctious family of young raccoons were mildly obnoxious, at times, during the night.

Mercifully, a stiff breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay.

First flathead

There were a couple of missed opportunities early in the evening, but the screaming reel clicker that broke the silence shortly after 9:30 p.m. sent the newbie scrambling down the bank for a shot at battling his first flathead.

The fish didn’t disappoint as it peeled line from the reel on a strong initial run. Time stands still when playing big fish, but after an impressive battle, the fish was beached and quickly released after a few photos.

It measured a hair less than 36 inches. Nelson was right: flathead catfish are addicting.

The action wasn’t fast, but there’d be a flathead on the line every two or three hours throughout the night. Nelson finally connected at 2:30 a.m. after missing a couple of earlier strikes, landing a 33-incher that felt even larger at the end of the line.

“Those things are so much fun,” Nelson said. “It felt good to finally catch one again.”

Dittberner landed the largest flathead of the night shortly before 5 a.m., a rotund 37-incher that hit hard enough to catch everyone’s attention.

“You watch the way that fish hit, and I’m glad I’m not that bullhead,” Nelson quipped.

Darkness had given way to daybreak, and blackening clouds suggested imminent rain when Nelson landed the last fish at 5:30 a.m.

It would be a favorable ending to a trip that appeared to be in jeopardy less than 24 hours earlier.

“Above-average fish, below-average numbers” is how Nelson described our night on the river.

The rain held off, but by the time four bedraggled fishermen — or zombies, in the flathead vernacular — had broken camp and returned to the boat ramp filled with memories and reeking of campfire smoke, the first claps of thunder rumbled on the horizon.

It started raining later that morning and persisted throughout the afternoon. Within days, the Minnesota had risen 6 feet, a testimonial to the ever-changing nature of rivers.

“We got lucky with the weather,” Nelson said. The stars had aligned just right, even though no one could see them behind the clouds.

For zombies everywhere, nights like this are the stuff of dreams.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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