Big Flatheads Small Baits

big flathead catfish baits

Small Baits Big Bites

There is a short time in the summer when big female flathead catfish prefer small meals. Exhausted from the spawn, big flatheads don’t feel up to chasing big bait fish, but more importantly due to the fact that big flatheads don’t eat while spawning their digestive system just isn’t ready for a big meal. Learn these big flathead tips and target those big female flatheads this summer.


Every angler has heard the old saying “big baits catch big fish” well there are times when smaller baits catch bigger fish and here is an example. This article is about big flathead catfish best baits. The flathead is a predator from birth. It’s this predatory instinct that enables the flathead catfish to know its limits of energy expended vs nutrition gained. I learned this while fly fishing in Alaska. An old-timer told me that the rainbow trout knows how much energy it will use to catch a certain meal. This is why you might think your fly is close enough, but the trout won’t even take a swipe. This is also true for other species and at certain times an easy meal means a smaller baitfish that might be a little easier for a sluggish flathead to catch.

Rambling Angler Store

Shop Catfish Gear


Flathead catfish begin their spawning activity when the water temperature climbs to around 70 degrees. During the spawn, like other species, the flathead catfish does not eat. The male creates the bed for the female to lay her eggs and will ferociously protect the bed from anything that comes near. This is why in the spring bass anglers catch so many catfish on a jig because the male is protecting the bed and/or eggs. This lack of feeding not only creates a hungry post-spawn flathead but also causes their digestive tract to shrink. 

This is a situation, like the early spring, when the flathead has been sitting in the cold water of winter. The flathead, being cold-blooded, doesn’t need as much food during the winter. This is why you can find them in wind-blown coves during early spring. Big flatheads cruise windblown coves in search of dead shad from the winter kill. Dead shad provide an easy meal while the flathead’s digestive tract gets back in order. Once the flathead’s energy levels are back up and their stomachs can handle larger prey they will begin to consume their preferred meal, live baitfish, and carp or suckers. There is another time that the flathead experiences a similar situation and that is the post-spawn.

It will take a week or so for the flathead to finish its spawning ritual. Like during those winter months their stomachs have shrunk and their energy levels have been depleted from the work involved during the spawn. It is during the spawn that flatheads can be very difficult to catch and you must hunt your body of water to locate some fish that are not on the bed. This is possible because flatheads don’t all spawn at the same time and there is always a section of the lake that will have either post-spawn or pre-spawn fish available.


Many anglers use large baitfish for big flatheads, but during this short post-spawn period smaller baits might work better. I am talking 1 to 2 inch shad as opposed to 4 to 6 inch shad or suckers we normally use. Those big post-spawn female flatheads are tired and lethargic when recovering from the spawn. These big flatheads are hungry but will not expend or do not have the energy to pursue large baitfish. Instinctively big flatheads won’t bother with larger baitfish, at this time, because the energy needed to catch them could do more harm than good. So she will just lazily swim around in search of an easier meal and that comes in smaller bait fish.

Flathead catfish is a true predator. It prefers to eat live fish over dead. But during the post-spawn period, the flathead will resort to eating dead fish until they have their energy levels up and their digestive tracks can handle the larger prey they so desire. This is when a smaller bait can get mean bigger bites. You can catch the males with any size bait during this time period because they are guarding the nest and/or eggs inside. Big female flatheads are so exhausted from the spawn they aren’t in any shape to chase their prey. They take what they can get and smaller baitfish, especially those that are dying, make for a great recovery meal.   

Most flathead anglers use large baitfish for big flatheads. But just after the spawn a smaller bait makes an easy meal for a recovering flathead.  A 1 to 2-inch shad or bluegill (where legal) works great. I always present it under a large bobber. This allows the bait to drift. I like the set-up. It allows the bait to be delivered to the catfish at eye level and the easiest meal possible. I set the depth on my slip-bobber so the hook and the bait is a foot off the bottom. This presentation will entice the spawned-out flathead to take the bait. She will swim lazily in the shallow water looking for an easy meal she can easily eat. The easy-to-eat baits make the best big flathead catfish baits during the post-spawn.


It’s important to understand your body of water. This will come with experience and you may never fully understand it all. As soon as you think you figured something out something will change your mind. The great thing about figuring out flatheads on your home waters is you can apply that knowledge to other lakes. Old-time fishermen can tell by the smell if flatheads are spawning in a particular cove. I’m far from this level of knowledge. Experiment and try new things to understand why something is working and why something else isn’t. During the flatheads spawn, try using half alive 2-inch shad and see if the action picks up.


Even though this article is about using small baits for flathead catfish, the flathead catfish tackle should be as heavy as any other time you fish for big flatheads. Here are a few ideas for good and durable catfish gear that I have used over the years.

Baitrunner Reels for Catfishing

There are a lot of baitrunner reels for catfishing on the market today. When I decided to get a baitrunner reel for my catfishing I’m not sure there was as many options as there are today. The baitrunner reel I bought might not be the least expensive of the baitrunners today but it has been a great reel. I suggest it first only because it is the reel I use and as for baitrunner reels for catfish it is the only reel I have ever owned. It is the Shimano Baitrunner 12000D . The Shimano, especially the saltwater model, is a lifelong reel that can handle a lot of abuse.

I want to explain the baitrunner reel for those that might be new to catfishing or just now heard about this type of reel. This particular reel is a spinning reel. Most baitrunner reels are spinning reels by name at least. Usually, a reel referred to as a baitrunner is a spinning reel. The baitrunner reels were developed mainly for saltwater use. However, the baitrunner reel has been adapted to catfishing very well. It is just a great reel for fishing for catfish especially when bank fishing.

There are a few baitrunner designs. The Shimano 12000D has a lever on the back of the reel that when set in the baitrunner mode, is a seperate drag system from the main reel. It allows you to set the back drag to coincide with the fish that you are fishing for. If you’re fishing for small channel catfish set it to a point of almost freewheeling. If you are fishing for big catfish like the flathead or blue catfish then you can set the tension tighter. This allows the catfish to move away with your bait without feeling tension that can cause them to drop the bait. The lever in the back, separate from the main drag is disengaged when the handle is turned. This dis-engagement is smooth. When the baitrunner drag lever is disengaged the main drag takes over instantly. It’s a great design that works great.

I have listed the Shimano reel below and I want to list a couple more models and brands to give you an option to purchase a less expensive reel. Check them out. A baitrunner reel is great for catfishing. It allows the catfish to pull line freely from the reel giving it time to swallow it. I especially like using baitrunner reels when catfishing from shore.

The Shimano Baitrunner D Spinning Reel

  • This classic live bait reel features a secondary drag system that allows free spooling with the bail closed 
  • Utilizes an oval oscillation gear that provides a consistent spool speed evenly laying line providing excellent casting and manageability
  • Better casting and line lay prevents wind knots and tangles; less friction on the line for longer casts
  • large and more comfortable grips; a higher max drag as well as a wider range of baitrunner settings to manage those big flathead catfish baits
  • Offers dyna-balance technology that eliminates wobble during the retrieve by counterbalancing the rotor to enhance sensitivity and smoothness while eliminating vibrations caused by the reel
  • Max drag: 20 lbs.

The PENN Fierce Baitrunner Reel

  • A balanced rotor gives smooth retrieves on big flathead catfish
  • 4+1 stainless steel bearing system
  • Metal body and side plate keep precise gear alignment under heavy loads
  • Instant anti-reverse bearing
  • HT-100 carbon fiber drag washers
  • Heavy-duty aluminum bail wire
  • Superline spool
  • Line capacity rings

The Okuma Avenger 

  • Multi-disc, oiled felt drag system
  • On/Off auto trip bait feeding system
  • 6BB + 1RB bearing drive system
  • 1 Quick-set anti-reverse roller bearing
  • Precision machine-cut brass pinion gear
  • On/Off auto trip bait feeding system
  • Made using the highest quality materials
  • Tested for reliability and quality
About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.