Strategies For Large And In-Charge Delaware River Flathead Catfish

Large flathead catfish make midsummer prime time for big battles on the Delaware River.

Flathead Catfish

Large flathead catfish make midsummer prime time for big battles on the Delaware River.

I can recall, almost to the day, when I became obsessed with catching catfish. These odd, whiskered bottom-dwellers didn’t appeal to many of my childhood friends, but they did to me. I’d already had some success catching bullheads and a few channel cats when I picked up the August 1991 issue of Field and Stream. There, on page 38, was a close-up of the mottled brown skin and massive gaping mouth of a flathead. I instantly became obsessed.

The article was written by Keith Sutton and titled, “The Big Ugly.” I’ve probably read it 40 times. The only problem was, at the time, there weren’t any of those fish in New Jersey. It took me over a decade to make my way South and, after a few failed attempts, catch one of these fish that swam through my dreams and nightmares. I started to catch a few flatheads when I made infrequent trips to Virginia and West Virginia, but these adventures were few and far between. However, over time, the flathead catfish found its way to me.

I vividly remember the moment I read that a flathead had been caught in New Jersey. The first two confirmed catches were in the Delaware River and D&R Canal, and they sounded some alarms. The flathead’s reputation for attaining a large size and eating everything in its way was certainly not welcomed in the Garden State. But, I guess that depends on who you asked.

Mike O’Donnell lifts a 39-pound flathead
Mike O’Donnell lifts a 39-pound flathead taken in Southeast Pennsylvania.
Photo by Chris Mcintee

Why and How?

Flathead catfish are not native to New Jersey; nor are they native to Eastern Pennsylvania and the Schuylkill River, where it is widely believed that they came from. How they got into the “Skuke” in such large numbers is not completely certain, but there has been a healthy population of reproducing fish there since the mid-90s. Flatheads are native to some Western Pennsylvania waters, but their presence in the Schuylkill is recent, and they are considered an invasive species.

Likewise, the flathead’s introduction into the Delaware River was unintentional. Their passage from the Schuylkill probably occurred sometime in the late 90s. In early 2000, New Jersey had its first confirmed catches. Although not abundant in the early 2000s, it became evident that the flatheads were growing in both numbers and size.

Mark Boriek, Principal Fisheries Biologist for NJ Fish and Wildlife, noted that three to four years ago, most catches were reported near Lambertville. However, in recent years, the water around Riegelsville has become the hotspot. Boriek also reported that flatheads have made their way to the Raritan River by using the D & R Canal. Furthermore, a confirmed catch of a juvenile flathead in the canal signaled that they are reproducing.

The flathead was immediately designated as an invasive species in the Delaware and all of New Jersey. Any fish caught should be eaten or destroyed, and not put back in the water. This rule continues to hold true today. Flathead catfish are voracious eaters and have been known to decimate populations of native fish in other parts of the country. Boriek noted that although no studies have been done on the flathead’s impact on native species, it is certainly a cause for concern.

daytime flathead
On rare occasions, flatheads can be caught during the day, but your best bet is to fish after dark.

A Catfish Like No Other

Flatheads differ from other species of catfish in two key ways, and being aware of these will ultimately determine your success at catching them. Although catfish are known to be nocturnal feeders, most people know it’s very possible to catch blue cats, channel cats and bullheads during the day. This does not apply to the flathead, so targeting them before nightfall will often be a waste of time. There are occasions when muddy water or extremely overcast days will have them active during daylight hours, but don’t ever count on it. If you are serious about catching flatheads, break out the headlamp and the bug spray.

Most species of catfish have the reputation for being scavengers. Stink bait is practically synonymous with fishing for channel cats and almost all blue-cat fishermen use fresh, cut baits such as shad or menhaden. But if flatheads are your game, the bait needs to be moving, and the more movement the better. Flatheads are predators and prefer to eat something that is alive. Small- to medium-sized sunfish are a choice bait, but be sure to check local fishing regulations.

Edward “Fasteddie” Payne is among a hardcore group of anglers who have dialed in Delaware flatheads.
Edward “Fasteddie” Payne is among a hardcore group of anglers who have dialed in Delaware flatheads.

In Search of Shoreline

The Delaware River presents obstacles for both shore anglers and boat anglers alike. Having a boat is useful for covering more water and being able to find deep pools or holes. However, almost every angler who regularly fishes the Delaware uses a jet drive. With water levels likely to be lower during the summer months, having a prop or lacking detailed knowledge of the river will make fishing difficult…and dangerous.

Most people who target flatheads in the Delaware River do so from shore, and this is where a little research can go a long way. It took me a while to find a solid stretch of shoreline to fish, but once I did, the hard part was done. Talking to local bait shop owners and taking short daytime hikes will pay dividends. If you have some time to scout spots, then do so. Google Maps can also reveal open stretches of the riverbank suitable for fishing.

And, pay attention to two things: location and depth. Although flatheads have been caught from the tidal part of the Delaware to the Water Gap and north, most reports come from Riegelsville to Lambertville. Depth is the second key factor, so fish adjacent to deeper water. (Some contour maps of the river can be found online.) You can also take a few casts with a small weight or depth sounder to figure out if you’re in 2 feet of water or 20.

Cat Attack

Tackle for catching flatheads need not be sophisticated or expensive, but it does have to meet a few basic requirements. Spinning or casting gear can be employed, with the latter being preferable. If you’re going to use spinning reels, a baitfeeder reel is preferable. You can also loosen the drag on a standard spinning reel to allow the flathead to run with the bait, but it can be tricky to get a solid hookset and tighten the drag with a fish on. If you’re using a casting reel, it should have a “clicker” on it for the same purpose.

Rigging For Angry Catfish

Flathead catfish rig

Line is another topic worth talking about. You can undoubtedly get away with 20- to 30-pound monofilament line, which will get the job done at a reasonable price. If you prefer braid for added strength and casting distance, there are a couple things to consider. First, lighter braid is more difficult to manage with heavier baits and tackle. And, should you happen to get a bird’s nest, picking 20- or 30-pound-test braid apart in the dark can be a nightmare. I recommend beefing up your line to 50-pound test, 65-pound test, or even heavier. If you are going to use braid as a mainline, add a length of heavier monofilament or fluorocarbon to protect against abrasion. Even the heaviest braid can be sliced like butter against a rock when under stress. Fluorocarbon is much more abrasion resistant than mono, and you can use between 20- and 30-pound test. Attach it to your mainline with an FG or Alberto knot so it slides easily through the guides. If using mono or fluoro line, you can skip this part.

The final step is your rig, which should consist of a sliding sinker, bead, heavy barrel swivel, strong leader and strong hook. First, slide your lead on the mainline (or the stretch of shock leader you’ve added if fishing with braid). Egg sinkers are traditionally used for slip-sinker rigs, but “no-roll” sinkers have become the go-to among the catfishing community. These flat sinkers will plant firmly on the river bottom and not move with the current. After the sinker, it’s beneficial to put on a small plastic bead to stop the sinker from pushing directly against the knot. The lead will weaken the line and knot after numerous casts and fish.

Flat “no-roll” sinkers
Flat, “no-roll” sinkers are a key tool for keeping your bait from getting carried downstream.

When I use slip sinkers, I prefer a very short leader. For catfish, I use less than a foot, and for carp I use as short as 5 or 6 inches. A big piece of bait and a heavy piece of lead with two feet of leader in between them can helicopter on the cast, costing you distance and causing potential tangling. A short leader will give you much better control of what your bait is doing at the bottom. Even with a taut line, a live bluegill is going to be able to swim naturally on a short leader, and you’ll also get a better hookset. And, if you think a flathead is going to be wary with its meal being so close to the hardware, I can assure you it isn’t a problem.

15 on “Strategies For Large And In-Charge Delaware River Flathead Catfish


    I am in southern Illinois I fish the Carlyle Lake in, Carlyle Illinois & I fish in the kaskaskia river some time late in the evenings I only fish for cat fish and would love to catch a big flat head some day that would make my day. so any where in a 60 miles from Centralia IL 62801 thats where you can find me some good fishing tips and days thank you ..

  2. John Pascoe

    I caught my first five pounder in New Hope in the mid 1990’s. Since then I’ve probably taken a few dozen from the New Hope area. It’s not like this fish has taken over and it’s a simple thing to catch one. Live bait is the best for Flathead as they rarely are caught on chunks. Last Saturday the conditions were perfect, (receding high water’s, greenish not chocolate milk). My first cast took a fish over 10 Lbs. We took seven in all that day. They school that much I’ve learned. And their better eating than their cousin the Channel Cat. White flaky meat. Just keep it iced like any fish you intend to eat. Never release them!!]

    john Pascoe
    New Hope

  3. Kyle McAllister

    I just caught a 26.5 pound flathead yesterday July 15 2018 under the 532 bridge in Washington crossing about 5 miles south of new hope! I new it was special but didn’t realize how special. Is there someone I should contact? Njdep? Email me if you’d like photos!

    1. hunt

      Wow, id love to see the photos. also where you fishing off shore or in a boat?

    2. Ronald R

      Hi Kyle my name is Ron and me and my son are trying to catch one. I know I’m responding to old post but am familiar with Washingtons crossing but haven’t tried yet. Any help would be appreciated so much. Thanks hope your havin great summer. Ron

    3. mike

      I’ve spent my life catching these big uglies, I’m 65yrs old. The biggest was 68 lbs in Black Cypress Bayou Tx. I’ve caught hundreds between the 40-50lbs. 95 percent of them were on limb lines, throw lines, drop lines, all were caught with hand size perch. All were caught at night, usually the wee hours of the morning. Best tasting fish in the world

  4. Joe Fish

    While Flathead catfish are certainly very active at night, the idea that they are difficult to catch during daylight hours is untrue. I regularly catch Flatheads all times of the day. You guys in NJ that are catching Flathead and Blue Catfish different places in the state OTHER THAN the Delaware River, go on Facebook; find a Catfish fishing group, especially NJ fishing groups; and post there exactly where you caught your Flathead or Blue Catfish, so others can enjoy that excitement as well. ALSO…any catfish over 15lbs., PLEASE release it back to the water. These larger catfish are breeders and releasing them will help the catfish population to increase!

  5. Joe

    Please do not release back into the water. They do not belong.
    I have already terminated over 50 fish this year up to and heavier than 40#. My buddies have killed scores of other fish. We are making a difference.

    1. Tony Magnelli

      I would discourage killing them they are a great game fish they will give you a greater fight than any fresh water fish.

  6. Don

    Please do not release back into the water. They do not belong.
    I have already terminated over 50 fish this year up to and heavier than 40#. My buddies have killed scores of other fish. We are making a difference.

  7. Bj

    Thank you for this information I will release them if they’re over 15 lb

    1. Moc

      If you are going for the big boys use live bait like sunnies or perch. If you want to keep catching use chicken livers.

  8. Randy Waters

    fishing a deep clear lake with plastic bottles/jugs. your contact info must be on bottles. you attach a 25 ft . 50 or 60 pound test mono as it is low cost with a large crimp on sinker say 1/2 ounce or more about a foot above a 5/0 circle hook. a large barrel swivel comes in handy if your jug gets hung up on a snag. catch and keep alive small brem- perch to bait with and toss out on large chunk rock banks in 20 to 25 ft of water.. pay attention to prevailing wind as jugs can be blown all over the lake during the night. stay with them and pick up and move those that that try to float away. attach a rod with a hook formed on one end to a post handle to pick up jugs with as you check them for fish. they may not move as flatheads often eat the bait and go head first under large rocks. you can see their tails sticking out if water is clear enough the next morning as you round up your jugs. cook at a slightly higher temp than other fish and know how to make good hushpuppies before you start. I favor less moon nights. check state size and quantity regulations.

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