The Muskingum River is home to some of the best angling opportunities in the state for flathead catfish. Also referred to as “shovelhead”, “yellow cat”, and “mud cat”, these whiskered giants are prized as Ohio’s largest sportfish. The “Musk” has the reputation of holding some of the largest and most abundant population of flatheads in the state. Ohio’s reigning state record flathead catfish tipped the scales at 76.5 pounds and was caught in Clendening Lake in Harrison County. The current IGFA All-Tackle World Record comes from Texas and weighed over 91 pounds. In Ohio and much of the Midwest they are considered the principle big game fish of large rivers and many reservoirs.
Flatheads are fast growing fish growing at an average of four inches per year. They prefer structure such as woody debris piles, large boulders and rip-rap. Studies have shown they have strong homing instincts. They move very little during the day and associate closely with cover in deeper channels only to move out after dark to feed in nearby habitats such as shallow flats. A recent sportfish survey conducted by the ODNR, Division of Wildlife on the Muskingum River showed the majority of fish sampled were between 10 and 39 inches long with the largest weighing over forty pounds.
A variety of angling techniques including “tight-line” and float fishing can be used to land flatheads. Heavy tackle is a necessity when seeking these heavy weights. Add in some current and heavy cover and you’re asking for equipment failure for anything less than heavy freshwater gear. Most anglers choose at least a 7 ½ foot very stiff heavy- weight rod and a matching bait casting reel. Twenty to thirty pound test monofilament line will work in most situations.
Flatheads prefer live bait. Five to eight inch live sunfish, suckers, gizzard shad and skipjack herring are preferred baits on the river. Goldfish are also used when “wild caught” bait are in short supply. Use a Circle hook or other “bait type” hook in the 4/0 to 5/0 size range. Live bait can be presented with the hook placed through the lips or some anglers prefer hooking through the muscle on the back just between the tail and the dorsal fin. If you are fishing the bottom of the river or in current, use a two or three ounce “slip sinker” or “barrel sinker”. Place a heavy split shot sinker on the line one to two feet up from the hook to allow the live bait to swim freely and create a natural presentation. Large floats can also be used to present live bait and are especially effective when fishing around structure in calm pools, backwaters and confluences.
Flatheads are sought out by anglers due to their excellent sporting qualities - the opportunity to catch exceptionally large and aggressive fish. They are also prized by many anglers for their desirable taste and texture of their flesh which some anglers claim that the flavor of their meat improves with size. Ohio currently has a statewide bag limit for flatheads where anglers are permitted to harvest only one fish per day 35 inches and larger. There is no bag limit for fish caught less than 35 inches.
The Muskingum River’s long pools and tailwater habitat associated with ten locks and dams have created ideal habitat for flatheads and offer excellent angling opportunities. The Muskingum is navigable by boat from Marietta to Ellis Lock and Dam which is the next and final dam upstream from Zanesville. The locks and dams are owned and operated by the ODNR, Division of Parks and Recreation, Muskingum River Parkway. For more information about the Muskingum River Parkway, you can contact the park office at 740-453-4377 for dates and hours of operation as well as river and lock conditions. Information is also available on the Ohio DNR web site at www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/773/default.aspx. The Muskingum River is also a designated “Water Trail”.