Keith Sutton: The big ugly

"Don't judge folks by appearances alone," my mother used to say. Such is my advice to anyone getting acquainted with the flathead catfish.

The flathead is a brute of a fish, muscular and stream-lined, but ugly by all accepted standards. Viewed head-on, it looks like it was pulled through an old-style washer machine wringer and then run through a trash compactor. The beady eyes are wide-set on the flattened cranium. Its thickened under-lip protrudes in a perpetual pout, worm-like barbels dangle from its chin and mouth, and its hide is the color and texture of a garden slug.

Looking at this fish, one feels instinctively that even others of its kind would find it repulsive. Such may be the case, for flatheads are inveterate loners.

An old river rat I knew dubbed the flathead "The Big Ugly."

"Ugly as 40 miles of bad road, they are," he told me once while skinning a 60-pounder hanging from a hay hook tied to a tree limb. "But there ain't a fish made that'll give you the rush you feel when a flathead's on your line. Comparin' 'em with fiddlers [channel catfish] is like comparing chihuahuas and pit bulldogs. They may be kin folks, but there ain't a fiddler swimmin' could hold a candle to an ornery ol' flathead when it comes to fightin'. Big Ugly is one tough customer."

They are not a visible lot, but many anglers, like my old river-rat friend, are smitten with a passion for flathead fishing. Walk into a bait shop beside prime flathead waters, and you will see their faded photos tacked to the walls and doors, photos of leathery men grinning and grunting as they strain to hoist a 40-, 50- or 60-pound flat up before the camera, white-knuckled hands gripping the gill plates.

Were you to talk with the fishermen in those photos, they would tell you in their own words that flatheads possess an intrinsic mesmerism. Catch one, regardless of the method—on rod-and-reel, a trotline, a limbline or yanked from an underwater hidey-hole with your bare hands—and you become, forevermore, a flathead fan.

Today, in a time when more and more anglers are seeking greater thrills and bigger fish, the old-time catters are being joined by increasing numbers of fishermen who also seek the flathead. After decades of being overlooked, the flathead is now "in."

Certainly, part of the flathead's appeal stems from its immense size. Ten-, 20-, even 30-pounders are common, and although the all-tackle world-record from Elk City Reservoir in Kansas stands at 123 pounds, flatheads exceeding 139 pounds have been caught in recent times. In the fresh waters of North America, they are exceeded in size only by paddlefish, blue cats, white sturgeons and alligator gars.

Flatheads are widespread, too, another factor heightening their popularity. They inhabit waters from Minnesota south into Alabama, Texas and Mexico, and east to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They also have been introduced in many waters west of the Rocky Mountains. Because they are common and widely distributed, flatheads offer freshwater anglers their best chance at catching a really big fish.

Best of all, the flathead catfish is an incomparable fighter. It is a bullish battler, long on sullen anger and short on hysteria. When one takes your bait, you may first think you have snagged a sunken log. But bury the hook and it will turn in a flash into a carbon copy of Mike Tyson reducing an underling to a spot of grease on the canvas. The unprepared angler may see his rod snapped in two like a strand of dry spaghetti, or stand in amazement after his favorite fishing combo has been yanked from his hands and deep-sixed.

Real leviathans, incomparable brawlers, widespread, abundant, good eating: flatheads, it seems, have all the qualities of a great sportfish.

Problem is, catching flatheads—big flatheads, at least—isn't an everyday thing, even for those intimately familiar with their day-to-day habits. As one avid flathead angler so aptly put it, "Fishin' for big flatheads is like trophy muskie fishing, only lonelier." You may spend hundreds of fishless hours trying to pinpoint a single trophy fish. And as the hours pass, the doubts begin to grow, and you start wondering if it's really worth the bother.

That's why many anglers give up flathead fishing even before they've landed their first big fish: they don't have enough patience. And without patience, you don't stand a chance.

When you finally do land your first big flathead, you can take great pride in the fact that you've managed to triumph over one of freshwater fishing's finest trophies. Catch your second, third, and fourth big flathead, and you enter a class of elite anglers. Only a handful of fishermen can catch the big ones consistently.

Ugly? No doubt about it. The flathead catfish is ugly to the bone, and no judging committee of a beauty contest would hesitate a moment before it.

Nevertheless, the flathead is widespread, abundant, excellent eating and one of the biggest, hardest-fighting, most challenging-to-catch fishes swimming in freshwater. Find a fish with these qualities, and who cares if it's ugly?

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com