I will readily admit to you that I do not get out on the water and do much field work anymore. There was a time in my career when that is mostly what I did, but now I spend most of my time at a desk in front of a computer screen, answering questions on the phone, e-mail and internet, doing a lot of “PR”, informing and educating, playing with some fisheries data, and oh yes, blogging! But, I did sneak out a couple weeks ago. Let me tell you about it.
Last year I told you about some flathead tagging we are doing at Branched Oak Reservoir. I went into detail there, so be sure to check it out, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/08/flathead-tagging/ . That project is ongoing, so I went out and helped another day. I was lucky, I picked the nicest day of the year to go do some field work–bluebird skies, light winds, and comfortable temperatures. And we collected A LOT of flatheads, one of their best days of sampling in two years! If I recall, we had a total of 50-some flatheads that we netted; fish that ranged from 4 inches to over 40 pounds. I would guess that we hauled over 500 pounds of flatheads into the boat; enough to make my arms sore!
That is the livewell full of “flatties” after shocking one station. For some reference, the biggest fish you see there was over 40 pounds! We shocked at least 4 fish that were that size on that day and I do not know how many 10-20-pound class fish we had. It was a bunch. Be sure to link to my blog post from last year for a complete explanation of the research that is being done on Branched Oak flatheads. That research is continuing and in fact will include some transmitters being implanted into some flatheads later this year. Now, let me tell you that the transmitters are going to be relatively small and will not allow months of tracking. There will be some useful habitat use information gathered from those transmittered fish, but we will also learn something about the effectiveness of our collection gear.
OK, I know all you flathead anglers are wondering. . . . We shocked a variety of areas all around Branched Oak. From what I saw on that day, the flatties were beginning to set up spawning territories. Those fish love to spawn in cavities or places where they have some overhead cover. Wherever there was some habitat like that, we shocked LOTS of flatheads. If you have spent any time at Branched Oak you will not have a hard time identifying those habitats–the ones with flooded trees were particularly full of flatheads. And, let me mention that the fish we sampled that day were not in deep water; they were tucked into overhead cover in 4-6-feet of water.
Flatheads can be very rough on each other during the spawn. The males establish and defend spawning territories and their “beds”. They wrestle with other males over those territories and then try to herd females onto their spawning beds. During the spawn it is not unusual to see bite marks on flatheads. Yes, you will see bite marks on 40-pound and larger fish! I did not see any of those battle scars on any of the fish we collected a couple of weeks ago, so I suspect at that time they were just starting to move into spawning habitats and getting ready to do their thing. By now those fish might be in the middle of the spawn.
When they are spawning, flatheads are not actively cruising and searching for prey. They can be caught during the spawn period, but success usually slows simply because the fish are not moving as much. A person can still catch flatheads while they are spawning by identifying likely spawning habitats and fishing right in those areas. In fact a “flipping” or “dabbling” presentation using a large rubber-legged bass jig with a gob of nightcrawlers can be an effective technique–flip and dabble the jig into cavities and under overhead cover that might be holding flatheads. Drop the jig in there, pause it for a few seconds, maybe give it a couple of hops, and if “Jaws” has not clamped onto it by that time, pull it out and flip it into the next likely-looking spot. That technique requires some stout tackle and relatively heavy line in order to haul those fish out of the tight spots in which they are sitting. As the spawn finishes up in late July and into August, the flatties will start roaming and looking for prey again and catch rates will improve.
For some reason the secretaries complained that I smelled like fish when I got back in the office that afternoon. What’s up with that? Any day I smell like fish has been a good day!