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Flathead fishing on the Fox

Dale Bowman holds 32-inch flathead catfish caught released June 29 Fox River western suburbs. | Special Sun-Times Media

Dale Bowman holds a 32-inch flathead catfish caught and released June 29 on the Fox River in the western suburbs. | Special to Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 9, 2012 6:23AM

It was hard to read Vince DiGioia’s face in the dark, even with flashes from storms to our south. But I think he was joking when he said, ‘‘You’re lucky we didn’t blindfold you.’’

Flathead fishermen live on sister planets to those of muskie fishermen and duck hunters, places I visit from time to time.

On June 29, I fished the Fox on an outing set up by Sam Bennett with Marty Jandura, the founder of Fox Valley Flatheaders, and DiGioia, the godfather of Fox River flathead fishing.

We began at 8 p.m. in the western suburbs. DiGioia’s Lowe 1760 CJ is tricked out with a jet-drive Mercury motor to handle shallower conditions and the addition of a rod-holder setup, a dual-anchor system he can operate solo, cup holders and a stereo.

It was a feeling-out process by them, so they began with a river basic: a bridge piling.

‘‘We are anchoring at the most obvious spot on the river,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘But it is a high-pressure spot for a reason.’’

For flatheaders, the Fox is an oddity. It is an urban river without classic deep holes. DiGioia focuses on the deeper, old river channel, especially since the 2008 flood blew out the log jams.

‘‘Put out a buffet and see what happens,’’ Bennett said.

The bait buffet included bluegills, green sunfish, bullheads and hybrid bluegills. Jandura set rods on the starboard, DiGioia on the port. That’s important because Jandura used J hooks, which require a hook set, while DiGioia used circle hooks, which don’t.

As darkness settled, we moved to less obvious spots, learned over years of compiling data.

Data sets Fox Valley Flatheaders apart. They approached the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in hopes of restricted harvest and asked about tagging fish. Instead, they were asked to compile logs. They are in their fourth year of logging flathead trips on the Fox.

It’s pretty fascinating. Through June, they had caught 39 flatheads on 101 trips totaling 406.75 hours in 2012. That’s one flathead per 10.43 hours. Average length was 25.9 inches.

Many fishermen lump catfish together, though flatheads and channel catfish aren’t in the same family. Most who fish channels are looking for harvest.

‘‘Guys who pursue blues and flatheads are trophy-fishing,’’ Jandura said.

I asked streams biologist Bob Rung if he thought flatheads needed restrictive harvests.

‘‘We are doing a study on that right now,’’ Rung said. ‘‘I honestly can’t say.

‘‘Channel-cat abundance is very high. We don’t see that kind of abundance [for flatheads], except possibly on the Rock and Mississippi rivers.’’

A hoop-net survey in June downstream on the Fox produced one flathead and 213 channel catfish.

‘‘I honestly think that is representative,’’ Rung said.

Our night was representative. As storms raged downstream, we fished in a steady rain. At 11:05, Jandura sensed a rod with a hybrid bluegill going and handed it to me.

At first, not much. Then the flathead saw the boat and surged off with that bulldog force flatheads have, wrapping the back anchor. Jandura freed that, and I took control, bringing it to the boat to be hand-landed.

There’s something intimate about hand-gripping a flathead’s lower jaw. After measuring and photos, I released it. With a powerful tail thrash, it went deep.

Two hours later, Jandura landed an 18-inch flathead.

The rain eased off after midnight, so we tried one last spot with no more. It was time.

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