Numerous studies have described riverine flathead catfish as relatively sedentary, some even concluding that an individual flathead might not stray far from a single logjam.
Research in Missouri paints a different picture that, if correct, shows flatheads are on the move to wintering areas right now.
Studies since the 1950s in several states have found flathead catfish exhibit limited movement.
In Mississippi, John Skains and Don Jackson found most flatheads moved 1 mile or less in the Big Black and Tallahatchie rivers.
In the Mississippi River, Larry Pugh and I found tagged catfish were recaptured within 4 miles of their tagging site, and most were within 0.6 miles of their original tagging location.
In Missouri streams, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Vince Travnicek documented limited movement of flatheads in the Missouri River and suggested that reach-specific harvest restrictions, such as a high length limit, might be effective at creating trophy flathead fisheries in some portions of a river while allowing more liberal harvest in adjacent segments.
But not all flathead catfish populations have been found to be sedentary. Travnicek noted that a few Missouri River flatheads move up tributary rivers.
In the Minnesota River, adult flatheads migrated as far as 65 miles from summer areas to specific overwintering pools, and then returned to their summer range in the spring.
Is this movement to a winter home an adaptation to survive the colder winters? Channel catfish in Wisconsin rivers also leave tributary rivers to overwinter in deep pools in the Mississippi River.
To better understand flathead catfish movement, University of Missouri researchers Jason Vokoun and Charlie Rabeni tracked adult flatheads in the Grand River (a Missouri River tributary) and Cuivre River (a Mississippi River tributary).
Fish were collected in June and July in these rivers and implanted with radio tags. The tagged fish ranged from 4 pounds to 47 pounds.
Fish were tracked approximately weekly for a year.
Flathead wintering in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers began moving upstream into the Grand and Cuivre rivers when water temperature reached 50 degrees. This prespawn/spawning movement involved both upstream and downstream movement, but the net movement was upstream.
After the spawn, some flatheads moved only short distances to their summer and fall homes; however, others returned to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
In late October, flatheads that spent late summer and early fall in the Grand and Cuivre returned to their wintering areas in the big rivers.
Unlike the prespawning upstream migration that included some downstream jaunts, the fall migration was an unswerving movement for the big rivers.
But there is one more twist to this flathead odyssey: Some Cuivre River flatheads did not migrate to the Mississippi but instead aggregated in deep pools in the Cuivre.
All fish again moved up their respective rivers the following spring.
So, do flatheads stay put or do they migrate? Good studies support limited movement of flathead catfish, and other equally good studies support migration.
The difference might be the proximity of the fish to the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. If that is the case, anglers fishing the lower reaches of Bayou Pierre, the Big Black River or the Yazoo River might want to plan their fishing strategy to intercept the shovelhead express headed for the Mississippi.
You might also want to be on the lookout for deep pools that can provide a winter home for these big, brown beauties.
What is clear to me is that reach-specific harvest restrictions intended to provide trophy flathead populations might not be effective in all streams and rivers.