Species Spotlight: Flathead catfish

Flatheads are among the biggest cats that swim in North American waters

The flathead catfish, Pylodictus olivaris, is one of the Big Three species of catfish that lurk in many American waterways. Along with the Arkansas blue and the channel catfish, flatheads are highly prized by anglers.

Flatheads grow quite large, rivaled only by blues. True to its name, this fish has a very flat head. If you were to make an artificial flathead using a pile of junk, the head of a shovel lying upside-down, flat on the ground, would make the perfect head. The mouth of this fish resemble the rear drop-down door of a large cargo plane.

The flathead is native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, but they have been introduced to many other areas. It is highly adaptable to a wide range of waters and can live in very harsh conditions in terms of water quality.

Flathead catfish are highly skilled hunters. They begin their lives eating small crayfish, freshwater shrimp and tiny fish. As they grow, their appetites get bigger, and their ability to eat larger prey does, too. The bigger a flathead gets, the bigger the prey it can eat. One of its favorite foods is sunfish: bluegills, shellcrackers and redbreasts. But they also eat plenty of bass and other catfish.

Drayden Lacoste and his grandfather, Gerard Mayon, caught this 25-pound flathead catfish and 24 blue cats on jug lines in Morgan City, La.

When it comes to diet, flatheads are not picky. However, they do prefer live prey over already dead fish. Unlike other catfish species, flatheads will ignore decaying fish and will hold out for quite some time, searching for live prey even when plenty of dead fish are around.

Predator damage

In states where flatheads have been introduced, fisheries biologists believe they have played a big role in eliminating some prominent native fish. White catfish, along with yellow and brown bullheads — smaller catfish species  — have virtually disappeared in almost every state where flatheads have been introduced by anglers, Redbreast sunfish have also seen huge decreases in their numbers, due in large part to the introduction of flatheads.

Flatheads spawn around hollowed-out logs, undercut banks and any debris they can find. The males make nests that can range widely in depth. Females lay between 4,000 and 10,000 eggs at a time. Males aerate the eggs with tail movements and guard them from predators. Once the eggs hatch, the males continue guarding them until they have consumed their own yolk sacs. After that, the juvenile fish disperse.

Flatheads usually begin spawning between the age of 4 and 5 years. Their average life expectancy in the wild is about 20 years.

Flatheads are among the most solitary of fish, preferring to find a protected spot and hunker down, only mingling with others for the purpose of spawning. Anglers targeting flatheads look for sunken debris fields, undercut banks and partially-submerged timber.

Flatheads are identified by the fish’s olive color, non-forked tail and flat head. These characteristics distinguish them from other catfish. However, some inexperienced anglers often mistake them for blues and/or channels.

(Photo courtesy SCDNR)

Nicknames

Flatheads have many nicknames across the country, including: yellow cat, Johnnie cat, pie, pied cat, shovel head, flattop, Opelousous catfish (and Op, for short), Mississippi cat, mud cat, and flatty. In Louisiana, they are often referred to as goujon, tabby and tabby cat.

When it comes to table fare, most anglers agree that flatheads taste better than other catfish. Some anglers believe this is because of its insistence on eating only fresh, live food.

The world-record flathead weighed 123 pounds, 9 ounces and was caught in Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. Other, considerably larger flatheads have been caught by commercial fishermen and were not eligible for world records.

Mississippi’s record flathead weighed 77.7 pounds. Matt Bingham of Memphis, Tenn., caught it from the Mississippi River in April 2012.

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