Fish Profile Flathead Catfish

The flathead catfish, whose scientific name is Pylodictis olivaris, is widely distributed in some parts of the United States and Mexico. The sole species in the genus Pylodictis, the flathead catfish is scientifically classified as follows:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Siluriformes

Family: Ictaluridae

Genus: Pylodictis

Species: olivaris

The flatheads are native to a wide area west of the Appalachian Mountains, covering large rivers of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio basins. Their distribution extends as far north as North Dakota, as far west as Arizona and south to the Gulf of Mexico, including the northeastern part of Mexico. They also occur naturally in the entire state of Texas and are heavily fished in Texas and in any area where they may be found.

The flatheads have also been introduced and are considered invasive in some areas. Since they were first found from the Blue Marsh Reservoir in 1997, introduced flatheads have also been found from Fairmont Dam to Plymouth Dam, Springton Reservoir and in the main stem of the Delaware River. It was also first reported in the Susquehanna from drainage in 1991 in Speedwell Forge Reservoir; and was first confirmed to be found in New Jersey waters in July 2004, specifically from the Delaware and Raritan Canal in Lambertville.

What does the flathead catfish look like?

Like all other catfish, the flatheads have a scale-less body and are mottled with brown and/or black. Their dorsal part and sides are usually colored yellow to light brown; while their belly is typically colored yellow or cream. Otherwise known as the yellow cat (because of their yellow color), opelousas, and shovelhead cat, the flathead catfish is large and has the usual whisker-like long barbels about the mouth, which give rise to the name “catfish.” They have a flattened head with an extremely large lower jaw. An interesting thing about the flathead’s appearance is that unlike the adult yellow cat, the young flathead is sometimes black until they reach the adult stage.

Habitat and biology of flathead catfish

The flatheads prefer to dwell in deep pools, lakes, reservoirs, and large slow-running rivers. They are usually found in deep sluggish pools, with logs and submerged debris cover which often gather at river bends. Nest cavities are dug into the bank where females can lay their eggs which may number up to 100,000 or an average of 2,640 eggs per kilogram of fish. Males are over-protective of the nests and their young and will fight for them with their life. The habitat of young flathead catfish includes rocky or sandy river runs and riffles. Like most catfish, the flatheads are benthic feeders that prefer feeding on live prey. They are carnivorous whose primary diet includes other fish, insects, annelid worms as well as crustaceans.

Interesting facts about the flathead catfish

The flatheads may grow up to 155 cm (61 inches) long and may weigh up to 56 kg (120 lbs.) The flathead that earned the world angling record caught in May 14, 1998 from Elk City Reservoir in Kansas, weighed 123 lbs. 9 oz. or 56 kg. The maximum lifespan recorded for flatheads is 20 years.

The flesh of the flatheads is considered to be the tastiest among the catfish species. They are popular among anglers who target them in various waterways such as small rivers, large rivers (like the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Colorado Rivers) and reservoirs. Fishing for flathead catfish typically occurs at night either from a boat or from shore. Flatheads generally prefer live baits like herring, shad, sunfish, suckers, carp, goldfish, drum and bullheads around 5 to 12 inches long. Because of their size, the flathead catfish are also popular subjects of public aquaria.

Ecological impacts of the flathead catfish

Introductions or invasions of flathead catfish in other states led to significant population declines of fish native to the area. In the Altamaha River, Georgia, flatheads eradicated bullhead catfish and caused the population of redbreast sunfish to drop by 80 percent. Flathead introduction in coastal rivers of North Carolina have caused the elimination of native catfish populations. They were also found to be voracious predators of crayfish and shad; and feared to cause heavy predation on crabs and young American eels.

Are flatheads safe to eat?

Flatheads are voracious predatory fish so they have the tendency to accumulate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and other environmental contaminants. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania therefore recommends that eating flathead catfish caught in the lower Schuylkill River should not exceed one meal a month. As for flatheads caught in other areas, further tissue sampling must be done to establish safety associated with consumption of flathead catfish.