Flathead Catfish (Pylodictus olivaris)


A common and large-growing species, the flathead is one of the ugliest members of the freshwater catfish clan. Nevertheless, large specimens are commonly caught, and the fish provides a good struggle on hook and line. It is important for both commercial and recreational use and produces good table fare when taken from clean environments.

Identification

The flathead catfish is distinctive in appearance and not easily confused with any other species. It has a squared, rather than a forked, tail, with a long body and a large flattened head. Medium to large specimens are rather pot-bellied and have wide heads and beady eyes.


With their distinctly flat-looking oval shape, the eyes accentuate the flatness of the head, and the lower jaw further accentuates this trait by protruding beyond the upper jaw. Compared to that of other catfish species, the anal fin of the flathead is short along its base, possessing 14 to 17 fin rays.

Flathead color varies greatly with environment, and sometimes within the same environment, but is generally mottled with varying shades of brown and yellow on the sides, tapering to a lighter or whitish mottling on the belly. As with other catfish, flatheads have heavy, sharp pectoral and dorsal spines, as well as long mouth barbels.

Size/Age

Flathead catfish are a large and fairly quick-growing species, especially in the southern and warmer parts of their range. Most anglers encounter flatheads weighing from several pounds to 10 or 15 pounds; fish up to 20 pounds are not uncommon, and fish to 50 pounds are a possibility in better waters.

Many of the state records for flatheads are in the 60- to 80-pound range, and the all-tackle world record, established in Kansas in 1998, is a 123-pounder. Flatheads do grow larger, however; Texas produced a 122-pounder caught on a trotline, and Arkansas has reported flatheads up to 139 pounds.

The upper limits Flatheads have been reported to attain 30 pounds at less than 10 years of age, and presumably the largest specimens are 20 to perhaps 30 years old, although there is scant information on their absolute longevity. A Texas flathead that was tagged at 1.76 pounds was recaptured many years later when it weighed 31 pounds; analysis showed it to be 12 years old.

Spawning behavior

Flathead catfish spawn in the spring or the early summer, when the water temperature is between 70° and 80°F. Nests are constructed by one or both parents, usually among crevices and in holes under logs and trees and in undercut banks. As with other catfish, secluded and dark places are often preferred, and there is often a log, a tree, or another object at the nest site. The male guards the eggs and aerates them and then guards the young until they disperse.

Food and feeding habits

Like its brethren, the flathead is omnivorous and opportunistic and consumes diverse and available foods. Flathead catfish are primarily but not exclusively bottom feeders and consume insects, crayfish, clams, and assorted small fish, including sunfish, shiners, and shad. Adults consume larger prey, including bullhead, gizzard shad, and carp, and, reportedly, some terrestrial animals that have the misfortune of finding themselves in the water.

Live fish are a popular bait for flatheads, more so than for other catfish species, as these fish are more reluctant to consume old and smelly bait. Although not exclusively nocturnal, flatheads are more active at night and may spend the day inactive in deep water or under cover. At night they may move shallower and feed at different levels.

Flatheads have been reported to attain 30 pounds at less than 10 years of age, and presumably the largest specimens are 20 to perhaps 30 years old, although there is scant information on their absolute longevity. A Texas flathead that was tagged at 1.76 pounds was recaptured many years later when it weighed 31 pounds; analysis showed it to be 12 years old.

Spawning behavior

Flathead catfish spawn in the spring or the early summer, when the water temperature is between 70° and 80°F. Nests are constructed by one or both parents, usually among crevices and in holes under logs and trees and in undercut banks. As with other catfish, secluded and dark places are often preferred, and there is often a log, a tree, or another object at the nest site. The male guards the eggs and aerates them and then guards the young until they disperse.

Food and feeding habits

Like its brethren, the flathead is omnivorous and opportunistic and consumes diverse and available foods. Flathead catfish are primarily but not exclusively bottom feeders and consume insects, crayfish, clams, and assorted small fish, including sunfish, shiners, and shad.

Adults consume larger prey, including bullhead, gizzard shad, and carp, and, reportedly, some terrestrial animals that have the misfortune of finding themselves in the water. Live fish are a popular bait for flatheads, more so than for other catfish species, as these fish are more reluctant to consume old and smelly bait. Although not exclusively nocturnal, flatheads are more active at night and may spend the day inactive in deep water or under cover. At night they may move shallower and feed at different levels.

Other Names

mud cat, muddy, shovel-head, shovelnose, yellow cat, appaloosa, goujon, johnnie cat, pied cat, Morgan cat.

Distribution

Flatheads are native to the lower Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins from southern North Dakota to western Pennsylvania and south to northern Mexico, reaching as far east as the western tip of the Florida Panhandle. They are widely dispersed within that range and have been transplanted successfully well beyond this.

Habitat

This species is primarily found in large bodies of water, especially reservoirs and their tributaries and big rivers and their tributaries. In rivers, they prefer deep pools where the water is slow, as well as depressions or holes, such as those that exist in eddies and adjacent to bridge pilings.

They are also commonly found in tailraces below dams. Their chosen habitat often has a hard bottom, sometimes mixed with driftwood or timber. In large reservoirs, they are usually found deep, often in old river beds, at the junction of submerged channels, and near the headwater tributary.
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