Species Profile: Flathead Catfish

Facts About the Life and Behavior of Flathead Catfish

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Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS

A common and large-growing species, the flathead (Pylodictus olivaris) is one of the ugliest members of the freshwater catfish clan, but also one that is regularly caught in larger sizes and which provides a good struggle on hook and line. It is important both for commercial and recreational use and produces good table fare when taken from clean environments.

Widely dispersed through natural range and transplanting, flatheads are fairly quick-growing.

Most anglers encounter flatheads that range in size from several pounds to 10 or 15, with fish up to 20 pounds not uncommon, and specimens to 50 pounds a possibility in some of the better waters.

ID. The flathead catfish is distinctive in appearance and not easily confused with any other species. It has a squared, rather than forked, tail, with a long body and large flattened head. Mid to large specimens are rather pot-bellied, with wide heads and beady eyes. The eyes accentuate the flatness of the head with their distinctly flat-looking oval shape, and the lower jaw further accentuates it by protruding beyond the upper jaw. Compared to other catfish species the anal fin of the flathead is short along its base, with 14 to 17 fin rays.

Flathead color varies greatly with the 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 catfishes, flatheads have heavy, sharp pectoral and dorsal spines, as well as long mouth barbels.

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, and 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 locale often has a hard bottom and there may also be driftwood or timber in it. In large reservoirs, they are usually found deep, often in old river beds, at the junction of submerged channels, and near the headwater tributary. 

Food. 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 bullheads, 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 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.

Angling. Flatheads are popular with catfish anglers in large lakes and rivers and provide a strong and stubborn deep-digging fight.

Larger individuals take awhile to subdue and are pursued with heavy tackle, especially since they exist in snag-filled environs. Bottom fishing with some form of natural or prepared bait is widely practiced, although live baits are very popular, especially for larger specimens.