There are all kinds of fish finning around in our freshwater lakes and rivers. If I were among them, I’d want to be one with long whiskers, a fat belly, dapple olive skin and a head shaped like a gravel shovel.
Those are all distinctive characteristics of a flathead catfish with a serious weight problem, which is one more good reason to be one. These denizens of the deep eat like kings. They do it largely on a healthy diet of crawfish, bream, shad, crappie, bass, other catfish—or just about any other lively critter that happens to swim dangerously close when the dinner bell rings. Many anglers believe the flathead’s preference for live prey is the reason why it is the most highly prized of all catfishes when it comes to table fare.
The flathead catfish is recognized as one of the biggest freshwater fish in North America and is an apex predator wherever it swims. These piscatorial titans have intrigued anglers and inspired tales both tall and true since the dawn of fishing. Though the flathead lacks the storybook lore of the great white, it is widely known as the ultimate trophy among hardcore catfishers all across the South.
Native to many waters across Texas, flatheads do best in large river systems and major reservoirs that offer good habitat and plentiful forage to sustain their voracious appetites.
So, how big do they get?
The IGFA all tackle world record caught in 1998 from from Elk City Reservoir in Kansas weighed 123 pounds. The biggest one ever hauled in from Texas waters was a trotline brute from Lake Livingston weighing 114 pounds. The heaviest ever caught by rod and reel in Texas was a 98.5 pounder from Lake Palestine. Fish exceeding 50 pounds are registered as lake records at numerous other Texas impoundments.
While the flathead shares some of the traits seen in its more abundant cousins—the blue cat and channel cat—they also have some unique physical features that make them easily identifiable. The most striking are the flat, wide, shovel-shaped head and a wide mouth with a serious underbite. The fish also has a unique skin coloration that can range from a mottled olive, yellow or brown, thus earning it the nicknames yellow cat, opelousas cat or “op” for short.
The differences don’t end there. Although blues and channels are social butterflies that often roam in open water in large schools, the flathead is prone to lead a solitary lifestyle rather than running with a pack. That fact, coupled with its large size, raw power, love for fresh meat and affinity for thick, gnarly cover make it much more difficult to fool and even tougher to catch than much more abundant blue cats, especially on rod and reel.
“A big flathead is an entirely different animal from a blue cat and way more of a challenge to find and catch,” says Kris Bodine, a TPWD research scientist based the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center in Mountain Home. “It’s an apex predator, very territorial and will eat just about anything that swims. It takes more space to harbor these individuals and there are fewer of them out there.
They also like live bait. That’s why you hear about trotliners catching them so often, but not that many on rod and reel. Trotliners leave their lines out all night long. Most rod and reelers don’t have the patience to do that.”
That’s not to say rod and reelers haven’t caught some whopper flatheads in Texas. They have. But many of them have been caught by total accident. To wit:
The 98 1/2 pound state rod and reel record ate a live shiner that James Laster had placed on a crappie hook. Laster was probably crappie fishing at the time. Meanwhile, the 80.25 pound Richland Chambers lake record was caught on a flipping tube that A.J. Putejovosky was using to fish for bass.
I know of several other outsize flatheads caught on artificial lures that were obviously mistaken for something alive. Two of the biggest—a 98 pounder from Lake Lewisville and a 92 pounder from Toledo Bend—were fooled by jigging spoons.
As effective as trotlines are for catching flatheads, hand fishing (sometimes referred to as noodling or grappling) may be the most effective method of all. This is true, especially during late spring when the fish move to preferred areas to spawn.
Legalized in Texas during 2011, the practice involves reaching a bare or gloved hand into a hollow log, an under cut bank or boat ramp, rock hollow or any other cavity where the fish like to nest. The idea is to provoke the territorial flathead into eating your hand. Once that happens, a wild one-on-one battle begins.
TPWD launched an intensive study at Lake Palestine a few years back. Concerned that hand fishing pressure might disrupt the spawning cycles of too many fish and harm the flathead fishery. What they learned in the process is that the 26,000-acre East Texas reservoir supports a bountiful population of trophy flatheads (fish 30 inches or greater) and that hand fishing and other legal methods for taking them pose no threat to the fishery. If anything, the resource is way underutilized.
Bodine, who was the point man in the effort, says the recent study involved using new low frequency electrofishing gear to collect 255 flathead cats, about half of which were 30-52 inches long. The fish were tagged for easy identification and released. Anglers who re-caught one of the study fish during the following 12 months were offered a cash reward for reporting it.
Bodine said harvest data from the study indicated an annual harvest rate on flatheads of about three to four percent. Biologists also determined that Palestine boasts an outstanding flathead population estimated to be between 4,000-8,000 fish, which Bodine called “phenomenal.”
The biologist says plans are underway to begin using the same low frequency shocking techniques to sample flathead and other catfish populations on other lakes around the state. Once those studies get underway, he claims he won’t be shocked if multiple five star flathead populations are documented elsewhere.
“I have no doubts that there are other lakes out there that are as good or better than Palestine,” Bodine said. “The irony of it is that we historically haven’t had a lot of our anglers going after them.”
TPWD angler surveys shore up that statement. Surveys indicate that catfish rank second behind largemouth bass in terms of angler popularity statewide. However, only 12 percent of the anglers surveyed said they target flatheads. The most popular is channel cat with 51 percent, followed by blue cat, 35 percent.
“Generally speaking, our flathead catfish fisheries are probably one of the most underutilized fisheries we offer,” Bodine said. “A very small portion of our angling constituency actively pursue flatheads, despite having quality angling opportunities statewide. The flathead catfish is one of the biggest freshwater fish in North America. Fishing for flatheads is an excellent opportunity to catch some trophies. That is of course, if you’re up to the challenge.
“Catfish have become more and more popular with our anglers over the last several years, and we are putting more effort into learning more about our catfish populations we can better manage them to meet the needs of our anglers,” Bodine added. “We’ve launched the first catfish management plan, and our aim is build on that based on what our surveys have told us that our catfish anglers want. It’s a work in progress.”
• Lake Palestine
• Lake Tawakoni
• Toledo Bend Reservoir
• Lake Livingston
• Lake Lewisville
• Choke Canyon Reservoir
• Lake Wright Patman
• Lake Sam Rayburn
• Lake Ray
• Lake Arrowhead
• The Lower Guadalupe River
• Red River
• Sabine River
• Trinity River
—story by Matt Williams