Flathead Catfish Behavior
April 29, 2014
One problem that confounds reservoir anglers is that there are too many acres of water and too few flatheads. Therefore, it is difficult to accurately find where they live and pattern flathead catfish behavior. In fact, one old hand at pursuing flatheads in the reservoirs across the southern plains once said that chasing his quarry was more arduous and mysterious than what the legendary muskie men of the north have endured. And folks who have pursued both of these beasts agree that the old angler's perspectives are on the mark.
What's more, most fishery biologists also are in the dark about the habits and habitats of reservoir flatheads. Once in a while, though, a biologist or two endeavors to become more enlightened. And as these biologists begin examining the ways of reservoir flatheads, some of them became acutely aware that they're dealing with a riverine creature out of its native element, which makes the flathead an even greater enigma.
In order to get a better grasp on how the flathead's transformation to a reservoir cat affected its nature, biologists ultimately concluded that they also have to identify the characteristics and mannerisms of the river cats.
So during the past 28 years, biologists have gradually ascertained a goodly number of facts and postulated some theories about reservoir and riverine flatheads. During the 1990s, anglers also have garnered bits of information and formulated opinions about the flathead's behavior in reservoirs and rivers.
Despite this progress, our understanding of the ways of the flathead remains murky at best, and some of it might be downright wrong. To remedy these woes, Larry Cofer, a regular contributor to In-Fisherman publications and fishery biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, opened several new vistas for catmen to examine and ponder.
In his story entitled "Tracking Flatheads," Cofer did a splendid job of distilling the telemetry research conducted by Rob Weller of Waycross, Georgia, and Jimmy Winter of Little Rock, Arkansas, at Buffalo Springs Lake, Texas. At the same time, Cofer explained how the methods of several savvy flathead anglers have melded with those of biologists.
The Home Range Conundrum
Weller and Winter's work, which was published in The North American Journal of Fisheries Management in November 2001, focused on tracking 29 flatheads, weighing from two pounds to 40 pounds, around Buffalo Spring's 235-acres of turbid water from June 25, 1993, to April 29, 1995. One of the major tenets of their study is that reservoir flatheads have a home range that is rather small, ranging from eight to 125 acres (or an average of 32 acres) in summer, when they're the most mobile.
This finding parallels the tracking studies of flatheads in the Mississippi River, where biologists determined that a flathead's home range encompassed about a half-mile. Similar studies were conducted, with similar results at Beaver Lake, Arkansas; Lake Carl Blackwell, Oklahoma; Big Black River, Mississippi; and Tallahatchie River, Mississippi. Except for a 1996 study about the flatheads of the Minnesota River, the theme about the flatheads' restricted home range has been a fashionable and reoccurring finding of biologists since 1974.
But the history of angling has shown that innumerable facts don't always make an immutable truth. Hence, before we accept the biologists' accounts about the home ranges of flatheads as gospel, exceptions to their observations should be noted. The observations of Tom Burns of Lawrence, Kansas, in particular, cast a spell of doubt upon scientific notions of flathead behavior.
Burns speaks from 60 years of witnessing the antics of the flatheads in the Kansas River. From 1931 until 1991, Burns was a year-round fishmonger, and his primary quarry was the flathead catfish, which he calls muddies. Burns also possessed a keen eye and sense for observing and interpreting much of the goings-on of the Kaw's many denizens. And in 60 years he saw a lot more than a pair of biologists can observe by employing ultrasonic transmitters and a host of other scientific devices on their research forays.
Here's a sample of what Burns witnessed: "Near the first of May, the Kaw begins to come alive with channel cats from the Missouri River. This is when the channel cat spawning migration begins, and these fish mingle along the way with the channel cats that resided in the river through the winter.
"Then as the channel cat spawn ends around mid-June, the muddie's ordeal begins. In many ways the muddies' migration is similar to that of the channel cat's, following virtually the same path and consuming about the same amount of time.
"Sometimes the muddie's migration is massive, even awe-inspiring. In June 1943, it was especially humongous; the Kaw was running nearly bankful and was chock-full of muddies. At one spot on the river, muddies could be seen rolling and wallowing on the surface as far as I could see.
"Then in June of 1954, I saw a school of muddies bigger than a football field. For a long spell, they lollygagged about, slowly rolling over and swimming around on top of a two-foot-deep sandbar, acting as if they were playing a game. And when a boat oar was put into the water, a muddy or two would take a swat at it, as if they wanted to knock it out of the water. All the while, the school was moseying upstream.
"When this school of muddies got to the upper end of the sandbar, reaching a big river hole, the configuration of the school changed. It was no longer the shape of a football field, but instead it became a long narrow line, about 18 to 30 inches wide, and the school began traveling at a rather fast clip. Often their dorsal fins protruded out of the water as they swam upstream, which was how I kept track of their whereabouts.
"On average, a school of migrating muddies travels about five miles a day. As they come upon spawning sites, some leave the school. During some Junes, the number of muddies I caught was almost breathtaking. For instance, I hauled 120 muddies over the gunnels of my boat from June 18 to 25, 1986."
Here's another phenomenon on the Kaw that contradicts the home-range theories: "If the river rises about six feet in mid-October," Burns said, "most of the muddies and many of the channel cats will migrate downstream to the Missouri River, and the Kaw will be nearly devoid of muddies for the entire winter."
According to Burns' calculations, some of these flatheads migrated more than 30 miles in June and October. In regard to the mobility of reservoir flatheads, there aren't any Tom Burns afloat to supply us with such graphic details that belie the studied facts gathered by the biologists. Nevertheless, anglers should approach the theories propounded by the biologists with a critical eye, seeking to find an exception to the rule.
What often separates the truly great angler from his run-of-the-mill brethren is that the great one seeks and ultimately finds exceptions to the accepted tenets. And in that vein, Burns added another element for anglers and biologists to ponder: Some of the flatheads that reside in Clinton Lake, Kansas, which impounded the Wakarusa River in 1977, likely are descendants of those flatheads that migrated out of the Missouri River and up the Kaw into the Wakarusa to spawn. Burns suspects that some of Clinton Lake's flatheads might contain the same genetic propensity to migrate that their ancestors from the Missouri River possessed.
Upon examining the divergent perspectives of Burns and the biologists, Leonard Jirak, a consummate fisheries biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Hartford, wrote, "It is important to note that the same fish behaves differently in different environments. What's more, the observations and memories of a fisherman, have much validity, but they have to be understood at a different level than the conclusions of a scientist who must use measurable data to validate his observations. We need to be careful how we use the data and observations to rebut some opinions."
Environment and Physiology
Despite his propensity to hold out-of-the-ordinary views, Burns agreed with Weller, Winter, and other biologists who say that flatheads prefer to abide upon "substrates with a hard bottom, such as gravel, rocks, and large boulders, during all seasons, and woody cover during all seasons except winter."
But Burns also was quick to register an exception to this premise, noting that his many wintertime spearing forays for flatheads on the Kansas River challenges the contention that flatheads shun woody coverts in the winter. The number of flatheads that Burns extracted from the sides of submerged logs boggles the mind, and he accomplished this task when the river ran so cold that shards of ice periodically interrupted his spearing — he even speared flatheads when a foot of ice covered the river.
Burns said that a lot of his fellow fishmongers assumed that the flathead's halibut-like physique predestined this species to spend all of its days torpidly dwelling on lake and river bottoms. In fact, a lot of folks still assume that is an essential element of the flathead's nature.
Of course, Burns' observations about the Kansas River flatheads migrating upstream with their dorsal fins protruding out of the water and frolicking on the surface on sandbars quickly dispels that notion. But in hopes of keeping his fellow fishmongers and competitors in the dark about the true nature of the Kaw's flatheads, Burns never uttered a word about that until he retired from the commercial fishing trade in 1991.
Soon after he retired, Burn described the flathead this way: "The muddies don't move about like those fast-paced blue cats do, but they are far from being the sedentary and solitary critters that a lot of biologists and the like proclaim them to be. If the muddies behaved like all those folks proclaimed, I wouldn't have caught many of them over the years."
After elaborating about the mobility of the flathead, Burns' discourse turned to an examination of the flathead's sedentary nature. He explained that they also spend a lot of time lying on the bottom, which is where he speared countless brutes in winters past.
As he expounded about why and where they lie, he spoke about their adaptive and chameleon characteristics. He noted that their colors changed in accordance with the topography of the waterway's bottom. For instance, when the flatheads dwell in the many sand-laden coverts of the Kansas River, they exhibit a yellow hue; then at rocky lairs, they look like a limestone boulder; and amongst some logs, they become loglike.
In addition to Burns' insights, the observations of In-Fisherman editor Steve Hoffman add another perspective about the slothful flathead's propensity to lie on the bottom. Here's what Hoffman has observed about the flatheads that resided in In-Fisherman's aquarium:
"If left undisturbed, I've never seen flatheads suspend in the tank when the lights are on. If we were adding or removing other fish, or otherwise disturbing the tank, flatheads would rise up off the bottom and swim quick laps.
"When the lights were out, though, flatheads frequently swam through the middle of the tank or even just beneath the surface. I didn't spend enough time watching to gauge how much time they spent at mid-depths, but it seemed common when they were ready to feed.
"It's also interesting that it took nearly an hour of darkness before they would rise off the bottom, but as soon as the lights were turned on, they dropped immediately to the bottom."
Biologists regularly note that cold water causes the home range of flatheads to diminish. Some biologists suspect that flatheads become virtually dormant and even bury themselves into the silt and mud on the bottom, which differs from the findings of Weller and Winter at Buffalo Springs, where they found "that hard substrates are important habitat" for flatheads during winter.
During the dead of winter at Buffalo Springs, the water temperature ranged from 40°F to 45°F, and the flatheads' home range during winter averaged about two acres. But one flathead's wanderings encompassed nearly 12 acres. Even though the winter range is considerably smaller than the average 32-acre range of summer, it's a long way from a state of dormancy. Moreover, Cofer surmises that the winter movements of Buffalo Springs flatheads are associated with feeding forays.
Biologist aren't the only folks who have a divergence of opinions about the behavior of wintertime flatheads. Anglers debate this subject, too. For instance, some anglers contend that the only way that a flathead can be had in the winter is to spear it as Burns did on the Kansas River or snag it as some fishermen do on the Mississippi River along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Tim Smith of Drumright, Oklahoma, is a member of this school of thought, and his insights on this matter revolve around his experiences at Keystone Lake, Oklahoma.
In March 2002, Smith expressed his opinions in two e-mail messages.
According to Smith, reservoir flatheads turn extremely lethargic and refuse to eat once the water temperatures drop below 58°F. But river and tailrace flatheads, Smith says, don't become inactive until the water temperature hits 50°F. And the only time that he has tangled with a flathead in water below 58°F is in a fast-moving tailrace area or by snagging one while drifting.
Smith, however, seems to be of two minds about this issue. In his second e-mail message, Smith wrote: "It's possible to catch them at 47°F and 48°F, but you gotta hit them in the head with the bait, and there's likely only gonna be one outta 50 at that degree. I can't really give any information on wintering holes as it's kinda against my principles on catfishing, as they're way too vulnerable at this time and once the information gets out they're easy to exploit and would create a massive decline in quality fish numbers."
Like Smith, a number of folks worry about predation on coldwater flatheads by snaggers and fishermen wielding spears. Therefore, some anglers are petitioning for a closed season on flatheads, running from October 31 to April 30.
But Ed Davis, a talented catman from Fayettville, North Carolina, disagees with the contention that flatheads can't be caught during coldwater periods. In winters past, when the water temperature hovered around 40°F in the waterways he fished, Davis enticed flatheads by employing squid. And he eventually grew so enthralled with catching coldwater flatheads that late fall, winter, and early spring became his favorite times of the year.
A mortal battle with ALS has ended Davis' pursuit of coldwater flatheads, but he would hate to have a law enacted that would prohibit other anglers from learning more about how to catch these grand fish in coldwater environs. Davis readily admits that a closed season would help protect flatheads from snaggers and spear wielders, which are tactics that Davis deplores, but he thinks that anglers are beginning to unlock new revelations about the ways of coldwater flatheads. And in his eyes a closed season would stymie the gradual unmasking of these secrets.
Robby Robinson, a savvy flathead angler from Ohio, has a different take than Smith and Davis on pursuing coldwater flatheads, which he explained in an e-mail in May 2002:
"Fishing for flatheads in cooler water is a low-percentage game. In this area few people do it and fewer are successful. Some older gentlemen have developed what seems to work the best.
"The shallow bays of lakes warm faster than the main lake. When temperatures are warm enough to bring the flatheads out of their dormant state, they head for the bays.
"The retired guys set up at bridges and most fish cut carp. The bridges are built at short spans so this is a bottleneck area leading into the bays. All of this fishing takes place during the day.
"This is the only time that cutbait works for flatheads here. My theory is that coldwater flatheads have gone months without eating. Their metabolism is slow, and they need something small and soft just to get their digestive system working again. I also have heard of early season flats being caught on worms or minnows. Again success rates are low even by flathead fishing standards. A few fish seem to get caught each year this way."
J.D. Bell of New Strawn, Kansas, and Tim Larson of Hartford, Kansas, have another perspective about coldwater flatheads that should expand the catman's horizons. Bell is a commercial fisherman who is contracted by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to remove buffalo and carp from John Redmond, Melvern, and Pomona lakes in eastern Kansas, and Larson periodically accompanies Bell on his netting rounds.
According to Larson, when he and Bell place the nets at the mouth of Turkey Creek in 20 to 30 feet of water at Melvern during November and December, they accidentally catch big flatheads, and as these flatheads are removed from the net and returned to the lake, some of them regurgitate freshly consumed 16- to 20-inch walleyes. And this occurs when the water temperature registers in the low 40s, proving that flatheads actively feed in cold water.
Larson doubts that flatheads in eastern Kansas reservoirs become dormant, but he notes that they aren't as rambunctious as they are in summer. Throughout winter, he and Bell have accidentally netted and then released scores of big flatheads in 14 feet of water in a submerged river channel bend at Redman and in 20 to 25 feet of water along the submerged 110-Mile Creek at Pomona. In order to catch them in a net, the flatheads have to be gamboling about.
In regard to the contention that reservoir cats shun silt for hard substrates during coldwater times, Larson noted that Redmond's main body is filled with silt, and the only rock is along the riprap of the dam. The spot where he and Bell netted all of the big flatheads in winters past lies a long way from the riprap, but it is the deepest area in the main body of the lake.
Only at Redmond, which has an average depth of only five feet, did Bell and Larson find flatheads abiding in the deepest spot in the lake. At Pomona and Melvern, they wintered in areas similar to those that Weller and Winter's telemetry studies revealed at Buffalo Springs. The deepest spot at Buffalo Springs measured 48 feet, and during winter, the flatheads milled around in 22 to 28 feet of water.
Leonard Jirak is the fisheries biologist who manages Melvern and Redmond lakes, as well as 18 other lakes in eastern Kansas. He has been managing a variety of Kansas waterways since 1973, and in the eyes of many Kansas anglers, Jirak is so talented at fisheries management that some anglers light-heartily proclaim that he walks on water. He also is an ardent flathead angler.
In a June 2002 e-mail, Jirak wrote about his philosophy of managing reservoir flatheads. According to Jirak, flatheads are well suited for reservoir life, and in fact, they can thrive in most Kansas waterways, which is witnessed by their immense size. In turbid lakes, such as Redmond's 9,600 acres or Cedar Valley Reservoir's 310 acres, Jirak strives to cultivate a large population of flatheads, noting that they are the only effective predator in these "roughfish-infested waters." Thus, flatheads can prevent the biomass in these turbid lakes from being completely overwhelmed by carp and gizzard shad, and it gives anglers a trophy fish to pursue.
But in some clear-water reservoirs, like Melvern's 6,930 acres or Woodson Lake's 180 acres, Jirak finds the flathead to be a problem. In these lakes, Jirak wants to develop a large and diverse population of gamefish, but a large number of flatheads can make this difficult. "When the water is clear enough for walleye, white bass, and black bass to feed efficiently," Jirak writes, "it's inefficient to have a larger predator," such as flatheads, preying on the species that attract the bulk of fishermen. Bell and Larson's commercial fishing forays at Melvern validate Jirak's contention that flatheads forage on big walleyes.
"If flatheads are living on gamefish," Jirak estimates, "they have to eat about 10 pounds of gamefish to gain one pound of weight, which equals a 90 percent loss in the biomass every time a fish eats another fish." Since flatheads are pursued by just a tiny cadre of anglers, the problem becomes more acute. Therefore Jirak is striving to find a way to reduce the number of flatheads abiding in Melvern and keep Woodson flathead-free.
What a quagmire of data: some authorities say flatheads eat when they are cold; others say they don't. Some say they become dormant; others say they don't. Some say they prefer rock when the water is cold; others say they can be found in the mud and silt and next to logs. Some say they are sloths and seldom move off the bottom; others say they suspend and gambol about. Some say they migrate long distances to spawn; others say they move just a half mile to procreate. Some say the flatheads are a benefit to the biomass in some reservoirs but a detriment in others.
What's an angler to think?