By Jim Gronaw
In every environment they’re found, flathead catfish are an apex predator with a huge appetite and potential to reach weights from 60 to nearly 100 pounds. In small, lazy southern rivers, they’ve often upset the balance of redbreast sunfish populations and popular harvest fisheries of smaller channel catfish. Yet in other larger venues, they‘ve been a highly-prized and sought-after gamefish, enabling local economies and guide services to develop.
Throughout many eastern and southeastern river systems, flathead populations are expanding. There are varying opinions, good and bad, that always accompany the introduction of a “new” species. All is not well on the Back East flathead horizon as some fishery agencies and concerned angler groups continue to encourage total harvest of all flatheads, regardless of size. Yet, angler interest is gaining, as huge fish and recent state records are turning up in many waters.
Through it all, traditional hot spots such as South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper complex, North Carolina’s Cape Fear and Neuse rivers, Virginia’s Buggs Island Reservoir, and Georgia’s Altamaha River, along with some smaller, under-the-radar coastal rivers, remain stable, popular fisheries for flatheads. With their expansion, millions of East Coast catfish anglers now have a legitimate shot at 40-pounders less than a days’ drive from home.
The Susquehanna Story
In Pennsylvania, traditional quality flathead waters include the Allegheny and Ohio rivers and sections of the Schuykill River. But in the past 10 years, the lower Susquehanna River from Harrisburg downstream to the Mason-Dixon Line has emerged as perhaps the best place in the state to catch fish that can weigh 30 to 40 pounds.
Fifteen years ago, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission strongly encouraged anglers to dispose of all flathead catfish they caught there. But over time, as the fish became more numerous and grew larger, guide services were established and angler interest increased. With concern of native species being compromised, the Commission has now backed off of their original “kill upon capture” policy. With the current outstanding smallmouth bass and improved walleye fisheries in the river, both long-standing popular sportfish of the lower Susquehanna, anglers and fishery personnel have breathed a sigh of relief concerning the introduced flatheads.
Long-time Susquehanna River guide Dave Shindler of Manchester, Pennsylvania, has experienced the evolution of the Susquehanna flathead fishery. From the days of just the occasional flathead to near state-record catches, he has made astute observations over the years. He’s dissected and examined the stomach contents of hundreds of flatheads from the river, with intriguing discoveries. Just about all of those fish had small carp, suckers, and crayfish in their stomachs. But the most common food source was channel catfish in the 6- to 12-inch range. Few flatheads had a smallmouth or walleye in their bellies. He points out that the nature of flatheads is to ambush prey from quiet, wooded eddies and deeper runs. With diverse habitat, bass and walleyes occupy other areas in the river and apparently seldom cross paths with flatheads.
Shindler also says that the top-end size of flatheads there is getting bigger, with more 30- to 40-pound-class fish showing up on many social media websites. Recreational anglers are relishing big-fish opportunities that weren’t available just a half-dozen years ago. With more educated anglers targeting them, he has seen the flathead population maintaining numbers of 5- to 15-pound fish with increased chances for trophies. He anticipates a new Quaker State record to come from the Susquehanna in the near future, a fish that would surpass the 50-pound mark. Additionally, he has observed no declines in other popular species throughout the lower river.
Below the Mason Dixon Line
Since the Susquehanna flows south below the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland’s headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, there is a notable influx of flatheads in Upper Chesapeake tributary rivers. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources remains firm in its efforts to suppress flatheads in upper Chesapeake flows, designating the fish as an aggressive, non-native invasive species that can potentially do great harm to native fishes. When Maryland DNR technicians captured a 56.5-pound flathead from a hoop net in Conowingo Pool last August, it added fuel to the fire for the “catch-and-kill” philosophy concerning the big cats. The Department issued a statement asking anglers “to remove and kill any blue and flathead catfish they catch. Catch and release of these fish is discouraged as they are invasive top predators and pose a long-term threat to our native species.” Transporting or possessing a live flathead catfish in Maryland can result in a $2,500 fine, per fish.
In all likelihood, that 56-pounder spent most of its life in Pennsylvania, slipping south of the border, perhaps during one of the major rainfall events that occurred frequently throughout 2018 in the Mid-Atlantic region. That the fish regurgitated a 19-inch walleye during capture did little to abate the fear of these recent invaders. Although not currently targeted by many anglers, they show up frequently in the Susquehanna flats complex, and in the Elk and Sassafras rivers. Below the Conowingo hydroelectric dam, both shore and boat anglers routinely catch 10- to 25-pound flatheads while targeting the spring run of striped bass with livebait. Over the past several years, a small but fervent group of anglers has taken aim at the local flathead population, catching them with live sunfish rigs fished on the bottom. Other anglers fish for them from kayaks, drifting live- and cut-bait immediately below the Conowingo Dam during low-flow periods in summer and early fall.
Somewhat lesser known, in the western portion of Maryland, the upper Potomac River is developing into a flathead fishery. A smaller, faster, free-flowing river compared to the Susquehanna, Potomac flatheads tend to hunker in long, deep stretches of river and below several of the dams from Dickerson to Williamsport. No one knows how they got there, but fish exceeding 30 pounds have been reported the past few years and a growing number of locals are seeking the big, brown cats.
The Potomac’s bass, walleye, crappie, and sunfish populations are of concern and management strategies may be enacted in the future. A dynamic and popular fishery for smallmouth bass, walleyes, channel catfish, and muskies, one can understand concerns associated with yet another top predator in the Potomac. Currently, Maryland has no size, creel, or seasonal limit on flatheads along with the request for killing all that are caught.
Satilla River Solution
Some state agencies have gone to great measures to control runaway flathead populations in an attempt to restore traditional fisheries that existed prior to the introduction of flatheads. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Resources Division initiated the Flathead Removal Project for the Satilla River, a 3,000-square-mile coastal plain blackwater system that had long been a stronghold for the popular redbreast sunfish fishery. Initiated by a crew of three full-time technicians in 2007, the project involved the removal of all sizes of flatheads by use of electrofishing throughout the year. The technicians were hoping to target larger, adult spawning flatheads to reduce their abundance and to restore the popular redbreast and channel catfish fisheries.
It was hard and diligent work, but over time, flathead numbers were reduced and sunfish populations rebounded. From 2007 to 2016, approximately 59,000 flatheads were removed from the Satilla complex, and the Georgia DNR observed substantial reduction in spawning adults. It was estimated that as much as 53 percent of the flathead population was removed on given years and that ongoing electroshocking and intense harvest of adult fish would be required to prevent flatheads from rebounding in the Satilla. But the removal project hit a stumbling block when budget cuts reduced the team to two technicians. The project still made meaningful reductions in flathead numbers until biologists discovered a shift in maturity spawning ages of the remaining population.
Lab research revealed that gravid females were showing up at a younger age and smaller size than when the project had started. Apparently, the flatheads adapted to high removal rates by reproducing at a younger age than their predecessors in the Satilla. Unlike the Ocmulgee and Altamaha systems, where flatheads had been observed and caught for over 50 years, the Satilla was different and well suited for large-scale flathead expansion. However, continued harvest of the larger, predatory adult fish remained a positive effect for the recovery of the redbreast sunfish and channel catfish populations.
Coupled with increased angler awareness and harvest, the Satilla River flathead dilemma remains an ongoing battle, as the dark, slow-moving blackwaters of this southern riverine environment appear to be almost perfect conditions for exploding flathead populations.
The Good News
Despite the efforts of some states to halt flathead expansion and maintain popular, traditional fisheries, other areas are enjoying their arrival and welcome newer “big fish” opportunities. Not all states in the Southeast or Coastal Plains put them high on the hit list. Florida is seeing increased angler interest in flathead fishing in several river systems in the northwest panhandle. The Apalachicola, Escambia, Choctawhatchee, and Ochlockonee rivers are the premier flathead waters along with some of the tributaries of these systems. While the initial introduction saw a reduced number of redbreast sunfish, flatheads appear to have leveled off and anglers are seeing an increased average size of sunfish in several waters. Currently, Florida gives angler awards for those catching a flathead heavier than 25 pounds or longer than 36 inches. With a state record of 63.8 pounds from the Chattahoochee River in May of 2016, the Sunshine State may be poised for a new record in 2019.
In Virginia, the capture of a new state-record raised a lot of eyebrows when a 68-pound 12-ounce beast was wrestled from small, unheralded Lake Smith, by Jeffrey Dill in May of 2018. A shallow, tidewater lake near Virginia Beach, flatheads were originally introduced in Lake Smith in 1997 to help control overabundant forage species. Traditionally known as bass and panfish water, it has remained under the radar over the years as a flathead producer despite giving up several fish in the 40- to 50-pound class. Speculation is that other giants are lurking there.
Additional quality flathead options in Virginia include Claytor, Flannagan, and Buggs Island lakes and the New, Staunton, Roanoke, and James rivers. In 2017 the James led all Virginia waters for citation-sized flatheads with a total of 36 fish that exceeded either 25 pounds or 40 inches. Big fish anywhere, the James remains a steady producer of giant blue catfish in its tidal sections and exceptional numbers of trophy smallmouths in the upper reaches of this versatile Atlantic-slope fishery. Though not native to the James, flatheads have adapted nicely and have not appeared to negatively impact native species there.
Many classic southern flathead fisheries are holding up well and some recent giant fish have turned up. In South Carolina, a new state-record was caught by Paul Daniels from the Cooper River when he landed and 84-pound 9.6-ouncer on February 11, 2018. The Santee-Cooper complex, with lakes Marion and Moultrie along with the Diversion Canal, continues to be a premier flathead destination with high numbers of big fish. Throw in the Great Pee Dee, Wateree, and Edisto rivers and the Palmetto State can lay claim to some high-end catfish holes.
Other Top Waters
In North Carolina, the Yadkin River chain supports good numbers and size of flatheads. Both 5,800-acre Badin Lake and 2,560-acre Tuckertown Lake are currently yielding 15- to 30-pound fish with a shot at larger specimens. Nighttime is the right time and first time anglers may wish to hire one of several guides available in the area. The heralded Cape Fear and extensive Neuse River systems are still in the crosshairs of many traveling, Back East flathead anglers.
The border lakes of Kerr (Buggs Island) and Gaston on the Virginia-North Carolina border are overshadowed by the giant blue catfish that come from these waters, but make no mistake—heavyweight flatheads are on the prowl and 30- to 60-pounders are taken annually.
Other than the Satilla, Georgia’s top flathead waters include the Altamaha, Ocmulgee, and Coosa rivers. The Oostanaula, a Coosa tributary, is another sleeper. And Alabama’s premier flathead destination, the Alabama River, produced a whopping 80-pound flathead for the current state record.
It’s likely that within the next few years, flathead catfish will expand to more waters and that more record fish will be caught. Hopefully, management strategies will evolve, and populations of this great gamefish can be controlled to at least stabilize with existing ecosystems.
*Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is a multispecies angler and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.