Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
Flathead Catfish are native to the river systems draining to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mobile to the Rio Grande river systems and north to southern Ontario. They are a large, long-lived species that can exceed 100 lb and live over 25 years. Flathead catfish can also grow quite large: the current world record weighed 123 lb 9 oz (Elk City Reservoir, Kansas). The largest flathead catfish ever documented weighed an impressive 139 lb 14 oz and was captured in the Arkansas River in 1982.
No one is certain as to how flathead catfish got in the James River, although we do know they began to appear during the 1960s near Scottsville, Virginia. Flathead catfish are native to the New and Tennessee drainages in southwest Virginia. Therefore, it's reasonable to suspect that flathead catfish could be transported alive from a nearby source within the Commonwealth. While the species appears to be established in the James and York systems, they exist at lower densities than blue catfish.
Flathead catfish are known to be effective predators and begin to exclusively feed on other fish at relatively small sizes. Flathead anglers understand this and typically target them with live bait. They are often considered one of the most invasive freshwater fish species, as they have been linked to declines of native species in several river systems.
The species is abundant in the James River, particularly near the fall line in Richmond, and are often targeted during the summer months by anglers who drop live bait in deep, rocky pools. The area from Bosher Dam to the 14th St. Bridge holds an impressive number of flathead catfish, mostly in deep holes below rapids.
We have encountered numerous flathead catfish in the Pamunkey River, including mature adults (> 40 lbs) and juveniles, which seems to indicate that species is becoming established. We've also documented one flathead in the Mattaponi River. Understanding the distribution, movement patterns, diet and population sizes of flathead catfish will help us understand their impact on native species and develop effective management plans.