Flathead Catfish

Pylodictis olivaris

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Flathead catfish prefer deep streams, rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs, where the water is cloudy and currents are slow. Adult flathead catfish are solitary creatures and can usually be found near or under fallen trees, logs and brush piles, while young flathead catfish usually prefer shallower water. Adults stay in deeper waters during the day and move into shallower water at night.

  • Range

    Flathead catfish are native to rivers and lakes in the lower Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. They were introduced to the James River as a recreational catch in the late 1960s. Today, flathead catfish can be found in low-salinity tributaries throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

  • Diet

    Blue crabs, grayfish, eels, worms and other catfish

  • Lifespan

    5 to 22 years

  • Status

    Stable

Also known as the yellow or mud catfish, the flathead catfish is a large, smooth-skinned fish with a yellow to purple-brown body and whisker-like barbels around its mouth. It was introduced to the region in the 1960s, and is now considered an invasive species.

Appearance

The flathead catfish has a yellow to purple-brown body that is often mottled with black or brown, with a pale white to yellow belly. Its smooth skin lacks scales. The head of the flathead catfish is wider and flatter than that of other North American catfish species. It has whisker-like barbels around its mouth, and its lower jaw protrudes further than its upper jaw. The tail fin is slightly notched and may appear square or rounded, unlike the deeply forked tail of the blue catfish or channel catfish. Adults can reach lengths of three to four feet and weigh more than 100 pounds.

Feeding

Flathead catfish are ambush predators that feed at night and wait under cover for prey to cross their path. Adults are opportunistic feeders and exclusively eat other fish. Young flathead catfish prey primarily on insect larvae until they are around four inches in length, at which point their diet expands to include small fish.

Predators

Adult flathead catfish have few natural predators. Their most common predators are members of their own species and humans who fish for them. However, young flathead catfish are sometimes eaten by turtles, larger fish and wading birds such as great blue herons.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Flathead catfish spawn from late May through August, when the water temperature is between 75 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit . Nests are constructed under cover, like logs, stumps, brush piles or rock outcroppings, and can contain up to 100,000 adhesive eggs. Females lay around 1,200 eggs for every pound of bodyweight. Fertilized eggs hatch in six to nine days. The male flathead catfish protects the eggs. Baby flathead catfish form tight schools for several days after hatching before eventually separating. These fish can live up to 28 years, although most live to be five to 22.

Did You Know?

  • The flathead catfish's scientific name comes from the Greek word for “mud fish” (Pylodictis) and the Latin word for “olive-colored” (olivaris).
  • Flathead catfish are a popular recreational catch.
  • These catfish were introduced to the region in the 1960s, and are now considered an invasive species. Their growing numbers and rapid expansion throughout the region have raised concern about their potential impact on menhaden, blue crabs and other native species that play an important role in our ecosystem and economy. 
  • The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team adopted an Invasive Catfish Policy statement, which outlines the need to control the effects of these nonnative fish. The Goal Team’s Invasive Catfish Task Force released two reports synthesizing what is known about invasive catfish and offering recommendations for managing their spread.

Sources and Additional Information

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Flathead catfish prefer deep streams, rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs, where the water is cloudy and currents are slow. Adult flathead catfish are solitary creatures and can usually be found near or under fallen trees, logs and brush piles, while young flathead catfish usually prefer shallower water. Adults stay in deeper waters during the day and move into shallower water at night.

  • Range

    Flathead catfish are native to rivers and lakes in the lower Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. They were introduced to the James River as a recreational catch in the late 1960s. Today, flathead catfish can be found in low-salinity tributaries throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

  • Diet

    Blue crabs, grayfish, eels, worms and other catfish

  • Lifespan

    5 to 22 years

  • Status

    Stable