Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish, illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing.

Characteristics

The color of the flathead catfish is dark to olive-brown with dark brownish mottlings on the sides, especially in the younger fishes. After inhabiting waters that flow over sand or light bottoms, adults are often light tan or even yellowish in color. The anal fin is very short with only 15 to 17 rays. The head is broad and flat, and the tail is square or very slightly notched. The jaws are heavy, and the lower mandible is longer than the upper.

Distribution

Flathead Catfish Distribution

The flathead catfish is a "big-water" species of fish, found quite commonly and widely distributed throughout the Great Border Rivers, in the large interior streams and in the flood control reservoirs (Coralville, Saylorville, Rathbun and Red Rock). Few specimens have been reported from the natural lakes and man-made lakes, but check the stocking records to see if Flathead Catfish have been stocked at your favorite lake.

Foods

They feed largely on insect larvae, crayfish, mollusks, fishes, worms, and terrestrial animals that wash into the streams.

State Record

81 pounds - Lake Ellis, Lucas County, June 7, 1958 - Joe Baze, Chariton, Iowa

Expert Tip

try fishing with small sunfish under cut banks after dark and don't forget to use strong hooks!

Details

The Flathead Catfish can be found in most large interior streams of Iowa and is one the most abundant large catfishes of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. It is almost absent from the interior streams of the Missouri River basin and rare in natural lakes, man-made lakes and reservoirs.

The Flathead Catfish inhabits a wide variety of habitats and can tolerate extreme turbidity but avoids headwater creeks, high-gradient streams and strong currents. During the daylight hours it is typically found adjacent to deep pools created by strong current in large sluggish rivers, or low gradient tributaries of large streams. In Iowa and Illinois, the Flathead Catfish is found mainly in mud-bottomed areas and deep waters in pools. The Flathead Catfish also inhabits reservoirs, but is more plentiful below dams of major impoundments. It is usually found about drift piles, submerged logs or fallen trees with hard-bottomed substrates of sand or silt. Riffles are used nocturnally feeding adults and are the main habitat of young, which also stay in pools, backwaters and sheltered places as they mature.

Spawning occurs in June and July in secluded hides and obscure places. These fish are nest builders, and parent fish guard the eggs and young. The young reach a length of from 2 to 6 inches the first year and are sexually mature in the third or fourth year of life. Adults grow to enormous size. The state record fish, that weighed 81 pounds, was taken from Lake Ellis in Lucas County. Reports of huge flatheads of more than 100 pounds have been passed along through generation along the Mississippi River, but efforts to document their truth have been difficult and may be more river lore than factual.

Flathead Catfish are found principally in mud-bottomed areas and prefer deep waters in pools. They feed largely on insect larvae, crayfish, mollusks, fishes, worms, and terrestrial animals that wash into the streams. Small individuals, from 8 to 10 inches in length, have been observed feeding extensively on schools of young minnows in the shallow water. Large flatheads, those more than 20 inches in length, are almost wholly piscivorous in their feeding behavior, either taking fish alive or dead fish from the bottom.

Flathead Catfish are harvested by commercial fishermen from the Mississippi River. Approximately 85,000 pounds of Flathead Catfish valued at over $40,000 are annually harvested from the Mississippi.

Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.

Sources:

Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.

Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames

Illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing


Return
Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 9, Mississippi River Allamakee River Mile 647.9 at Lynxville, WI upstream to River Mile 679.2 at Genoa WI. 35169.00
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
Pool 13, Mississippi River Clinton Between Bellevue and Clinton, Iowa. Pool 13 Starts at River Mile 556.7 28117.00
Pool 11, Mississippi River Dubuque River Mile 583 at Dubuque, IA upstream to River Mile 615 at Guttenberg, IA. 19875.00
Red Rock Reservoir Marion 4 miles north of Knoxville 15250.00
Pool 18, Mississippi River Louisa Amenities listed are for the Toolsboro Ramp. The ramp at Toolsboro is paved but the road to the ramp is gravel. There is some shore fishing along the parking area and at the outlet of Lake Odessa. Amenities vary by location in pool 18 13300.00
Pool 16, Mississippi River Scott The amenities list are for Buffalo Shores campground in Buffalo, Iowa. Amenities at other locations in Pool 16 vary by location. 13000.00
Pool 12, Mississippi River Jackson Between Dubuque and Bellevue, Iowa 12349.00
Rathbun Reservoir Appanoose 8 miles northwest of Centerville 11000.00
Pool 14, Mississippi River Scott Located between Clinton and Davenport, starts at River Mile 522.5 10291.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. This ramp is located in downtown Muscatine. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5280.00
Saylorville Reservoir Polk North edge of Des Moines 4970.00
Clear Lake Cerro Gordo south edge of Clear Lake 3684.00
Pool 15, Mississippi River Scott Between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island Illinois. Starts at River Mile 482.9 3626.90
Big Timber Complex Louisa Two miles south of Muscatine, IA off of X-61/Stewart Rd. 1252.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Three Mile Lake Union 3 miles northwest of Afton 880.00
DeSoto Bend at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Harrison 5 miles west of Missouri Valley at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge 811.00
Big Lake (Lansing) Allamakee 3 m N Lansing 800.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 747.00
New Albin Big Lake Allamakee 200.00
Middle River Warren There is not a public access to the Middle River within Warren County. 127.00
East Nishnabotna River Fremont Red Oak city limits has river access and hard surface boat ramp 123.00
West Nishnabotna River Fremont 121.00
Skunk River (Rose Hill to Coppock) Washington McKain's River Access : Dogwood Avenue on the South side of the River. 3 miles North of Lake Darling State Park. 110.00
North River Warren There is not a public access to the North River within Warren County. 107.00
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa This stretch is located in Marshall, Tama, the SW corner of Benton, Iowa, and Johnson County. A popular access is at the Hwy 21 Access, which is part of the Iowa River Corridor Wildlife Area, just south of Belle Plaine. 104.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
Big Pond Clayton 90.00
Five in One Dam Linn On Cedar River under I-380 in Cedar Rapids 90.00
Loch Ayr Ringgold 2 miles north of Mt. Ayr 83.00
Maquoketa River (below Monticello) Jackson 82.00
Iowa River (Iowa Falls to Marshalltown) Marshall This stretch is located in Hardin and Marshall County. A popular access is located in Pine Lake State Park, just east of Eldora on County Road S56. 66.00
Wapsipinicon River (Oxford Junct to Mississippi R) Scott Wapsi River Environmental Education Center : 31555 52nd Avenue, Dixon, Iowa 52745. Northeast of Dixon along the Wapsi River. And Sherman Park across the River in Clinton County 66.00
Skunk River (Coppock to Mississippi River) Des Moines Mac Coon Access is located five and one-half miles north of Lockridge just east of Willow Blvd. 65.00
Missouri River (Sioux City to Little Sioux) Harrison Chris Larsen Park: 1280 Larsen Park Road/Sioux City, IA. Located on the Sioux City riverfront along the Missouri River. Larsen Park offers 110 acres on the Sioux City Riverfront. Managed by the City of Sioux City. 64.00
Missouri River (Council Bluffs to state line) Fremont Lake Manawa State Park: 1100 South Shore Drive/Council Bluffs, IA 51501 phone: 712-366-0220. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Lake Manawa State Park has boat ramps on the Missouri River within the park. 61.00
Little Sioux River (Correctionville to Missouri R) Harrison Little Sioux Park, 2 miles SW of Correctionville, Woodberry County Conservation Board 57.00
Des Moines River (Stratford to Saylorville Lake) Polk The Highway 30 Access is in the middle of this river section and is located 3 miles west of Boone on the north side of Highway 30. 57.00
Cedar River (La Porte City to Cedar Rapids) Linn This stretch is located in Benton and Linn County. A popular river access is in the Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area right of Hwy 150 on the North side of Vinton. 56.00
Cedar River (Cedar Rapids to Moscow) Cedar This stretch is found in Linn and Cedar County. A popular access is found in Palisades State Park which is on Hwy 30 between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon. 55.00
Missouri River (Little Sioux to Council Bluffs) Pottawattamie Wilson Island State Recreation Area: 32801 Campground Lane/Missouri Valley, IA 51555 phone-712-642-2069. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Wilson Island Recreation Area has 544 acres along the Missouri River near Missouri Valley Iowa. 53.00
West Nodaway River (above Villisca) Montgomery 52.00
Des Moines River (Saylorville to Red Rock) Marion A mid-section access point for this stretch of river is at the Pleasant Hill Boat Ramp. This ramp is located on SE Vandalia Drive immediately east of Highway 65. 50.00
Prairie Park Fishery Linn 1.5 miles SSE of Cargill on Otis Road, along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids 42.00
Grand River Decatur 41.00
English River Washington Riverside Access : on the South side of Riverside. Has a hard surface ramp but it is only usable during highwater, mostly used as a canoe take out. 37.00
Des Moines River (Farmington to Keokuk) Lee Redwing Access : 3941 Valley Road just west of Keokuk. 35.00
Boyer River (Dunlap to Missouri River) Pottawattamie Highway 30 bridge in Woodbine. Easting 275280 Northing 4623540 34.00
Cedar River (Moscow to Columbus Junction) Muscatine Saulsbury Bridge Recreational Area :•2007 Saulsbury Road, Muscatine, Iowa 52761 •From Highway 61 in Muscatine go 2.5 miles north on Mulberry Rd., then 4 miles west on Saulsbury Rd. 32.00
Chariton River (below Rathbun Lake) Appanoose 31.00
North Raccoon River (Perry to Van Meter) Dallas A mid-section access point for this section of river is at the Highway 44 Access 4 miles west of Dallas Center. 31.00
Iowa River (Columbus Junction to Mississippi R) Louisa Cappy Russell Access : West of Oakville 6444 County Road X-71, Oakville, IA 52646 30.00
Iowa River (Coralville Lake to River Junction) Johnson This stretch is located in Johnson County. A popular access is the Tailwater East Ramp located right below the Coralville Lake Dam, East of North Liberty and Coralville. 29.00
Gimmel Lake Allamakee 28.00
Willow Lake Harrison 5 1/2 mile west of Woodbine 26.00
Mohawk Park Lake Linn East side of the Cedar River off J Ave. 26.00
Iowa River (River Junction to Columbus Junction) Louisa River Forks Access : 1001 Main Street, Fredonia, IA 52738 24.00
Burlington Street Dam Johnson On the Iowa River in Iowa City under the Burlington Street bridge 12.00