Flathead Catfish

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


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.


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.


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 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!


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.


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

Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
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 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
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
DeSoto Bend at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Harrison 5 miles west of Missouri Valley at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge 811.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 747.00
New Albin Big Lake Allamakee 200.00
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
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa 104.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
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 64.00
Missouri River (Council Bluffs to state line) Fremont 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
Missouri River (Little Sioux to Council Bluffs) Pottawattamie 53.00
West Nodaway River (above Villisca) Montgomery 52.00
Des Moines River (Saylorville to Red Rock) Marion 50.00
Prairie Park Fishery Linn 1.5 miles SSE of Cargill on Otis Road, along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids 42.00
Casey Lake (aka Hickory Hills Lake) Black Hawk 12 miles south of Waterloo 37.00
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
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 29.00
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
Douma Area Pond O'Brien 2 miles west, 1 mile south of Sanborn 7.00
Ocheyedan Pit #1 Osceola 2 miles south of Ocheydan 4.00