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Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish


dark to olive brown with dark brownish mottlings on sides; anal fin is very short and tail fin is square or slightly notched; head broad and flat


Flathead Catfish Distribution

throughout the border rivers and large interior streams


variety of aquatic animals, larger individuals eat mostly fish; larger flatheads may be over 20 inches in length

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 is a "big-water" species of fish, found quite commonly and widely distributed throughout the Great Border Rivers and in the large interior streams. Few specimens have been reported from the natural lakes, man-made lakes and reservoirs.

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.

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 exploited by commercial fishermen along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Approximately 65,000 pounds of flathead catfish valued at over $32,500 are annually harvested from the Mississippi, and the harvest from the Missouri River averages about 3,300 pounds and is worth about $1,700.


Present in these Iowa water bodies:

Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Red Rock Reservoir Marion 4 miles north of Knoxville 15250.00
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 889.00
DeSoto Bend Harrison 5 miles west of Missouri Valley 811.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 747.00
Lake Darling Washington 4 miles west of Brighton 303.00
New Albin Big Lake Allamakee 200.00
Prairie Rose Lake Shelby 8 miles southeast of Harlan 173.00
Sand Lake Marshall On the Northeast edge of Marshalltown 95.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
West Nodaway River (above Villisca) Montgomery 52.00
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
Boyer River (Dunlap to Missouri River) Pottawattamie 34.00
Willow Lake Harrison 5 1/2 mile west of Woodbine 26.00
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