dan magneson

Dracula of the Deep, Part I: Meet the Flathead Catfish, The Pacific Northwest’s “Freshwater Freight Train”

By Dan Magneson/USFWS Fishery Biologist

Photo: Their legendary size and strength make them the stuff of lore, much like Dracula but the fantastical flathead catfish is very real. Photo credit: in-fisherman.com

They are the aquatic version of Count Dracula, quietly resting in the same dark, hidden location by day and then prowling for living prey by night.  And like a vampire, they are legendary for both their great physical strength and ability to achieve a ripe old age.  These “freshwater freight trains” require use of fishing tackle usually seen in saltwater situations, and can live up to 30 years of age.

The flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, is known by other nicknames, most notably yellow catfish or mud catfish.  And owing to a broad, flattened head (that seemingly comprises half their slender bodies), shovelhead or shoehead catfish are yet other common nicknames.  They are fascinating in a way that is inversely-proportional to their looks.

According to Dakota Sioux legend, a tribe of catfish plotted to ambush and eat a moose as he waded into a lake.  The attack ultimately failed, and the moose was so angered that he retaliated and trampled all the catfish’s heads flat.  To this day, the catfish have flat heads as a result of the war the moose waged upon their grandfathers.

Photo: The author Dan Magneson with an enormous flathead catfish

Formally described to science by Rafinesque in 1818, Pylodictis is Greek for “mud fish” and olivaris is Latin for “olive-colored.”  Flatheads are the only species in their genus, and appear unchanged from the middle Miocene epoch 15 million years ago.  They have a protruding lower jaw and in all but the very largest specimens, there is a pale whitish or cream-colored tip on the upper lobe of their tails.

The flathead is native to the Gulf of Mexico drainages, from the Mobile River basin over to the vast Mississippi River basin thence to the Rio Grande and from there well south into eastern Mexico.

Thus the flathead catfish is not native to waters west of the Continental Divide, but they have been introduced to both the Colorado and Snake Rivers.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, just exactly how the flathead catfish came to inhabit the Snake River and some of its tributaries is something of a mystery, but it has been suspected that earlier shipments of blue catfish subsequently planted into the Snake River may have mistakenly included flathead catfish.

Keep reading