Flathead Catfish Pose Concern on Choctawhatchee
By DAVID RAINER
Ken Weathers is looking for a few good catfishermen. Actually, more than a few would be better to deal with what the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) biologist considers a threat to native fish populations in two waterways in southeast Alabama.
The culprit is the flathead catfish, also known as yellow cat, Opelousas and shovelhead cat. The current state record for flathead is 80 pounds, and they have the potential to cause damage to certain river ecosystems, according to Weathers.
The rivers of concern are the Choctawhatchee and the Pea. The Choctawhatchee is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Alabama. It runs from Barbour County all the way to Choctawhatchee Bay near Destin, Fla. The Choctawhatchee is a coastal river that is relatively shallow and slow-flowing with deep cuts and deep holes. In the Geneva area – one of the major spawning sites for gulf sturgeons - Weathers said the holes can be 30 feet deep. The stained, tannic water of the Choctawhatchee is not as fertile and doesn’t have the fish populations that one would find in a river like the Alabama.
“There’s still a good many fish because it doesn’t get a whole lot of fishing pressure,” Weathers said. “It’s a relatively rural area with not a lot of access. People love to float the river because it’s scenic. But if you go above Spann’s Landing, you have to drag your boat most of the year. Even around Geneva in the summer, it would be hard to get a bass boat in there without dragging bottom.”
The Pea River, also a popular river to float, joins the Choctawhatchee at Geneva. However, Weathers said the Elba dam should provide a barrier for any flathead encroachment up the Pea.
Weathers said the first questions about flatheads in the Choctawhatchee came from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) in the late 90s. Weathers said he had no information about flatheads in the Choctawhatchee and accompanied FWC biologists on an electrofishing trip to find the species near the Alabama line. Although no flatheads were recovered on that trip, subsequent sampling convinced the Florida biologists that the flatheads were coming from Alabama.
“Florida contacted us again in 2001 and said the flatheads had to be coming from Alabama because the closer they got the state line, the more they found,” Weathers said. “We went out and shocked all around and where the junction of the Pea and the Choctawhatchee and all we found were speckled bullheads, channel cats and one big blue. Anywhere you find speckled bullheads you’re not going to find flatheads because that’s one of the flathead’s favorite foods.”
Weathers and his colleagues sampled again in 2007 found a few flatheads and the numbers increased significantly in the 2009 sample.
“Last year we found a good number of flatheads and a few big ones,” he said. “We pulled the otolith (ear) stones and found they were fast-growing flatheads that you would expect to find in an expanding population. We went back this year in May. We picked up 32. Two were young of the year and the other 30 ranged from 2 pounds to 38 pounds.”
Weathers said it appears the train trestle just north of Geneva is the current demarcation line for the flatheads. None came from above that area, but plenty were captured around the trestle and the deep holes with structure to the south of the trestle.
“Anywhere there was a deep hole from 12 to 24 feet with debris in it, there were flatheads,” he said. “There’s a big bend in the river with a lot of trees and stuff in it and there were plenty of flatheads in that stuff. They like to lay in the deep holes under structure. Once we got past the junction of the Pea and the Choctawhatchee, we found plenty. That’s where we found the bigger ones.
“And, we didn’t find any speckled bullheads this time, which is a pretty good indication that there’s a fairly substantial flathead population. We still found a good many sunfish, redbreasts and stuff like that. But flatheads are eating machines. They’re voracious feeders. They’ll eat any fish they can get in their mouth, but they usually prey on the fish that stay in the current a little more because they are current-oriented fish.”
“We are concerned about the flathead population because it could be a big impact on the sunfish fishery, especially the redbreast fishery” Weathers said. “There have been several cases in Georgia and Florida where introduced flatheads have really decimated the redbreast fishery.
“The flip side of that is there are fishermen who target the flatheads. And you really do have to target them to catch them. If you think you’re going to cast from the bank and use worms on the bottom, you’re not going to catch them. You pretty much have to use live bait and fish around structure and deep holes and cut-in banks where they like to lay there and hide. And you’ve got to use the proper tackle to catch one of these big ones. You’ve got to have some line big enough to pull them out of the holes and things before they get wrapped around a stump or tree.”
Weathers said the flathead is not native to the Choctawhatchee so the species had to be introduced to the waterway. Now that they’re in the watershed, he just needs more people to take advantage of the fishery. Flatheads make excellent table fare and the quality of the meat doesn’t diminish as the size increases, a drawback in other catfish species. Because flatheads and blue catfish are not native to the Choctawhatchee, the daily bag limit of one fish 34 inches or longer does not apply.
“Even if we go in there and try to shock them and eradicate them it would be impractical,” he said. “I don’t think we could get rid of them if we tried. So we would really like to see more of a harvest going on for flathead to keep that population down. With an expanding population we’re seeing reproduction now, so they’ll be moving up the Choctawhatchee and up the Pea.
“I’d like for people to know more about them and target them more and harvest more so there wouldn’t be a problem with the sunfish fishery. They just need to get some good tackle. It should be a lot of fun.”
PHOTOS: (By Ken Weathers) Biologist Rob Andress holds one of the 32 flathead catfish Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries found in the Choctawhatchee River during sampling in May. It’s obvious from the photo how the yellow catfish picked up the nickname of flathead.