The Truth and The Lies about Flatheads

  Before the 1980s Florida’s rivers were a much different place then today's. They were mainly made up of small game fish, such as bass and sunfish, with the occasional alligator gar swimming about. Sturgeon and striped bass made their annual migrations up the rivers in late summer. Besides that, there just weren’t much to keep the attention of local anglers focused on fishing Florida’s rivers.


The state of Florida began to invest in eradication programs to electroshock and remove all flatheads from Florida’s rivers. Kill tournaments began to spring up on the Apalachicola River in an effort to save the redbreast sunfish from extinction. The flathead had successfully made it on Florida’s most hated list.

As the years went on so did the spread of the Flathead catfish into other rivers in Florida. By the late 90s, no river in the panhandle was void of Flatheads. From Perdido River which makes up the border between Alabama and Florida all the way to the Suwanee River the invasion had begun. Today flatheads are making their way further east and soon to be headed south..

As the years went on, the flatheads began to grow a following of anglers that enjoyed catching and eating them. The flatheads popularity began to rise at an astonishing rate. Other states began to take notice in Florida’s ever growing new sport fishery of large catfish. Today there are even more tournaments in Florida focused on catching the flathead catfish. Soon there will be tackle sold specifically for these large catfish and local tackle shops.
 Florida has been known for its magnificent salt water fishery and giant bass for decades. They have attracted tourist from all over the world to come and take part in these world class fisheries that the sunshine state has to offer.
Thirty years ago Florida’s rivers were a different place than they are today. Few people bothered leaving their home state rivers to venture to Florida to fish its rivers when their rivers were much more productive for multiple species.

Sometime in the early 80s fishermen started seeing a new fish popping up in some of North West Florida’s rivers that they had never seen before. Biologists were called in to study this strange fish and came to conclusion that this fish was none other than Pylodictis olivaris “The Flathead Catfish”

They monitored the predator fish as it worked its way from river to river decimating the local sunfish populations and earning itself a spot on Florida’s most unwanted list. It took the Flathead catfish only 10 years to completely dominate the Escambia and Apalachicola Rivers. But something funny began to happen, instead of completely wiping out the sunfish like biologist were claiming they would do locals started reporting catching bigger sunfish and more numbers of them than they ever have before.
The reports fell on def ears as Florida declared a jihad on this new ugly river invader. Flatheads were shocked, gutted and slaughtered by kill tournaments and Florida Biologist for almost 20 years spending millions of dollars to try and eradicate the fish only to fail in the end.
They hypothesize that repeated electrofishing efforts in a small river on a small population may effectively reduce the flathead catfish population and prevent the large populations seen in other introduced rivers. 
It took Florida many years to come to this conclusion “Despite electrofishing’s effectiveness at collecting flathead catfish, we believe it has limited practical application in the control of introduced flathead catfish populations” FWC

Escambia is now home to some of the largest catfish in the State of Florida. If not for the kill tournaments on the Apalachicola River the Apalachi would probably hold fish 80lbs today with fish topping 100lbs.

Flatheads have now occupied Escambia River for well over 30 years. Their population is well established on every stretch of Escambia and the Apalachicola River as well as the Yellow River in Florida. The tall tales of vanishing sunfish are as far-fetched as Volkswagen size catfish below dams. In fact it’s completely the opposite, Escambia River has a thriving sunfish population, and anywhere you go on the river you can find more bluegills than one could ever care to catch.
This is the same on the Apalachicola and Yellow river and all other rivers where flatheads have invaded or have been stocked in the past around the country.

The initial shock of a large predator always catches locals and biologist off guard. Their first reaction is “The river will be destroyed’ and this way of thinking is completely false.  It is a fact that sunfish populations will drastically decline in the beginning.

But over time the river will adapt to this new predator and a new era will begin to emerge. Flatheads bring order to a river that once had none. Florida’s rivers were once over populated with small sunfish that ran wild consuming all invertebrates that they came into contact with.
They occupied all the deep holes, most sunfish averaged small, much smaller than today’s standard. Shortly after the flathead invasion sunfish began to adapt to their new predator, they now slept in shallows or under willows and avoided deep holes at night.  The flatheads swept through consuming all the weak and frail sunfish leaving behind a much stronger gene pool of sunfish to grow into some of the largest the state has ever seen.   This same trend has taken place on countless rivers across the United 
States that were once void of flatheads.  
Even with all the evidence mounting that flatheads are actually the balancing factor most rivers need; they are still frowned upon by state officials simply because they are not as glamour’s or pretty as the Bass and temperate bass species found in Florida. 

Florida even stocks the peacock bass and implements regulations to protect this invasive species simply because of how much money the fish draws to the state and it so called ability to control tilapia. About 20,000 butterfly peacock fingerlings
were stocked into major canal systems of
southeast Florida between 1984 and 1987 by
the FWC.
If more states could see that growing trophy catfish will attract nearly as many tourists as bass maybe and only then will Flatheads and blue cats get the respect they deserve as a true sport fish.

States such as Alabama and many others have seen the possibility’s that their catfish brings to the table and how important they are and are now only after decades of slaughter finally implementing strict regulation’s protecting them.

The trophy cat populations have exploded in these states, attracting tourist from all over the country to take part in the hunt.  Alabama now holds a sustainable population of 100+lb class cats and growing each year. Alabama offers endless amounts of sunfish living and thriving right alongside these apex predators in a perfectly balanced eco system.
South Carolina stocked flatheads in the 60s and today ranks as a world class destination for trophy cats yet also has a thriving sunfish population.  Flatheads entered the Colorado River systems in the 70s and today yields trophy flatheads that rival many other states that have had flatheads since the beginning.

There are a few rivers such as the Susquehanna River and The Satilla River that flatheads have only occupied since the late 90s and these states are blindly using the same tactics to remove flatheads as Florida and other states that once tried and abandoned. You cannot eliminate flatheads; it only takes two fish to start the whole process over again. It’s a big waste of tax payer’s dollar’s, let the river systems balance themselves out. But what you can do is decimate your trophy cat population making a worthless river for tourist to be attracted to leaving behind small and stunted cats appealing to no one.
Another way states can balance out the rivers and take the pressure off the local sunfish population is to stock some sort of food supply for these large predators such as gizzard shad. The cats will quickly start to focus their attention on the newly introduced shad and pull back their assault on local fish. This is also the case for other commonly stocked fish that states consistently stock.

Florida stocks Striped bass each year in certain rivers that do not have a sustainable shad population intern they have to keep stocking stripers each year spending tons of money because the stripers won’t maintain a healthy population.
Granted gizzard shad should never be stocked on a body of water that does not have large predators to keep them in check. Gizzards grow quickly and become too large for bass and other fish to consume if left un-checked by catfish.
 
The St. Johns River in Florida has recently exploded with Gizzards and once again the state has stepped in to try and eradicate them. This river is void of large catfish so the gizzards have no predators to balance their exploding population. Blue cats would balance this river out and in turn draw in tourist from around the country.
In conclusion the invasive flathead follows a very predictable pattern when introduced to new bodies of water. 
They first divide and conquer eliminating the weak and over crowded sunfish populations.  

Over the course of some years the river begins to balance out, flatheads will soon start to keep their own population in check by actually consuming other smaller flatheads. 
In the end you are left with a much more balanced river system, flatheads bring order to chaos. 

This pattern has come to pass all across America. Give them a chance, tell your state to grant them amnesty and welcome them as locals. With a healthy population of catfish everybody wins.