"The great river was extremely dangerous, the Indians said. There was a demon...who would engulf any who approached in the abyss where he dwelt."
-Jacques Marquette, 1673
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"I have seen a Mississippi catfish that was more than six feet long and weighed more than 250 pounds. And if Marquette's fish was fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think that the river's roaring demon was come."
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"That river has so many flatheads in it that you can't catch enough fish to hurt the population."
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Webbie's breathtakingly racist definition notwithstanding (and good ol' Sam Clemens' penchant for exaggeration aside), flatheads are a species of catfish found in rivers across America, though the term flathead is generally American Southern slang for all species of catfish. It's difficult to overstate the place flatheads have in Southern culture; they are as much a part of the Southern landscape as Spanish moss, moon pies, and trailer parks, and certainly as beloved. Flatheads were surely the staple diet of Huck and Tom as they floated down the Mississipi and into the collective unconscious. I reckon there ain't a single good ol' boy angler who ain't done spent countless hours with a cooler full of Budweiser (cans only, m'am!), slappin' skeeters, waitin' on that monster fish to gulp down that hook. If he's really hardcore (or masochistic), the good ol' boy's a noodler - but more on that in a bit.
Freshwater predators, flathead catfish (Pylodictis oliveris) can grow to an excess of six feet in length and tip the scales at over one hundred pounds. Pylodictis is Greek for "mud fish", and oliveris is Latin, meaning "olive-colored".
Other less common colloquialisms for the flathead include yellow cat, mud cat, smiley, appaloosa (after the mottled pattern of the fish's skin, not the horse), shovel head (for its distinctive, disproportionately large and flat head), and johnny cat. The myriad slang terms for the fish are tribute to its immense popularity as the poor man's sporting fish, and many a grown fisherman can fondly remember that first tug on his line turning out to be a satisfyingly robust catfish. Flatheads are fun to catch - they are stubborn fighters, and will provide the sportfisherman a good challenge. Their favored hangouts are deep, murky waters, but the real monsters are rumored to prefer the base of dams. Use a high-test line, buddy-boy; these guys get huge and ornery.
Though typically a brownish-green color, the shade of each particular fish changes according to its exact habitat. Flatheads that live in clear water tend to be a light green, nearly yellow shade. Cats dwelling in deeper or murkier waters can become almost black, and depending on the turbidity of the water will range between light yellow and blackish-grey. Flatheads are easily distinguishable from the more common blue cats and channel cats by their obscene size and unnotched tails (blues and channels have deeply notched, V-shaped tails, whereas flatheads' tails are spade-shaped). Flatheads prefer still, muddy reservoirs and lakes with lots of places to hide, such as logs and holes, but they are found in rivers as well. A shrewd fisherman will cast near a river's bank, where the cats like to find deeper, shady spots out of the main current.
Flatheads have a truly vast range, and they are among the most voracious of freshwater fish. Catfish in general can be found all across North America, but the true flathead is a Southern American original, y'all. There are a few Yankee flatheads out there (they can be found as far north as North Dakota), but the primary range is a broad area west of the Appalachian Mountains. Though they can be found in their natural dispersion as far west as New Mexico and as far South as eastern Mexico, flatheads really love the Mississippi River and all its billion tributaries. In Texas, if it's wet, it likely contains a flathead. Or two. They breed like rabbits, eat anything at all (up to and including: any fish smaller than they are, ducklings, crayfish, and really unlucky toy poodles), and are hardier than duckweed. Unlike other species of catfish, including the smaller, more polite bottom-feeding blue catfish and channel catfish, flatheads are insatiable predators. The federal government considers the flathead catfish a pernicious environmental threat in the many streams, rivers, and ponds where it has been ill-advisedly introduced as a sport fish. Though it has no ill effects in its native Mississippi River basin, flatheads are a real and growing menace to smaller native game fish west of New Mexico, in South Carolina, and in Florida. It's now found in the rivers, ponds, and reservoirs of eighteen states where it was previously unknown, and poses a serious threat to several species of endangered and commercially viable fish. Fish threatened by the flathead cat include (but are certainly not limited to):
- the American shad (Alosa sapidissima): In 1966, eleven adult flatheads were released in North Carolina's Cape Fear River as game fish. From this point of introduction, they proliferated along a 150-mile length of the river. Within fifteen short years they had established themselves as the dominant predator there, munching on the native bullhead catfish until that population was completely decimated. Undaunted, the intrepid flathead moved on to the shad, an important commercial fish renowned for its sweet white flesh and delicious roe. As of 2002, flathead catfish constitute over ten percent of the river's fish by number, and sixty-five percent by weight (and you thought you looked fat in that bathing suit.).
- the Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus desotoi): Florida's Apalachicola River is home to this federally listed threatened species of game fish. It's uncertain exactly when the flathead was introduced, but it eats the Gulf sturgeon's young and is steadily reducing its already small population.
- the razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus) and the Colorado squawfish (Ptychocheilus lucius): 1967 was the year some idiot decided to release a few flatheads into Arizona's Salt River. Per usual, the flatheads reproduced like crazy in the first decade. Because it eats the young of both these species of endangered fish, the flathead has single-finnedly defeated repeated attempts to reintroduce the razorbacks and squawfish.
As recently as late July, 2002, alarmed wildlife officials spread word of the arrival of the "demon fish" in Pennsylvanian rivers:
Reports of predatory fish stirring concern - Flathead catfish have been spotted in the Susquehanna River, and a proposal exists to ban
WILKES-BARRE - The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is voicing concerns about the state's largest species of catfish...
But the agency responsible for managing Pennsylvania's aquatic resources maintains there is no cause for alarm.
"There's no reason to push the panic button just yet. They are not developing wings and breathing fire," Dan Tredinnick, press secretary for the Fish Commission, said on Wednesday.
Last week the commission confirmed the presence of flathead catfish in the Susquehanna River based on photographic evidence.
Tredinnick said he thinks the fish pose no great danger to gamefish populations at this time and warns against the slaughter of all catfish taken from the Susquehanna.
"There's no need for that. If we receive confirmation from anglers that flatheads are showing up, we will increase our monitoring of the situation.
"We are not forming a posse just yet," said Tredinnick, who admitted the flatheads could make their way into the Susquehanna's North Branch and the Wilkes-Barre area.
The Pennsylvania state record flathead cat was taken from the Allegheny River in 1985 and weighed 43 pounds, 9 ounces. Predatory flatheads that weighed more than 100 pounds have been caught in southern states.
...in 1999, Tredinnick said flatheads were discovered farther east after they were confirmed in Blue Marsh Lake in Berks County and in the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
"Clearly these fish had been introduced. They couldn't swim there. The jury is still out on how big a problem they will become."
The flatheads, Tredinnick said, are aggressive predators and are prolific breeders. The problem is that these large fish are eating machines that will consume popular gamefish such as bass and walleye.
... As a result, the commission is encouraging anglers who catch flatheads in the Susquehanna not to release them.
"I'm told they have the best taste of all the catfish," Tredinnick said.
(Actually, flatheads are tasty, if extremely bony. I find the flavor of the flesh much more pleasant than that of farm-raised catfish, which tends to be insipid and bland. Because they aren't bottom-feeders, flatheads don't have the nasty, fishy taste of other cat species. As long as they weigh over seven or eight pounds, they are fairly simple to clean, as the bones are easy to see. Small cats, though, are a nightmare to eat - every other bite contains a mouthful of perilous, needle-sharp bones that are tailor-made for getting stuck in one's gullet.)
Flatheads pose no danger to the environment in their original habitat, and it's there in the slow, sludgy tributaries of the Mighty Mississip that you can find a uniquely American, unabashedly Southern, extremely bizarre sport being practiced: noodling for flatheads.
In 2001, a lovely collection of essays by Burkhard Bilger was published under the intriguing title Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts. In eight graceful, hilarious journalistic essays, Bilger describes his on-location experiences with several obscure and/or dying Southern traditions and the people who doggedly practice, cherish, and uphold them. Included among his recollections of a lunch with a Kentucky squirrel brain-eater, his conversations with the Atlanta-based chef who craves the traditional chitlins of his childhood, and his evening spent hunting coons with bluetick hounds is the uproariously funny title essay about the strange regional practice of noodling - catching these "demon fish" using only one's (ungloved) fingers as bait. (Go right now to Amazon.com to read the marvelous excerpt from that essay. You won't be disappointed, and I won't be infringing any copyrights.) Believe me, after you've witnessed noodling, all other so-called "extreme" sports will pale in comparison.
you find the deepest, murkiest, most shadowy, hole-ridden spot you can in a slow-moving river. You (ideally) strip down to your skivvies and slip into the tea-colored sludge, your toes sinking deep into the ancient detritus of the riverbed. Slowly, now. Don't want to scare 'em. Get deep. Deeper. There, right up to your neck. That's it. OK, now slowly extend your arms and wiggle your fingers. You're a fish; no, you're two fish. You're a flathead magnet, irresistible to all things huge and slimy. Wiggle them a little more - you're in the zone now, you're a sunfish, a bass, a crappie - hey, what was that? Your heart begins to race. Was that a nibble, or did you just brush against a submerged log? Damn, that was a nibble! You stand utterly still, ankle-deep in mud, adrenaline pumping. And suddenly, without warning, your hand isn't your own anymore. It's owned by something else, something enormous and ravenous and WHERE IS IT ANYWAY is it actually DOWN SOMETHING'S THROAT? And by god it IS, your hand has been swallowed, and you really must do something about that, says the tiny rational part of your mind that told you not to go here in the first place. So you do something - while a row of needle-sharp teeth clamp down on your one wrist, you do your best to wrestle the beast with the other, not-swallowed hand.
If you're lucky, talented, and practiced, you'll eventually drag dinner and bragging rights onto the river's slippery bank, catch your breath, get your picture made, and have a Budweiser (in a can, y'all). If you're not so lucky, talented, or practiced, you might just get dragged under and drowned by a pissed-off 90-pound catfish.
But hey - the bragging rights are amazing, and the Bud never tasted so good.
Johnny Knoxville must have Southern ancestry.
Knowlegeable noder rougevert kindly pointed out that there is also an Australian salt-water fish by the same name. IMAGINE! *grin*
To read an excerpt from Bilger's essay Noodling for Flatheads - In Which a Fish Nearly Eats the Author's Arm, go to www.Amazon.com and type in "Noodling for Flatheads". And laugh.
Quotes from Marquette and Mark Twain found as epigraphs in Bilger's book. Anonymous catman quote (and incredible NOODLING PICS) found at the excellent, amusing, and informative site http://www.flatheadcat.com/