Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Flathead Catfish from the New River, by Don Orth

Last week I received a message and photo from Timmy Dixon, owner and operator of New River Outdoor Adventures.  His buddy caught a Flathead Catfish while fishing with a lay line in the New River.  It was a big catfish, larger than any I've seen from the New River.    The Virginia Angler Recognition Program considers a 25 pound or 40 inch Flathead Catfish a trophy.  Anglers who catch one with hook and line can apply for a certificate.
Flathead Catfish caught in July 2019 from New River near Fries, Virginia. For comparison, Timmy Dixon (pictured here) stands 6 feet, 4 inches.
Many questions arise when someone catches a monster fish.  What's the biggest flathead catfish ever caught?      The answer is clouded by mixed approaches to catching these monster catfish.  It's likely that Flathead Catfish attain six feet and exceed 150 pounds without every encountering a hook and line strong enough to bring them in.   A Flathead Catfish just under 140 pounds was harvested in 1982 by a snag line from the Arkansas River near Little Rock, Arkansas.  Flatthead Catfish larger than 100 pounds have been harvested by hook and line in five states -- Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

The Virginia state record Flathead Catfish was 68 pounds and 12 ounces, caught by Jeffrey Dill in May 2018. Chad Boyce, District Biologist, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reported that Flathead Catfish were first stocked in Lake Smith in 1996.
Virginia state record Flathead Catfish was 68 pounds, 12 ounces, from Lake Smith.   It is pictured here with Jeffrey E. Dill who caught the fish on cut shad. 
Trotliners on the New River are secretive about their spots and their gear and focused on harvesting catfish to eat (Dickinson et al. 2015).   The most dedicated trotline fishers live near or on the river itself and fish trotlines in only a small section of river, rarely interacting with other trotline users. Trot-liners grew up depending on hunting, fishing, and gardening for their food.  However, few records exist specific to New River trotline catches.   SCUBA divers who frequent large, deep pools at Peppers Ferry and Eggleston can confirm that many large flathead catfish that make their home in the New River.
Flathead Catfish hooked on a trotline.  
Ben Dickinson and Jason Emmel spent many months learning about the methods used by trot liners in the New River.     They mimicked the typical methods so they could estimate catch rates of Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish on trotline gears.   Because the number of baited hooks varies a lot, so does the expected catch.  Experimental trotline sets on the New River indicated that a trotline fishing 100 baited hooks overnight would expect to catch between 8 and 22 catfish (Dickinson et al. 2018).  The largest Flathead Catfish caught was 35 pounds, but some baited hooks were straightened - presumably by larger catfish.

The odds of catching a 60 pound catfish from the New River are long, but they are not zero.  John Copeland, Fisheries Biologist for the New River tells me that the largest Flathead Catfish from the The Virginia Angler Recognition Program was 58 pounds.  When an angler asks me how to catch a trophy catch, I respond "release more 20 to 40 pound catfish!" Once a Flathead Catfish gets that large the only threat of mortality is from humans (see below). 

Effects of fishing on the number of catfish by age.  
This trophy catch reminds us of what lives in the New River.  Feeding a 62-pound Flathead Catfish requires productive and abundant fish life.  The recreational trotline fishing that occurs in the New River is the only fishing that targets these very large catfish.   In addition to the well known recreational fishing for Smallmouth Bass, Muskellunge, and Walleye, the Flathead Catfish are another reason to Go Fishing!


Dickinson, B.D., D.J. Orth, and S.L. McMullin.  2015.  Characterizing the human dimensions of a hidden fishery: riverine trotline fishers.  Fisheries 40(8):386-394.

Dickinson, B.D., S.L. McMullin, D.J. Orth, and J.R. Copeland. 2018. Trotline catch rates vary by hook and bait type in the New River, Virginia. Journal of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.  5:46-52.

No comments:

Post a Comment