Large flathead catfish make midsummer prime time for big battles on the Delaware River.
I can recall, almost to the day, when I became obsessed with catching catfish. These odd, whiskered bottom-dwellers didn’t appeal to many of my childhood friends, but they did to me. I’d already had some success catching bullheads and a few channel cats when I picked up the August 1991 issue of Field and Stream. There, on page 38, was a close-up of the mottled brown skin and massive gaping mouth of a flathead. I instantly became obsessed.
The article was written by Keith Sutton and titled, “The Big Ugly.” I’ve probably read it 40 times. The only problem was, at the time, there weren’t any of those fish in New Jersey. It took me over a decade to make my way South and, after a few failed attempts, catch one of these fish that swam through my dreams and nightmares. I started to catch a few flatheads when I made infrequent trips to Virginia and West Virginia, but these adventures were few and far between. However, over time, the flathead catfish found its way to me.
I vividly remember the moment I read that a flathead had been caught in New Jersey. The first two confirmed catches were in the Delaware River and D&R Canal, and they sounded some alarms. The flathead’s reputation for attaining a large size and eating everything in its way was certainly not welcomed in the Garden State. But, I guess that depends on who you asked.
Why and How?
Flathead catfish are not native to New Jersey; nor are they native to Eastern Pennsylvania and the Schuylkill River, where it is widely believed that they came from. How they got into the “Skuke” in such large numbers is not completely certain, but there has been a healthy population of reproducing fish there since the mid-90s. Flatheads are native to some Western Pennsylvania waters, but their presence in the Schuylkill is recent, and they are considered an invasive species.
Likewise, the flathead’s introduction into the Delaware River was unintentional. Their passage from the Schuylkill probably occurred sometime in the late 90s. In early 2000, New Jersey had its first confirmed catches. Although not abundant in the early 2000s, it became evident that the flatheads were growing in both numbers and size.
Mark Boriek, Principal Fisheries Biologist for NJ Fish and Wildlife, noted that three to four years ago, most catches were reported near Lambertville. However, in recent years, the water around Riegelsville has become the hotspot. Boriek also reported that flatheads have made their way to the Raritan River by using the D & R Canal. Furthermore, a confirmed catch of a juvenile flathead in the canal signaled that they are reproducing.
The flathead was immediately designated as an invasive species in the Delaware and all of New Jersey. Any fish caught should be eaten or destroyed, and not put back in the water. This rule continues to hold true today. Flathead catfish are voracious eaters and have been known to decimate populations of native fish in other parts of the country. Boriek noted that although no studies have been done on the flathead’s impact on native species, it is certainly a cause for concern.
A Catfish Like No Other
Flatheads differ from other species of catfish in two key ways, and being aware of these will ultimately determine your success at catching them. Although catfish are known to be nocturnal feeders, most people…