Ugly fish: Michigan flathead catfish

Frigid temperatures, galeforce winds, and lonely idylls are not enough to keep the tough sport fishermen of Michigan away from their quarry. The dual-peninsula state is blessed not only with the Great Lakes, but also with literally hundreds of inland lakes where fish are in abundance and waiting for the hook. Non-native Coho salmon were introduced in the 1960s to the Great Lakes and are among the species that bring out thousands to find their catch. Native fish are also on the menu, including muskellunge, perch and walleye, pickerel, sturgeon, trout, and the mighty catfish.
 
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported that Dale Blakley of Niles was among the ice fishermen who braved frigid temperatures in the Mitten State whose efforts were richly rewarded. It was on January 12, on Barron Lake in Cass County in the southeastern region of the state that Blakely pulled in a whopper: a flathead catfish weighing 52 pounds and measuring 46.02 inches, as confirmed by the DNR. And he wasn’t even out for catfish that day: he had been hoping for crappies.
This record fish surpassed the previous flathead record that was caught on the nearby St. Joseph River in Berrien County in 2012. In that case, the catch weighed 49.8 pounds and measured 45.7 inches in length. The previous record had stood since 1943. "We've had numerous state records broken in the last couple of years, further showcasing the quality of Michigan's fisheries," said Jim Dexter of the DNR. "We hope this latest catch encourages anglers to get out on the water in search of their own state record - or at least a great adventure!"
 
The happy Blakely said of his catch, "Catching this fish was the most exhilarating experience," adding "It was only the second time I've ever gone ice fishing and it was the only bite we had on the lake the whole day. This definitely sits at the top of my list!" The 45-year-old construction worker now has lifetime bragging rights, saying that he was overwhelmed by his luck. Blakely's catch came during one of the coldest winters on record.
 
The whopper flathead is something of a mystery. Usually, these beasts inhabit larger riverine systems such as the St. Joseph River. Experts theorize that the fish may have been brought to Barron Lake through illegal fish stocking, since the lake has no outlet to a large river system.
 
A video (produced by the Blakley family) of this state-record catch is available at http://youtu.be/864YR-QAKMY.
 
Reportedly, Blakley was using a glow-in-the-dark crappie jig hook with a wax worm that he dangled through a hole he had cut in the ice. Within 45 seconds, he said, he felt the catfish hit the hook.  Reeling it in was another story: Blakely and two friends spent at least an hour pulling in the monster fishy on a tiny two-foot ice fishing pole. Anglers normally use medium to heavy tackle to bring in flatheads.
 
Blakely normally throws his catch back into the water for another day, but in this case he had to take it to the DNR to have its weight and measurements noted for the record books. When he found the DNR office at Plainview MI closed, he kept the fish at home in the bathtub, keeping it alive with an aquarium pump long enough to take it back to the state office.  However, he had hoped to release the fish alive. According to a local newspaper, “It broke my heart that the fish had to die for me to break the record.”
 
 
Blakely, while philosophical, is of a practical bent. He plans to have a replica of the fish made to be mounted on his wall. As for the fish itself, it was consigned to a fish fry. Which is better, catsup or hot sauce with deep fried fish?
 
Flathead catfish are also known by the binomial scientific name: Pylodictis olivaris and were first described in the early 1800s. They are also known by various other names, such as: motley cat, yellow cat, bashaw, shovelhead cat, opelousas, and yellow cat. They are found throughout North America west of the Appalachian range, ranging from Canada and the lower Great Lakes all the way to Mexico.  They are known to live in brackish water, too.
 
Pylodictis olivaris are known to grow to a length of 61 inches and weigh as much as 120 pounds, but average 25 to 46 inches. Male flatheads become mature at 5 years of age and 6.3 inches, and females are mature at 7.1 inches. They may live as long as 24 years of age. The world record was set at Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, in 1998. That monster came in at 123 pounds 9 ounces.
 
(world record flathead catfish)
 
Flatheads, like most catfish, are benthic feeders and prefer live prey. Since they are carnivores, they are not preferred in aquaculture. They like to eat fish, insects, worms and crustaceans such as crawfish. 
 
It is the male of the species that broods the eggs, tirelessly fanning and defending its clutch that may amount to 2,640 eggs per kilo in size of the female that laid them.
Fishermen are the only predators of the larger specimens. Flathead flesh is tasty.
 
Some fishermen like to take on flatheads through a method known as ‘noodling’ which involves grappling with them barehanded on the banks of rivers and lakes. Good spots for finding flatheads include underwater wood cover, including logs and root wads on river bends in relatively deep spots. Using live bait is said to be essential.
In Michigan, catfish are abundant in inland lakes such as: Pontiac Lake, Belleville Lake, Ford Lake, Geddes Lake, and Newburgh Lake in the southeastern part of the state.
 
Flathead catfish
 
Scientific classification
 
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Siluriformes
Family: Ictaluridae
Genus: Pylodictis
Rafinesque, 1819
Species: P. olivaris
Binomial name
Pylodictis olivaris
 


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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