River Monster! The Largest Fish Ever Caught in Arizona

Flathead catfish
© M. Huston/Shutterstock.com

Written by Rebecca Mathews

Updated: November 6, 2023

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Arizona is known for its deserts, but there are a surprising number of rivers and reservoirs that are home to epic-sized fish! Let’s take a look at the largest fish ever caught in Arizona, where it was hooked, and who landed it.

Arizona’s Largest Caught Fish

The largest fish ever caught in Arizona is a flathead catfish. Eddie Wilcoxson hooked it on April 13, 2013. This river monster lived in Bartlett Lake, just north of Phoenix. It weighed an incredible 76 lbs 8.64 oz, was 53.5 inches long, and was 34.75 inches in girth.

Eddie’s catfish broke the previous 74 lbs record for heaviest flathead catfish, which was caught in 1988 on the Colorado River, and 2003’s inland waters state record of 71 lbs 10.24 oz flathead catfish from San Carlos Lake in 2003.

It seems flathead catfish are Arizona’s river monsters!

Fittingly named ‘Flathead Ed’ caught his Arizona record breaker with two-pound live carp bait at 2 AM from a 24-foot-long pontoon boat. To reel it in, he used a 60 lb braided line. Flathead Ed encourages fishermen to try and break his record, stating, “Everybody’s got the same chance I do.”

Catfish, Fish, Mississippi River, Underwater, USA

The largest fish ever caught in Arizona is a flathead catfish.

©iStock.com/stammphoto

Neighbor States Largest Ever Fish Catches

Arizona’s neighboring states also boast impressive catches.

New Mexico’s largest ever caught fish was also a flathead catfish. The 78 lb monster catch was hooked at Elephant Butte Lake, Ash Canyon, in 1979. Neighboring Utah’s largest catch is a 51 lbs lake trout from Flaming Gorge Reservoir caught in 1988, and Nevada’s biggest catch was hooked at Lake Mohave in 1998. That whopper was a 60 lbs 14 oz striped bass.

In desert states, there are some surprisingly large fish swimming about!

Largest Flathead Catfish Caught in the United States

Compared to the largest flathead catfish ever caught in the States, Flathead Ed’s whopper catch is a mere lightweight. The biggest ever hooked weighed an unbelievable 123 lbs! Ken Paulie somehow managed to reel this monster from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, on May 19, 1998.

Paulie’s catch is the official All-Tackle World Record holder.

What About Other Record-breaking Catfish in Arizona?

Flatheads aren’t the only massive fish in Arizona’s waters.

The largest carp caught in Arizona weighed 37 lbs. It was also hauled out of Bartlett Lake, but a few decades earlier than Flathead Ed’s record-breaking flathead catfish. The carp was caught in 1987.

Carson Pete hooked Arizona’s largest-ever hook-and-line channel catfish on March 26, 2017. It weighed a huge 33 lbs and 5.76 oz.

Flathead Catfish: Species Description

Flathead catfish Pylodictis olivaris is just one of 3,000 catfish species in the world. Thirty species are native to the United States, but the main sport catfish are flatheads, blue catfish, and channel catfish.

Flathead catfish are native to the lower Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. They were introduced to Arizona in the 1960s as sport fish. Because they are such large, predatory fish, they’ve become established in most places they were introduced to. As a result, they are considered invasive in some States because they decimate native fish populations, such as sunfish.

These predatory fish can live 20 years, which explains why some reach such epic proportions and why it’s the largest fish species ever caught in Arizona.

Habitat

Flathead catfish live in large rivers and reservoirs that have a good deal of depth and calm water flows. They like to hide in holes, depressions, or other structures that provide cover. In rivers, flatheads prefer currents near headwater tributaries that contain their small fish prey.  

Logs, driftwood, bridge footings, wrecks, and gnarled tree roots are their preferred hiding spots.

Size

Flathead Ed caught a 52-inch-long river monster, but flathead catfish are usually 25-46 inches long and weigh 10-15 pounds. The older they get, the longer and heavier they become. This means the massive fish are crafty, hide well, and are difficult to catch!

Appearance

These fish are easy to recognize. Their appearance is distinctive compared to other American catfish because their heads are flattened, hence the name flathead catfish. Other giveaways are their catfish-specific jutting lower jaw, four pairs of whiskers (called barbels) around their mouth, smooth bodies, and large forked but squared tails. If in doubt, look for its anal fin. Flatheads have only 14 rays, unlike other catfish that have 17 rays.

Large flathead catfish usually have a pot belly, long sharp spines, and bulging beady eyes too.

When it comes to color, it depends on their environment. Although they are mottled across the United States, mottling is subject to water cleanliness. Usually, a flathead catfish is brown with yellow sides and a white belly, but their coloring is darker in murky water.

Experts think flatheads are dark on top, so aerial predators can’t spot them below and white beneath, so any potential upward-looking prey can’t distinguish them from the sunlight. Sneaky!

Flathead Catfish

Flatheads are white beneath, so any potential upward-looking prey can’t distinguish them from the sunlight.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

Diet

Flathead catfish are piscivores, which means they eat fish, but this predator fish is not fussy. It will eat small prey such as insects, worms, and crayfish, even taking them from the riverside and reservoir embankments.

These are the types of small fish adult (10 inch and above) flathead catfish will hunt or scavenge for:

  • Sunfish
  • Shiners
  • Carp
  • Gizzard shads
  • Bullheads
  • Bass
  • Suckers
  • Catfish (including their own species)

Flathead Catfish Predators

Adult catfish have few predators besides humans, who catch them for sport and food. However, juveniles are more at risk. Wading herons, birds of prey, and large predatory fish pick them off.

How to Catch a Large Flathead Catfish in Arizona

Flathead Ed caught his Arizona record breaker at night with a lure, and it’s a good example to follow because flatheads move from deep water and cover at night to feed on small fish.

Catfish ambush their prey from cover, including rocks, logs, and depressions, so a good spot to fish for them is in deep water but near cover. Although they are nocturnal, they won’t resist what looks like easy prey in the daytime.

Catfish are scavengers, so they will take lures and dead bait, but the biggest flatheads are predators that take small fish. Live bait catches their attention. Record holder Flathead Ed used a two-pound live carp to land the largest fish ever caught in Arizona, but be sure to read fishing regulations on the use of live bait. Any law-breaking renders record-breaking fish catches illegible.

And tackle? If you’re hunting for river monsters, a tough tackle is required. Use a braided line because this is stronger and less likely to wear on the boat side or on rocks and logs as they fight. A good line weight for river monster flathead catfish is 60 lbs.

Great spots in Arizona include Bartlett Lake, north of Phoenix, San Carlos Lake, Colorado River near Yuma, Gila River, Verde River, Salt River, and any deep reservoirs.

In reservoirs, flatheads like to feed below dams, and in rivers, they prefer river channels.

The bag limit for flatheads in Arizona is 10 of any catfish species. And just so you’re aware, roundtail chub is catch-and-release only. Roundtails are greeny-gold with a pink underside and usually reach 10-12 inches, although 20 inchers are not unheard of.

Two flathead catfish on bottom of the river floor.

Catfish are scavengers, so they will take lures and dead bait. The biggest flatheads are predators that take small fish. Live bait catches their attention!

©iStock.com/stammphoto

Other Fish in Arizona

If you’re out to catch a river monster or just enjoy the peace and quiet a fishing trip brings, Arizona is a great place to take a rod and reel despite its desert outlook. Fish species you’ll regularly encounter include brown, brook, rainbow, and apache trout, arctic grayling (introduced species), largemouth bass, crappie, bigmouth buffalo, northern pike, walleye, striped bass, and blue gill.

Keep an eye out for turtles, snakes, eagles, bobcats, deer, elk, and bears too. Arizona is full of exciting wildlife, and all of it needs to drink at the riverside and reservoirs you’ll be fishing in for Arizona’s next record-breaking fish.

Where Is Bartlett Lake Located on a Map?

Bartlett Lake is located near the Tonto National Forest, about 48 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix, 32 miles from Scottsdale, and 20 miles east of Carefree. Arizona is part of the four corners region, the only location in the United States where four states meet – in the southwest with Utah to the north, Colorado to the northeast, and New Mexico to the east. Arizona is also bordered by California to the west, Utah to the north, New Mexico to the east, Nevada to the northwest, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the west.

Summary: The Biggest Fish Ever Caught in Arizona

Here’s a reminder that the biggest fish ever caught with a hook and line in Arizona was a flathead catfish weighing just over 76 lbs. It was 53.5 inches long with a 34.75-inch girth. Eddie Wilcox caught it at 2 AM from Bartlett Lake just north of Phoenix.

And he thinks anyone can beat it!


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About the Author

Rebecca is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on plants and geography. Rebecca has been writing and researching the environment for over 10 years and holds a Master’s Degree from Reading University in Archaeology, which she earned in 2005. A resident of England’s south coast, Rebecca enjoys rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to support the stray cat population.

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