The Largest Flathead Catfish Ever Caught in North Carolina Was as Big as a Labrador Retriever

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: September 14, 2023
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Also known as the mudcat or shovelhead catfish, the flathead catfish is one of the most common catfish in the United States. It also ranks among the most popular catfish sought after by anglers. In addition to putting up an excellent fight, flathead catfish also possess desirable meat. You can find trophy-worthy flathead catfish throughout much of the US, including in North Carolina. If you’re hoping to claim the North Carolina flathead catfish record, you’ll need to beat the current record-holder, a massive specimen that weighed as much as a Labrador. Keep reading to learn all about the largest flathead catfish ever caught in North Carolina. 

Description of Flathead Catfish

Flathead catfish, isolated on white background

Flathead catfish have a shovel-shaped head, light brown or olive skin, and a pronounced lower jaw.

©Rob Hainer/Shutterstock.com

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The flathead catfish appears relatively similar to other catfish species, such as the blue catfish and channel catfish. Like other catfish, it features smooth scales, barbels (whiskers) near its mouth, and sharp spines along its dorsal and pectoral fins. However, it also possesses several distinguishing features. 

As the name implies, flathead catfish have a broad, flat head even when compared to other catfish. The lower jaw juts out noticeably, which also accentuates the head’s shovel-like appearance. They look light brown or olive green with flecks of yellow along the back and sides, while the underbelly appears white-yellow. Meanwhile, younger flathead catfish often sport dark brown mottling. 

Unlike blue and channel catfish, flathead catfish do not have deeply forked tail fins. Instead, the tail fin features a slight notch and has between 14 and 17 rays.  

Flathead catfish are carnivores that prey on whatever they can fit in their mouths.

Average Flathead Catfish Size

Flathead Catfish

Flathead catfish typically measure between 1.5 and 4 feet long and weigh between 20 and 40 pounds.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

On average, most flathead catfish measure between 1.5 and 4 feet long. That said, exceptionally large specimens can measure upwards of 5 feet. In terms of weight, mature flathead catfish typically weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. However, exceptionally large specimens can weigh 100 pounds or more. 

Diet

Flathead catfish are carnivores that prey on whatever they can fit in their mouths. As juveniles, flathead catfish mostly feed on worms, crayfish, insects, and other invertebrates. As they grow, their diet expands and includes larger and larger prey. By the time they reach maturity, they feed almost exclusively on fish like American gizzard shad, sunfish, carp, drum, and even other catfish. Unlike other catfish, flathead catfish do not scavenge and will only feed on live prey.

Habitat

Two flathead catfish on bottom of the river floor.

Flathead catfish prefer slow-moving, cloudy water.

©iStock.com/stammphoto

Historically speaking, flathead catfish ranged throughout the Mississippi River basin. You could find them from northern Mexico to central Wisconsin and east of the Missouri River to western Appalachia. Due to their popularity as a sport fish, anglers slowly introduced flathead catfish into streams and lakes across the US. Presently, you can find invasive populations along the East Coast, Midwest, and parts of the Southwest. 

Mature flathead catfish spend most of their time in deep water with plenty of cover. During the day, they tend to hide under logs, trees, or undercut banks. At night, they move to shallow water closer to shore to hunt for prey. Flathead catfish prefer slower currents and turbulent, cloudy water as opposed to fast, clear water. While they can live in brackish water, flathead catfish cannot live in seawater. 

Lifespan

Flathead catfish spawn between May and August, with most populations breeding from late June to early July. To induce spawning, water temperatures must range between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Male flathead catfish select a suitable spawning site which they improve by hollowing out a depression with their tails. Females can lay up to 1200 eggs per pound of body weight. Most flathead catfish live between 12 and 14 years in the wild, although some can exceed 24 years under the right circumstances. They reach adulthood by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. 

Fishing for Flathead Catfish in North Carolina

Flathead catfish

Heavy tackle and live fish as bait are needed to catch one of these beasts.

©M. Huston/Shutterstock.com

While not native to the state, you can find flathead catfish throughout much of North Carolina. Some of the most popular fishing spots for flathead catfish in the state include the Cape Fear River, Yadkin River, and Neuse River. Lake Norman also ranks among the best flathead catfish fishing spots in the state. 

You can fish for flathead catfish either by boat or on the shore. That said, flatheads change their location depending on the time of day. During the day, they live in deeper water, which means you will likely have more success fishing by boat in the deeper spots along a river. At night they move to shallow water to feed, which makes them more accessible by shore. 

Unlike other catfish, flathead catfish typically shun smelly, dead bait. Stay away from using grocery store bait or old meat. Instead, you should opt for lively or freshly cut baitfish. Good options include sunfish, carp, shad, bluegills, and shiners.  

The Largest Flathead Catfish Ever Caught in North Carolina

The largest flathead catfish ever caught in North Carolina weighed 78 pounds, 14 ounces. Pikeville resident Tyler Barnes caught this record-setting flathead on July 20, 2020, in the Neuse River. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recognized his catch as legitimate, beating out the previous record that was held by Brian Newberger of Fayetteville for almost 15 years. Newberger’s fish caught a 78-pound flathead in the Cape Fear River just above Lock and Dam No. 3.

Amazingly, Barnes managed to keep the massive flathead catfish alive until he could weigh it at Goldsboro’s EZ Bait and Tackle shop. After weighing the fish, he released it back into the wild, which means this massive fish can grow even larger. 

The Largest Flathead Catfish Ever Caught in the World

While Tyler Barnes’s flathead catfish was huge, it paled in comparison to the largest flathead ever caught. This behemoth shovelhead weighed nearly 123 pounds, over 1.5 times as much as Barnes’s fish. It measured 61 inches long and around 42.75 inches wide at its widest point. Angler Ken Paulie hauled in this massive flathead catfish on May 19th, 1998, while fishing on the Elk City Reservoir just west of Independence, Kansas. Paulie hooked his record flathead using a live minnow attached to a Zebco rod and reel outfitted with a 14-pound Trilene fishing line. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/stammphoto


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