Invasive flathead catfish now a river favorite


York Dispatch

YORK (AP) – Just 12 years ago, the idea was farfetched.

After all, at that time, we had just discovered the first flathead catfish in the Susquehanna River. Now, the stretch of water that creates York County’s eastern border is home to some of the best catfishing on the planet.

Again, a bit more than a decade ago, the idea was preposterous. And yet today, head to the river on just about any weekend evening and you’re bound to see hefty catches of the big fish.

Flatheads are the largest catfish in Pennsylvania. The heaviest ever caught in the Keystone State weighed more than 40 pounds – a record that likely soon will be broken – but some states boast record catches of more than 90 pounds. Around here, the average angler can count on a fish weighing closer to 20 pounds.

The most interesting fact about flathead catfish is they don’t belong here. Sure, they now represent one of the largest recreational fisheries in our region, but like so many other finned creatures in the Susquehanna, the big catfish are invasive. They are native to the state’s western waters. How they came east is a mystery.

Until just a few years ago, the state Fish and Boat Commission told us to kill all of the flathead catfish we could find in the Susquehanna. It wanted the fish out of the river.

But now, things are different. The population has soared out of control and an entire industry was born thanks to the hard-fighting fish.

With flathead numbers growing exponentially, the commission was forced to change its opinion. It now regulates the fish as a part of the river’s permanent ecosystem.

In fact, the same rules apply to flatheads as all of the state’s other catfish. There’s no closed season and anglers can keep up to 50 of them per day with no minimum size.

While the region’s biologists and fisheries managers are far from fond of the species, anglers relish the opportunity to pursue the beasts that can grow to monstrous proportions. Most don’t care if the fish are considered an invasive species. They are fun to target and even more exciting to hook into.

How do you catch one? It’s not all that hard. As the population surges, the fish are becoming easier and easier to catch. Most folks will use typical catfish gear – a sturdy rod, a stiff hook and, the bait of choice, a chunk of chicken liver.

But the anglers who target the biggest fish use a different tactic. They head out as the sun is setting and use live bait, typically a freshly caught bluegill.

Send the fish to the bottom and get ready for a long fight. Targeting big flatheads is a great way to spend a relaxing night on the water.

There is little doubt the invasive species is here to stay. As one of the most exciting targets on the East Coast, flatheads are quickly becoming accepted as naturalized “citizens” of the Susquehanna by the local fishing community.

A decade ago, we were just discovering the fish. Now, there are weekend flathead tournaments, with some of the best fishing in the country in our backyard.

It’s anybody’s guess as to what another decade will bring.