High-quality fishing in the freshwater streams of the Florida Panhandle is certainly no new phenomenon. The popular riverine fisheries in the northernmost reaches have long held a widespread reputation as prime angling destinations.
Photo courtesy of the Florida FWC.
However, until relatively recent times, it has always been the area’s largemouth bass, big bluegills and prolific mammoth shellcrackers that served as the region’s draw. Now, though, “Mr. Whiskers” can be entered as a contender as well.
While North Florida’s native channel catfish population has always been a prime provider of sport and tasty table fare, the Panhandle is now home to numbers of blue and flathead catfish. These transplants are today well established in practically every locale in which their inadvertent or purposeful introduction has occurred. Blue cat and flathead sizes in this portion of the Sunshine State are fast becoming legendary as well.
In December of 1975, Tom Norman captured a 57 1/2-pound flathead catfish in the Hillsborough River, thereby establishing the state’s uncertified record weight for the species. On April 9, 2004, Tommy Fowler’s 49.39-pound Apalachicola River flathead became the official state record.
Then there is “Old Blue,” long known in its native range as the true heavyweight of North American catfish. Though the flathead has received the lion’s share of non-native North Florida catfish publicity in recent years, the blue cat has also made a name for itself.
And 64-year-old James Mitchell was no stranger to big North Florida catfish when he went fishing on the Choctawhatchee River back in August of 2008. The Washington County angler already had a pair of 40-plus-pound cats to his credit, including a whopper channel catfish taken from the same waters just a week prior.
Despite those facts, the veteran Caryville trophy catfish fancier could not have anticipated the outcome of that excursion. When he left the river, Mitchell was the new holder of Florida’s state blue catfish record. It was a 64 1/2-pound behemoth he bested after a 10-minute battle.
The monster cat was taken near sundown after a slow afternoon of fishing. Mitchell, who is disabled, said he knew he had hooked a big catfish right off the bat.
Fishing a favorite spot in the Choctawhatchee near Caryville, Mitchell subdued the big blue with a stout 6-foot rod and a baitcasting reel loaded with 50-pound-test line. His bait was a hand-sized bluegill, his favorite bait and a favored prey of the big cats.
The giant blue measured 53 1/2 inches in length and was exactly 3 pounds heavier than the previous Florida record taken from Little Escambia Creek near Pensacola by Vincent Walston in 1996.
Mitchell’s catch was certified as the new state record by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists Chris Paxton and Claire Mangum, who supervised the weighing of the fish on certified scales.
There are abundant theories as to how blue catfish got into North Florida waters. It is known that they were introduced into the Choctawhatchee’s northern stretch in Alabama in 1993, when heavy rains broke the dam of a private lake stocked with brood fish. Most of those were believed to have been caught by local fishermen, but a few may have migrated downstream into Florida.
Deliberate releases, as well as accidental stockings, in the Choctawhatchee and other North Florida streams may have contributed to the present abundance of the species throughout the Panhandle.
Blue cats have deeply forked tails with white chin barbells. The upper and lower jaws meet evenly, or the upper jaw may project slightly beyond the lower jaw. Distinguishing small blue catfish and channel catfish can be difficult, but the two species can usually be separated by anal fin shape and size. The anal fin has a straight edge. The anal fin of the channel cat is rounded.
In body color, the blue cat is light blue, while the channel cat is light yellow with small, scattered dark spots, which often fade as the fish ages. The natural range of the blue catfish is in the Mississippi River drainage.
The flathead catfish introduction into the Florida Panhandle is as up in the air as the blue’s. Where they are thriving, however, is no point of contention. While the Apalachicola River has the most flathead catfish, a handful of other North Florida streams have varying densities.
The Escambia River comes in at No. 2, though the abundance of flatheads there is much lower than in the Apalachicola. This exotic species also occurs in the Ochlockonee and Yellow rivers. Flatheads were collected by fisheries biologists from the Choctawhatchee for the first time in 2002. A few have also been taken from the Blackwater River.
One negative impact of flathead introduction, and possibly the blue catfish’s appearance as well, is a reduction in numbers of the native spotted bullhead. This small catfish was probably the most dominant species in most of the rivers east of and including the Choctawhatchee in North Florida before the flatheads and blues arrived. According to biologists, because the larger introduced catfish feed on bullheads and redbreast sunfish, both are likely to decrease in Panhandle rivers.
On a positive note, in the Apalachicola in particular, flathead catfish have become quite popular with anglers and are especially prized for the quality of their flesh. Flatheads are extremely palatable as they are primarily a predatory species and, as a rule, only scavenge out of necessity. A decade-old economic impact survey indicated that nearly a third of Apalachicola River anglers interviewed said they fish for flatheads at least to some extent.
The flathead is the only large freshwater catfish with a head that is flattened between the eyes, a projecting lower jaw, and recurved tooth patches on either side of the upper jaw. The back and sides of the body and fins are mottled with black, white, olive, and occasionally pale yellow. The tail is slightly notched and the top of the upper lobe is white on all but extremely large individuals. The flathead’s native range encompasses much the same territory as that of the blue catfish, but is slightly more extensive.
The recent spread of flathead a
nd blue catfish into North Florida waters is likely to continue in the future. The ultimate effects on arrival may not be felt for some time to come.