Flathead Catfish

Pylodictis olivaris


Illustration of an adult flathead catfish
Flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris
Joseph R. Tomelleri. Used with permission.

Ictaluridae (bullhead catfishes) in the order Siluriformes (catfishes)


Missouri catfishes have smooth, scaleless skin and barbels (“whiskers”) around the mouth. The flathead catfish is distinguished by its broad, flattened head with small eyes on top, and the lower jaw projecting beyond the upper jaw. The tail fin is mostly squared off, with a slight notch, and the anal fin is rounded, with 24–29 rays. The body is often strongly mottled with brown or black. The back and sides are pale yellow to light brown or olive; the belly is pale yellow or cream-white. The tail fin is dark brown or black except for the upper lobe. Young individuals are darker and more boldly marked than adults.


Total length: 15–45 inches; width: 1–45 pounds

Habitat and conservation

Prefers reservoirs or large streams with slow current. Avoids streams with high gradients or intermittent flow. Never found in headwater creeks. The young are often found among rocks on riffles; adults occur in pools, near submerged logs, piles of drift, or other cover.


Smaller flatheads eat insect larvae; adults prefer fish and crustaceans. Unlike channel catfish, they are not scavengers and will not eat dead or decaying material.

image of Flathead Catfish distirbution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide in reservoirs and large streams with slow current.


One of the most abundant of the larger catfishes in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and in their principal tributaries of the Prairie Region. Also found in the larger streams and ditches of the Bootheel lowlands. In the Ozarks, it is largely restricted to reservoirs and the downstream sections of the larger streams.

Life cycle

Spawns in late spring or early summer. The male selects and guards the nest site in dark secluded areas such as cavities in drift piles, logs, undercut banks, and rocks. Adults are solitary, each staking out a favorite spot in deeper water or under cover during the day. At night they move into riffles and shallow areas to feed.

Human connections

The flathead catfish is an important commercial and sport fish. Before the commercial fishery for catfish was closed in the Missouri River, the harvest of this species by Missouri's commercial fisherman was more than 208,000 pounds. In old-time Ozark dialect, flathead catfish were called "granny cats."

Ecosystem connections

Flathead catfish are aquatic predators, but that doesn't mean they don't get preyed upon themselves. The young of even the largest species of fish are vulnerable to predation, and so are the eggs. This is one reason why catfish, and many other fish, guard their eggs and sometimes the fry.