Flathead catfish are an impressive predator in Pittsburgh’s rivers | Animal Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Flathead catfish are an impressive predator in Pittsburgh’s rivers 

“When they dig, it feels like your forearms are getting ripped out of your body.”

Joe Granata with a flathead catfish he caught earlier this year in the Ohio River

Photo courtesy of Joe Gordon

Joe Granata with a flathead catfish he caught earlier this year in the Ohio River

Recently, catfish were thrust into Pittsburgh’s public sphere thanks to a Nashville Predator fan chucking a dead catfish onto the ice at PPG Paints Arena during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Pittsburgh Penguins responded by winning the Stanley Cup, and Pittsburghers everywhere started saying, “We throw parades, not catfish.”

Well, the hockey season may be over, but there are still plenty of catfish in Western Pennsylvania. And Joe Gordon and Joe Granata of the 3 Rivers Catfish Club think the region’s native catfish shouldn’t be dismissed. 

The two friends have been catfishing (no, not that kind) for years and have caught dozens of flathead catfish in the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio, even right in front of PNC Park. Some of these fish have weighed in at more than 35 pounds, says Granata, and he believes 50-pounders, some stretching as long as four feet, reside in area rivers. 

Gordon feels the impressive size and abundance of flathead catfish should garner more attention in our region. He says flathead catfish are the apex predator in the Ohio River watershed in this area.

“In these rivers, there is no other fish that can hunt them,” says Gordon. “Once you catch one, you will never want to catch anything else.”

Gordon says flatheads don’t have scales like other fish, and can actually taste through their skin. The fish pick up scents flowing in the currents of our rivers to home in on their prey. When small fish swim close enough to touch flatheads’ foot-long whiskers, the large fish open their massive mouths, causing a vacuum effect in the water and sucking the prey into their jaws. 

While Gordon and Granata love the sport of catfishing, and on good nights can haul in about a dozen catfish, they are dedicated to preserving the fish and its ecosystem. Gordon says they use circle hooks that cause the least amount of pain possible to the animal by attaching at the corner of the fish’s mouth.

Granata also says the club is dedicated to “CPR” fishing (catch, take a picture, and then release). And Gordon is hoping the state will soon regulate catfishing to lessen any potential harm to the population. Since flatheads are at the top of the food chain, lowering their numbers too drastically would have an outsize effect on the entire ecosystem, says Gordon. 

For those interested in catfishing, Gordon says water temperature is key to reeling in flatheads. It’s ideal when the river temperature is between 50 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The catfish prefer to hang out where boulders or other objects gather on the river bottom. And if you ever snag one, hold on. Gordon says a caught flathead will “dig,” or dive straight down, and it can be hard to hold on to. 

“When they dig, it feels like your forearms are getting ripped out of your body,” says Gordon. 

However, even Granata admits that Tennessee still has Pennsylvania beat, catfish-wise. The Volunteer State is home to bigger catfish, including 100-pound blue catfish, and they are more abundant in Tennessee waters. Granata prefers Western Pennsylvania flatheads anyway.

“Ours are better in Pittsburgh,” he says. “They have more character.”



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