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Apex Predator River Monster Discovered In US Waterways

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Colossal creatures

An aquatic behemoth weighing up to 120 pounds and devouring anything in its vicinity is asserting its dominance over water bodies in the United States and has now breached the Canadian border. Flathead catfish have amassed a sizable following of enthusiasts known as ‘noodlers,’ who engage in the daring pursuit of grappling with these colossal creatures using only their hands.

Native habitat

However, conservationists are raising concerns about the unchecked expansion of flathead catfish across the nation, as they steadily advance beyond their native habitat in the Gulf of Mexico basin.

The population

‘They are going to be one of the apex predators around every system once they establish those populations,’ said biologist Joel Fleming. ‘If they can fit it in their mouth, they’re going to eat it.’

Southern rivers

This freshwater fish, capable of laying around 10,000 eggs in a single spawning event, was originally confined to the southern rivers but has since expanded its range across the United States.

Overcrowded habitats

This spread is attributed to a combination of intentional introduction into previously untouched waterways and the fish’s own efforts to escape overcrowded habitats.

New environments

The species was first observed in California in 1962, Virginia in 1965, and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in 2003. As they settle in new environments, these fish tend to grow larger, with a 66-pound specimen setting a state record in Pennsylvania in June of the previous year.

Southern Ontario

Scientists suggest that climate change has played a role in their proliferation, with their reach now extending to the Thames River in southern Ontario. Initially identified a decade ago, there are concerns among researchers that they have established a self-sustaining population in this river, which already supports 25 endangered fish and mussel species.

Southern catfish

According to biology professor Nicholas Mandrak from the University of Toronto, an expert on invasive fish species, each of these fish consumes substantial amounts of fish daily, potentially weighing kilograms. He suggests that climate change may be a contributing factor, as rising water temperatures create a more hospitable environment for these southern catfish to thrive in Canadian waters.

Scientists in Canada

Mandrak emphasizes the significant negative impact these large catfish can have on local fish populations if their numbers are not controlled. While efforts in the United States have shown limited success in managing their proliferation, scientists in Canada may face challenges in curbing their rapid expansion.

Consume prey

Conservationists in Georgia struggled to control the population of these catfish, removing 64,000 individuals over nine years from the Satilla River. Despite their efforts, the conservationists admit to facing an uphill battle against these fish, known for their exceptional vision and ability to consume prey nearly their own size, as highlighted on the wired2fish website.

Aggressive nature

Many fisheries managers have been enticed by the idea of using flathead catfish to control unwanted fish species, given their aggressive nature. However, these attempts have often ended in failure due to the catfish’s voracious appetite and unmanageable consumption habits.

Savannah River

The infiltration of flathead catfish into rivers like the Satilla, which flows into the Atlantic rather than the Gulf, has solidified their presence along the East Coast. Their expansion into rivers like the Ogeechee, where they were first caught in 2021, has raised concerns among scientists. The fear is that these catfish may have entered these waterways through flood events originating from the Savannah River back in 2010.

River ecosystems

Damon Mullis, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, highlighted the difference between native catfish and flathead catfish, emphasizing that flatheads are apex predators, primarily preying on other fish once they reach a certain size. Their predatory behavior and significant size make them a top concern for river ecosystems, as they require substantial amounts of food to sustain their dominance.

Deemed futile

According to Fleming, as reported by The Telegraph of Macon, these fish were likely introduced to river systems through various means, possibly through illegal stockings, leading to their presence on the East Coast. Efforts to eradicate them entirely are deemed futile, with current actions aimed at merely suppressing their numbers.

Several states

The species was intentionally introduced to Idaho’s Snake River in 1943 and has since spread to Oregon and Washington. Additional introductions occurred in the Colorado River basin near Phoenix in the 1940s, eventually reaching California by the early 1960s. Both official and unauthorized stockings have taken place in several states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, resulting in the fish establishing populations in 34 states nationwide.

Elk City Reservoir

Anglers have found these monster fish to be a coveted catch, with a remarkable 121-pound specimen pulled from the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas in 1998. This colossal fish measured 5 feet in length, had a 42-inch girth, and required weighing at a local grain elevator to determine its weight.

The surface

The male catfish’s behavior of closely guarding the nests where eggs are deposited makes them easily discoverable, attracting numerous enthusiasts eager to challenge their skills. In over a dozen states, ‘noodling’ competitions are held, where participants attempt to lure the fish to the surface using only their hands.

Pauls Valley

The upcoming Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley is expected to draw thousands of participants, inspired by a documentary film from 2001. Contestants entice the fish by presenting their hands, hoping the catfish will grip onto their rough mouths.

Escape routes

During noodling, individuals typically block all potential escape routes to prevent the fish from fleeing. One person usually tackles the fish while others assist in impeding its movement to ensure a successful catch.

Medicolegal death investigator

In a viral incident in 2017, a couple from Mannford, near Tulsa, made waves by hosting a gender reveal party at an Oklahoma creek, where the husband attached a pink tag to a Flathead catfish before revealing it to their guests. However, Oklahoma medicolegal death investigator Timothy Dwyer estimates that approximately six people lose their lives each year in the US while attempting to capture these massive fish bare-handed.

Sturdy spines

In a 2020 paper for the University of Central Oklahoma, it was highlighted that a large flathead catfish could easily overpower an angler who is unprepared for the intense struggle of bringing such a weighty opponent to the surface. The catfish, known for their aggressive nature, possess pectoral fins with sturdy spines on the sides, adding to the challenge of grappling with them.

Serious injury

While engaging in hand-catching these catfish, known as noodling, individuals must be cautious not to get ‘spined’, particularly in vulnerable areas like the chest that could lead to serious injury, such as piercing a lung.

Mud Cats

Although some states have banned noodling, videos showcasing this activity have garnered millions of views on platforms like YouTube, with tutorials on how to capture these creatures. The National Geographic Channel even aired a show called Mud Cats, featuring competitions among men aiming to catch the largest flathead catfish.

The threat

Despite the popularity of noodling, many dedicated anglers recognize the threat that flathead catfish pose to the river ecosystem and criticize those who target them. As one angler expressed to researcher Ruth Tobias, noodlers are likened to bottom-feeders like carp or drum, considered by some as undesirable and detrimental to the aquatic environment.

Several hours

Considered as less desirable by bass fishermen and tournament trout anglers, flathead catfish have the remarkable ability to survive for several hours out of water. In a recent incident in Houston’s League City, a three-foot catfish was discovered floundering on a road after seemingly falling from an angler’s truck.

Local food

Despite their unattractive appearance, flathead catfish are reputed to be one of the more palatable river fish. Efforts to control their population include a trap and transport initiative at Maryland’s Conowingo Dam in Chesapeake Bay, where the catfish are captured from the Susquehanna River and donated to local food banks.

Native species

In Georgia, scientists are employing electrical stunning devices to manage the catfish population, urging anglers not to retain the ones they catch. Damon Mullis emphasized the anticipated impacts of flathead catfish on native species, highlighting the importance of preserving the ecosystem’s balance.

Flathead catfish

Researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have been documenting the detrimental effects of flathead catfish on numerous native fish species in rivers spanning from Washington to Florida.

Different species

In certain regions, species like shad, herring, and perch have suffered significant declines, with flathead catfish in Virginia’s James River alone found to have consumed 28 different species. These catfish are not selective eaters and have been observed preying on birds, crabs, and even turtles.

The Smithsonian

While some are drawn to flathead catfish for their impressive size and the challenge they present to anglers, conservationists and fisheries biologists express concern over the species’ impact on native wildlife. The Smithsonian noted their ability to disrupt ecosystems by outcompeting native species and colonizing river systems following introductions of only a few individuals.

Department of Natural Resources

In Ontario, scientists are grappling with how to address the increasing presence of these southern invaders. Tim Barrett from the Department of Natural Resources acknowledges the difficulty of eradicating them entirely, expressing skepticism about the effectiveness of such efforts.

Formidable fish

Noodling, a traditional practice deeply rooted in Oklahoma’s culture, involves the physical challenge of wrestling these formidable fish to the water’s surface.

Beneath rocks

Noodling predominantly occurs in shallow waters where it is feasible to wrestle a catfish to the surface. Depths beyond one’s height can pose challenges, making it tough or even unfeasible to engage in this activity. Noodlers scout for potential catfish shelters in locations like submerged logs, fallen trees, beneath rocks, or within mud banks.

Guard their eggs

Catfish choose nesting spots where they feel secure, particularly during the spawning season in spring and summer when water temperatures reach around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), ensuring they guard their eggs diligently.

Other creatures

Upon identifying a promising site, it’s essential to block any potential escape routes using materials like rocks, sandbags, or assistance from fellow noodlers. Testing the hiding spot by probing it with a stick is crucial. Experienced noodlers can discern the presence of a catfish from other creatures like snakes or turtles.

Noodling companions

If the stick indicates a catfish, the next step involves inserting your hand into the hole. While sometimes this can be achieved without submerging your head underwater, there are instances where taking a deep breath and diving in is necessary. Noodling companions play a vital role as spotters to assist in case of any unforeseen challenges.

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