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Satilla River Flathead Catfish Project

History

The Satilla River is a blackwater system draining over 3,000 square miles of coastal plain habitat in Georgia. The tannic waters of this river are home to several species of catfish and panfish, and historically it has been one of the premier sunfish angling destinations in Georgia, particularly for redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus).  

Several generations of anglers have continued to frequent the waters of the Satilla each spring and summer in search of Satilla gamefish, most notably the brightly-colored redbreast. Historically, these anglers likely served as the primary predator of redbreast and other panfish in the river. However, the unauthorized release of flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) into the Satilla in the mid-1990s allowed for a new apex predator to be introduced into the river. 

In 1996, the first confirmed captures of flatheads from the Satilla River were reported to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GA DNR). When observing these newly-discovered specimens, fisheries biologists noticed distinctive fin-clip markings mirroring fin-clip markings placed on fish released in the Altamaha River the previous year in 1995 (Bonvechio et al. 2009 & 2011). Consequently, it is likely the initial specimens captured in the Satilla were moved from the Altamaha River and released illegally into the Satilla.  

As is often the case with the relocation of other non-native species, the introduction of the flathead catfish into the Satilla has created significant concern to both anglers and fisheries scientists alike. Flathead catfish are native to the Mississippi, Mobile, and Rio Grande river drainages of the Gulf Coast (Jackson 1999), among other locales. Their popularity as a large gamefish capable of exceeding 100 lb likely contributed to the expansion of their range as anglers seeking new fishing opportunities illegally introduced them to new river systems, including the Altamaha and the Satilla. Since being introduced into the Satilla, flathead catfish have expanded throughout the river, having been documented as far downstream as the freshwater-saltwater wedge (brackish waters of Woodbine) and as far upstream as Waycross.  

This expansion has not come without costs. Declines in both angler success and populations of redbreast sunfish, channel catfish, and bullhead catfish began to be documented in the early 2000s. While factors such as fishing effort and water levels may also have contributed to these observations, the direct predation by flathead catfish has had devastating effects on these species.  

As a result of these declines, fisheries scientists with the GA DNR began limited efforts to remove flatheads from the Satilla in the late 1990’s. By the early 2000’s, however, continued expansion of the flathead and the resulting increased impacts of its predation on native catfish and panfish resulted in a need to expand and increase removal efforts. Thus, in 2006, a crew within the GA DNR, Wildlife Resources Division, Waycross Fisheries office, was tasked with targeting flatheads on a full-time basis, thus resulting in the creation of the Flathead Removal Project (FRP).




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