Some things you just don’t see every day.
On a 2,000-mile road trip earlier this month through six states, including Wyoming, we spotted a half-dozen or so camels grazing in a fenced pasture somewhere between Cheyenne and Chugwater.
Up to that point in our trip, the one-humped dromedary camels outnumbered the number of pronghorns seen grazing in the sage, but that would eventually change.
A week later, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries crews netted on consecutive days from Lake Oahe, two flathead catfish between 15 and 22 inches long, respectively.
While it’s a matter of debate which is more unusual, spying camels in Wyoming or pulling a pair of flatheads from the Missouri River System in North Dakota, it is fair to say that flatheads are without question the state’s rarest fish.
“To put it into perspective on just how rare these fish are to North Dakota, since 1968 we have handled about 17,000 channel catfish from the Garrison Tailrace to the South Dakota border,” said Paul Bailey, Department fisheries supervisor. “In that same time, we handled just 17 flathead catfish.”
Prior to the two this month, the last flathead to swim into Game and Fish Department sampling nets was a decade ago. Most of the flathead netted years prior were bigger than the latest two, measuring between 26-35 inches.
Greg Power, Department fisheries chief, said it has been years since an angler has reported catching a flathead catfish from the Missouri River System in North Dakota. The flathead was discontinued as a listing on the Department’s state record fish chart in 2002 because it was believed that the species was well on its way to extirpation in the state.
When listed, the state record flathead was a 26-pound, 6-ounce fish caught in the Heart River, a tributary of the Missouri, in 1985.
Today, the flathead catfish is listed as a species of conservation priority in North Dakota, but will likely be taken off the list because it’s a highly peripheral species, living on the extreme northern edge of its range.
“Flatheads, while native to North Dakota, have never been close to common,” Power said. “They were never abundant and became even less abundant after impoundment. But you don’t have to go very far south, say, the South Dakota and Nebraska border, before they become very common.”
Power said there was a time flatheads turned up in Department nets on Lake Sakakawea, but fisheries managers are nearly certain that they no longer exist in the big lake.
As its name more than implies, the flathead catfish has a broad, flat head. While the more numerous channel catfish has a forked tail, the flathead does not.
Because the fish caught in Department nets earlier this month aren’t that big, it more than makes sense that they aren’t holdovers from the days of pre-impoundment, but rather the product of reproduction. One fish was aged at five years, while the other at six.
“While it appears there is some recruitment to the population, the flathead catfish still remains, hands down, the rarest fish in North Dakota,” Power said.