Types of Catfish

There are hundreds of different species of catfish across the world with over 30 species found in the United States alone. This is excellent news for the fisherman who loves to go catfishing whether you are seeking channel cats in Montana or the odd Walking Catfish in sunny, southern Florida. Most of the catfish species worldwide are found in countries bordering the Indian and Atlantic oceans. You can catch catfish in many different ways. While different catfish have varying characteristics, most have similar anatomy and are typically bottom feeders; although this does not mean they cannot be found at all depths along the water column. We are going to highlight a few of the more common catfish varieties in our area and give you information that should be helpful in determining their eating habits and locating them in their preferred habitats. We have provided an image displaying catfish anatomy from ‘A Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore’ by Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low. This anatomy is a good representation for most species of catfish.

CHANNEL CATFISH (Ictalurus punctatus): If you have ever sat down at a restaurant in the United States and ordered catfish, then you have likely eaten channel catfish or channel cats as they are commonly referred. They are the most common and numerous species in North America, and they are fantastic table fare. Targeted by nearly 10 million anglers per year, they are the official state fish of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Channel cats can be found in lakes, reservoirs, ponds, rivers, and streams.

Given the right setting, channel cats can grow to 40 pounds with the 58-pound, world record being caught on Lake Marion on July 7, 1964. The typical size that is caught, which is also better tasting to eat, is commonly between 1 and 4 pounds. As do most species, channel cats have a keen sense of smell and taste and can locate food in muddy waters and at night. Catfish are generally known for being very undemanding when it comes to food, but the channel catfish has an especially broad pallet. In addition to eating most organic material both living and dead (fish, nightcrawlers, crickets, liver, etc.), channel cats also love fruit, nuts, and a variety of premade catfish baits like Bait Binder ‘CATFISH CUBES’. They can be easily taken on raisins, blackberries, mulberries, and assorted nuts including the mahal.

BULLHEADS AND WHITE CATFISH: The Ameiurus genus of catfish contains varieties of bullhead catfish and another common cousin, the White catfish, which is not considered to be a member of the bullhead family. There are three common types of bullheads, the black bullhead (Ameiurus melas), the brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), and the yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis). Bullhead catfish are natively distributed east of the North American continental divide, from their westernmost point in central Montana, south to Texas, in streams of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast, north to New Brunswick and Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Bullheads inhabit similar water systems to that of the channel but also thrive in low-oxygen ponds and streams as well as brackish waters. Bullheads seldom get larger than 2 pounds and are often caught by anglers while fishing for other catfish species. They will readily eat anything the channel catfish eats. They are not typically sought after by fisherman but are tasty to eat if caught in clean water conditions. Unlike channel catfish, bullheads do not have a forked tail. Instead, the tail is more squared with their coloration being more mottled like the flathead.

Photo by John Lyons.

The white catfish  (Ameiurus catus) is native to the U.S. Atlantic coastal states from southern Florida to New York. It has been introduced to water systems southwestward into Texas and on the Pacific coast. White catfish are known to be one of the most tolerant of saltwater. They are excellent table fare and have become increasingly popular amongst fisherman and those looking to stock ponds or lakes.

White catfish have a forked tail, but unlike the channel catfish, the tips of the tail are more rounded. They will typically measure between 10 and 18 inches and weigh between 2-4 pounds. Depending on climate and habitat, they will occasionally exceed 10 pounds and grow to over 2 feet. Like the channel cat, the white catfish is omnivorous will eat a wide variety of food items. They enjoy dining on fish (dead or alive), clams, crayfish, insect larvae, and will not pass up fruits and berries.

BLUE CATFISH (Ictalurus furcatus): Of all the species of North American catfish, the blue catfish is the largest and can live 20 plus years in a healthy environment. For this reason, they are considered a fantastic game for angling enthusiasts who often travel hundreds of miles to go head-to-head against this monster. Though the typical length of the blue cat is from 16 to 36 inches, they can grow to over 6 feet in length and a weight of up to 150 pounds!

Nick Anderson from Greenville, North Carolina caught a 143-pound blue catfish in June of 2011 on John Kerr Reservoir; a large impoundment that borders North Carolina and Virginia. Lake Moultrie, the lower lake of the Santee-Cooper lake system, surrendered a 136-pound blue cat in February of 2012. These monsters make me wonder even more what size blue catfish broke my Uncle Don’s rod back in 1982.

Blue catfish are native to the Mississippi River drainage system; these rivers include the Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee. Their native distribution also includes the Rio Grande and southward along the Gulf Coast to Guatemala. Over the years, this species has been introduced to other rivers and reservoirs with some areas finding the blue cat to be more of an evasive pest than an asset to the water system. Big blue catfish can be found in lakes and rivers across Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, and various other locations.

Blue catfish are opportunistic eaters and will dine on almost anything when they reach a good size. With shad, herring, frogs, crayfish, perch, and freshwater mussels being their preference, they will often follow schools of feeding striped bass and take advantage of any wounded baitfish the striper may miss. Giant blue catfish are very fond of waiting behind dam spillways or hydro-electric turbines for wounded baitfish to wash through. It is in these habitats that their size can become immense. Some of the best catfish bait for blue cats is live or fresh cut bait from the waters you are fishing. Other man-made baits like Bait Binder ‘CATFISH CUBES’ are equally effective.

FLATHEAD CATFISH (Pylodictis olivaris): The Flathead catfish is a larger species of catfish and the only of the genus Pylodictis. They are common in waters from central Mexico to the lower reaches of the Great Lakes. As the name suggests, they have a flatter head than most catfish with a mottled yellow to pale brown color. Otherwise, they resemble most other catfish. The flathead provides great angling sport, but their stocking in some areas has been considered a problem for some native fish species. Thus, giving the flathead an invasive species reputation in many areas. For example, in South Carolina along the beautiful Little and Big Pee Dee Rivers that border Marion County, the flathead catfish numbers were steadily on the rise during the 1980s. While conversely, the excellent redbreast fishery was taking a hard hit from the increasing flathead numbers. The Redbreast is a bottom-dwelling panfish who reproduces in open water; making it much too convenient of a meal for the hungry flathead. Flatheads are voracious carnivores who typically prefer live meals.

Flathead catfish average between 22 and 44-inches and 4 to 20 -pounds, however they are North America’s second largest catfish species and are known to get well over 100-pounds. In fact, the largest flathead every caught by rod and reel was pulled from the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas in May of 1998. This fish weighed a whopping 123-pounds and was over 5 feet in length. In order to attain these massive weights, the flathead catfish boasts a heavy appetite for live prey. As adults, they prey almost solely on shad, sunfish, perch, bass and other smaller catfish. They love slow moving current and heavy structure next to deep holes or ledges near deep water.