Channel catfish are known around the United States by many names—spotted catfish, fiddler, lady cat, chucklehead catfish, willow cat, and even blue cat. These common names can be misleading, as some of them are shared by other species!
True channel catfish have a wide native range covering southern parts of Canada, the central United States, and down to Mexico. They are native to the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes, Hudson Bay (Red River drainage), and the Missouri-Mississippi river basins from southern Quebec to southern Manitoba and Montana south to the Gulf of Mexico. Though still up for debate, channel catfish may also be native on the Atlantic and Gulf Slopes from the Susquehanna River to the Neuse River; from Savannah River to Lake Okeechobee, Florida; and west to northern Mexico and eastern New Mexico.
Due to intentional and unintentional introductions, channel catfish can be found in much of the United States. They have been introduced in over 32 countries, including Brazil, China, Italy, Japan, and Russia, for aquaculture and recreational fisheries. Channel catfish are thriving in their native regions but can cause chaos in waters where they are introduced. They are considered opportunistic feeders, and as generalists, they eat lots of different things. Due to their widely varied diet, they often establish easily in areas they are introduced to and can outcompete native fishes for food and habitat.
So what and where do channel catfish eat?
It depends on their age. Juvenile catfish less than four inches long consume mainly small insects, while larger catfish can eat a more varied diet made up of bigger items, such as fish, insects, crayfish, mollusks, and plant material.
But what they eat isn’t the most exciting part about it, it’s how they eat!
Catfishes get their names from their barbels, sensory appendages that resemble a cat’s whiskers. These long projections surrounding the fish’s mouth feel around and taste for food. Barbels are where the majority of taste receptors are concentrated on the fish. Surprisingly, however, their scaleless exterior is covered in taste buds, too!
Since channel catfish locate their food mainly using barbels to feel around and taste, they commonly eat off the bottom of the water body. Additionally, they tend to eat more at night, moving into riffles or the shallows of pools to feed. During the day, channel catfish spend their time in deep water or relaxing among drift piles, submerged logs, or other coverage away from busy action.
Channel catfish use a variety of different habitats. Overall, they can be found in sandy, rocky, or muddy areas of small to large streams and rivers as well as lakes. They are especially known for appearing in large, turbid streams with low or moderate gradients, and are not often found in upland, high-gradient areas. Low gradient streams are mainly found in low elevations and they erode sideways and down, making wide valleys; high gradient streams erode mainly down. Young fish are found in riffles or more shallow parts of waterways, while adult fish, who have better defenses, are capable of living in larger pools and deeper water.
Barbels aren’t their only specialized feature! Channel catfish also have sharp spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins, which are great for defense.
Another adaptation against predation is the channel cat’s darker body color, which provides camouflage. The back and sides of the fish are olive-brown or slate-blue and may exhibit black spots (may be absent in young and large adults). Channel catfish earn their scientific name, Ictalurus punctatus, from these spots. Ictalurus means “fish cat” in Greek, and puncatus means “spotted” in Latin. Channel catfish have silvery-white bellies and yellowish fins that exhibit a narrow black fringe on the edges. Albino channel catfish have the same body shape but they have a peachy coloration, making them popular for aquariums or ornamental ponds.
Channel catfish are slender fish with a deeply forked caudal, or tail, fin. Their adipose fin forms a free, flap-like lobe and their anal fin is rounded outwards with 24–29 rays. This is a great way to tell channel catfish apart from blue catfish, which have a straight anal fin with 30–35 rays. Channel catfish mature around four or five years old, and adults are commonly 12–32 inches long. The Missouri state record is 34.6 lbs, and the heaviest reported channel catfish of all time came from South Carolina, weighing in at 57.9 lbs!
Channel catfish spawning periods vary in latitude and range from April through July, when water temperatures reach around 80–82°F (27–28°C). In Missouri and Illinois, channel catfish spawn from around the last week of May through the third week of July, with two peaks of spawning during that time frame.
Before spawning occurs, female channel catfish need cool water with short day lengths in winter to properly develop their eggs. Male channel catfish prepare for spawning season by darkening in color and developing a thick pad on their heads.
Female channel catfish focus strictly on producing eggs. They do not partake in the preparation of the nest or help with the care of the fertilized eggs or young.
Males select and clean out natural cavities with semi-darkness and seclusion, like piles of driftwood, logs, or undercut banks, to create nests. They even use burrows from muskrats or beavers sometimes. Fertilized eggs hatch in about a week and remain in the nest for a second week, with the male protecting the fry from predators. Studies have shown that the survival of young-of-the-year fish is much higher in turbid ponds and streams compared to clear water bodies.
There are many ways to fish for channel catfish. They can be caught on set lines, rod and reel, or by jugging. Bare-handed fishing, also known as hogging, noodling, or grappling, is another way to fish for catfish. This controversial method entails reaching underwater into catfish nests by hand, waiting for the fish to bite onto the hand, and then pulling the fish out of the water. In Illinois, it is legal to hand fish for catfish in sites where wading is allowed and site regulations do not prohibit it as long as you have a fishing license; however, the practice is illegal statewide in Missouri. Noodling is more common in Missouri among flathead and blue catfish, and both species are considered top game fish by the Missouri Department of Conservation, therefore they are regulated under the state’s Wildlife Code.