Catfish Species 101: Finding, Catching and Identifying Different Catfish

angler caught catfish 

American anglers are quite lucky to live amongst so many awesome freshwater gamefish.

Whether you prefer casting for largemouth bass in Georgia, pulling pike through the ice in South Dakota or trolling for chinook in Oregon, there are surely great fishing opportunities within a short drive of your home.  

But many anglers are beginning to expand their horizons and chase after fish they’d previously ignored; and catfish are one of the best examples.

Yet while catfish are certainly a worthy (and delicious) quarry, many anglers are unfamiliar with these bottom-dwelling fish and the methods used to catch them.   

We’ll dive into the principles and concepts of catfishing, as well as the basic facts about the most popular species to give you a better chance of hauling up a few of your own.

Be sure to share your own tips, tricks and strategies for catching catfish in the comment section – they may just help a fellow angler catch a few more fish.   

 

Basic Catfish Biology and Natural History 

catfish swimming under waterCatfish are scale-free fish with long, fleshy “whiskers” (technically called barbels) emerging from their heads.

Although they occasionally swim high in the water column, most catfish are bottom-dwellers. In fact, most catfish are negatively buoyant, which means they’ll sink to the bottom if they stop swimming.  

Catfish have wide, flattened heads and large mouths. None of the popular American catfish have incisor-like teeth, as they primarily capture their prey by sucking it into their mouths.

They do, however, have cardiform teeth, which are composed of numerous rows of tiny, pointed teeth. These teeth are usually quite small, so they rarely feel like more than a roughened patch of skin.

Additionally, flathead catfish and a few other species possess pharyngeal teeth, located deeper inside the mouth.  

Catfish are often colored to match their surroundings and avoid the detection of predators, but they are also protected by a slimy coat (which makes them hard for terrestrial predators to grip) and spine-like fins, which can inflict a nasty wound.

Some catfish even produce venoms that are injected via these spines.  

As a group, catfish live in just about every type of habitat imaginable, although individual species often exhibit distinct preferences. Some, for example, prefer large impoundments and rivers, while others tend to be more common in small streams and ponds.

Of course, catfish have been deliberately introduced into many waters that are not like their historic habitats, and many are able to thrive in these foreign waters.  

Although some catfish are active during the middle of the day, their eyes are clearly adapted for seeing in low-light conditions. Their whiskers – which both feel and “taste” the things in their immediate environment — are also an adaptation for navigating when visibility is poor.  

Catfish vary widely in their spawning habits, but most deposit their eggs in a sheltered place, such as a deep hole or snag. The young largely resemble their parents, and feed on similar – albeit smaller – foods.  

 

Catfish Range within the US 

Channel catfish

There are a number of catfish species native to the US, but as far as anglers are concerned, there are only a handful worthy of discussion: channel catfish, blue catfish and flathead catfish – colloquially known as “the big three.”

Some anglers also like to fish for bullheads – a slightly different group of catfish. Four species are in the bullhead group: black, brown, yellow and white. Note that some anglers call the white bullhead a white catfish.  

Each of the species mentioned above is historically native to the eastern half of the United States.

Collectively, the various bullhead species have colonized everything east of the Rocky Mountains, as has the channel catfish (although channel cats were not able to make it across the Appalachian Mountains until humans came along and gave them a lift).  

The blue catfish was historically limited to the Rio Grande, Mississippi and Missouri River drainages and portions of the Gulf Coast, while the flathead catfish inhabited a range that was overlapped this, and stretched further east and west.  

Nevertheless, humans have introduced catfish – especially channel catfish and a few bullhead species – all over the country. In fact, catfish or bullhead have been caught in each of the lower 48 states, so you are probably closer to productive waters than you’d think.  

 

Basic Catfishing Techniques and Tackle 

There are as many ways to catch catfish as there are anglers pursuing them, but most anglers catch cats by using a stationary or slowly moving bait. The primary variables involved are the bait selected, the rigging used and the location chosen.  

Bait 

boiliesAlthough artificial lures – particularly soft plastic lures and jigs – occasionally catch catfish, most anglers use “real” baits.

This includes animals that may be natural components of a catfish’s diet and manmade items, which bear no resemblance to anything a catfish would ever encounter (aside from finding them on an angler’s hook).  

Worms, crickets, leeches and other common panfish baits are often effective for catching smaller cats, while fish (both live and small sections) are commonly used to catch big ones.

And because catfish often exploit every available food source, things like crayfish, shrimp and shellfish can also put fish in the boat.  

There are a variety of artificial catfish baits on the market, but pastes and formed baits are the most common. Often referred to as “stink baits,” these products work by appealing to the catfish’s powerful sense of smell.

Additionally, anglers have found that many catfish species can be tempted with a variety of products from the kitchen, including everything from grapes to hotdog slices to doughballs.     

 

Tackle and Rigs 

To achieve a stationary presentation, most catfish anglers use a float- or sinker-oriented rigging. There are a million variations for each style, but two of the most popular methods include:

Slip Float Rig

slip float rigA slip float rig relies on a special type of float that contains a hollow tube through the middle, through which the line is threaded.

A stopper (usually a small piece of plastic or a rubber band) is attached to the line above the float, and serves to stop the float from sliding up the line. This will allow the bait to sink to and suspend at a predetermined depth.

Unlike when using a fixed float, this arrangement allows you to reel the bait almost all the way back to the tip of your rod, while still setting the bait up to float in relatively deep water.

Slip Sinker Rig

slip sinker rigA slip sinker rig relies on the same principle as a slip float rig: The sinker can slide up and down the line, and stops at a predetermined point.

However, because sinkers are obviously heavier than floats, you’ll need to use a swivel as a stopper, and it isn’t a bad idea to slip a bead on your line, to protect your knot from the sliding weight.  

In both cases, the catfish will be able to take the bait without feeling much resistance. Until, that is, you set the hook.   

You can use a variety of different hooks when catching catfish, and each type has its share of devotees. Some anglers use circle hooks when using live baits, while others prefer three-pronged treble hooks.

Just remember that while treble hooks do give you another chance to hook the fish, you can’t impart as much pressure on a treble hook as you can a conventional hook.  

 

Locations 

Like most other bottom-dwelling fish, catfish typically relate to major structures – at least when they occupy large bodies of water.

They are rarely found cruising through featureless expanses of deep water; they usually hang near river channels, points, ledges, humps and holes, although they will also move into shallow coves while foraging.  

Catfish also relate to various forms of cover, and they can be found near weed lines and within flooded timber patches. Docks often provide shade for catfish, and may hold them during the middle of the day.

 

Good Catfishing Gear: Rods, Reels and Lines 

To have the best chance at catfishing success, you’ll need to equip yourself with a rod, reel and fishing line that is suitable for catching cats.

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules about the type of equipment you can use while catfishing, most anglers embrace the recommendations detailed below.  

Reel Selection 

You can use just about any reel to catch small channel catfish or bullheads at your local pond. Cane poles will work, as will spinning or spin-casting combos.

However, if you are serious about catching catfish, you’ll want to get your hands on a sturdy baitcasting combo to help you better handle bulky bait rigs and big fish.  

You won’t need any of the fancy features that often accompany bass-oriented baitcasting reels, such as flipping switches. However, a line counter can be helpful, particularly when you are fishing in deep water.

You can go with a low-profile design if you like, but a traditional (round) baitcasting reel will usually hold more line, so they are typically more popular with catfish anglers.  

 

Rod Selection 

You’ll want a long rod to help increase your casting distance and provide more leverage when trying to muscle big fish to the shore. Something in the 7-foot range will work well, but some anglers prefer even longer rods when hauling up big cats.

Avoid extra-fast action rods in favor of slower actions, which will also help you lob big bait rigs out into the water. It rarely makes sense to go with anything lighter than a medium-power rod, and medium-heavy or heavy powers are usually better – especially if you plan on catching large fish.  

Read our catfish rod guide for in-depth advice on how to choose a catfish rod.

 

Fishing Line Selection 

Although you can use fluorocarbon or monofilament to catch catfish, it usually makes the most sense to use braid, based on its superior strength-to-diameter ratio (which will allow you to store more line on your spool) and abrasion resistance.

However, some anglers use fluorocarbon or monofilament leaders when trying to alter the presentation of their bait.  

Lines in the 10- to 14-pound-range will work for most typical catfishing scenarios, but if you are trying to catch behemoths, you may need 50- to 65-pound-test line to handle the massive weight of big cats.  

 

Species Accounts 

While the various catfish species caught in US waters all exhibit similarities, and you can catch any of the species using broadly similar techniques, you’ll have the most success by identifying the species you want to pursue and adapting your approach to suit the tendencies of your target species.  

Below, you’ll find basic information about the “big three” (channel, blue and flathead catfish), as well as the bullhead group.  

 

Channel Catfish 

 

Channel Catfish

Description

Known to biologists as Ictalurus punctatus, the channel catfish is the most widespread and commonly caught catfish in most parts of the US. Channel cats range in color from light gray to brownish, and they typically feature a number of spots and markings on their bodies.

Their tails are deeply forked, and their upper jaw protrudes past their lower jaw. The anal fin of catfish – one of the best criteria to examine when making an identification – contains 24 to 29 rays.  

Habitat Preferences and Range

Channel catfish are very adaptable, and they can thrive in lakes, rivers, large reservoirs and small farm ponds. They typically prefer water bodies with moderate currents.  

Maximum Size

Channel cats have the smallest maximum size of the big three, and they rarely exceed 25 pounds or so in weight. However, most of the channel catfish you catch will probably be in the 1- to 5-pound range.  

Productive Baits and Techniques

Channel catfish are most commonly caught by anglers using worms, crayfish, shrimp or minnows, although artificial stink baits, hot dog slices and grapes are also quite effective.

Many catfish anglers fish for channel cats at night, but they can be caught at any time of the day.  

 

Blue Catfish 

 

Blue Catfish

Description

A close relative of the channel cat, the blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is a large species, which occasionally exceeds 100 pounds in weight. Although typically blue or white in color, blue catfish are actually quite variable, and some individuals are nearly black.

Blue catfish have a forked tail like channel cats do, but they can be distinguished by noting the lack of spots or markings, which are almost always present on channel cats. You can also count their anal spines to obtain a positive identification, as blue cats possess 30 to 36 rays.   

Habitat Preferences and Range

Blue catfish prefer large bodies of water, particularly major rivers with moderate currents. They often hold near the bottom, like most other catfish, but they can occasionally be found hanging out at mid-depths over deep water.  

Maximum Size

Blue catfish in excess of 50 pounds are caught with regularity, and anglers occasionally haul up 100-pound beasts. The largest one ever properly documented weighed 143 pounds, but rumors of fish twice this size abound.  

Productive Baits and Techniques

Blue catfish are more predatory than their channel cat cousins, and they primarily feed on other fish (although very young blue cats typically subsist on invertebrates). Most anglers use live or cut fish to catch blues, with especially oily species being preferred.  

 

Flathead Catfish 

Flathead Catfish Description

Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) are generally brown to yellow in color, with numerous darker spots and markings on their backs. Their heads are, as their name implies, flattened, which is an adaptation that helps them root around in the soft muddy bottom looking for food.

Their lower jaws protrude beyond their upper jaws, which gives them a distinct appearance when viewed from the side. The flathead cat’s tail is not forked like the tails of blue and channel cats are, and they possess less than 30 rays in their anal fin.  

Habitat Preferences and Range

Flathead catfish typically prefer slower currents and higher water turbidity than blues or channel cats do.

They are often found lurking in undercut banks, deep-water holes or other sheltered locations, where they will remain throughout most of the day. At night, they tend to cruise the shallows seeking food.  

Maximum Size

Flathead catfish routinely exceed 20 pounds, and they occasionally top the 100-pound mark.  

Productive Baits and Techniques

Flathead catfish are the most predatory of the big three, and they consume fish for most of their lives. Most flathead catfish are caught with live baits, as they do not scavenge for dead animals as extensively as their blue and channel counterparts do.  

 

Bullheads (Including White Catfish) 

 

Brown Bullhead

Description

There are four common bullhead species native to the United States, including the brown (Ameiurus nebulosus), yellow (Ameiurus natalis), black (Ameiurus melas) and white (Ameiurus catus), which is often called the white catfish.

And although they all exhibit minor differences in appearance, biology and habits, their similarities outweigh their differences.   

Habitat Preferences and Range

As a group, bullheads are remarkably adaptable and are able to thrive in waters that are too polluted or anoxic (oxygen-poor) for other fish. They prefer slow currents, muddy bottoms and dense aquatic vegetation.  

Maximum Size

Bullheads are relatively small by gamefish standards, and rarely exceed a pound or two in weight. The largest individuals may approach 4 pounds.  

Productive Baits and Techniques

Bullheads can be caught using the same techniques and baits used to catch channel catfish, although it is often important to down-size your hooks to accommodate the small body size of the fish.  

Ben Team

Ben writes about outdoor recreation, natural sciences and environmental issues. Read more by Ben at www.FootstepsInTheForest.com.

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