Channel Catfish

Channel Catfish. Photo © Noel Burkhead
Channel Catfish. Photo © Noel Burkhead

Ictalurus punctatus

This is North America’s most popular and populated catfish, residing in lakes, rivers, swamps and even high up in estuaries with lower salinity. Channel catfish have a varied diet, and have the largest eyes in the catfish family, as well as specialized taste buds all over their bodies, to help them find food in low visibility water. Usually they are 15 to 24 inches long, but have been caught up to 54 inches and 58 pounds. They are gray to olive, with pale undersides, and have eight ‘whiskers’ or sensory barbels around their mouths.

Order – Siluriformes
Family – Ictaluridae
Genus – Ictalurus
Species – punctatus

Common Names

English language common names are channel catfish, graceful catfish, spotted catfish, spotted cat, Great Lakes catfish, lake catfish, northern catfish, fiddler, white cat, blue cat, lady cat, chucklehead cat, and willow cat. Common names in other languages include azul (Spanish), bagre de canal (Spanish), Getüpfelter Gabelwels (German), kanalen som (Bulgarian), kanalmalle (Danish), pesce gatto punteggiato (Italian), pilkkupiikkimonni (Finnish), Plettet dværgmalle (Danish), prickig dvärgmal (Swedish), pyatnistyi (Russian), somn de canal (Rumanian), and somn patat (Rumanian).

Importance to Humans

The channel catfish are known for their adaptability, excellent food quality, and value to commercial fisheries. The meat of the channel catfish is white, crisp, juicy, and tender. This species is an important food fish in the southern U.S.

This catfish is a popular and abundant game fish. Anglers have used anything from an array of shad and chicken innards, to soap, bananas, cheese, and dough balls for bait. Channel catfish are fast and powerful. Adults feed on other small fish, crayfish, mollusks, insect larvae, and occasional aquatic vegetation. Baits used to catch channel catfish include minnows, worms, grasshoppers, crayfish, and unique concoctions including spoiled clams, liver strips, and chicken blood.

Although legal in only a handful of states, people sometimes “noodle” for channel catfish. Noodling is when someone travels the edge of a river or a lake in search of holes and crevices in the bank or underwater. Noodlers insert their hand into such areas, offering their fingers as tempting bait to the catfish. The catfish then latches onto the noodler’s hand as it attempts to swallow mistaken bait. The noodler then pulls the fish out of the water by grasping its mouth. This practice is also referred to as grabbling, tickling, or hogging and is legal in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Missouri, and recently, Georgia.

It is the most widely cultivated warm water fish in the U.S. and is often raised along with other fish or freshwater shrimp.

The channel catfish is a useful as a basic test animal for determining chemical transfers, immune responses, and antibody formation in scientific research.


> Check the status of the bluespotted ribbontail ray at the IUCN website.

The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.

Geographical Distribution

World distribution map for the channel catfish
World distribution map for the channel catfish

The channel catfish’s geographical distribution ranges from Hudson Bay region, south to Florida and northern Mexico, north through New Mexico, Colorado and Montana to southern Manitoba. It has been widely introduced in Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean drainages.


Channel catfish prefer warm water averaging 70°F (21.1°C) and inhabit rivers, reservoirs, streams, backwaters, swamps, and oxbow lakes. The catfish can even be found in the upper sections of estuaries having salinity as high as 19.0 to 21.0 ppt (parts per thousand).

Migration and homing are behavioral adaptations that have enhanced the success of this species. As the channel catfish migrates, it exploits spawning and feeding habitats in shallow rivers during the summer and retreats to the safety of deepwater habitats in the winter. Individual channel catfish have been known to home or return to a specific summer location annually, over a period of several years.


Channel catfish. Illustration courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Channel catfish. Illustration courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Distinctive Features
The body is elongated and compressed posteriorly. Eyes are small and the mouth is inferior. They have eight sensory barbels, or “whiskers”, around the mouth. Four whiskers are on the chin, two on the snout, and one on both corners of the mouth. The tail is deeply forked with the anal fin margin rounded.

Adult color is pale gray to olive dorsally, and white to yellowish ventrally. Young are typically light gray on the back and silvery on the sides. The sides have scattered dark spots.

Channel catfish: [top] the barbels located near the mouth, [bottom] the characteristic deeply forked tail. Photos © George Burgess
Channel catfish: [top] the barbels located near the mouth, [bottom] the characteristic deeply forked tail. Photos © George Burgess
Size, Age, and Growth
Adults are generally found between 15 and 24 inches (0.4-0.6 m) in length, with the maximum reported total length of 52 inches (1.32 m). The maximum published weight is 58 pounds (26.3 kg). The maximum age is believed to be 22 years, however it is rare to find individuals over 15 years of age. Sexual maturity occurs at 2-6 years and 13-22 inches (33-56 cm) total length.

Food Habits
Adults feed on small fish, aquatic invertebrates, including crayfish, mollusks, insect larvae, and occasional aquatic vegetation. Adult channel catfish usually feed on the bottom, detecting food by touch and smell. The eyes of the channel catfish are proportionately larger than those of other species of catfish and are adapted to sight feeding to a degree. They actively feed from sundown until about midnight when the water temperatures are between 50° and 94°F (10° and 34.4°C). They are most active when water levels are rising. In the winter they rarely feed. Young depend primarily on plankton and aquatic insect larvae.

Spawning occurs from May to July when the water temperature reaches about 75°F (23.9°C). Sites for nests include weedy places near lake shores, under rock ledges and in tunnels in submerged turf. Prior to spawning, the male cleans the nest site by vigorously fanning with his fins and body. The heads of the males are swollen above the eyes during the breeding season. They also may turn a black or black-blue with black lips while the breeding females’ lips and body generally turns lighter in color. The largest or oldest fish spawn first with the remaining fish spawning according to hierarchy of age. The spawning period lasts from 4 to 6 hours. Females may lay from 2,000 to 70,000 eggs per year depending upon size. After the female has released the eggs, the males take control of the nest and do not permit the females to visit the eggs, as they will eat their own eggs.

Juvenile channel catfish. Photo © George Burgess
Juvenile channel catfish. Photo © George Burgess

The eggs of the channel catfish average 3.2 mm in diameter. They are light yellow with a sticky outer coat. The incubation period of the eggs is from 5 to 10 days, at water temperatures between 70° and 85°F (21.1° and 29.4°C). The minimum size of the young at hatching is about 6.4 mm. The young remain in the nest for about 7 days followed by schooling behavior. The newborn young are insectivores, feeding on midge and caddis larvae in addition to a wide variety of other small aquatic invertebrates. At about 1.3 inches in length, juvenile fish have a channel catfish appearance of typically light gray on the back and silvery on the sides. After reaching lengths of 4 inches, they are omnivorous or piscivorous. Fast growth is found within the first years of life.

Channel catfish have been know to mate with flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris), blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), white catfish (Ameiurus catus), brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis), and black bullhead (Ameiurus melas), resulting in a variety of hybrid catfish.

The flathead catfish feed on small channel catfishes. Photo © Lawrence Page
The flathead catfish feed on small channel catfishes. Photo © Lawrence Page

The channel catfish is known to be a host to parasitic larval mollusks Amblema plicata, Megalonaias gigantea,Quadrula nodulata, and Quadrula pustulosa.Predators
Predators of the channel catfish include larger fishes such as the chestnut lamprey (Ichthyomyzon castaneus) and the flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris).


Rafinesque first described the channel catfish from the Ohio River in 1818 as Silurus punctatus. This name was changed by later workers to the currently valid Ictalurus punctatus. The genus name, Ictalurus, comes from the Greek “ichtys” meaning fish and “ailouros” meaning cat. The species name is derived from the Greek “punctatus” translated as little spots, referring to the dark spots along the sides of this fish.