Ictalurus punctatus (Rafinesque, 1818): channel catfish

Biological Description

Body slender, slightly compressed, moderately deep; angle of head from tip of head to dorsal fin shallow; caudal peduncle long and deep; skin without scales; lateral line straight and near midpoint of body. Head small, slender, compressed dorso-ventrally; snout long; mouth nearly teminal, upper jaw slightly longer than lower; maxillary barbels longer than head; eye relatively large; teeth on upper jaw in a broad transverse band without backward extensions. Dorsal fin with 1 spine, slightly serrated in young fish, becoming smooth in adults; adipose prominent and elevated; caudal fin deeply forked; anal fin base long, 24 to 29 rays; pelvic fins abdominal; pectoral fins with a single spine, serrated on posterior edge. Color bluish to greenish gray dorsally; grayish-white ventrally; sides spotted with dark flecks which are absent in very young and fading in old fish.

Life History

When they first mature, males are usually larger than females. In Lake Erie about half the males were mature when they reached 11.0-11.2 inches in length, and half the females at 9.8-11.0 inches. In Kansas ponds males become mature at 12 to 15 inches and females at 10.5 to 11 inches.

Spawning usually takes place in spring when water temperatures are between 70° and 80° F. The male selects and cleans a nest site and secretes mucous to make a smooth surface within the nest. Nest sites are usually in sheltered areas such as hollow logs, muskrat burrows, or under banks. In hatchery ponds, ceramic drain tiles are used successfully. The male guards the nest and keeps eggs clean by fanning them with the pelvic fins. Egg production varies between 1,600 and 70,000 eggs, the number generally depending on the size of the female. The large yellow eggs hatch in 9 to 10 days at 60° to 65° F, or in 5 to 6 days at 77° F.

Channel catfish live a fairly long life; fish more than 14 years old have been reported in several waters. A large catfish may be 36 inches long and weigh 25 pounds. The world record channel catfish taken on hook and line weighed 58 pounds. The growth rate is affected by numerous factors and varies considerably in different waters.

Geographic Distribution

The natural range of channel catfish extends from southern Canada southwest of the Appalachians to Florida, west through the Gulf States, and northwest to the Rocky Mountains. This species now abounds in the Snake River from Swan Falls to the Columbia River.

Habits and Habitats

 Its preferred habitat is large rivers, shallow reservoirs, and lakes. Channel catfish are found most often in clear lakes, reservoirs, and streams, but they can survive in muddy water. In streams they are usually found in moderate to swift current over sand, gravel, and rubble bottoms. In flowing water they are sometimes found over mud bottoms. They are seldom found in dense aquatic vegetation. The young, yearlings, and subadults in streams remain in rather shallow water. Little is known about their habitat preference in lakes. Adults come into shallow water at night to feed, but return to deep holes or shelters during daylight. Channel catfish thrive at water temperatures above 70° F. Tagged fish in a small pond (1.8 acres) in Kansas moved within a small area, with the greatest activity just at sunset and before sunrise. Catfish tagged in a large lake (2,000 acres) in Oklahoma returned to their areas of original capture when released at a central point.


Channel catfish feed by sight and taste, using the barbels, and consume a variety of food items. Feeding is usually at night, but often also occurs during the day. Young catfish (less than 4 inches long) feed primarily on Diptera, but also eat caddisflies and mayflies. Larger fish (4-12 inches long) eat insects primarily but also eat terrestrial insects, seeds, crayfish, aquatic insect nymphs, spiders, and vegetation. The kinds of fishes eaten by large catfish depend largely on what is available, and the following species are known to occur: minnows, catfishes, bluegills, crappie, yellow perch, hickory shad, herring, gizzard shad, American eels, fingeling arp, and green sunfish. One stomach contained an adult bobwhite quail.

 Idaho Conservation Status

 Idaho Native or Import

Introduced. The first introduction into Idaho was in 1893 when 100 fish were released into the Boise River by the U.S. Fish Commission. There is no evidence than any reproduction resulted from this early plant. It was introduced again in 1940 by Idaho Fish and Game Department and releases were made in Little Wood River, Snake River at Burley, and Snake River between Glenns Ferry and Weiser.


In recent yers, the channel catfish has become quite popular with Idaho anglers, especially during the early spring and summer months. The rod and reel fishermen use a variety of baits such as night crawlers, cut baits, and odoriferous concoctions of various kinds. To be most effective, the bait has to be fished near the bottom. The flesh is white, firm, and of excellent quality, and may be prepared in a variety of ways.


Simpson and Wallace 1982.Wydoski and Whitney 1979. Image Copyright Joseph Tomelleri. Used by permission.