With thousands (almost 3,000) of different species of catfish and over 30 just in the United States alone, we certainly can’t cover all of these fantastic creatures. Catfish are a uniquely vast species with incredible weights, sizes (big and little), and personalities. Use this article as a guide for everything you need to know about these seventeen types of catfish.
Types of catfish can be found on every continent except Antarctica and found in both freshwater and marine environments. Along with being a fun find in nature, aquarium keepers also love catfish for their diversity and fun personalities.
What is a Catfish?
Catfish are bottom feeders and are all similarly shaped, despite size differences, and are most active at night. One of the unique characteristics of the catfish is that their skin is smooth with no scales. Instead, catfish have sharp spines on their fins, backs, and sides.
Their namesake and most notable feature come from their whiskers around the mouth, also called barbels, which give the fish a cat-like appearance. Many types of catfish have eight barbels near their mouths, and all have at least one pair of barbels.
Most types of catfish have a keen sense of smell which helps with hunting in muddy waters. Catfish range in size from 4-5 centimeters to 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length. They also vary in color, but most tend to be muted and dull tones.
There are 40 types of catfish families in the world (30 in the U.S. alone) and over 3,000 catfish species! One out of every 20 known vertebrate animals is one catfish. That’s an extremely high ratio. Scientists believe that many more types of catfish are out there, waiting to be discovered and described!
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Throughout North America, anglers primarily look for and catch what is known as “The Big Three.” These three catfish species have large populations in large sections of the country. Their range makes these catfish the most accessible, convenient, and available to anglers. Here, we outline the big three and where to find them.
As the name suggests, blue catfish can have a light blue to dark blue coloring and appear almost black at times. Their bellies are white. Blue catfish have no dark spots, unless in the Rio Grande, and can exceed 150 lbs (68 kg) but are most commonly 20 to 40 pounds (9 to 18 kilograms). You will see a straight anal fin and a forked tail. There are between 30 and 36 rays on the anal fin.
Blue catfish are found in large rivers along the main channels and tributaries. You can spot them over sand, gravel, or rocky bottoms of lakes, reservoirs, tributaries along with swift-moving water of rivers. They move upstream in the summer to find cooler water and downstream during the winter to warm up.
Blue Catfish are native to Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers. You can also find them throughout the southern United States, Mexico, and northern Guatemala.
Considered an excellent food fish, blue catfish are one of the largest species of North American catfish. Blues are notoriously strong and are known to put up a good fight, making the catch of a Blue all the more exciting for the angler.
Blue catfish have an estimated life span of 20 to 30 years. Blue catfish are opportunistic and eat almost anything they find, including herring, frogs, crayfish, mussels, and other types of fish. So while they will bite artificial baits, most anglers prefer to fish with live bait or fresh dead oily bait.
While called hump-back blues or Mississippi white catfish, some may refer to high fin blue catfish as another species. This classification is incorrect, as there is only one species of blue catfish.
Channel catfish are olive-brown to grey. Unlike the blue catfish, they do have dark spots, especially in smaller fish. Their bellies will be silvery-white.
They will be around 30 lbs (14 kg) with a curved anal fin and have a deeply forked tail, which can be very distinguishing. They have 24 to 29 rays in the anal fin. Channels also have a protruding upper jaw, which also makes them stand out from the flathead catfish.
Males select the nest sites in dark, secluded areas like rock piles of logs. Once channels are adult-sized over 4-inches, they will eat mussels, crustaceans, fish, plants, and insects. Channel catfish come out at night to hunt in their muddy waters and rely on their excellent sense of smell.
Large streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs are home to channel catfish. Unlike blues, channels prefer low to moderate currents. However, like blues, channels make an excellent food fish. They are one of the most popular fish species in the United States, ranking second to bass. Channels are popular because of their abundance in most lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.
Most anglers prefer to use prepared catfish baits such as punch baits, drip baits, and soap baits. However, anglers can also use natural baits such as worms or crawfish. Roughly 10 million anglers are going after channel catfish each year!
Typical restaurant-sized channels are between 1 to 4 lbs (0.5 to 2 kg), as these taste the best. If you have ordered catfish at a restaurant, you have most likely eaten channel catfish.
Flathead catfish will have mottled black, brown, and pale yellow coloring. Their bellies are a light cream color. Reaching between 22 and 44 inches, they are most commonly 4 to 20 lbs (2 to 9 kg). However, they can exceed 100 lbs (45 kg) and are North America’s second-largest catfish species.
Flatheads do not have a forked tail and have a shorter rounded anal fin. They will have less than 30 rays on their anal fin. As their name suggests, flatheads have a head shape of a shovel or a board and flattened heads. The lower jaw protrudes out as an underbite. Flathead catfish eat almost entirely a diet of fish, including other catfish.
Flatheads are native to waters from Central Mexico to North the lower Great Lakes. Flatheads prefer dark, deep pools of creeks where water is cloudy, and there is almost no current.
While flatheads are an excellent sport for anglers, they have become a problem fish because of overstocking and are now considered invasive. Because flatheads are carnivores, they will destroy bottom-dwelling fish that reproduce in open water.
Growing up to 16 feet (5 meters) long and weighing up to 660 pounds (299 kilograms), the wels catfish are the only catfish native to Europe, found in the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas. Because of their absolute massive size, the Wels catfish is a praised sport fish.
The fascinating thing about Wels catfish is their ability to change color depending on their environment. Wels catfish also have fantastic night vision because of a thin layer of tissue, called tapetum lucidum, that lays across the top of their eyes. The tissue allows a more considerable amount of light to penetrate the eye in the dark.
The three most common bullheads are the black bullhead, the brown bullhead, and the yellow bullhead. Bullheads can be found in eastern North America, from Montana to Texas, north to Quebec, Ontario.
Bullheads can be found in similar waters as channel catfish and often get caught by accident. However, if the waters are clean, bullheads make for a great food fish. Typically under 2 lbs (0.9 kg), bullheads do not have a forked tail and naturally are colored closer to a flathead catfish.
Native to the US Atlantic coast from Florida to New York, white catfish are excellent table fare and have become increasingly popular. A white catfish has a forked tail, but unlike channel fish, its top is round.
They typically weigh 2 to 4 lbs (0.9 to 2 kg) fully grown, but some can reach up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg). White catfish are omnivores and will eat fish, clams, crayfish, fruits, and berries, among other things.
Found in Southeast Asia, the Mekong giant catfish is considered critically endangered because of habitat loss and overfishing. Mekong giant catfish are unique in that they have almost no barbels and no teeth. They have gray to white coloring without any stripes. Without any teeth, this species of catfish feeds on zooplankton, algae, and larvae.
The Mekong giant catfish once set the World Record for largest freshwater fish, as these catfish can grow from anywhere from 330 lbs to 440 lbs (150 to 200 kg). Locals say that anglers weighed in the largest recorded Mekong catch at 646 lbs (293 kg)! Many different programs are working hard for the conservation of the Mekong giant catfish.
Catfish have such a unique look to them, along with some fascinating personalities. It’s no wonder that catfish have become famous for aquarium owners. Some of these catfish are downright adorable, while others look like they’ve just come out of a Medieval adventure story.
Upside down catfish will give you a hoot when you see them swim upside down, as they like to. Upside downs prefer to feed on the undersides of branches and logs, making swimming upside-down easy and convenient. In your aquarium, these catfish will easily feed at the surface of their tank upside-down. They will grow up to 4 inches (0.1 meter) and are light brown with spots and dots.
Striped Raphaels tend to live between 12 to 20 years and are known for making human-like talking sounds. The talking feature makes them attractive to aquarium owners. Striped Raphaels have large heads and black and yellow bodies. They are more arrow-shaped and have a flat abdomen. Their natural habitats are found at the bottom of river beds and are native to the Amazon, Orinoco, and Parnaíba River basins.
Another tiny catfish, bumblebees, grow up to 3.5 inches (0.09 meter) and can live for up to 5 years in the right conditions. As their name states, bumblebees have yellow and black stripes on their body. You can find this tropical fish in the strong flowing waters of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, the Amazon basin, and other parts of South America. Aquarium owners like bumblebee fish not only for their distinguishing stripes but also for their broad, smiling faces. These catfish prefer to eat sinking tablets or other sinking food.
Native to Asia, this catfish looks like a miniature shark, which gives it his name. While iridescents may keep well in aquariums, it is not recommended as the limited space stunts their growth and may cause premature death. Left in nature, iridescent sharks can reach just over 3 feet (0.9 meter). However, if you have the space for iridescent sharks, they can be an extremely rewarding pet. They are easy-going and straightforward to take care of. Iridescents do better in a school of fish of at least four rather than alone.
12. Cory Catfish
Often found in aquariums and kept as pets, cory catfish grow up to 3 inches (0.08 meter) and live 20 years. Cory cats can work great in a small tank with few other fish. Corys are omnivores and will eat both plants and other fish. There are many different species of cory catfish, but the most popular is the three-striped corys. Corys are part of the “armored catfish” family, who have boney plates covering their bodies and suckermouths. However, despite their diet and appearance, cory cats are easy to take care of and non-aggressive. They can be pretty shy and timid.
As their name suggests, glass catfish are transparent. Because of this, they are also called “Ghost Catfish” or “Phantom Catfish.” While viewing a glass catfish, you will spot organs, bones, and other internal mechanics. Most of their internal organs are located near and behind their head. They live in slow-moving rivers and commonly live in aquariums. Most glass catfish may detect electromagnetic waves in their surroundings because of their extremely sensitive barbels.
Native to the Orinoco and Amazon River basins, pictus catfish grow up to 5 inches (0.12 meter) in length and have incredibly long barbels. They have gray to silver coloring and are spotted and striped with black. Pictus Catfish are good freshwater tank pets because of their fun personalities. They are pretty adorable, easy to care for, and nonaggressive. Pictus catfish are nocturnal and love hiding spaces. While they are quite shy, they are also very active. During feeding time, you might see pictus catfish moving fast and erratically!
Otocinclus catfish, or Otto cats, are absolutely tiny, growing to only two inches. They are non-aggressive and are pet fish in freshwater aquariums. Otto cats can be tricky to take care of because of their small size. They are fantastic at cleaning the glass of windows by eating or “sucking” the algae off the sides. Otto cats are native to South America and live from Venezuela to northern Argentina.
Like Otos, bristlenose catfish are also a great addition to aquariums as they are algae eaters. Bristlenose Plecos are incredibly peaceful and are easy to keep. Larger than the Otto cats, bristlenose pleco can grow up to 5 inches (0.12 meter). Another armored fish, Bristlenose catfish, stand out because of their unusual broad head, flat body, and bony plates. They are gray, brown, and green with white spots.
Another algae-eating catfish, Chinese algae eaters, is also known as the lemon algae eaters or the suckerfish. They can live up to 10 years and grow to the tiny size of only 1 inch. You can find these freshwater fish in large parts of Southeast Asia. Anglers catch them for food and aquarium keeping. An absolute favorite among aquarium owners, suckerfish have a nice golden color with dark spots and a dark-colored band the length of their body.
Classification helps us understand diversity better, where species come from, and what else connects them. Here, we break down the seven levels of taxonomic classifications for the types of catfish.
Ostariophysi are identified by having a swim bladder and fright reaction.
Siluriformes are identified by having fins supported by flexible cartilage rays.
Ictaluridae refers to the family of catfish native to North America, such as bullheads, madtoms, channel catfish, and blue catfish.
Ictalurus comes from the Greek word Ichthys meaning fish, and ailouros, meaning cat.
Punctatus from Greek translates as little spots, referring to the spots and stripes often found on the sides of catfish.
Channel catfish are the most common species of catfish in North America
One of the rarest catfishes globally is the Piebald Blue catfish, found only in the lower Mississippi River.
The lau-lau, or piraiba, is the largest catfish species on record. Found in South America, extending from the Amazon and the Orinoco River basins to Argentina, the lau-lau has earned a man-eater reputation. While this is not true as catfish can not eat humans, the stomach contents of caught lau-lau have included parts of small mammals. The lau-lau have high-quality flesh, making them highly sought after.
Pareiorhina hyptiorhachis, found in the waters of the Rio Paraíba do Sul basin, Brazil, measures 3.5 cm in length.
Researchers have found that rising water temperatures from climate change have impacted some types of catfish. Dr. Spurgeon led this research to assess the growth rates of channel catfish in Nebraska over the past 18 years.
As the temperature increases, so does the catfish growth rate. Dr. Spurgeon and his team conducted this research over many different habitats. They found that all catfish grew faster because of climate change due to their growing seasons being lengthened significantly.
Other studies, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the blue catfish study by Dr. Vaskar Nepal and Dr. Mary Fabrizio, show that invasive species such as the blue catfish will increase due to the warming waters. Because blue catfish are robust and can withstand higher salinity in the water, they may be able to expand and take over even more. While this is excellent news for the blue catfish, this is terrible news for their competitors, the native white catfish. They may also be a threat to yellow perch, shad, crabs, and striped bass.
Each species of catfish has a different set of predators since each type of catfish is so diverse. However, some of the most common predators include;
- Bird of prey
- Fish (including other catfish) such as largemouth bass, perch, walleye, and pike
- Large Lizards
Large species of catfish have fewer predators due to their size and defensive spines. However, smaller species of catfish can be vulnerable to predators, even when they have an armored shell. Along with this, much like other species, catfish are more susceptible when they are young. Some catfish may grow so large that their only predator becomes humans.
As a defense, some catfish have developed the ability to deliver an electric shock to predators who touch them. Others have spines that give venom if they break the skin.
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Catfish are a favorite for anglers. Because catfish grow big and fight hard, they are true game fish. Take a quick look at these incredible world records and All-Tackle records recorded by the International Game Fish Association’s (IGFA) world record database.
All-Tackle Record & World Record: 64.86 kilograms (143 lbs), Kerr Lake, Va., USA
All-Tackle Record & World Record: 26.3 kilograms (58 lbs), Santee-Cooper Reservoir, S.C., USA
All-Tackle Record & World Record: 55.79 kilograms (123 lbs), Elk City Reservoir, Independence, Kan., USA
All-Tackle Record & World Record: 75 kilograms (165 lbs, 5 oz), Ramganga River, India
All-Tackle Record: 155 kilograms (341 lbs, 11 oz), Rio Solimoes, Brazil
All-Tackle Record: 117.93 kilograms (260 lbs), Gillhams Fishing Resorts, Krabi, Thailand
All-Tackle Record: 134.97 kilograms (297 lbs), River Po, Italy
Many enjoy the taste of catfish and the benefits of eating this vitamin D-rich fish. Central Europeans serve catfish on feast days and holidays because the fish is considered a delicacy. In the Southern United States, catfish is eaten regularly and is extremely popular.
The most common species of catfish in the United States served for food are the channels and the blues.
You can find traditional recipes all over the world for catfish. For example, Indonesia boasts a delicious pecel lele. In Malaysia, ikan keli is fried and served with tamarind and chili gravy. Catfish is cooked in a traditional paprika sauce and served with pasta and cheese curds in Hungary. In Myanmar, a traditional noodle fish soup called mohinga includes catfish, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, pepper, banana stem, and other ingredients.
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Why do Catfish have Whiskers?
Each whisker, or barbel, on a catfish, has tiny taste buds and olfactory sensors (taste and smell). These help the catfish taste, smell, and hunt at night. Because most catfish hunt at night or in murky waters, barbels are especially helpful when a catfish is looking for a meal. It’s like another set of eyes for them. Barbels come from the Latin word Barbula, or “little beard.” The taste receptors detect enzymes in the water, which helps with searching for food and alerts the catfish to any danger in the area.
What Does a Catfish Eat?
As clear from the list, each type of catfish are incredibly diverse, which extends to their feeding habits. Most catfish are omnivorous, but some are scavengers or herbivores. In the wild, catfish are typically omnivorous and will eat anything from algae to snails to other catfish.
A typical wild catfish diet may include insects, water beetles, crayfish, algae, plants, snails, worms, and fish eggs.
Although most catfish have teeth, they suck and gulp while eating instead of biting. Catfish teeth are typically small and tilted inwards.
Like the Wels catfish, Larger catfish have reportedly snacked on larger fish and frogs, based on their size.
Captive fish in aquariums or farm-raised fish have different feeding habits.
Catfishes fed by humans usually feed on food pellets designed for catfish. In warmer water, farmers use pellets that float. Likewise, in colder water, fish farmers use pellets that sink. Farmers also feed live feeder fish and worms to farm-raised catfish.
For anglers, smelly, oily feed is best for catching catfish. They will use stink baits, chicken liver, pellets, crayfish, night crawlers, and hotdogs.
Anglers can also use lures to catch catfish. Instead of focusing on brightly colored lures, focus on movement and vibration in your bait to catch a catfishes’ attention. You want your line to feel and look like an injured fish.
When do Catfish Feed?
As opportunistic feeders, catfish will feed during night and day in all water layers. However, catfish are bottom feeders and tend to stay closer to the bottom during the day.
Catfish feeding habits change throughout the cycles of the year. During the winter, catfish are most active during the warmest parts of the day and calm and inactive during the coldest. In summer, catfish prefer to be in cooler, deeper waters until nighttime when they swim to shallow waters.
There is a flurry of catfish activity during late fall as they feed aggressively to get ready for the winter months. Late fall can be the optimal time for an angler looking to catch some catfish.
Are Catfish Dangerous?
A catfish can not eat a human, kill a human, or even bite off the finger of a human. While some types of catfish can hurt you with their sharp fins, catfish will not cause injury that is considered dangerous. If you have ever caught a catfish, you will know that their inward-pointing teeth are nothing more than sandpaper. Their sharp fins are much more likely to maim you, especially in younger and smaller catfish. It is our recommendation to keep your hands away from small fins as much as possible.
Is it Healthy to Eat Catfish?
Catfish are entirely safe to eat when properly cooked. Catfish is low in calories and high in vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. Catfish is extremely popular to eat and is delicious.
Farm-raised catfish tend to taste more mild, sweet, and have dense, moist flesh. On the other hand, wild-caught catfish tend to have a bland and more natural taste, with a sweet aftertaste. Fans of whitefish (tilapia, haddock, flounder, and cod) will like catfish but will notice that catfish meat is not as flaky.
Catfish has become a staple food for the culture and cuisine of soul food. As the name suggests, soul food is home cooking rooted in the culture and traditions of Black Americans and the rural South. Catfish became integral to soul food because fish itself is a West African food staple. When enslaved Africans brought their culinary traditions with them, they found catfish was readily available in Southern lakes and rivers.
Soul food is about coming together, love, and sharing. Soul food prepared catfish is deep-fried with buttermilk and cornmeal. The traditional side dishes for catfish are greens, cornmeal, and beans.