Species spotlight: Channel catfish

The author shows off a nice channel catfish that will make somebody a great meal.

Stocked all over North America, it’s a favorite of fishermen everywhere

Channel catfish are known as the smallest of the “big three” species of catfish. The average size is about 16 inches, or 1½ pounds, but they can grow much larger.

Like its two bigger cousins, the blue catfish and flathead catfish, channels have spiny dorsal and pectoral fins. They also have whiskers, known as barbels, around their mouths. They have long, slender, bodies that are typically pale blue to olive on their backs and sides, with white bellies.

Channel catfish have deeply forked tails and small dark spots scattered on their bodies, especially when young. These spots usually fade as the fish ages. Exceptionally big channel cats are often mistaken for blue cats, which also have forked tails. Trophy-sized channels can also appear more blue or gray than olive, further confusing anglers.

The best way to tell the difference between a channel catfish and a blue is to count the rays on the fish’s anal fin. Channel cats have 25 to 29 rays; blue cats have 30 to 36.

The favored diet of channel catfish includes other fish, crawdads, mollusks and insects. They often eat aquatic vegetation, but fisheries biologists believe this may occur as the fish eat small prey hiding in vegetation, which the channel cats ingest inadvertently. However, during extreme conditions when little food is present, channel cats are known to eat large amounts of vegetation, suggesting the fish will adapt as situations dictate.

Channel cats spawn from May to July in waters that range from 70 to 80 degrees. The males construct nests along undercuts river banks, in logs and in other sunken debris. Females deposit a mass of gelatinous eggs into the nests, which are guarded by the males. Males stay with the fry for an extended period after they hatch.

Pond stock

When ponds are constructed throughout the United States or when established ponds are lacking fish for sport, biologists suggest stocking channel catfish along with bream and bass. Channel cats are also the main species in aquaculture across the southeast.

Channel catfish feed heavily between sunset and sunrise and are often caught by anglers targeting either blues or flatheads. Anglers specifically targeting channels often rely on “stinkbaits” that are formed into bait balls, squirted as a liquid into plastic forms or pasted onto sponges. Cut bait, chicken livers and cheese also make good baits for channels.

In the South, these fish are most commonly referred to as channel cats, but they are known by other names in some areas. One common nickname for these fish is government catfish, probably because state and federal government agencies stocked them throughout many states in the 1960s and 1970s. Other nicknames include fork-tailed catfish, spotted catfish, willow catfish, and lady catfish. In some western states, they are commonly called “grace.”

The Louisiana state record channel cat weighed 30.3 pounds. Harold Clubb caught the fish in Minor’s Canal of the Intracoastal Waterway in August 1977.

Tom Edwards caught the Mississippi state record from Lake Tom Bailey in May 1997. That fish weighed 51 pounds, 12 ounces.

The world record tipped the scales at 58 pounds and was caught in South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie by W.H. Whaley in 1964.

About Brian Cope 170 Articles
Brian Cope of Edisto Island, S.C., is a retired Air Force combat communications technician. He has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina and has been writing about the outdoors since 2006. He’s spent half his life hunting and fishing. The rest, he said, has been wasted.

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