Catfish Species Essentials: The “Big Three” Types Of Catfish

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Video channel catfish vs white catfish

Blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish are the three primary species of catfish in the United States. They are also the most sought-after species. Most rivers lakes and reservoirs and the United States have populations of at least one of these species of catfish.

This is a summary of basic catfish species information for the blue, channel, and flathead catfish. We also include some of their basic behaviors and habitats. You’ll also learn how to tell the difference between blue catfish and channel catfish (the three main types of catfish). Understanding the different catfish species and their different behaviors essential to being a successful catfish angler.

How To Identify Catfish By Species

Blue Catfish – Ictalurus Furcatus

Channel Catfish IllustrationOther Names

Hump-back blue, high fin blue, hi-fin blue, Mississippi white catfish, blues

Description

Ictalurus is Greek meaning “fish cat”, and furcatus is Latin, meaning “forked”, a reference to the species’ forked tail fin. ** Blue catfish have a forked tail and are sometimes very similar to channel catfish. However, only the Rio Grande population has dark spots on the back and sides. The number of rays in the anal fin is typically 30-35**, and coloration is usually slate blue on the back, shading to white on the belly.

Life History

The spawning behavior of blue catfish is similar to that of channel catfish but they’re otherwise very different catfish species.

Most blue catfish are not sexually mature until they reach about 24 inches in length. Like channel catfish, the blue catfish pursues a varied diet, but it tends to eat fish earlier in life. Invertebrates still comprise the major portion of the diet but blue catfish as small as four inches have been known to consume fish. Individuals larger than eight inches eat fish and large invertebrates.

Blue catfish commonly reach weights of 20 to 40 pounds and can reach weights well in excess of 100 pounds. It is reported that fish exceeding 350 pounds were landed from the Mississippi River during the late 1800′s.

Habitat

Blue catfish are primarily large-river fish, occurring in main channels, tributaries, and impoundments of major river systems. They tend to move upstream in the summer in search of cooler temperatures and downstream in the winter in order to find warmer water.

Distribution

Blues are native to major rivers of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi river basins. The range also extends south through Texas, Mexico, and northern Guatemala. In Texas, it is absent from the northwestern portions of the state including the Panhandle but present elsewhere in larger rivers.

Other

Where mature populations exist, 50-pounders are not unusual. Like the channel catfish, the blue catfish is considered an excellent food fish.

Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is one of the largest species of the North American Catfish. Unlike channel catfish the blue cat is unspotted. They are slate gray on the upper sides and back. Their bellies are white.

Often also called blues, high fin blues, high finned blues, and hump-backed blues depending on which part of the country you are in. Blue catfish typically have between 30 and 35 rays on the anal fin.

These fish are generally very easy to spot, and the trained eye to tell the difference between a blue catfish and a channel catfish without counting the anal fin rays.

Blues live in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and major tributaries as long as there is clear, swift water. They can be found over sand, gravel or rocky bottoms.

The young are hatched in about one week and the male will guard the young for a week or so at the nest site. Then the fry will swim away and be on their own.

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When they are young they will feed on aquatic insects and small fish, as they grow, they will eat crayfish, mussels, and other fish. Blue catfish are considered a predator and scavenger fish. The diet of the fish usually consists primarily of live or freshly dead shad or other fish.

Blues are fast growers and have an estimated life span of between 20 to 30 years.

They are often sought after by catfish anglers not only for their size but for fighting nature as well. They are known for putting up a good fight and really making it exciting for the angler. Once an angler has hooked into a blue will have a long, tough battle, not only because of the size but also because of their strength and determination.

They will bite artificial baits but most anglers prefer to fish for them with live bait or freshly dead bait. The fish prefers bait with a strong scent trail so anglers that use fresh dead cut bait have a tendency to use fish that is very oily for bait. Blue catfish are opportunistic feeders and are often known to be found feeding under schools of striped bass or white bass picking up shad or other baitfish that they have injured.

They are also known to feed heavily in tailraces of dams picking up injured, killed, or shocked baitfish as it comes through the tailraces of the dams.

Many anglers fish for them on the bottom as they do feed on the bottom but blue catfish are also known to suspend in the water column and even feed on the top of the water on occasion.

Blue catfish can be caught in very deep water or in very shallow water depending on the time of the year.

The current world record is 143 pounds. There have long been rumors of blue catfish as large as 300 to 350 pounds though none this large have ever been caught and officially weighed.

What About “High Fin Blue Catfish”?

The term “high fin blue catfish” is nothing but a legend or a slang term for the Blue Catfish, Ictalurus Furcatus.

While many anglers prefer “high fin blue catfish” and will even argue that there are two different species of blue catfish, this is absolutely incorrect. There are only one species of blue catfish and that is as described above.

Many anglers will argue that the “high fin” is a different fish and this “species” of blues has a higher dorsal (back) fin than the traditional blue catfish. I’ve even heard arguments over the years that “high fins” even have slightly different feeding habits and a more ferocious strike.

This is FALSE, and nothing more than confusion and bad information being passed along by anglers.

While you may be able to line up fifteen different blues from the same body of water and identify one or two that have a taller dorsal fin or even other distinguishing factors that vary slightly, this is no different than lining up fifteen people, they’re all different.

THERE ARE ONLY ONE SPECIES OF BLUE CATFISH.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus Punctatus)

Flathead Catfish IllustrationIctalurus is Greek and punctatus is Latin, meaning “fish cat” and “spotted”.

Channel Catfish can easily be identified in comparison to blue catfish and flathead catfish by paying a little attention to the distinguishing features of the species. Channel catfish have a deeply forked tail similar to blue catfish but the coloring is much different than that of a blue.

Because of the coloring of the channel catfish, they are often confused by inexperienced anglers with the flathead catfish. Channels however have a deeply forked tail (instead of slightly notched) and have a protruding upper jaw (instead of the lower jaw).

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The coloring of channel catfish is most often olive-brown to slate in color and even with shades of blue and grey at times on the sides. The underside or bellies of the fish are white or silvery-white. Typically there are numerous small black spots present but these may be absent in larger fish. The anal fin has 24-29 rays (in comparison to a blue catfish which has 30 or more).

Life History

Channel catfish typically spawn in late spring and early summer when water temperatures reach 75 degrees. The male fish select nest sites (like other species) which are typically selected in very dark secluded areas like cavities in rock piles or rip rap, logs, trees, undercut banks, etc. Eggs are laid in the bottom of the bests and the male fish guard the nest. Biologists have also noted that male channel catfish may actually eat some of the eggs if disturbed.

Young channel catfish (less than four inches in length) feed primarily on smaller insects. Adult channels are omnivorous feeding on mussels, crustaceans, fish, plants, and insects. Most channel catfish will reach sexual maturity in three to six years or when they reach about twelve inches in length.

Habitat

Channel catfish are most abundant in large streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with low or moderate current.

Other

Channel catfish are one of the most popular species of fish in the United States ranking second only to bass in many areas. Part of the reason for the popularity is that they obviously make excellent table fare but also because they are abundant and readily available in most lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

Channel catfish can be caught with a variety of baits including natural baits like worms, baitfish, crawfish, or other natural baits but most popular is prepared catfish baits like punch baits, dip baits, and soap baits. One popular technique used with prepared baits is chumming with soured grains like wheat or milo or using range cubes as chum.

Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis Olivaris)

How To Tell The Difference Blue Catfish and Channel CatfishThe flathead catfish is a popular species because there are populations in much of the United States and they are well known to grow to trophy class sizes, all in addition to being excellent table fare. The existing world record flathead catfish weighed in at 123 lbs.

Other Common Names

Yellow Cat, Opelousa Catfish, Opp, Appaloosa Catfish, App, Pied Cat, Shovelhead Cat

Description

As the flathead catfish name suggests they have a “flat head” but other than the flathead at first glance it really looks like the other species of catfish (with the exception of coloring). The flathead catfish (like other species of catfish) has smooth skin (no scales), whiskers around the mouth, and long sharp spines on the back (dorsal fin) and sides (pectoral fins). Flathead catfish can easily reach lengths of three to four feet and can easily exceed one hundred pounds in weight.

Pylodictis is Greek and means “mudfish” and Olivares is Latin for “olive-colored” obviously due to the dark olive and yellow coloring of the skin of the species. They are typically pale yellow to light brown on their backs and sides and this coloring is also very mottled with additional coloring for black and brown. The underside is usually a much lighter cream color or pale yellow color. The young are often very dark brown.

The heads are very broad and flattened (hence the name “flathead”) and often look like that of a shovel that has been turned over, which is why the species is often referred to as a shovelhead.

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The lower jaw projects out. The lower jaw resembles that of what would be referred to as an “underbite” in humans.

Tail fins have a slight notch in them and are not deeply forked like the typical tails of blue and channel catfish.

Life History

Unlike the channel and blue catfish that are scavengers (or opportunistic predators) flathead catfish prey only on live fish (as a general rule).

The young feed primarily on crayfish, worms, invertebrates, and crayfish. Once they grow larger the diet consists entirely of fish of any species (including other catfish).

The spawning season runs typically from May through August when water temperatures are between seventy-five and eighty degrees.

To spawn the male’s select undercut banks, hollow logs, trees, and other similar habitats for their nesting sites. Once a nesting site is selected the male fish improve the nesting site by creating shallow depressions in the mud for the female to lay the eggs in. Marine biologists have estimated in the past the female fish will lay 1200 eggs for every pound of her body weight (which is why it is important to live release the larger fish back into the waters by practicing catch and release).

Adult flathead catfish are most often solitary fish known to pick out a favorite spot under a tree, log or undercut bank and remain alone in deeper water. At night the flathead catfish will move into shallow water areas to feed.

Their preferred habitat is deep pools of creeks where water is cloudy and currents are slow.

How To Tell The Difference In Blue Catfish and Channel Catfish

Despite the fact that these catfish species are very different, they are often confused by anglers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received emails about the latest “lake record” channel catfish. The vast majority of the time the angler caught a blue catfish and identified the fish incorrectly.

For the most part, you can almost always easily identify a blue catfish and channel catfish by their coloring with a quick glance but there are occasions where you will catch a fish of either species that have some really off coloring and it can be a bit confusing to identify the species if you don’t know what to look for.

Here are the key identifying characteristics of blue catfish and channel catfish and how you can tell the difference between these catfish species.

Blue Catfish Slate blue to white coloring The anal fin is flat (when laid flat it forms a straight line) The anal fin has between thirty and thirty-six rays

Channel Catfish Olive brown to grey coloring Rounded anal fin (laid flat it curves out like a letter “c”) Twenty-four to twenty-nine rays in the anal fin Often has dark spots, but these spots can be absent in adult fish

Catfish Species Essentials: The “Big Three” Types Of Catfish

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Catfish Species Essentials: The “Big Three” Types Of Catfish

Knowing The Catfish Species Is Essential

Knowing the basics behind each catfish species is half the battle to understanding them. Now it’s time to get on the water and catch a few. Go catch some fresh shad and get started fishing!

To get more detailed and in-depth information to get on the fast track to locating and catching catfish check out the Catfish Edge products, all designed to help you catch more and bigger catfish. Learn from my experience of fifteen years as a professional catfish guide in the Catfish Edge products and you’ll be catching more catfish immediately!

Updated December 10th, 2021

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>