Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) and Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

Illustration of a Channel (top) and a Flathead (bottom) Catfish
A Channel Catfish (top) and Flathead Catfish (bottom)

(c) MN DNR, C. Iverson

Fish of the Mississippi River

Introduction

If the Mississippi River has an iconic fish, it is probably the catfish. Two of these whiskered species patrol the depths of the river here. The smaller channel catfish favor deep pools, moving into riffles in evening to feed. Flathead catfish also like deep pools but prefer those with log jams or other dense cover. Flathead catfish can reach 29-30 inches in length, compared with the channel cats that average 10-20 inches. Although tolerant of turbid (cloudy) water and warm water temperatures, catfish prefer clean streams and require well oxygenated water.

Question: What do catfish like about living here?

Channel catfish feed on just about anything they can find. Anglers often go after them with smelly baits such as fermented cow’s liver. Flathead catfish are fish eaters, using sense of smell and vibration to hunt down their prey. Successful angers generally use live fish or gobs of nightcrawlers to attract flatheads.

Both species use nesting cavities, such as hollow logs, log jams, and undercut banks for its eggs. Male flatheads guard their eggs and fans water over them until they hatch. In big-river wintering areas, channel cat and flathead may be found side by side.

Catfish are sought by both commercial fishermen and sport anglers.

Fascinating Facts

  • Both channel and flathead catfish have sharp barbed spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. When alarmed, they erect those spines perpendicular to the body. Being poked by these spines is painful and the mucus that covers the spines may cause infections at the wound site.

  • A catfish’s whiskers, technically called barbels, are sensitive to touch and covered with taste buds.

  • The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area’s mascot is a flathead catfish named Freddie.

Identification

Both flathead and channel catfish have bullet-shaped head, long body, smooth scaleless skin, and eight barbels around the mouth (four on the upper jaw and four below). Size, tail, jaw, and color distinguish flathead from channel catfish.

Channel Catfish:

  • 10-20 inches average length
  • Forked tail
  • Overbite (upper jaw hangs over lower jaw)
  • Gray to silver back and sides, white belly

Flathead Catfish:

  • 20-30 inches average length
  • Square tail
  • Underbite (lower jaw protrudes beyond upper jaw)
  • Usually mottled yellow or brown, belly cream or yellow

Present in Park: Yes

Habitat: Deep pools of large rivers or impoundments

MN Status: Sport fish (both flathead and channel species)

For Further Reading

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2017. “Catfish Biology and Identification.” Accessed May 5. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fish/catfish/biology.html

Last updated: April 13, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

111 E. Kellogg Blvd., Suite 105
Saint Paul, MN 55101

Phone:

(651) 293-0200
This is the general phone line at the Mississippi River Visitor Center. Please leave a voicemail if we miss your call and expect a return call within 1 day, often sooner.

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