Missouri's Colossal Catfishes

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

provided to requesting landowners as part of the Conservation Department's private impoundment stocking program.

In addition, channel catfish are highly prized game and food fish. They don't grow as large as blue cats, but they do attain a respectable size. Current records for both pole-and-line and alternate methods for channel catfish are about 30 pounds each and were set in the mid 1970s.

Channel catfish vary greatly in shape and color, causing a great deal of confusion among anglers and ichthyologists (people who study fish). Before the 1940s, channel catfish were split into several different species, such as Great Lakes catfish, willow catfish and eel catfish. We now know they are all the same species.

Young channel catfish, often called "fiddlers," are greenish and their sides are covered with black spots. Mature females are copper-brown to silver-gray. Adult males are often dark blue or gray. During breeding season their lips thicken, and muscles in their head swell. Anglers often call these spawning males "chuckleheads" and mistake them for blue catfish.

Because of the similarity of these two species, Missouri fishing regulations allow an angler to keep 10 channel or blue catfish in any combination, as long as no more than 10 fish are kept in total. However, this makes management of separate species difficult, especially since the two species differ vastly in terms of abundance, size and range.

Having separate creel limits for each species would likely enhance angling opportunities for both species. However, this would require anglers to learn to distinguish blue catfish from channel catfish. The easiest way to tell them apart is by examining the anal fin of each. The outer margin of the anal fin is rounded in channel catfish, and the fin rays number 24 to 29.

The outer margin of a blue cat's anal fin is tapered like a comb, and the fin rays number 30 to 35.

Flathead catfish

Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) are also called yellow cats, mud cats, morgan cats, appaloosa cats, goujons, granny cats, pied cats and flat bellies.

Flathead catfish color also varies. Young fish are light brown with dark brown or black mottling. Adults are pale yellow to light brown on the top and sides, while the belly can be a pale yellow to a creamy-white. This fish has a broad, flat head and a protruding lower jaw.

Flathead catfish also grow large. The current pole and line record is 77 pounds, 8 ounces. It was caught in 1997 from the Missouri River near St. Louis. The alternate method record has stood since 1971. It weighed 94 pounds and was caught from the St. Francis River.

The flathead catfish is a solitary species, and generally no more than two or three adults inhabit a single unit of cover, such as a brushpile. Large flatheads are primarily fish eaters and do not scavenge like channels or blues. Flathead catfish inhabit most large streams in Missouri, and are common in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and in most of Missouri's larger reservoirs.

Many catfish anglers believe that flathead catfish make the best table fare of all the catfishes, and maybe of all types of fishes. It would be hard to argue with them.

Although Missouri is blessed with an abundance of catfish, many believe the fishing could be better than it already is. The Department is currently evaluating opportunities for enhancing catfishing in Missouri and is developing a road map for future management of these important species. One approach might be to manage channel catfish as a food fish while managing the much larger blue and flathead catfish for their trophy potential.

The success of this effort will depend on anglers being able to distinguish channel cats from blue cats, the way that bass anglers have learned to tell spotted bass from largemouth bass. This would allow the Department to tailor fishing opportunities for each species. The result would be more catfish, and more potential to catch trophy-size blue catfish. The new emphasis on managing catfish makes it likely that catfishing in Missouri--already good!--is going to get much better.

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