Catfish in Miniature

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

To most people, the word "catfish" means channel, blue and flathead catfish. Those are the species most commonly pursued by Missouri anglers. Madtoms, Missouri's most varied group of catfish, are seldom mentioned.

Nine of the 15 species of catfish native to Missouri are madtoms. Though common in many streams across the state, madtoms are overlooked because of their small size. Seldom reaching 5 inches in length or weighing more than 2 ounces, madtoms hold no sporting value. In form and behavior, however, they are catfish in every way, and they represent part of the rich variety of wildlife of Missouri's streams.

Madtom Identification

All madtoms are small, but so are young channel cats and flatheads. How can you distinguish madtoms from catfish fingerlings?

Like all catfish in Missouri, madtoms belong to the family Ictaluridae. Like their bigger cousins, madtoms have eight whiskers or barbels--four on their upper jaw and four on their lower jaw. Like all Missouri catfish, madtoms have scaleless skin. A madtom's adipose fin--a fleshy, rayless lobe behind the dorsal fin--is different from the adipose fin of other catfish, however.

Madtom adipose fins form a low, keel-like ridge that either connects to the tail fin or has only a slight notch between it and the tail fin. On larger catfish, the adipose fin is free and more widely separated from the tail fin. The genus to which madtoms belong, Noturus, means "back tail," referring to this distinctive connection of the adipose and tail fin.

Madtom Ecology

Madtoms are part of the complex web of feeding relationships that occur in streams. Though small, madtoms are often abundant in streams, and their populations represent a significant link in the food chain.

Like bigger catfish, madtoms are mostly nocturnal. During the day they hide under rocks and leafy debris. At night madtoms emerge and forage voraciously. They eat a variety of small, aquatic insects, including the nymphs of mayflies, dragonflies and damselflies. They also eat small crustaceans, including aquatic pill bugs and immature crawdads.

In turn, madtoms are eaten by larger fish, including smallmouth bass, walleye and trout. Some anglers collect them for bait.

Most of Missouri's madtoms live in the riffles of streams, where they reside under rocks and stones. A good way to catch them is by "kick seining." Holding a short seine downstream with the lead line held tight to the bottom, slowly walk backward upstream while kicking the

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