White Catfish

White catfish side view photo with black background
Scientific Name
Ameiurus catus
Ictaluridae (bullhead catfishes) in the order Siluriformes (catfishes)

The white catfish is often stocked in fee-fishing lakes and other private waters. It sometimes escapes into natural stream systems. Unlike our other bullheads, it has a moderately (though not deeply) forked tail fin.

Bullhead catfishes, as a group, are chubby catfish that rarely exceed 16 inches in length. The upper jaw projects beyond the lower jaw. The tail of bullheads is not typically forked, though this species is an exception. The adipose fin (on the back, between the dorsal fin and tail) is a free lobe, widely separate from the tail fin. The head is blunt in profile, not wedged-shaped.

The white catfish can be distinguished by the following: The rear margin of the tail fin is moderately forked (not merely notched, but also not deeply forked as in channel, blue, and flathead catfish). This chubby catfish has a short anal fin, the length of its base going more than 4 times into the standard length (measured from tip of snout to base of tail). The body lacks black spots and is often conspicuously two-colored, with a well-defined line of demarcation between the darker back and upper sides, and the white lower sides and belly. The anal fin rays number 22–24.

The back and upper sides are blue black to blue gray; the underside of the head and body are white. The sides are sometimes mottled but without discrete black spots. The chin barbels are white; all barbels are similar in color to the adjacent body parts. The fins are dark.

Similar species:

  • The black bullhead (A. melas) has a wide range in Missouri and is especially well represented in north and west portions of the state. Its tail fin is only slightly notched; its anal fin rays usually number 17–21; the chin barbels are dusky or black. Back and sides usually a uniform yellowish brown, dark olive, or black. Seldom exceeds 16 inches in length.
  • The yellow bullhead (A. natalis) has a wide range in Missouri and is especially well represented in the Ozarks and Bootheel lowlands. Its tail fin is straight; anal fin rays usually number 24–27 (not fewer than 24); and although the chin barbels are uniformly white (often slightly dusky in large adults from Ozark Streams, but not grayish or blackish), the overall color of the fish is yellowish brown.
  • The brown bullhead (A. nebulosus) apparently has only one self-sustaining population in Missouri: at Duck Creek Wildlife Area and nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Bollinger, Stoddard, and Wayne counties. Another population occurs in a lake owned by the city of Arnold in Jefferson County. Its back and sides are usually strongly mottled rather than uniformly colored; the chin barbels are dusky or black; the rear margin of the tail fin is slightly notched, as in the black bullhead.
  • Blue and channel catfish are also similar but are less closely related. Note that they have longer anal fin bases and have more deeply forked tail fins. Also, their heads are wedged-shaped (flatter) in profile (not blunt as in the bullheads).
Other Common Names
White bullhead
Adult length: commonly 10–18 inches, with a maximum of about 24 inches; weight: commonly 0.5–3 pounds, with a maximum of about 8 pounds.
Where To Find
Stocked in private lakes and ponds. Has been collected sporadically in natural waters in various locations.

The white catfish is native to the Atlantic Coast from New York to Florida but has been widely introduced elsewhere. It is commonly stocked in fee-fishing lakes and other private waters. Perhaps the occasional specimens that have been collected from natural waters in Missouri are escapees from situations where they were stocked in lakes and ponds.

In its native range, the white catfish lives in ponds, reservoirs, and medium to large rivers. In Missouri, it was been collected from the Missouri River (in Boone County) and in the Big Creek arm of Truman Reservoir (Henry County). It has also been reported from the Mississippi River.

Probably, there are no self-sustaining populations of the white catfish in Missouri, except possibly in artificial ponds.

Like most other catfish, this species is most active between dusk and dawn. Apparently, the young of this species feed primarily on aquatic insects, while adults consume a variety of aquatic invertebrates, fish, and plants.

Introduced. Not native to Missouri. Occasionally escapes from ponds and lakes where it has been stocked. Apparently has no self-sustaining wild populations.

Life Cycle

This species apparently does not have self-sustaining populations in the natural waters of our state. In Virginia, spawning occurs from late May into July, in depressions constructed by both parents in sand and gravel. The eggs are attended by one or both of the parents. It takes 3 to 4 years to reach maturity, and the maximum life span is at least 14 years.

This species has been intentionally stocked for sport and food. In some places where white catfish were stocked, it has led to established populations. In the state of California, where it was introduced as the “Schuylkill catfish,” it has been cited as a cause for the disappearance of the Sacramento perch (an endangered native sunfish) from a lake in northern California.

Apparently, more research should be done on the ecological impacts white catfish have in the many places they have been introduced. Does it have the capacity to become invasive in places where the climate and habitat suit its life cycle? For example, because the white catfish can tolerate relatively higher salinities, it can become abundant in brackish-water estuaries. These are often vital habitats for declining native fish species. Research is ongoing.

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Similar Species
About Fishes in Missouri
Missouri has more than 200 kinds of fish, more than are found in most neighboring states. Fishes live in water, breathe with gills, and have fins instead of legs. Most are covered with scales. Most fish in Missouri “look” like fish and could never be confused with anything else. True, lampreys and eels have snakelike bodies — but they also have fins and smooth, slimy skin, which snakes do not.