Missouri's Colossal Catfishes

By Vince Travnichek | July 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2003

Bill Shakespeare certainly wasn't talking about Missouri catfish when he penned that phrase, but, I'll bet most catfish anglers would agree with it.

Catfish are popular among Missouri anglers, and it's easy to understand why. First, a big catfish is as strong a fighter as a Missouri mule is stubborn! Next, fried catfish is hard to beat at the supper table. Finally, many of us become hooked on catfish at an early age. They are so easy to catch that they are the first fish for many young anglers. I caught a catfish the first time I went fishing.

Catfish are probably named for the four pairs of long, slender, flexible barbels that look like cat whiskers near the fish's mouth. The barbels are loaded with taste buds. Catfish have very poor eyesight and rely on taste, touch and smell to locate food.

Contrary to any fish tales you might have heard, the whiskers of catfish are harmless to touch. However, catfish can inflict painful wounds with their sharply pointed pectoral or dorsal spines. Some species even have glands at the base of these spines that secrete a toxin and can produce a painful reaction in anyone who is "stuck" by one of these spines.

Missouri is home to 15 native species of catfish, including channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish and three species of bullheads. The remaining nine native species are collectively referred to as "madtoms." These small, secretive catfish live primarily in our small streams, and they rarely exceed 6 inches in length. They are rarely seen unless a special effort is made to capture them.

Missouri also has white catfish (Ameiurus catus). An introduced species, this fish is shaped like Missouri bullheads, but it is bluish gray. The fish is native to the Atlantic coast from New York to Florida, but has been stocked elsewhere across the country, including Missouri. White catfish are rare in the state, but one caught in Truman Reservoir in 1991 weighed over 7 pounds, about the maximum size for this species.

Many bona-fide river rats claim white catfish are common in both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. However, they probably are mistaking blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) for white catfish. Blue catfish can range from sky blue to pale white, but when they live in dark, muddy water, they often are pale, washed out white.

Blue catfish are known locally as white fulton, blue fulton, Mississippi cat, humpback blue, forktail cat, silver cat, blue channel cat, and white cat. These local names may be another reason anglers confuse one species for another.

Blue Catfish

Blue catfish are common in the Missouri, Mississippi, and Osage rivers and in several of Missouri's large reservoirs. They are also stocked into three small Conservation Department lakes in the north half of the state.

The blue catfish is one of Missouri's largest fish. The current pole-and-line record for blue catfish is 103 pounds. That fish was caught from the Missouri River in 1991. The alternate method record, which includes fish taken by jug fishing, trot lines, and set lines, was established in 1974 by a 117-pound behemoth caught from the Osage River.

Anecdotal evidence and historical records indicate that larger blue catfish were once present in Missouri waters. A steamboat captain named William Heckman mentions in his book, "Steamboating Sixty-five Years on Missouri's Rivers," a blue catfish weighing 315 pounds taken from the Missouri River near Morrison in Gasconade County just after the Civil War. He also wrote that it wasn't uncommon to catch catfish weighing 125 to 200 pounds during the mid-1800s. More convincing evidence that larger blue catfish historically inhabited Missouri comes from an 1879 shipping invoice to the U.S. National Museum of a 150-pound blue catfish purchased at a St. Louis fish market by Dr. J.G.W. Steedman, then chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission.

Blue Catfish

  • forked tail
  • No spots on sides
  • Constricted air bladder
  • Long anal fin with a straight margin (30-35 fin rays)

Channel Catfish

  • *Deeply forked tail
  • Discrete spots on sides, except on large fish
  • Unconstricted air bladder
  • Long anal fin with a rounded margin (24-29 fin rays)

Flathead Catfish

  • Rounded tail
  • Lower jaw projects beyond upper jaw
  • Head appears flattened
  • Upper tip of tail often lighter in color than rest of tail fen, especially in smaller fish

White Catfish

  • Moderately forked tail
  • Blunt head; chubby appearance
  • Body without discrete spots
  • Short anal fin (22-24 fin rays)

Channel Catfish

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are one of the most abundant and widely distributed fishes in Missouri. They can be found throughout the state, but they are more common in prairie streams of northern and western Missouri. They are also common in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, reservoirs, small lakes and are one of the three species 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler