With gaping mouths surrounded by fleshy whiskers, fins armed with venomous spines, and gross, slimy skin, Hollywood could cast catfish in any scary movie. Despite their appearance, catfish pose no danger to anything bigger than a bread loaf. And when you consider their amazing adaptations and many lovable qualities, you realize these fish are pretty cool cats.
Fifteen kinds of catfish cruise Missouri’s waters. Although they range from trash-can-sized blue cats to minnow-sized madtoms, all catfish have catlike whiskers, called barbels, that wave like tentacles around their fleshy mouths. Some people think catfish sting with their barbels, but that’s not true. Barbels are harmless. Catfish do, however, have sharp, venom-laced spines on their top and side fins that they raise like spears when threatened. This turns a catfish into a painful mouthful for a predator to swallow.
Even if catfish had excellent eyesight—which they don’t—it wouldn’t be much help. Catfish hunt at night, near the bottom of rivers and lakes, often in muddy water. How then do they find a buffet of prey that includes insects, crawdads, dead things and fish? One answer is that catfish are armed with an incredible sense of smell. It’s so snifferific, yellow bullheads can tell one bullhead from another by scent alone. But if a catfish’s sniffer is superb, its sense of taste is supernatural.
Catfish are like swimming tongues. Every millimeter of a catfish’s skin, from its whiskery barbels to the tip of its tail, is peppered with enough taste buds to make a food critic drool with envy. If you were a catfish, you could taste a cookie just by touching it! To catch supper, a catfish doesn’t have to see a minnow, it just has to track the minnow’s taste through the water.
Mark Twain—who caught a few Mississippi River catfish in his day—wrote “Put all your eggs in one basket and—watch that basket.” The same could be said for the way catfish raise their babies.
In June and July, the lips of male catfish swell up, signaling the start of nesting season. Males and females use their fins to sweep out a nest in root tangles, beaver burrows and other underwater cavities. Hidden nests are harder for egg-eating predators to find, but catfish go a fin further. Males—and in some cases, females—guard the eggs. It’s painstaking work. Swarms of sunfish hover around the nest, waiting for a chance to swim in for a snack. And, to make sure the eggs stay clean and get oxygen, catfish must constantly swish their tails over them. All catfish stay with their eggs until they hatch. Bullheads take longer to cut the cord, following their babies around even after they begin swimming.
Catfish are Missourians’ second favorite fish to catch (after bass), and it’s easy to see why. Catfish are found in nearly all of the Show-Me State’s lakes and rivers, and you don’t need fancy fishing gear to catch them. On the line catfish put up a thrilling fight, and on the table they make a tasty meal. Plus, there’s always the chance that down in the deep, just waiting to take your bait, lurks a ginormous catfish.
Channel cats can weigh 15 pounds or more, about as much as two jugs of milk. A respectable flathead can match the weight of a 40-pound bag of dog food. But neither fish can put on pounds like a blue cat. These colossal catfish routinely crunch the scales at 50 pounds or more, and Missouri’s state record blue weighed 130 pounds! There may be even bigger blues out there somewhere. In 1879, a 150-pound blue cat was bought at a St. Louis market, and a steamboat captain wrote about a 315-pound blue cat that was caught on the Missouri River just after the Civil War.
If channels, flatheads and blues are mega cats, then madtoms are Missouri’s mini cats. None of our nine kinds grow longer than 6 inches. They live in clear streams, hiding under rocks or hugging the bottom of gravel beds during the day. Like large catfish, madtoms come out at night to hunt, but they pursue daintier prey such as mayflies and other stream insects.
Madtoms make interesting aquarium pets. You can collect them at night with a dip net by searching riffles with a flashlight. Remember, though: Handle with care! A madtom’s spines aren’t as large as those on bigger catfish, but they’re sharper and can inflict a painful sting. In an aquarium, madtoms typically hide under rocks with only their whiskered chins sticking out. Drop a bit of food in, though, and they’ll dart out to snatch it, providing a thrilling reminder of why they’re one of Missouri’s coolest cats.
If you’re 15 or younger, you don’t need a fishing permit to collect madtoms, but if you’re 16 or older, you do. Don’t collect madtoms from the Spring River in Jasper County, the Black River near Poplar Bluff, the St. Francis River near Sam Baker State Park or the Current River near the Arkansas border. These waters contain Neosho and mountain madtoms, which are endangered and cannot be collected.
Nichole LeClair Terrill