The Channel Catfish, a very popular sport and food fish, is harvested commercially in some areas. It is the principal catfish reared in aquaculture.
Description: To 3’11” (1.2 m); 58 lbs (26.3 kg). Slender; back blue-gray; sides light blue to silvery with scattered dark olive to black spots; belly white; fins olive to dusky. Head wide, flat to slightly rounded above; eyes large, above midline of head; upper jaw overhangs lower; 4 pairs of barbels. Adipose fin present; outer edge of anal fin rounded, 24-31 rays; caudal fin deeply forked.
Identification: The channel cat has a deeply forked tail, with tail lobes that are sharply pointed. In bigger fish, the fork is less noticeable or disappears. Channel cats have 24 to 30 rays on the anal fin, a small, fleshy adipose fin that is separated from the tail, and typical catfish spines on its dorsal and pectoral fins. The barbels are black and long. The back is blue-gray to slate-gray or bluish olive. The sides tend to be silvery-gray, and the belly is whitish. Except for some large adults, especially the males, channel catfish have small, irregular spots on the sides and back. None of the other catfishes has these spots. Males become darker, almost blue-black, during spawning time.
Habitat: The channel catfish is an adaptable fish, usually found in clear, warm lakes and moderately large to large rivers, over clean sand, gravel or rock-rubble bottoms. It is generally not found in the muddied, weed-choked waters that some other catfish species frequent. Channel cats, especially young fish, may be found in fast-flowing water. Usually, channel catfish prefer deep pools and runs in rivers that have alternating pool and riffle habitats. It is also found in reservoirs, lakes and farm ponds, and even in some of the larger trout streams.
Life history: Channel catfish spawn in May to early June, when the water temperature ranges from 75 to 85 degrees, with 80 degrees the optimum. The male prepares the nest, which is usually a depression or hole in an undercut bank, or an excavated burrow under logs or rocks. Sometimes channel cats spawn in sunken, hollow logs or abandoned muskrat holes. In clear ponds, spawning channel cats must have semi-darkened shelters, either natural or provided. From reservoirs, channel catfish sometimes move upstream to spawn in tributary rivers. A female channel cat may lay 2,000 to 70,000 eggs per year, depending on her size. After spawning, the males protect the adhesive egg mass and aerate and clean the eggs by fanning their fins. The males also guard the hatched fish for a time. Young channel cats are insect-eaters, feeding on mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae and midge larvae. As they grow, they switch to fish, crayfish and mollusks, but still feed on aquatic insects, and occasionally eat plant matter. Yearling and subadult channel cats are more tolerant of fast water than larger adults. They move out of slow water into the quicker current or swim short distances into tributary streams to feed. Channel cats feed mostly at night, but may forage on the bottom, where it’s dim during the day. Channel catfish, especially young fish, have been known to feed on the surface. Like other catfish, at night they depend on their barbels and their sense of taste to find food. Even so, channel cats are believed to be more of a sight-feeder than other catfishes, because of their clear-water habitat.
Description: To 24″ (62 cm); 19 lb (8.6 kg). Moderately robust. Back dark to pale bluish gray; sides lighter, no scattered dark spots; chin barbels yellowish to white; no dark blotch at dorsal fin base; adipose fin dusky to black. Posterior edge of pectoral fin spine without strong serrations; anal fin rounded, with 22–25 rays; caudal fin moderately forked.
Identification: This medium-sized catfish has a back and upper sides that are light blue-gray to dark slate-gray. This shades lighter, with gray or blue markings, toward the belly, which becomes silvery or yellow-white. The chin barbels are whitish. The caudal fin is somewhat forked, but the fin’s lobes are not as sharply pointed as are those of the channel catfish, and may be somewhat rounded, especially in older fish. The head is very broad. Young white catfish are slender. Older fish become heavy bodied and robust-looking. The spine on each pectoral fin has a sawtoothed back edge. The anal fin has 25 or fewer rays. The maximum size for the white catfish is about 24 inches.
Habitat: White catfish live in channels, pools and backwaters in rivers or streams, mostly in sluggish current over mud bottoms. They go into swift water, but not as much as channel catfish. Of all the catfishes, white catfish are the most tolerant of salt water. They live in brackish bays and tidewater sections of streams. They also live in lakes and river impoundments. In habitat preference, white catfish are midway between the channel catfish, which uses firmer bottoms and swift currents, and bullheads, which live in slow water over soft, silty bottoms.
Life history: The white catfish’s spawning habits are similar to those of the channel catfish, although it has less of a tendency to migrate when looking for a spawning site. Male white catfish excavate a burrow nest or use an existing hole. The sticky egg mass is deposited there by the female. The male briefly guards the eggs and the young. White catfish eat some plant material, but they eat mostly animal life like midge larvae and other aquatic insects, crustaceans and fish.
Identification: An 18-inch and three-pound brown bullhead is a trophy, and is near the size maximum of the species. Brown bullheads average 12 to 15 inches. The upper part of the head, back and sides are dark to light yellow-brown or olive-brown, shading to grayish white or yellowish white on the belly. The sides have brown or black mottling. The brown bullhead’s chin barbels are dark, grayish black, but may have whitish color at the base. These help to distinguish the brown bullhead from the black bullhead, which is known from a few northwestern Pennsylvania counties. The black bullhead’s chin barbels are all black. The brown bullhead’s caudal fin is square-tipped, or slightly rounded. Its strong pectoral fin spines have five to eight sawlike teeth on their rear edges. The anal fin has 18 to 24 rays, usually 22 or 23.
Habitat: Brown bullheads live in several habitat types, but they are found mostly in ponds and the bays of larger lakes, and in slow-moving sections and pools of warmwater streams. They are bottom-dwellers, usually living over soft mud or muck, where there is plenty of underwater vegetation. Brown bullheads can sometimes be found as deep as 40 feet. They are tolerant of very warm water temperatures, high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels, and levels of pollution that other fish cannot tolerate.
Life history: Brown bullheads spawn in late spring, May to June, when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. Both males and females participate in nest construction, which can be a shallow saucer on the bottom mud or sand, or among roots of aquatic plants, near the protection of stumps, rocks or downed trees. Nests can also be excavated holes or natural burrows. Spawning can also occur under sunken boards and logs, and in hollow stumps. The water depth for spawning ranges from six inches to several feet. The nests are usually around the shoreline or in coves, or in the mouth of a creek.
Brown bullheads usually spawn in the daytime. Their courtship includes the male and female caressing each other with their barbels. They spawn beside each other, but facing in the opposite direction. The females produce from 2,000 to 13,000 cream-colored, mucous-covered eggs. Sometimes one or both parents eat some of the eggs. Both male and female brown bullheads cooperate in protecting the nest, eggs and young. The parents fan and stir the eggs with their fins, aerating them. The parents have also been seen to take the eggs into their mouths, presumably cleaning them, and to blow the eggs back into the nest again. Hatched brown bullheads are pitch-black and may be mistaken for tadpoles. One or both parents shepherd the loose ball of fry for several weeks, until the young are about one inch long.
Like other catfish, brown bullheads are active mostly at night, when their sensitive barbels help them find food in the darkness. They are omnivorous bottom-feeders and eat a wide variety of plant and animal material, including aquatic insects and larvae, worms, minnows and other small fish, crayfish, snails, freshwater clams and even algae. Brown bullheads are able to exist on atmospheric air for a time. They can remain alive for hours if kept moist when they are out of the water.