How Long Do Catfish Live? Out of Water and in General

Catfish life spans widely vary. Scientists have concluded that there are 3,000 – 4,500 species of catfish around the world. Some of the smallest catfish are the sucker fish or …

Catfish life spans widely vary. Scientists have concluded that there are 3,000 – 4,500 species of catfish around the world. Some of the smallest catfish are the sucker fish or cory catfish that help keep your home aquarium clean. The largest species is the Mekong giant catfish which lives in Southeast Asia and is actually a member of the shark catfish family. This catfish can live 60 – 80 years. The Clariidae or walking catfish has a long lifespan in the water, but can also survive short periods of time out of the water. The blue catfish and channel catfish anglers seek live 4-7 years, on average.

How Long Do Catfish Live?

Generally speaking, the average life expectancy of the catfish depends on its living conditions, its size, and its ability to find adequate food sources, like other fish species. Smaller fish species typically have a shorter life than larger species. This is partly because of the size of the body organs in smaller fish, but also because big fish feed on smaller fish before they have a chance to mature. For the purposes of this article, we will only consider how long do catfish live in their home environment and the fish die of natural causes.

Catfish can live several years, for the most part, if they have good living conditions with plenty of algae, plants, crayfish, worms, and smaller fish species to eat. They adapt to water temperature by moving higher or lower in the water column to make sure they have enough oxygen during the warmer months when water can become stagnant.

A scientific study of catfish, done by Dr. Andrew Rypal of California, discovered some interesting facts that affect catfish growth rate and life expectancy based on species and location. While many catfish can live in varied environments, Dr. Rypal found that certain species of catfish do better in moving water and other catfish can live longer in still water. This unusual finding can not only benefit anglers but also have positive effects on commercial fish raised in live wells.

Dr. Rypal’s study revealed that channel catfish grow faster and live longer in still water. Although they have to ability to thrive in any freshwater body of water, still lakes and ponds are more suitable as a catfish home for channel cats. Other species react differently. Blue catfish live longer and thrive more in moving water like that found in freshwater rivers and streams. Flathead catfish can live in moving or still water, as long as they can submerge in mud during the hottest weather.

Climate also plays a big part in determining how long do catfish live. The Mekong giant catfish lives in the warm waters of Asia, growing to over 600 pounds and living for 60 to 80 years. These big catfish stay alive because they have the perfect living conditions for their species. They thrive when the water temperature is between 65 and 85 degrees, but can survive below 60 degrees for short periods of time. They also have plenty of food to eat in the local waterways.

Studies on catfish in aquariums show their life expectancy is matched to similar sized tank mates and plenty of fresh air. Overcrowding by putting more fish in the aquarium will prevent all the fish from being able to pull oxygen directly from the water to survive.

How Long Can a Catfish Live Out of Water?

The catfish can remain alive for up to 18 hours out of the water, as long as its skin remains moist, that is why catfish prefer living in muddy locations.

Catfish, along with a few other fish species have the unique ability to live out of the water, at least for a little while. This is possible because of the suprabranchial organ, a mini lung of sorts that is located just above the curve of the gills. This lets the catfish survive out of the water.

Another unique feature that helps keep a catfish alive out of water is its permeable skin. Tiny pores in the skin help the fish receive oxygen from the air. Most freshwater fish are covered in scales and breath through their gills, thus they need to be submerged in water to live. The catfish, however, can remain alive for up to 18 hours out of the water, as long as its skin remains moist. That is why catfish prefer living in muddy locations.

If the pond or river dries up completely, catfish can actually travel on land to locate another pond. While some people call these walking catfish, they technically don’t walk. Rather, they kind of flop and roll across the ground until they find fresh water.

How Long Can a Catfish Live in Mud?

As long as there is enough moisture in the mud to keep the skin of the catfish damp, they can live up to a year without a pool of water to swim in. During this time, the organs of the catfish slow and it goes into a dormant state. The nutrients and oxygen in the mud and surrounding air will keep the fish alive. In some places, catfish will spend over a year in mud holes on the steep banks of seasonal rivers. When the water level is low, the catfish will eat as much food as it can, then create a burrow in the riverbank. When the water level falls below the hole, the catfish enters this dormant state. Channel catfish, flathead catfish, and bullheads have all been known to do this. Blue catfish, which prefer to live in lakes, will move into deeper water in the winter.

How Deep of Water Do Catfish Prefer to Live in?

Catfish like water temperatures between 65 and 78 degrees, with around 70 being their favorite. Most catfish will move toward deeper water in the coldest part of winter and the hottest part of the summer. In the cooler fall months, catfish may move into shallower water as they follow and eat smaller fish.

How Long Can a Catfish Be Kept on Ice?

Fishing for catfish is easy and fun. They will feed on just about anything from insects to canned corn. After catching the fish, you will need to put them on ice to keep them fresh, if you plan to eat them. The best way to do this is thump the catfish with a club to kill it, then place it between layers of ice in a cooler. Fresh caught catfish will last on ice a few days. You can prolong that by gutting and rinsing the fish before placing your catch in the cooler. Periodically drain the water and replace with fresh ice to help the fish stay fresh until you can cook it.

How to Tell if Fish have Been on Ice Too Long

If you the fish goes without ice for a few hours, or remains in the cooler too long, it will go bad. The most recognizable sign of bad fish is a rancid smell. Another way to check is to examine the fish. If it feels slimy and the eyes are dull and clouded, the fish has probably gone bad and should be discarded.

Final Thoughts On How Long Catfish Live

Catfish can live for many years in their natural environment, even if they stop growing larger. Part of their survival depends on avoiding predators and finding adequate food sources. Different species have different life spans, with the average for blue catfish and channel catfish being about 4-7 years. Flathead catfish, which grow larger than channel catfish, will have longer life spans. Out of water, a catfish can live from a few hours to a few days, depending on whether it can keep its skin moist.

Anglers who are fishing for catfish to eat should immediately kill their catch and put the fish on ice in a cooler. Anglers who are catch and release fishing should return the fish to the water immediately after it is caught.

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Teresa Taylor is a keen kayak fisher and lover of all types of fishing. She writes about a range of fish species for Tackle Village and reviews lures and gear.
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