How to Hold a Catfish: Protect the Fish and Your Arms

How to Handle a Catfish Feature Image

For anyone that goes fishing, catfish of most species can be a bit of a problem for some anglers due to their spiky and potentially dangerous pectoral spines and dorsal fin barbs. These hard bony structures protect the fish from predators, but can also damage your hand if you handle these fish improperly.

Here, we will take a closer look at catfish anatomy and learn more about their pectoral spines and dorsal spikes. We’ll discover why they are there and how you can avoid being poked by them with proper ways to hold a catfish.

Catfish Anatomy 101

How to handle a catfish
When handling a catfish, the dorsal fin and pectoral fins should be handled with care as they can be sharp and may poke or jab a person’s hand or clothing if the fish is not handled properly.

Stings on the Dorsal and Pectoral Fins

With a catfish, the top fin and the pectorals are the two areas to watch out for. The dorsal is on top of the fish’s spine and will become erect and stiff when the fish is stressed or threatened. When being caught and taken out of the water, most catfish will stiffen up and their top fin will be very easy to poke your hand on.

The same can be said of the pectorals. These fins are the “arm” fins on either side of the fish, which help it change direction in the water. The front of each pectoral fin has jagged spikes that can easily get caught on your hand or clothing when the fish is being improperly held.

Both the dorsal fin spine and pectoral fin spines are extremely sharp in smaller catfish but become dull over time. Larger and older catfish will still have the spines, but the chances of being jabbed by them are somewhat lower. 

Catfish Whiskers

Catfish have very long and flexible whiskers, also called barbels. Some inexperienced anglers may shy away from the whiskers, thinking they can sting or harm you in some way. The truth of the matter is the barbels on all species of catfish are completely harmless.

These flexible fleshy growths are more closely related to taste buds and are used by the catfish to find food in dark areas and position it near the mouth for eating. While the catfish can move the whiskers around, and they may flop around when the fish is being pulled onto the vessel, they will absolutely do no harm to you in any way.

Catfish Teeth

While catfish do have teeth, they are nothing like the teeth you would find in the mouth of a pike or muskie, for example. Catfish are mostly detritus eaters, and will sometimes feed on snails, and small fish, and will actively scavenge dead matter as well.

Their teeth are not sharp and shouldn’t even be considered traditional teeth in the first place. They are more closely related to brush bristles and are used to scrape algae and scum from the surface of wood, rocks, and other surfaces.

If you place your finger in a catfish’s mouth, you will feel a rough sandpaper grit from the teeth. While it might give some minor abrasions on your skin from large fish, it will not cause much more harm than that. 

How to Hold a Catfish

Catfish caught by hand man holding
It is important to support the stomach of the fish to avoid injuries and to use a gripping tool when handling larger catfish to avoid their bristly teeth.

Depending on the size of the catfish, there are a few different ways you can hold it safely without damaging the fish or risking your hand being jabbed by their dorsal and pectoral fins.

Small catfish are best supported by one full hand. Place your open hand behind the pectorals and away from the spine. Your palm should be supporting the belly of the fish to not only support the body but also to keep a decent grip on it when removing hooks from the mouth.

Small catfish are the ones to be very careful with as their pectoral and dorsal spines are extremely sharp. One quick flick of these fish when they are out of the water can quickly lead to a wound. Hold these fish firmly but not too tight you damage their internal organs or gill plates, but firm enough that they cannot thrash around.

Medium catfish are those at least 2 pounds in weight and up to around eight pounds. This size of catfish cannot be handled with a single hand in the same way the smaller catfish was, but will instead need to be “lipped” by pinching their bottom lip with your fingers. You don’t have to worry about touching the whiskers, and the teeth will feel like a bottle brush scraping against your hand, so they are also not dangerous to you.

Holding a medium catfish in the lipped position keeps them secure and keeps your hand away from both its pectorals and its top spine fin. You can also use a gripper tool if you simply don’t want to risk putting your fingers near the catfish’s teeth. Once the fish is lipped, use your other hand to support the weight of the body, so you don’t dislocate or break the jaw of larger fish.

Large catfish, such as those around the 10-pound or larger mark, will need some special handling. Luckily, big catfish such as blue catfish and channel catfish normally have very dull pectoral and dorsal spines so getting jabbed by spines is less of an issue than if you were handling a small catfish.

Another thing to consider is larger catfish have more jaw pressure and can do more damage to your skin with their raspy bristle teeth than they can do with their catfish spines. If lipping a larger catfish, it’s wise to use a gripping tool instead of your bare hand.

Place One Hand Under the Fish Near the Pectoral Fins

Getting a firm grip on the cats with your palm underneath and your fingers near the pectorals will keep your hand away from the sharp spines while also keeping the catfish secured for lure removal and the release process.

Support the Stomach

Supporting the fish’s belly is very important for most catfish, especially the larger trophy-sized adults. You want to support the stomach so that when you are lipping the catfish, the jaw is not dislocated or broken in the process.

Hold the Catfish’s Mouth

Larger catfish can do considerably more damage with their bristly teeth than smaller cats, and this is due almost entirely to their jaw pressure. Larger animals have stronger jaw muscles which can cause uncomfortable pinches on your hand and arm, depending on how you hold them. If you don’t want to risk having your skin scraped by their bristly teeth, consider using a gripping tool instead of your hands to secure the mouth of the fish when removing the hooks.

What to Do When You Get “Finned” by Catfish

Best reels for catfish catfish caught on lure with spinning rod and reel 1
When a catfish fin pierces the skin, it can cause pain and bleeding but is typically not serious.

Getting finned is another way to say you got stabbed by the spines on a catfish’s dorsal and pectoral fin. If this happens, it will hurt, and you will bleed, but the injury is normally not serious, and the pain from the puncture will quickly subside.

When you get jabbed by a catfish, it’s important to clean the wound as soon as possible to reduce infection. Many anglers, especially the old timers, will tell you to rub the wound on the slime coat of the catfish itself.

While these old-timers swear the slime coat will remove the pain of a puncture almost instantly, this is one of the old tips or techniques that you should take with a grain of salt. If you prefer to reduce the sting pain in this way, it should be done at your own risk.

Doctors will normally recommend you thoroughly wash out the wounded area with clean water and soap before covering the wound with clean gauze. Betadine or hydrogen peroxide work as a good rinse to prevent infection and reduce swelling.

Before wrapping the wound, take a good look at your hand as well as the catfish spines if possible to see if any part of the spine may have broken off in your hand. Leaving any part of the spine embedded in your skin can lead to a serious infection which may require hospital treatment.

Are Catfish Dangerous?

While catfish have some protective mechanisms that can hurt you, they aren’t really considered dangerous as handling them correctly and wearing protective gear will pretty much eliminate any risk.

Other Tips for Handling Catfish

Like all fish, catfish are slippery, and chances are good they won’t just lay around waiting for you to put them back into the water. They will flop, thrash, and attempt to get away from you as soon as possible.

Keeping the catfish calm can help reduce the risk of you getting a wound, as well as reduce the risk of the cats being injured or even killed during the lure removal process. Once they are placed back into the water, either in a landing net or being held with a lipping tool, they will normally start to calm down as they recover.

If your catfish simply won’t calm down, or you are having an extremely hard time removing the hooks without the catfish throwing a fit and potentially finning you, it’s normally better to cut the line and leave the hooks to rust out on their own. While this is not ideal for the catfish, it is a better situation than killing the cats from shock or physical injury during the struggle out of the water.

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Jeff Knapp is an expert fisherman, guide and outdoor writer whose work is widely published across a range of sites including Tackle Village. Jeff is based in Pennsylvania and loves exploring the waterways of that state in pursuit of smallmouth bass, largemouth, panfish and trout.
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