Types of Catfish: The Big Three Species

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There are more than 3000 different catfish species in the world, including the Asian Mekong giant catfish , the large Wels catfish and the tiny cory catfish found in South America.

Most catfish species live in major river systems of the world, in both freshwater and saltwater, but some types of catfish prefer the still water of small lakes and farm ponds.

Anglers all over the world go in search of different types of catfish because they are fun to catch, taste great and provide an excellent source of protein and reach record sizes.

While there are many catfish species worldwide, anglers in North America target three types: blue catfish, flathead catfish and channel catfish. Each of these catfish species is abundant, and catfishing is allowed in all fifty states.

There are small variations between species of the catfish family, but all catfish have similar characteristics.

We will examine each of these freshwater catfish varieties and create a list of catfish species essentials to help you identify and catch different types of catfish.

Blue Catfish

You can find blue catfish in all the major rivers of the United States, including the Mississippi River, Missouri River, and Ohio River.

The largest catfish species in the United States is the blue catfish. You can find these gentle giants in most states’ large rivers and their tributaries. Anglers like blue catfish, also sometimes called high fin blue catfish, because of their massive size and their mild taste.

Scientific name:

Ictalurus Furcatus which means fish cat with the forked tail.


Blue catfish are a large freshwater fish and commonly reach more than 30lbs, ranging up to 100 pounds or more. They are the largest species of catfish found in the United States. The blue catfish reaches an average weight of 20 to 40lbs and they can grow to up to 65 inches in length.


You can find blue catfish in all the major rivers of the United States, including the Mississippi River, Missouri River, and Ohio River. These plentiful freshwater fish travel the rivers and tributaries, moving with the seasons. This makes them plentiful in most areas of the United States.


Blue catfish can live up to 25 years, according to scientists. A former world-record blue catfish, caught in Texas in 2004, reportedly lived to be 23 years old.

Reproduction takes place once a year, with the female blue catfish laying 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per pound of body weight. The male then fertilizes the eggs and minds the nest until the fry hatch 7 to 10 days later. Blue catfish are plentiful, with an average 64% percent survival rating for the young. This can be affected, of course, by weather, water conditions, and predators.

The baby catfish eat algae and insect larvae until they are about 6 weeks old, then they begin to feed on other fish species and crawfish.

Preferred Habitat

The blue catfish are primarily large river fish and are native to the Mississippi River and its offshoots. These catfish prefer the swift current of rivers and large streams. As far as habitat blue catfish like to stay close to the bottom of the water column and they like rocky or sandy bottoms more than mud. They travel upriver during the summer to find cooler water and back downriver in the winter to find warmer water. Their ideal temperature range is 68-72 degrees.


Blue catfish are easily recognizable by their deeply forked tail and white belly. Like other types of catfish, they have slick skin rather than scales and whiskers called barrels on either side of their wide mouths. Blue catfish are typically a blue grey color, but can appear a more dark grey or a lighter silver color. Blue catfish have a straight anal fin with 30-35 rays. The spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins are sharp and cause injury.

Eating Blue Catfish

Blue catfish is one of the leanest protein sources on the planet and contains vitamin B and Omega 3 acids. Some people think blue catfish is not safe to eat because of mercury levels, but scientists have proven that the mercury levels in blue catfish are within safe limits. Because of their large size, blue catfish filets can be grilled, baked, or battered and fried.

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Flathead Catfish

The head of this fish is flat and broad as if somebody smacked the fish in the head with a shovel.

The flathead catfish, like the blue, can grow to 100 lbs or more. Unlike other catfish species, the flathead catfish prefers slow moving, cloudy water. This unique species of catfish is easily identifiable with its pronounced underbite and wide, flat head. The flathead catfish also lacks the forked tail of most catfish species.

Scientific name:

Pylodictis Olivaris which means green mudfish.


Typically, flathead catfish reach 25 to 45 inches and weigh 30 to 40 pounds. However, in 1998, a 123-pound specimen estimated to be at least 22 years old, was caught at Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. This large North American catfish set the new world record of the time.


Flathead catfish are found in the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Rio Grande rivers. Like blue cats, they travel north or south as weather and water temperatures rise and fall.


The female flathead catfish lays approximately 1200 eggs per pound of body weight. Nests are dug under logs, debris piles, or on muddy river banks. Males guard the nest and the newly hatched fry for one to two weeks. Young flathead will feed on insects, but when they are old enough, they will only eat live fish.

Preferred Habitat

Flatheads live in the largest rivers in the United States from Michigan to northern Mexico. During the day, flathead will remain in deeper water to rest and relax. At sundown, they will move to shallower water and riverbanks to feed on smaller fish, even other species of catfish.


The flathead, also called shovelhead or yellow cat, has a light brown body that may have an olive green to olive brown tinge to it. The belly of the fish is pale yellow or cream-colored. The head of this fish is flat and broad as if somebody smacked the fish in the head with a shovel. It has a protruding lower jaw and eight barbs around the mouth. The tail is square-shaped, with a slight indentation or notch near the center. The flathead does not have the deeply forked tail of the blue or channel catfish.

Eating Flathead Catfish

Because they only eat live fish, flathead catfish can have a more palatable flavor than other catfish. Some, like the brown bullhead, will eat any trash, corpse, or debris it can find, and that leeches into the meat. That’s why some catfish taste muddy or soured. The flathead is a pickier eater and that is evident in the rich, buttery taste of the firm white meat. Small, young fish will have a milder flavor than larger older fish.

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Channel Catfish

Channel catfish do not exceed two pounds until they are five or six years old and will not reach 12 inches until they are 8 years or more.

The most numerous fish in the United States is the channel catfish. The channel catfish lives in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. It is the most common restaurant prepared catfish in North America, with 1 to 3 pound channel cats being highly desired as a meat source.

Scientific name:

Ictalurus Furcatus which means spotted fish cat.


Channel catfish are smaller than other types of catfish in North America. Typically weigh less than 30 pounds, although a record 53-pound fish was caught in 1964 in South Carolina.


The channel catfish lives in waterways east of the Rockies, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.


Channel catfish are slow-growing. They do not exceed two pounds until they are five or six years old and will not reach 12 inches until they are 8 years or more. Females spawn in the spring and frequently nest in an existing cavity-like structure, such as an old tire or empty barrel. Channel cats will also take over an abandoned nest. Males guard the nest for about a week, until the fry hatch. The male will then hang around for a few additional days before leaving the young to survive on their own, usually when they are four or five days old.

Preferred Habitat

Unlike his larger cousins, the channel catfish prefers to stay in slow-moving streams or lakes. They are typically bottom dwellers and can survive in brackish water with low oxygen levels.


Channel catfish are brown to grey with a silver or white underside. They have a v-shaped tail, like the blue catfish, but the fork is less prominent. The anal fin of the channel catfish is rounded, instead of flat, and only has 24-28 rays. Like other types of catfish, the channel cat has barbs on either side of its mouth to help it detect prey. One thing that sets channel cats apart from blue or flathead catfish is the spots on the body of the channel cat. These may fade as the fish ages, but young fish have black spots along their sides.

Eating Channel Catfish

Channel catfish are one of the only catfish raised in fish farms specifically for the restaurant industry. Fish in the one to two pound range provide firm, white meat with a mild taste due to their carefully monitored diet. If you have ever eaten fish filets in a restaurant, chances are you had channel catfish.

How To Tell The Difference In Blue Catfish and Channel Catfish

The Blue catfish and the Channel catfish are the most desired species of catfish for anglers, but they are also the two most confused species of catfish. Both have a grey-colored body and a light-colored belly. Both species also have a forked tail. Inexperienced anglers often confuse the two, but if you know what to look for, you will easily identify these fish and many other catfish.

Both fish grow to over two feet long and both can weigh over 40 pounds. Blue catfish typically live in large, fast-moving rivers with a sandy or rocky bottom. Channel catfish prefer slower-moving water, like that found in lakes, reservoirs, and slow rivers.

Another major difference between these two catfish species is the shape and size of the anal fin, located on the bottom of the fish directly in front of the tail. Blue catfish have a straight anal fin with 30 to 35 rays. Channel catfish have a rounded or curved anal fin with only 24-29 rays.

Another major difference is the actual skin color. Blue catfish will have blue-grey colored skin, with no green or brown tones. Channel cats may be grey, also, but their skin will have more of a brown or olive green undertone.

See also:

Why you Need to Know The Different Catfish Species

It is important to recognize the different types of catfish species if you intend to sport fish for catfish. Different types of catfish can only be caught in certain waterways or at certain times of the year.

Also, there may be limits on one catfish species, but not another. For example, Tennessee has a regulation that says no more than one catfish over 34 inches per day, per angler.

California’s regulations allow 10 catfish per day, with no size limit. Texas has further broken down the rules according to catfish species. In that state, you cannot keep over 25 blue and channel catfish combined.

You can, however, catch up to 5 additional fish of the flathead catfish species as long as they are 18 inches or longer. Ignorance of the law will not prevent you from a citation, so you need to learn about the different catfish species.

Catfish FAQs

Which is the best catfish species to eat?

This is a hard question to answer. It has more to do with what the fish eat and where you catch them than the species. Flathead catfish, for instance, will only eat other fish, so they might taste better than bullhead catfish that scrounge in the mud of the bottom and eat any debris they can find.
Common commercially harvested catfish include channel catfish and Mississippi white catfish, which are often farm-raised and fed commercial fish food. These species are excellent food fish because of their mild taste and abundance of meat.
Some people will refuse to eat saltwater catfish because of the taste, but if caught in clean water, it can be delicious. The most common complaint among people who have tried saltwater catfish species such as hardheads and gaff-topsail is the dirty taste. Considering that these fish will eat anything, it makes sense that they would taste nasty if caught in a polluted area. Another complaint about saltwater catfish is the abundance of bones.

Which is the easiest catfish species to catch?

Black or brown bullhead catfish are probably the easiest to catch because they are so prolific. They can live in small ponds or low water situations and multiply easily. Like most catfish, bullheads are omnivores, but these fish really will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first. They can be found in brackish or soured water and live in the mud on the bottom of ponds or lakes. They can survive in low oxygen situations and burrow into the mud to conserve energy. Bullhead catfish are small, usually around 3 pounds. They will bite on almost any natural baits, but also will bite artificial baits like punch bait, dough balls, and stinky dip bait.
One of the hardest catfish to catch is the flathead catfish. These fish prefer to stay hidden and live alone. In the heat of the day, they move to the deep pools of water, but move inland at night to feed on fish eggs, bait fish, and other fish species. Flathead catfish will make nests under logs, along debris piles on the bank, or in rock piles.

What is the best bait for catfish

Catfish are not picky. They will eat just about anything. Most freshwater catfish will consume a mixture of insects, invertebrates, and smaller fish species. Live baits such as nightcrawlers, crawdads, and shad fished near the bottom will attract catfish in springlike weather. Fishing at night can be more successful in the summer months, presenting these same live baits closer to the shoreline.
Chumming with cut bait, chicken livers, or catfish pellets can be a successful way of drawing the fish up from the bottom. Commercially prepared catfish baits often have an extra stinky component added to attract the fish. While catfish do have an acute sense of smell, many scientists argue that catfish would rather eat live, fresh fish than something that smells like rotten cheese. One catfish species that does seem drawn to commercial bait is the channel catfish.

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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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