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Catfish Questions and Answers: 6 Things You’ve Always Wanted to Know

Written by: John Baltes
Last Updated:
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We’ve all got questions about catfish, but we’re often either too embarrassed to ask or have trouble finding a reliable answer.

That’s why we’ve taken the time to answer some of the more common questions about cats, relying on science and reputable sources rather than rumor and “common” knowledge.

Do you want to have your questions answered?

Keep reading!

Related: Catfish Fishing Tips

How long do catfish live?

Short answer: 24 years (blue, flathead, and channel catfish)

While many catfish in the wild don’t survive to reach their maximum age, most species are longer-lived than you might think.

Unlike most animals, catfish grow continuously, getting large as they grow older. There’s a theoretical limit to this growth - and age - of course, and catfish can’t live forever! But they can reach reasonable ages by human standards.

Snopes debunked the supposed 736-pound Mekong Giant rumored to be 170 years old, though you’ll often see that touted by lazy sites that try to answer this question. It was just a Photoshopped flathead released on April 1st.

But the truth is almost as impressive.

A 646-pound Mekong Giant, measuring nearly nine feet in length, was caught on a rod and reel in Thailand in 2005. As you can imagine, it didn’t reach these monstrous proportions overnight!

mekong giant world record

This Mekong Giant, the current world record, was probably older than the angler who caught it!

According to National Geographic, the Mekong Giant lives to roughly 60 years barring injury or disease, and this fish is thought to be roughly that age.

123 lb flathead catfish

Ken Paulie’s 123 lb. flathead was no spring chicken.

Catfish species closer to home like the channel, blue, and flathead aren’t as long-lived as the Mekong Giant. Flathead catfish, for instance, have a recorded maximum age of 24 years. Blues and channels have a similar maximum age, growing continuously until they die. 

How long can catfish live out of water?

Short answer: several hours (blue, channel, and flathead catfish)

Catfish are true survivors, and one of the reasons they flourish where other species fail is their ability to tolerate poorly oxygenated water. That gives them a distinct advantage in slow-moving rivers and stagnant lakes and ponds, and as any serious catfisherman can attest, if there’s a way to make it, catfish will.

In fact, some species of catfish can breathe air, allowing them to walk short distances to better habitat! 

air breathing catfish on land

This air-breathing catfish can “walk” on its pectoral fins to find a better home.

I know that sounds like a bad joke, but it’s true. The catfish family Clariidae are capable of this amazing feat, dramatically increasing their survivability.

Still other species of catfish can draw oxygen through their skin if it’s kept wet, allowing them to resist droughts by burying themselves in the mud.

Common American species like the blue, channel, and flathead are just plain tough. They lack the suprabranchial organ that allows air-breathing catfish to survive on dry land, and they can’t absorb oxygen through their skin, either.

Nevertheless, they can live for hours out of the water, a testament to their low oxygen needs. In some cases, they can survive even longer.

Do catfish like garlic?

Short answer: yes

It’s a mistake to think of a catfish’s skin as leather. Instead, imagine a tongue and nose that covers their body, allowing them to taste and smell the water around them.

As Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University explains, "Catfish are swimming tongues. You can't touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it's as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body."

Covered in roughly 250,000 chemo-receptors that act something like taste buds, and with an olfactory system that puts pretty much every other fish to shame, catfish can sense some amino acids at concentrations of just one part per 100 million.

Garlic isn’t something that they run into in the wild, but its strong scent and flavor carry well in the water and attract catfish to investigate. It doesn’t take much, actually, for catfish to pick up on garlic, and as many anglers can tell you, it brings them running!

Do catfish like soap?

Short answer: yes

This is an almost forgotten bait for catfish.

ivory soap catfish bait

Ivory soap works surprisingly well as catfish bait.

Plain Ivory soap, cut into small chunks and formed onto a hook, works much like garlic. And some anglers take the extra step of marinating their soap in garlic and other strong flavors to magnify its impact.

It’s not that catfish actively feed on soap, but rather that the smell and taste spread easily and attract attention. Legions of big cats have been caught on Ivory soap, so before you write this one off as myth, you might want to give it a try.

Check this out - Best Homade Catfish Baits for 2024

Can catfish live in salty or brackish water?

Short answer: yes, for short periods

The hardhead, Ariopsis felis, is one of several species of catfish that make their home in saltwater. Hunting the warm waters off the coast of Florida, you’ll find them in shallow, murky water, including brackish estuaries.

And though blues, channels, and flatheads are freshwater species, more often found in rivers, ponds, and lakes, they’re as tough as they come.

All fish species are sensitive to salinity - how salty the water is - and too much variance will sicken or kill them. But “too much” is relative, with fish like the bull shark tolerating fresh water well enough to hunt brackish estuaries and freshwater rivers with ease.

catfish caught in brackish water

Especially after a period of heavy rains, you’ll find catfish in brackish areas.

Common species of catfish aren’t quite as adaptable as the bull shark, but their legendary durability allows them to tolerate high-salinity environments far better than you might imagine. 

New research from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reveals that “blue catfish -- an invasive species in several Chesapeake Bay tributaries -- tolerate salinities higher than most freshwater fishes, and thus may be able to expand their range downstream into mainstem Chesapeake waters, and from there into new Bay tributaries and even Delaware Bay.”

“The lab experiments showed that blue cats can survive up to 3 days when exposed to waters up to 17 psu [close to the salinity of seawater], suggesting they can survive in most downstream areas of the Bay's Virginia tributaries and use the mainstem of the upper Bay to move into other tributaries in Maryland and into Delaware Bay.”

They can take advantage of wet weather which lowers local salinity to expand their range, swimming to new areas through waters that are barriers to other species.

So it’s possible to find freshwater species in brackish and saltwater, but it’s just not common. 

Why do catfish have whiskers?

Short answer: to help them hunt prey in low-visibility conditions

All catfish have whiskers called “barbels,” though the precise number varies by species. These long appendages provided the basis of their name, given their visual similarity to a cat’s whiskers.

why do catfish have wiskers

Here Kitty, Kitty?

But that’s where the similarity ends.

Catfish use their barbels to taste the water around them and scour the bottom for even the faintest scent of prey. Like their skin, these organs are covered in a dense network of chemical taste buds, allowing them to hunt in very low visibility.

And though you may have heard that these barbels can sting you, they’re completely harmless.

The dangerous parts of a catfish are the spines on the pectoral and dorsal fins, each of which is attached to a sack of venom that can inflict a nasty wound.

About The Author
John Baltes
Chief Editor & Contributor
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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1 year ago

Just curious about this, I've seen how they swallow an entire live animal without any chewing. How long does their prey stay alive inside their stomach/mouth?

1 year ago

Thanks, I appreciate this lecture, I am a beginner in catfish rearing. I observed that my catfishes was doing well from their juvenile stage but after about 3 months, their growth reduced drastically, please,what could be the reason for this.and the remedy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Casmir

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