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Types of Catfish - Catfish Species Explained

Catfishing sounds easy.

Just wait till dark, run a big hook through a rotting chunk of liver, add a weight that allows you to cast, and let ‘er rip--right?

Not so fast!

The more you know about catfish, the more you realize that every species has a different preference for prey items and habitat--each of which affects how you catch them.

And wildlife biologists have some surprises in store for catmen, including a decided preference for live fish!

Want to know more about the three most common species of catfish?

Keep reading…

Related: When Do Catfish Spawn?

Catfish 101: What Do Catfish Species Have in Common?

Catmen in the U.S face off against three common species: the blue, the channel, and the flathead.

flat head

This flathead is giving the photographer the evil eye!

And while they’re all catfish and have a lot in common as a result, they have distinct prey preferences and hunting styles.

Understanding these differences can help you target the species you’re after and improve your catch.

Negative Buoyancy

Most fish are positively buoyant, a fact that’s visible when they die--they’ll float to the surface. Not so for cats! Equipped by nature with a small swim bladder and a heavy, bony head, they’re ideal bottom feeders from nose to tail.

If you’re looking for big cats, look at or very near the bottom.

Catfish “Smell and Taste” With Their Skin

Catfish sport thick, leathery skin that’s loaded with chemoreceptors. This allows them to smell and taste the water around them, and these remarkably sensitive senses can detect prey items in murky, muddy, stained, or dark water with ease.

Because catfish are so well adapted for low-light feeding, many anglers assume that nighttime is the right time. And while there’s some truth to that, it isn’t a hard and fast rule. It also isn’t true that stinky baits are ideal for all three species, as both the blue and flathead are active predators that prefer live meals.

That special skin and small swim bladder define a lot about catfish behavior:

  • Catfish tend to work the bottom of the water column.
  • They’ll hunt and forage in low-light conditions, whether that’s turbid water or dawn, dusk, and night.
  • Scent is more important than vision for catfish.

Keeping these traits in mind, the next step toward being a better cat-fisherman is knowing what sets them apart.

Types Of Catfish

The Blue Catfish

large blue catfish

That’s an impressive blue!

The blue catfish, Ictalurus furcatus, is the largest of the three species common to the United States. Typically growing to lengths of 25 to 46 inches, it can reach a monstrous 65 inches and 150 pounds!

Feeding behavior

To support that size, blues are voracious predators, not bottom-feeding scavengers. And though they’ll make a meal out of anything they run across, aquatic invertebrates like crawfish and mussels--as well as fish of all kinds--are common prey items. Frogs, snakes, and pretty much anything else in the water is fair game, too.

Experts report that under some conditions, they’ll feed on aquatic vegetation, too.

Habitat preferences

Native from “Minnesota and Ohio southward into Mexico, blue catfish prefer the large river basins of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri River drainages,” Maryland’s DNR notes--and this introduced population thrives “in the Potomac River and in several Virginia tributaries to Chesapeake Bay.”

Blues prefer sandy bottoms and deep channels, and they do just fine in tidal zones that may tend toward brackish when the tide is moving.

Tips for catching blue catfish

Anglers chasing blue catfish need to keep their predatory hunting style in mind. While they’re still oriented by their incredible ability to taste the water around them, giving them unparalleled sense in low-light, blues hunt the bottom rather than scavenge from it.

The simple truth is that blues prefer live food to dead, stinky baits. A big minnow or a fat shad on a Gamakatsu’s 4X Strong Octopus Hook is a much better bet than a prepared catfish concoction or day-old liver.

These strong hooks will take the fight of a monster cat.

I like to weight my line a few feet back from my bait with enough split shot to keep it near the bottom but actively swimming. 

The Channel Catfish

fisherman holding channel catfish

Channel cats this size make a great meal.

The channel cat, Ictalurus punctatus, is the most common species of catfish in the U.S, and it’s typically much smaller than the blue. Growing to no more than 40 to 50 pounds, it’s far more often caught in the range of 2 to 4.

Feeding behavior

As you’d expect from a catfish, the channel cat is well-adapted to low-light and murky, muddy water. Baby channel cats start life feeding on insects but quickly move to an omnivorous diet that incorporates pretty much anything they find that’s edible. Thomas L. Wellborn, a catfish expert at the University of Florida, notes that the stomach contents of channel cats frequently include “insects, snails, crawfish, green algae, aquatic plants, seeds, and small fish. When available, they will feed avidly on terrestrial insects, and there are even records of birds being eaten. Fish become an important part of the diet for channel catfish larger than 18 inches total length, and in natural waters fish may constitute as much as 75 percent of their diet.”

The standard bait for channels is something dead and stinking, or a prepared catfish bait that spreads its unique flavor far and wide. 

But keep in mind that channel catfish do hunt, and larger specimens are primarily piscivorous.

Habitat preferences

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, “Channel catfish are native to North America east of the Rockies from southern Canada, south into northeastern Mexico, and east of the Appalachians with the exception of much of the coastal plain north of Florida. The species has been widely introduced in other areas as far west as California.”

And while now widely distributed, channel cats prefer slow-moving or still water. “Channel catfish generally prefer clear water streams, but are common and do well in muddy water,” Wellborn says.

Tips for catching channel catfish

If you’re looking to fill a cooler for a fish fry, and you’re fishing moving water, give the stinky stuff a go.

If there’s a more respected dip bait than Catfish Charlie’s Blood Dip Bait, I don’t know what it is. Horrible to smell, this thick bait sticks well and summons cats from hundreds of feet (at least). It distributes easily in slight currents, and there’s no question it works.

Another popular bait is Secret-7, and this stuff is legit, no question about it!

These disgusting concoctions are generally applied to dip worms like Catfish Charlie’s or sponge-enhanced hooks that can hold this gooey mess, but high temps can liquify these thick baits too much, resulting in poor performance.

If the idea of a punch bait turns your stomach, nightcrawlers are a great alternative.

I’ll hook as many as I can on a #5 or #6 Mustad’s 4x treble rigged beneath a big slip float like the Billy Boy 040 Oval.

This works extremely well for eating-size catfish, but if you’re looking for a real monster, switch to the live minnow or shad discussed above for blues.

The Flathead Catfish

huge flathead catfish

Who wouldn’t be proud of this amazing flathead?

The flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, reaches sizes that rival the blue. Growing to as much as 61 inches and 123 pounds, this large predator has feeding habits that resemble the blue more than the channel cat.

flathead catfish

Feeding behavior

Flatheads, like blues, hunt for the prey and generally won’t take anything dead and stinking. Even more refined in their tastes than blues, they turn entirely piscivorous as adults.

Indeed, Texas Wildlife and Parks explains that “when 10 inches or larger, their diet consists entirely of fish: shad, carp, suckers, sunfish, largemouth bass and other catfish (including their own kind).”

Well-equipped for low-light hunting, flatheads “are usually solitary, each staking out a favorite spot under a tree or in a cove, in deep water. At night, they move into shallow areas to feed,” Texas Wildlife and Park reports.

Generally ambush predators, big flatheads will find a hiding spot to wait for incautious prey to swim by.

Habitat preferences

Flathead catfish have been introduced widely and are now found from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wherever you find them, you’ll notice that flatheads like their water murky and dark: ideal conditions for an ambush.

Tips for catching flathead catfish

Flatheads love live shad, and I like to accommodate them! Because they’re ambush predators, you want your shad swimming and creating excitement, but planted where you cast it.

My favorite technique for flatheads is a three-way rig with enough weight to cast well and keep my shad where it needs to be.

three-way-rig for catfish

The humble three-way rig is murder on flathead.

I like a Gamakatsu’s 4X Strong Octopus Hook on this rig, and heavy line, as I’m not usually concerned about visibility given the habitat preferences of flatheads.

Low-light is ideal for shallow water, but if you fish while the sun is up, look for deep channels and holes.

Catfish Tackle: What You Need to Know

fisherman catching large catfish

Is your tackle ready for this?

Big cats make pretty much everything else a freshwater angler can catch look small, and you need super tough, strong tackle to get the job done.

We’ve discussed this issue at length, and we recommend you take a look at these articles for the inside scoop:

Best Catfish Reels Reviewed

Best Catfish Rods Reviewed – Tough, Sensitive, and Capable

Best Fishing Line For Catfish Reviewed

Best Hooks For Catfish

Best Catfish Bait & Techniques For Every Situation

A well-equipped catman needs a strong, sensitive, hard-fighting rod like the Ugly Stik Elite. I own this rod, I fish with this rod, and it’s far more impressive than its price tag suggests. Paired with an excellent KastKing Kapstan Elite running heavy-weight PowerPro, you’ve got a winning setup that won’t empty your bank account.

Final Thoughts

We hope that you’ve learned something from this article, and if it’s gotten you fired up about catfishing, you might want to check out these articles, too:

Catfish Fishing Tips: Catch Catfish Like a Pro

They’ll provide more detailed information to help you catch the cat of your life and keep the fish fries coming!

As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. Whether he's casting a line in a quiet freshwater stream or battling a monster bass, fishing is his true passion.