The Hardy, Plentiful (and BIG) Blue Catfish

The blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is the largest catfish in North America and is a very interesting species in general. In this article, we will take a deep look at this species, its’ anatomy, and its’ behavior.

Blue Catfish (A General Description)

blue catfish

Some distinctive features of the blue catfish are its body shape, color, jaw and fins. (photo credit: Tennessee Aquarium – tnaqua.org).

Blue catfish have a blue-gray coloration and have wide and stocky bodies.

One of the key physical identifiers of a blue cat is a distinct and noticeable dorsal hump when it becomes a mature fish, which is a good anatomical feature to distinguish a blue catfish from a channel catfish.

blue catfish forked tail

The tail of the blue catfish has a deeply notched fork.

Other catfish in North America have a lower protruding jaw, but blues have an upper protruding jaw which is another observation you can make to distinguish between catfish species.

The blue catfish features barbels, or “whiskers,” which are present on all catfish species in North America.

The number of anal fin rays is also different from that of a channel cat. Blue catfish anal fin rays will vary from 30-36 rays, while channel catfish only feature between  25-29 rays.

cody and Alyssa Hall with blue catfish

Blue catfish (pictured here) are sometimes mistaken for channel catfish (below picture) as a result of having a similar appearance in the bodies of water where both are found. This occurs more often when trying to determine the species of the fish when they are juveniles.

channel catfish
Channel Catfish


Where Are Blue Catfish Located?

The most well-known waters the blue catfish calls home would be the Mississippi river system and its branches and tributaries, which include the Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Ohio rivers, along with their tributaries and nearby smaller bodies of water.

The rivers listed above aren’t the only rivers to hold native populations, other rivers, such as the Rio Grande river and the Des Moines river in Southern Iowa, also have prominent populations of blue cats.

Cody Hall holding blue catfish

Interestingly, the blue catfish range extends farther south than most people in the United States are aware of, farther than any other catfish prominently found in North America, and extends throughout the Gulf coast of Mexico and continues south to the countries of Guatemala and Belize in Central America.

Blue catfish have also been introduced into many bodies of water outside where they are found historically, expanding their range and giving anglers more opportunities to catch the fish.


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Blue Catfish Diet

The blue catfish has a diet comparable to all catfish species, and they will feed on various species such as frogs, mussels, crayfish, small to medium-sized fish like bluegills and bullheads, minnows, and other aquatic and semi-aquatic prey like small land mammals and birds.

Blues are opportunistic feeders like all catfish and eat virtually any animal or edible animal parts that is the appropriate size.

blue crabs

One interesting food choice… The blue catfish also feeds on the blue crab, a valuable species for the economy around the Chesapeake Bay. Blue crabs are the most valuable species in economic fisheries for seafood, and the number of blue crabs has suffered due to the introduction of blue catfish.

Blue cats prefer easy meals, such as animals that are already dead or wounded, this is the main reason the fish will gather near any hydroelectric dams to feed on animals and fish that have been pulled through the spillways.

Anglers who fish for blue cats favor using live bait like bullheads or cut bait from various fish species like shad, skipjack, bullhead, bluegills, and others. Some anglers also use various other types of bait, like chicken liver or a mixed catfish bait recipe that is thick, smelly, and has a consistency of something like peanut butter.



How Big Do Blue Catfish Get?

According to NOAA Fisheries, mature blue catfish will typically be less than two feet long. However, blue catfish can grow to be even 5 feet long and weigh in over 100 pounds!

two men with a blue catfish

Most adult blue cats, like this one pictured, tend to be less than 24 inches in length, but they can get huge… over 100 pounds!


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Invasive Species

Blue catfish is a very adaptable species that can tolerate a wide range of environments, which means that in some places where they have been intentionally or accidentally introduced, they can have negative effects on the ecosystem.

They can even tolerate water with salinity levels, such as tributaries and brackish water areas leading to the ocean.

In certain waters in Virginia, the blue catfish was purposely introduced in the 1970s, the population quickly exploded and has caused issues with the native species to this day.



In the tidal rivers leading to the Chesapeake Bay, the blue catfish has become the dominant predatory species, out-competing other species native to the waters.

Small fish species like alewives, anadromous shad species, and blueback herring have seen massive drops in numbers due to predation from the blue catfish.

There is a bit of a silver lining to the blue catfish issues in Virginia waterways, as the catfish also feed on the Asian clam and hydrilla, both of which are also invasive species. While they help keep these invasive species in check, it’s difficult to say whether this outweighs the effects the fish has on native species.



Fishing for the Blue Catfish

Like all fish, the blue catfish has preferences in its habitat, and to successfully catch them, you have to be in the right place at the right time.

As mentioned earlier, your best choices for bait selection will typically be live or cut bait, with cut bait being the most prominent selection. When fishing in locations holding blue cats, cut bait utilizing herring, shad, bullheads, bluegills, or manhaden is sure to seal the deal on one!

Commercially produced stink bait, chicken liver, and other smelly types of bait are the favorite of many anglers, and some swear by their effectiveness over live or cut bait in certain fishing situations.




Blues like deep holes in the river systems they inhabit, so be sure to search out any holes that are 15-25 feet in depth, along with any depressions in otherwise flat and shallow areas that are in the 10-12 foot depth range.

If there is timber present on the edges of holes or in the hole itself, be sure to add it to the top of your hit list, and even areas with rocks, rip rap, and boulders can consistently hold big blues. Maybe you can put a hook N1!



It’s a great idea to run as many rods as you legally can for blue cats, covering a fairly wide area and running a variety of bait options.

Not only does having multiple lines help you contact more fish, but running different bait options not only allows you to figure out what the fish are keyed into on any given day, but you can also adjust your offerings based on what they want.



Final Thoughts

Blue catfish can get huge and are vicious predators in the waters they inhabit. Understanding the fish, its environment, behavior, and anatomy can help you be consistent on the water when pursuing them, and the results can be epic.

man holding giant flathead catfish

Water Whiskers! | Different Types Of Catfish

North America has several different species of catfish, with a few being well-known among anglers and others that are a bit more obscure, or less desired, as a prized catch.

So, let’s take a look at the different types of catfish in North America (and one bonus catfish!)

Flathead Catfish

flathead catfish2

The flathead catfish can grow very large and is one of the most popular catfish in North America. (photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – dnr.wisconsin.gov)

 The flathead catfish is one of the most popular species among anglers, only overshadowed by the channel catfish, and this is due to their wide distribution throughout the United States.

The flathead catfish is also popular with those who prefer to catch catfish by hand (called “noodling”).

General Description

Flatheads have an olive base coloration that features mottled brown and black splotches along their flanks for camouflage, this coloration giving way to a white or yellow colored belly.

man holding 2 noodled catfish

The flathead catfish typically has an olive-colored skin with brown and/or black splotches that can vary based on the color of the water they live in.

Depending on the bodies of water they inhabit, such as stained or murky water or clear water environments, the darkness and coloration of the flathead catfish can vary.

Flathead catfish can grow to very large sizes compared to other freshwater fish in North America, with a length of 60+ inches and a weight of 100+ pounds or more being possible, depending on their environment and available forage.

two men holding giant flathead catfish

Flatheads can grow very large and provide an epic fight, whether caught with a fishing pole or even by hand (noodling).


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Distribution

The flathead catfish has a range that extends from the very southern parts of Canada throughout the Great Lakes region and as far south as Northern Mexico.

Flatheads can be found throughout the Appalachian range, Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri basins, the Gulf coast states, and as far west as Texas.


Giant flathead catfish caught by hand!

Diet of the Flathead Catfish

The diet of flathead catfish mostly consists of live prey, as that is what they prefer to feed on. They will eat most live prey, from insects, and crayfish, to various fish species like bluegills and even smaller catfish, including other flatheads.

bluegill fish

Flatheads feed on various forms of prey, including bluegill like this one.

They will also feed on other prey if the opportunity presents itself, including small birds, frogs, and small land animals that may fall or swim into the water.

The flathead, like most catfish, has small eyes in proportion to its’ body, which is a clear indicator that the fish does not rely on its’ eyesight as a predominant method for feeding or catching prey.


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Channel Catfish

channel catfish

The channel catfish is the most numerous true catfish species in North America, with a large distribution. They are very popular among anglers, and while they are numerous, they do not reach the sizes of the flathead and blue catfish species (photo credit Texas Parks and wildlife – pwd.texas.gov).

General Description

Like with flathead catfish, the coloration of the channel catfish can vary, and in the case of the channel catfish, they can have an olive, light brown, or grey coloration depending on the body of water.

Some channel catfish may feature speckles or mottled colorations, while others may not feature any additional markings at all.



The top end of the size and weight for that channel catfish, while still large compared to other freshwater fish, is much smaller than the blue and flathead catfish, with 40 to 50 pounds in weight being the typical maximum.

The average weight and length for a channel catfish caught in any given body of water is around 2-4 pounds and 12-26 inches in length.



Distribution

Channel catfish can be found in the Nearctic of Canada and are widespread throughout southern Canada. The channel catfish is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States as well as the northeastern coast of Mexico.

holding channel catfish

The Channel Catfish has also been introduced to waters outside of their native ranges, such as states in the U.S. like California and in landlocked bodies of water in Europe, most notably in the Czech Republic and Romania (photo credit: University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources – calfish.ucdavis.edu).

Europe isn’t the only place with bodies of water hosting stocked populations of channel catfish, they can also be found in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.



Diet of the Channel Catfish

Like other species of catfish, the diet of the channel catfish is quite diverse, and they will feed on everything from small fish like perch and sunfish to snails, worms, insects, crayfish, frogs, small birds, and small mammals.

Channel catfish will also feed on other food sources like algae, nuts, seeds, grains, and aquatic plants.

Blue Catfish

blue catfish

The blue catfish is the largest species of catfish in North America, but compared to the channel catfish, they inhabit a much smaller range (photo credit: Tennessee Aquarium – tnaqua.org).



General Description

Smaller blue catfish are often misidentified as channel catfish due to their coloration, which at times is very close to the gray coloration of some channel catfish.

Blue catfish have a blue-blueish-gray coloration and have a very bulky and wide body shape. The fish features a prominent dorsal hump on its back when they get to adult size, which is a great identifier.

Whereas flathead and channel catfish and a lower protruding jaw, the blue catfish has an upper protruding jaw, along with the barbels that are the characteristic feature of all catfish.

The tail is deeply forked on the blue catfish, and a failsafe way to identify a blue catfish is to count the anal fin rays. The blue catfish has anywhere from 30-36 rays, while channel catfish have 25-29 fin rays.

two men with a blue catfish

The blue catfish is the largest species of catfish in North America, but compared to the channel catfish, they inhabit a much smaller range.



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Distribution

The main region of waterways hosting blue catfish is the Mississippi river and its’ tributaries, which include the Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas, and Missouri rivers.

Some other rivers hold native populations, such as the Des Moines in Southern Iowa and the Rio Grande river.



The blue catfish range also extends far south, farther than any other catfish in the United States, and follows the eastern coast of Mexico to the countries of Belize and Guatemala.

Blue catfish have also been stocked in many different reservoirs and lakes throughout the southeastern United States.


Catch and release of a blue catfish.

Diet of the Blue Catfish

The diet of the blue catfish consists of mussels, small fish, crayfish, frogs, and other semi-aquatic and aquatic prey. Blue catfish are opportunistic feeders like all catfish, and will eat almost anything that is deemed edible.

Blue catfish prefer to eat food that is already dead or wounded and will congregate near the spillways of dams to feed upon fish and animals that are disoriented, killed, or wounded from going through the spillways

Bonus Catfish: The Wels Catfish

wels catfish

We decided to add a very interesting catfish to this discussion, and while they are not in North America, catfish anglers in the states can appreciate the Wels catfish simply for what it is (photo credit: Watershed Council – watershedcouncil.org).

General Description

The Wels catfish can grow to incredibly large sizes, with reports of massive fish weighing 440-550 pounds recorded in the last two centuries.

The fish, on average today, can reach lengths of 5-6 feet, and fish weighing well in excess of 100-150 pounds are still somewhat common.



The anatomy of the Wels catfish is quite different from the catfish in North America, and the body drastically tapers with a very large head narrowing down towards the tail.

The anal fin of the Wels catfish is much longer than those of other catfish as well, with the anal fin following half the length of the body.

The Wels catfish is the largest freshwater fish in Europe and Western Asia.

Distribution

man with giant wels catfish

The Wels catfish can be found throughout most of Europe and is a dominant fish species in all of Eastern Europe (photo credit: deviantart.com)

The range of the fish extends from Europe to the northern regions of the Middle East and continues eastward into western Asia, with large populations in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.



Diet of the Wels Catfish

Catfish that can reach the size of the Wels catfish can eat larger prey like ducks, birds like pigeons, and small to mid-sized land animals, snakes, and fish of varying sizes.

There have been reports of the Wels catfish feeding on people’s pets.



Final Thoughts On Types Of Catfish

There you have it, the general information on the three main species of catfish in North America, plus the bonus Wels catfish, which holds a legendary status in the regions where they are found.

noodling aly from alabama catfish over shoulder

Catfish Noodling [A crazy fishing method!] | Learn How To Catch ‘Em Bare-Handed

“I stuck my hand down in this hole and pulled out a giant catfish.”

Wait… WHAT??

If you’ve ever heard about noodling for catfish, you might wonder what in the world might possess someone to stick their hand into a dark hole and hope something latches on.

This is… noodling!

two men holding giant flathead catfish

Does the thought of grabbing a big catfish with your bare hands make you want to learn more? Read on!


You can jump straight to any of the following sections of article:


two hands holding up a noodled catfish

Grabbing a catfish with your bare hands will definitely make you want to raise your hands in victory!

So, what exactly is “noodling?” Well, it’s basically catching a fish with your bare hands. VIDEOS BELOW…

What Is Noodling?

Some call it hand fishing. Some call it grabbling (or grabblin) or hogging, and of course, some call it “noodling.”

The bottom line is that you are catching a fish with your bare hands!

Even though it might seem scary at first, it can be fun like you’ve never experienced when you #putahandN1!

So, How Can I Learn to Noodle A Catfish?

Do you want to learn to Put A Hand N1? Read below for a step-by-step tutorial!

Time needed: 10 minutes

How to noodle for catfish:

  1. Safety First!

    Always have at least one person in the water with you, spotting you, when you noodle for catfish. Noodling can sometimes require you to go under water and holding your breath.

    Don’t overestimate your ability to hold your breath. Also, catfish are extremely powerful fish, so be sure you don’t underestimate their strength. You may also want to wear gloves to protect your hands. They bite hard!

  2. Find where they’re hiding…

    Check under boat ramps and in holes in the bank. Some people also noodle in man-made catfish boxes that have been submerged to attract catfish during the spawn.

    You can use a stick to probe in the holes. If there’s a catfish in the hole, it will often bite the stick with a distinct “thud.”

  3. Stick your hand in the hole

    This can be the most unnerving part of noodling catfish. Be sure to keep your 4 fingers together so you don’t break a finger unnecessarily (see picture below!) Slowly move your hand around in the hole and get ready to get bit!

    hand placement when noodling

  4. Grab it!

    Once the catfish bites your hand try to close your hand, grabbing its lower jaw. Once you get a grip on it, try pulling it from the hole.

    Once you are able, slip your other hand up under the catfish’s gil plate (see picture below). This helps prevent the catfish from “rolling” and getting away.

    The roll is very powerful, so don’t neglect this step. On larger fish, you may want to wrap your legs around its tail to lock it up.

    men holding flathead catfish caught noodling

  5. Celebrate!

    There’s nothing like the rush of grabbing a catfish with your bare hands. You’ll be able to handle this step with no problem! And be sure to shout, “Put A Hand N1!”


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What Do Other People Say About Hand Fishing?

You might have seen people noodling for catfish on social media. Here’s what some of our friends have to say about this crazy hobby of catching catfish with your bare hands…

aly from alabama holding flathead catfish

Aly from Alabama has grabbed her share of catfish bare handed!

“I love noodling because there isn’t anything that can prepare you for it. Every aspect of noodling is based on your ability to conquer your own fears — you can’t prepare yourself and you can’t practice. There is a level of surprise that is untouched in any other sport or hobby, and the adrenaline rush is absolutely incredible.”

Aly “Aly from Alabama” Hall

“Noodling challenges me every time and the feeling of conquering fear is absolutely addicting!”

Jess Bond

“There’s just something about the adrenaline rush of going into a hole blind, but expecting to get bit every time! That’s what I noticed the first time I tried it a 12 years old! From the first bite of a little 3 lb blue cat, I was hooked on that adrenaline rush! It’s become something of a passion for me, not just a hobby! Couldn’t really see myself going back to not doing it at this point!”

Nate Kennedy

“It’s just the adrenaline you get from getting on a big fish, and the experience of having fun while doing it. But it all comes down to putting a hand N1 and that’s what I love the most!”

Lane Allen
huge catfish with large whiskers that was noodled

Since learning to noodle catfish, it’s now enjoyable to teach others how to grab big cats (those whiskers though!) Learn more below about how I learned to catch these dinosaurs with my bare hands!


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Is noodling legal and can I go in my state?

You may have watched these videos and read the stories on this page and said, “There’s no way I’m ever doing that!”

However, you might be one that loves the thought of catching a catfish with your bare hands and wonder, “Is noodling legal in my state?”

Find out if noodling is legal in your state. If so, you can click “more info” to visit that state’s department of natural resources to learn more about the local game laws for legality and restrictions on hand fishing for catfish.)

Is noodling legal in my state?
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If you want to see pure outdoor joy, watch these videos below of our friends, Andrew Urban and Luke-Avery Urban and “Aly from Alabama” as they noodle some huge catfish! The videos below will make you smile… we promise!



Now THIS is how you celebrate a catfish!

Check out this huge catfish and the ensuing celebration! Woo!

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MORE VIDEOS BELOW THAT YOU WON’T BELIEVE…

Another Monster Catfish Moment

In this video, Andrew’s brother, Luke Avery-Urban, puts a hand N1! Check out this incredible video!

Watch Luke-Avery put a hand N1 as he grabs a huge flathead catfish from underneath a concrete boat ramp…


WATCH OUR FRIEND ALY FROM ALABAMA BELOW, NOODLE “A STINKY ONE…”

Aly From Alabama Noodles Big Blue Cat

When it comes to grabbing big cats, “Aly from Alabama” is no stranger to big cats. Check out what happens when this blue cat engulfs her arm!

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Once upon a time, I was a first time noodler…

Watching videos like the ones above from the Urban brothers and Aly from Alabama made me want to put a hand N1 too!

What was it about sticking your hand into dark holes where you couldn’t see anything and hoping something huge would bite your hand?

We weren’t sure what the buzz was all about, but we were fascinated to find out what it was like to get bit.

So, we scheduled our first noodling trip with Luke-Avery Urban on Clarks Hill lake in Lincolton, Georgia.

After all, in addition to learning how to ice fish, is something we’d always wanted to try.

man holding flathead catfish that he caught with bare hands

A great day on the lake noodling for catfish! This was a nice flathead I grabbed with the five-finger death grip!



Tag-Team Catfish Noodling!

Sometimes the catfish are just too big for one person to handle!

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But first, a limit out

Luke-Avery was generous enough to spend the whole day with us, teaching the N1 Outdoors audience how to fish for striped bass and hybrid bass.

So, we spent the first part of the day striper fishing and it turned into a striped bass and hybrid limit! 

Once we had limited out on striped bass and hybrid, we were off to some boat ramps that had produced some quality noodling trips over the years for Luke-Avery. 



Catfish spawning

Spawning time is the optimal time to noodle for catfish. We learned that water temperature is key in learning when the catfish spawn happens.

The female lays her eggs in hollow logs, crevices or caverns under the bank, and in holes or openings under boat ramps, which is where we would be searching.

Once the female catfish lays her eggs, the male guards the nest fiercely until the hatch occurs. We found out that they will bite down hard on anything entering the nest!

Spawning of catfish can vary depending on location, however, temperature ranges of 65-84 degree water temperature will trigger spawning action of blue cats and flathead catfish. Some believe 81 is the magical temperature for some species, but again, that can vary depending on location.

Well, whatever the perfect temperature is for each, we were able to experience both species in one outing! 


Underwater Footage Of Getting Bit By Giant Flathead Catfish!

This video shows what it’s like to get bit by a big catfish [Underwater footage!]


Hurt at first bite

At our first stop, I got to experience what it feels like to get bit on the hand when trying to noodle a catfish for the first time. I learned quickly that it’s best to keep your fingers together when trying to entice a catfish to bit your hand!

The first bite was actually on just my little finger. It sure didn’t feel very good! If you have never experienced how strong the mouth of a catfish is, hand fishing will help you understand very quickly!

man holding flathead catfished that he noodled

Getting a big catfish to bite your hand and then pulling it out of a hole will get your heart beating at high speed!

Luke-Avery said he’s taken a lot of grown men noodling and most of the have yelled underwater the first time they get bit. I was determined to not do that. But, I will say I was certainly startled. 

I tried multiple times to grab the catfish in that first hole and just could get a grip fast enough.

Finally, Luke-Avery said to let him try. He stuck his hand into the hole and got bit as well.

When he came up he said, “that’s a blue cat. They bite harder than a flathead catfish does.” (Flathead catfish are sometimes referred to as mud cats, yellow cats or shovelhead catfish.)

We left that hole and moved farther down the boat ramp. Eventually, we were both diving down in 10 feet of water checking other holes. Luke-Avery was able to pull out a nice blue cat.

hand grabbing a catfish while noodling

To “put a hand N1” is a rush quite unlike any outdoor activity I’ve ever tried. I highly recommend it!

My first bare-handed catfish!

When we left there, we went to another ramp where Luke-Avery had noodled some 40+ pound catfish in prior years. We got bit several times but were having trouble landing any cats. Finally, I was able to get a hand N1 and land my first flathead catfish! It was a rush for sure!

It’s fun now to take others to experience this same rush (like when I took our friends from FOB Archery).

I certainly found out that noodling was definitely worth all the hype. Let’s just say that was the first of many trips to come!