Channel Catfish -- Ictalurus punctatus  

History:  Originally, Channel catfish were found only in the Gulf states and the Mississippi Valley north to the prairie provinces of Canada and south to Mexico. They have been widely introduced throughout the world and are the most important commercially cultured fish in the United States. Channel Catfish have been introduced into Pacific Northwest waterways and are established in the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers. Channel catfish are not present in the Rogue and Umpqua watershed and their introduction to that area is prohibited.

Physiology:  Channel catfish can be distinguished from other members of the Ictaluridae Family by small, irregular black spots along the sides and anal rays exceeding 25.   They have a deeply forked tail. Channel cats appear bluish-gray on the back and silvery to white underneath. They have a stiff, saw-edged spine at the pectoral fins and on the dorsal fin. Catfish lack scales. They have barbells (whiskers) around the mouth—four under the jaw and one each side of the upper jaw.

Channel cats are extremely sensitive to sudden changes in temperature.  When introducing the fish to your pond, be sure to temper the water by adding and mixing pond water slowly to the container holding the fish.

Most movement and feeding occurs at night, just after sunset and just before sunrise. Young cats feed primarily on aquatic insects; adults eat insects, snails, crayfish, green algae, aquatic plants, seeds, small fish and terrestrial insects. Larger catfish (18”+) eat primarily fish (75% of overall diet). It is because of this “predator” nature of the adult channel catfish that their distribution is restricted by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. It simply does not make sense to spend millions on re-establishing salmon runs, only to introduce channel catfish to gobble up hatchery raise salmon smolts.

Channel cats rely heavily on their sense of taste. Taste buds are found over their entire external surface including the barbells, inside mouth, pharynx and gill arches. In turbid water, taste is the primary way channel catfish locate food, however, vision plays an important role in clear water.

Life expectancy of channel catfish is about 14 years, although they have been documented to live up to 25 years.

 

Habitat:  Adult channel catfish are deep water prowlers; the young may be found at most water levels near the shore. Channel catfish live in moderate to swiftly flowing streams but are also found in reservoirs, lakes, ponds and sluggish streams. They prefer sand and gravel over muddy substrates, but do well in muddy water.

Reproduction:  Because Oregon is at the northern edge of its habitat requirements, channel catfish may not reproduce in bass/bluegill ponds in Oregon.  However, reproduction is known in the Snake, Willamette and Columbia Rivers.  Spawning usually takes place in holes along the banks of the pond or rivers.  Open-ended containers can be provided to encourage optimum spawning habitat.  Examples of such containers include:  concrete tile, culvert, nail kegs, milk cans, etc.

The male builds a nest in bank holes, undercut banks, hollow logs, log jams or rocks. He fans out as much mud and debris as possible and will defend this nest until the fry leave the nest. Females, attracted to the nest, lay their eggs in a gelatinous mass on the bottom. After the eggs are laid and fertilized, the male remains with the nest, constantly fanning the eggs with his fins to provide aeration.

Females spawn once per year producing 3,000-4,000 eggs per pound of body weight. Channel cats reach sexual maturity at 3-5 years of age depending on food supply and water temperature. Eggs hatch 5-10 days after spawning depending on water temperature. Fry leave the nest 2-5 days later.

Growth Rates:  If stocked in the Spring, channel cats are likely to reach 6" in length by the Fall if properly stocked and fed.  By the second year following stocking, channel cats should reach 8 oz.   They may grow to 12 pounds in 8-9 years.  Actual growth rate will be dependent on water temperature, food supply and other environmental and water quality conditions. Optimum growth occurs at water temperatures approaching 85 F. Channel cats are nocturnal predators but can be readily trained to accept artificial feed. If fed, stocking densities can be increased up to 5 times and growth rates will be faster.


 

Large channel catfish going to the freezer. Kathy butchering the channel catfish for dinner.

What about feeding catfish? Channel catfish are more likely to accept artificial feed than many other warm-water species. Generally, 1.5 pounds of feed are required for each pound of gain. Specially formulated catfish feed can be purchased in a variety of pelleted sizes. 3/16”-3/8” pellets are available. Floating feed is recommended when water temperatures exceed 65 F; sinking feed is used when water temperatures fall below 65 F, when the fish are more apt to feed off the bottom. When artificial feeds are used, stocking rates can exceed 1,000-2,000 fingerlings per acre assuming feed is of high quality and provided on a consistent basis.

Unless one has a source of year round warm water (geothermal, industrial heat waste), it is unlikely producers of Oregon can compete with channel catfish producers in Southern states. Without a continual source of warm water, channel catfish are likely to be “dormant” during much of the cooler winter months, thus dramatically increasing the amount of time needed to produce a commercial crop.

 

Pregnant Channel catfish, 2011