“OUCH!” I called out as the catfish gave a sudden flop attempting to escape my grasp. I dropped the fish into the floor of the boat and looked at my fingers. Little lines of blood began to form across them from where the nearly invisible catfish teeth had shredded my skin. “That’s why I always use gloves”, Joel said with a chuckle and a smug satisfaction on his face. We had a debate hours before about how dangerous catfish teeth were. Clearly, the present situation illustrated my ignorance in that debate.
So, do catfish have teeth? You better believe they do. However, like most fish, they are very different from the teeth that you and I have. That doesn’t mean that they are inferior, but rather their teeth are perfectly adapted to their diet and the environment they live in.
When people think about teeth, they conjure up images of fangs and molars. However, nature is a wonderful, dynamic, adaptive force that accommodates a much more diverse palette with a variety of dental designs. Understanding what exactly a catfish eats and how they do it will shed light on what their teeth are like and why they have them.
What are Catfish Teeth Like?
As I said before, catfish teeth are a departure from the norm. Instead of large, hardened pieces of bone made to crush, grind, and tear, catfish teeth are small needles that sit atop the jaw.
They are easily seen for those that know what to look for. If one were to look into a catfish’s mouth, they would easily see a small row of bristles.
Depending on what species of catfish is in question, you can easily push on these bristles and see that they have much the same consistency of a small fingernail.
Growing much like hair, the tiny needle-like teeth help the fish hold on to the food that they have recently found and they smell their way through the water. The teeth are perfectly adapted to capture soft food and hold onto it in high current, low visibility environments.
Catfish Teeth and Scavenging
Catfish, the majority of the time, are primarily scavengers. They fit a part of the ecosystem of lakes and rivers that is absolutely critical for a healthy environment. Their role is primarily that of a garbage man. They cruise the deepest, darkest parts of their homewaters looking for rotting carcasses and other trash to consume. This often leads to them living in high-current, high competition environments where they don’t want to lose any food once they have found it. Imagine if you fumbled around a dark room for hours to finally find a hamburger only to have it float away or get stolen by another person. That is a catfish’s daily reality. Their teeth help them to hold on to the food once they have it in their mouth. High currents or other fish coming by to steal the catfish’s hard earned food are no match for the catfish’s jaw power combined with the tiny reticulated hairlike spikes. What the catfish finds is his to keep.
Catfish Teeth and Hunting
Many people think of catfish as a monolith, but in fact there are actually several different types of catfish. Each subspecies lives in their own particular way and their teeth are adapted to accommodate their particular lifestyle. Mud catfish and channel catfish are two subspecies that are far more consistent with the commonly accepted mental model of what a catfish is and does. These two generally find positions of advantage and wait for food to come to them. In certain situations, they will enter into places of high current and seek out food there. Whatever the situation, their teeth allow them to maintain control of whatever food they happen to find.
Blue catfish, however, are natural born predators. That is not to say that they also won’t partake in an easy meal if it can be found, but rather their general mode of operations is completely different. They will often be found on shallow plains hunting smaller fish, crawfish, and other unfortunate aquatic creatures they happen to come across. Whatever they find, if they believe they can get it in their mouth and it will be nutritionally advantageous, they will eat it. Their teeth, much like the former two, are perfectly adapted for just such a reality. Rather than just one palette of teeth, they instead will have two bottom and one upper plate of teeth. This enables the blue catfish to have better control of whatever they catch.
The differences between these two are interesting. The teeth are essentially the same, but the blue catfish has much more of them and in a configuration to subdue prey that would otherwise want to escape. It leaves one to wonder why such similar species decided to pursue their nourishment in such different ways that rendered such a wide variation in their teeth.
Afterall, a skilled fisherman can catch all three types in the same body of water in the same day using different methods and techniques.
Catfish Teeth and Jaw
While catfish teeth are a fascinating subject and certainly generate a fair amount of questions due to how easy they are to overlook and how different they are, their real weapon is their jaw. No matter the subspecies, if you were to catch a catfish and hold them by the lip you would immediately notice the pronounced jaw bone. They feel almost like two pieces of small pipe that are hinged together on the ends. They form a coin purse like structure with incredibly solid jaw bones and very soft tissue inside the mouth aside from their gills and teeth. If you were to strip the flesh off a catfish jaw, you would see direct evidence of how catfish are closely related to sharks. This shark-like jaw structure aids the catfish in the control of their food and the crushing of bone. While catfish teeth are effective at holding onto food, they are merely a backup to these powerful jaw structures.
Catfish Teeth and Fishing
This is all fascinating, but what does it mean for the fisherman? First, and most obvious, are safety considerations. Catfish live in the dirtiest parts of bodies of water that are full of bacteria. Therefore, their mouths are cesspools of potential pathogens. If you place your ungloved hand into their mouth you run a very serious risk of being cut by their sandpaper like tooth palette. This would almost certainly end in some sort of infection since the teeth are also covered in the bacteria from the bottom of the lake where they were eating rotten flesh. So always wear gloves when handling catfish.
Secondly, consider what their teeth mean for your fishing gear. The teeth, though small, are incredibly sharp. Combined with the power of their jaw, the cutting power of their teeth is substantial. If you get into a prolonged fight in an attempt to reel in a catfish, you run a serious chance of snapping your line. Therefore, use leaders that are either braided line or metal to prevent this from happening. Upon retrieval, always keep your rod tip low to the water and do everything you can to keep the fish from breaching and shaking his head. This is uncharacteristic for catfish, but should be mentioned as a good rule of fishing to prevent this very problem.
Thirdly, consider how to use the structure of the jaw to avoid the catfish’s teeth all together. Provided they are legal in your area, use offset circle hooks to hook into the corners of the catfish’s mouth and avoid the teeth all together. When the hook is in the catfish’s mouth the circular nature will prevent a premature hookset as the offset causes the hook to roll to one side of the catfish’s mouth. This will result in more effectively hooked fish with fewer cutting your line on their sharp teeth.
Conclusion: Do Catfish Have Teeth?
Yes, catfish have teeth just like nearly any other fish. They are wonderful and different from any other tooth configuration you will find in the wild.
When you consider their everyday environment and what they feed off of, it is apparent that their needle-like, hair sized, razor sharp teeth help them retain and process food much more effectively. It helps them hunt and scavenge with the least amount of lost prey and food.
This should all factor into how you approach catching and handling catfish.
Don’t ignore them or forget they are there. The chance of infection if cut by them from not wearing gloves is high and unpleasant. Your gear should also be selected in the light of their presence. Leaders that are thick enough or strong enough to resist their cutting power are crucial.
Hook selection should also be a consideration. Offset circle hooks are the best choice for any type of cat fishing be it yo-yos, trot lines, floats, or the good ole rod and reel.