The United States is home to dozens of catfish species, ranging in size from a few inches to a few feet long. Found in lakes, rivers, and oceans alike, catfish can be found in nearly any body of water across North America. Whether you are interested in fishing for catfish or watching out for invasive species, you may find yourself wondering:
Where do catfish come from? Catfish are an extremely old and diverse group of fish and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Half of all catfish species are native to the Americas, and few bodies of water in the US have no catfish at all. Catfish are very adaptable and can be found in freshwater, brackish water, and saltwater. Most catfish species spend the majority of their time living and reproducing on the muddy bottoms of lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers where they are rarely seen by humans.
Because of their mysterious habits, people may think that catfish have suddenly appeared in their area, but it is more likely that the fish have secretly been around all along. Now that you know at least a few types of catfish are likely native to your area, read on to discover how catfish arrived in lakes, how they reproduce, and more.
How do Catfish get into lakes?
Catfish are found in many lakes that are disconnected from any other body of water, which may leave you wondering how they ended up in the lake at all. There are a few different ways that catfish can enter lakes and ponds.
- Oftentimes, lakes that seem to be isolated in the modern day were once connected to other bodies of water. Rivers and streams change course over time, and may connect and disconnect to different bodies of water over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. During times of connection, new species would be able to move into the lake or pond.
- Another, more dramatic way that fish can move into a lake is through flooding. Floods can carry fish from one body of water to another, and leave them stranded when the water goes back down. Most catfish species are comfortable in shallow, silty water, and may be more likely than other fish to swim into flooded areas.
- Catfish can also be moved to new areas through human intervention. Desirable food species such as Channel catfish, blue catfish, or flatheads may be stocked or intentionally introduced to an area for fishing or farming. Catfish can also be accidentally transported to new areas by improperly moving boats between different bodies of water. Catfish are less likely to become invasive than carp, but they can still cause large amounts of damage if introduced to the wrong area.
How do Catfish reproduce?
Catfish reproduce through a process called spawning. Once water temperatures become warm enough in the spring or early summer, catfish will prepare to spawn.
First, the fish will build a nest of wood, rocks, or plant material in a secluded location safe from predators.
Next, the female will lay her eggs in individual bubbles and stick them to the floor of the nest. She will lay hundreds to thousands of eggs depending on her species and size, with older, larger females laying the most eggs.
Once the eggs are laid, the male will spray them with semen to fertilize them. In some species, including the channel catfish, the male will then guard the eggs until they hatch.
After 1-2 weeks, the eggs will hatch. The babies, called fry, will remain in the nest for another five days before they are ready to leave.
Beyond laying and guarding the eggs, catfish do not care for their young. In fact, the catfish may even eat their own fry later on without recognizing them.
The tiny fry faces many other dangers in the open water, and only a small number will survive long enough to become adults and reproduce themselves.
Where can I go to find catfish?
All catfish are bottom feeders and prefer to swim along the murky bottoms of lakes and rivers. Hello, muddy water catfishing!
Catfish use the delicate whiskers on their faces to navigate and do not rely on sight to find food like many other fish. Instead, they are drawn to smells and vibrations in the water. There are a few main species of catfish that are good to eat in the US, each found in slightly different locations.
Channel Catfish: while most catfish found in stores or restaurants is actually farmed channel catfish, this beautiful and delicious fish can also be caught in the wild. The channel cat is common and widespread in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and has also become invasive in certain parts of Europe and Asia. Channel catfish can be found in rivers and streams of all sizes, as well as lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. Like many catfish, these fish prefer waters with silty, rocky bottoms that provide ample hiding places.
Flathead Catfish: The flathead catfish is native to the full length of the Mississippi river basin and surrounding area, although it has been introduced in many other bodies of water throughout the US. This fish has some tolerance to saltwater and is numerous in the muddy, brackish waters of the Mississippi delta. However, it cannot survive in full-strength saltwater and cannot be found in the ocean. These catfish are the second largest species in the US and can grow to several feet long. Despite this, younger, smaller catfish are the preferred catch, as they have not yet accumulated much of a muddy taste from their bottom-feeding diet.
Blue Catfish: Blue catfish are the largest American catfish species, and can reach a maximum size of over six feet long. Similar to Flatheads though, these fish are best harvested before they exceed two feet in length. They inhabit much of the same habitat as the flathead as well, being commonly found in rivers, lakes and reservoirs along the Mississippi river basin. However, these fish have a stronger tolerance for salty water, and can also be found in brackish waters all along the eastern coast of Mexico. They have been introduced to brackish waters on the east coast as well, most notably Chesapeake bay, where they are considered an invasive species.
Bullheads: There are multiple species of bullhead catfish native to the United states, the most commonly sought after being black bullheads, yellow bullheads, and brown bullheads. Bullheads thrive in murky, low oxygen waters throughout the US. They excel at locating food in areas with very low visibility, and actually have a stronger sense of smell than the average dog. Unlike Channel catfish, bullheads will happily scavenge for dead food as well as live, and as a result often have a stronger, muddier flavor than other species on this list.
Recap: Where do Catfish Come From?
Catfish are a diverse and widespread group of fish, being found in most rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs throughout the United States.
Many species of catfish are highly adaptable and can live in both fresh and brackish water, as well as water with low visibility or low oxygen levels.
They thrive on the murky bottoms of a body of water and use their specialized sense of smell and movement to find food and avoid predators. Catfish reproduce in hidden crevices out of sight from humans and are therefore rarely seen until they are pulled from the water by anglers.