|Family overview: The Ictaluridae catfish family is also known as the North American freshwater catfishes. Of the 40 species found north of Mexico, 13 are known to live in Pennsylvania. These include three commonly called “bullheads” and three called “catfish.” The rest, much smaller species, are called “madtoms.” The yellow and brown bullheads are found around the state. The black bullhead is known from a few counties in western Pennsylvania, in the Ohio River watershed. The white catfish, channel catfish and flathead catfish are medium-sized to very large fish and are avidly sought by anglers.
The madtoms belong to the genus Noturus. They are not as likely to be seen as often as the other catfishes because of their miniature size, their secretive nature, and their rarity or scattered distribution. Two madtoms are endangered species in Pennsylvania and are found only in French Creek, in the northwest corner of the state: The mountain madtom, which grows to just two or three inches, and the northern madtom, which grows to about four inches. The northern madtom is also endangered. The brindled madtom is a threatened species. At the other end of the catfish family scale are the blue catfish and flathead catfish, which can grow to more than 100 pounds and four to five feet long. Catfishes are popular sport fish. Some species are raised commercially for human consumption, and the tiny ones are part of the forage base of small fishes in their home lakes or streams. Some madtoms are considered indicators of water quality.
General identification: Catfish are scaleless, with a tough, smooth skin. All species have eight appendages on the head called “barbels,” four on the upper jaw and four on the chin. The barbels are sometimes called “whiskers.” They are fleshy, supple projections that narrow to a tip. The barbels don’t inflict the notorious sting of the catfish. That’s done by the strongly developed pectoral fin spines, one on each side of the fish, and the dorsal fin. The species have variously developed poison glands at the base of these spines, which can inflict a mild to beelike sting. The madtoms are especially known for their stinging spines. There is disagreement among scientists whether it’s the gland at the base of the spine or the membrane around the spine that has the poison. Catfish also have a stout spine at the leading edge of the dorsal fin. On madtoms, the adipose fin, a fleshy lobe between the dorsal fin and the tail fin, is joined with the tail fin. On other catfish, the adipose fin is separate. Some catfish have moderately to deeply forked tails. Albinism, which results in a whitecolored, pink-eyed catfish, is known to occur.
Life history: Catfish spawn in spring to early summer. Both males and females may contribute to nest construction and care of eggs and young, but usually that duty is just the male’s. Nests can be in holes in river or lake banks, in the open, or under rocks and other submerged objects. The female is clasped by the male and is stimulated to deposit a mass of sticky eggs. The male or both parents guard the nest and protect the young for a time. Young catfish form tight schools and separate individually only to hide when they have been frightened. Adult catfishes are most active at night. When they are active in daytime, it is generally in muddy, clouded water. They have poor vision and use the sense of smell and the taste buds on the skin, lips and barbels to find food.
Species overview: Although the white catfish has been stocked in waters where it was not native, its original home was Atlantic Coast watersheds from the lower Hudson River in New York, south to Florida and on to Mississippi. In Pennsylvania the white catfish’s range has included the Susquehanna and Delaware River systems, and it has been introduced into parts of the Ohio River watershed. Its genus name “Ameiurus” means “unforked caudal fins,” and its species name “catus” means “cat.”
Identification: This medium-sized catfish has a back and upper sides that are light blue-gray to dark slate-gray. This shades lighter, with gray or blue markings, toward the belly, which becomes silvery or yellow-white. The chin barbels are whitish. The caudal fin is somewhat forked, but the fin’s lobes are not as sharply pointed as are those of the channel catfish, and may be somewhat rounded, especially in older fish. The head is very broad. Young white catfish are slender. Older fish become heavy bodied and robust-looking. The spine on each pectoral fin has a sawtoothed back edge. The anal fin has 25 or fewer rays. The maximum size for the white catfish is about 24 inches.
Habitat: White catfish live in channels, pools and backwaters in rivers or streams, mostly in sluggish current over mud bottoms. They go into swift water, but not as much as channel catfish. Of all the catfishes, white catfish are the most tolerant of salt water. They live in brackish bays and tidewater sections of streams. They also live in lakes and river impoundments. In habitat preference, white catfish are midway between the channel catfish, which uses firmer bottoms and swift currents, and bullheads, which live in slow water over soft, silty bottoms.
Life history: The white catfish’s spawning habits are similar to those of the channel catfish, although it has less of a tendency to migrate when looking for a spawning site. Male white catfish excavate a burrow nest or use an existing hole. The sticky egg mass is deposited there by the female. The male briefly guards the eggs and the young. White catfish eat some plant material, but they eat mostly animal life like midge larvae and other aquatic insects, crustaceans and fish.
Species overview: The North American catfish family includes species known as the “bullheads.” They are the brown bullhead, yellow bullhead and black bullhead. All are similar in appearance, with some anatomical differences and different coloring. The yellow bullhead’s natural range is the Atlantic and Gulf Coast watersheds from New York to northern Mexico. It is also native to the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes system and the Mississippi River watershed. Yellow bullheads have also been widely stocked. Although it is found in all of Pennsylvania’s watersheds, the yellow bullhead is not as plentiful as the brown bullhead.
Identification: Yellow bullheads may grow 18 or 19 inches long, but most are much smaller. The back is yellow-olive to a slate-gray, shading to a lighter yellow-olive on the sides. The belly is bright-yellow or whitish. The chin barbels are white or yellow. Yellow bullheads have a long anal fin with 24 to 27 rays. Like the brown bullhead, there are five to eight sawlike teeth on the back edges of the pectoral spines. The rear edge of the tail fin is nearly straight or rounded.
Habitat: The yellow bullhead is tolerant of low oxygen and highly silted water. It can withstand pollution that many other fishes cannot tolerate. Yellow bullheads prefer backwaters and slow currents in streams and rivers. They also live in ponds and reservoirs, especially where there is a mucky bottom and dense aquatic vegetation. Where logs, stumps and water weeds are removed, the number of yellow bullheads decreases.
Life history: Yellow bullheads spawn in spring, usually May, with both males and females helping to excavate a nest. The nest can range from a shallow depression in the muddy bottom to a two-foot-deep burrow in the stream or lake bank, usually near protective rocks or stumps. The females produce from 1,700 to 4,300 eggs, depositing up to 700 at each spawning. The care of the sticky, yellowish-white eggs and the hatched fry is the duty primarily of the male, which guards the young fish until they are about two inches long. Yellow bullheads are omnivores and eat aquatic insect larvae, snails, freshwater clams, crayfish, small fish and other underwater animal life, as well as plant material. They have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them locate food in muddy water.
Species overview. The brown bullhead is the most widely distributed bullhead, found across Pennsylvania in suitable habitat. It is native to Atlantic and Gulf Coast watersheds, from eastern Canada to Alabama. It was also originally found in the Great Lakes system, Hudson Bay and the Mississippi River watershed. It has also been widely introduced. Its species name “nebulosus” means “clouded,” referring to the fish’s mottled sides.
Identification: An 18-inch and three-pound brown bullhead is a trophy, and is near the size maximum of the species. Brown bullheads average 12 to 15 inches. The upper part of the head, back and sides are dark to light yellow-brown or olive-brown, shading to grayish white or yellowish white on the belly. The sides have brown or black mottling. The brown bullhead’s chin barbels are dark, grayish black, but may have whitish color at the base. These help to distinguish the brown bullhead from the black bullhead, which is known from a few northwestern Pennsylvania counties. The black bullhead’s chin barbels are all black. The brown bullhead’s caudal fin is square-tipped, or slightly rounded. Its strong pectoral fin spines have five to eight sawlike teeth on their rear edges. The anal fin has 18 to 24 rays, usually 22 or 23.
Habitat: Brown bullheads live in several habitat types, but they are found mostly in ponds and the bays of larger lakes, and in slow-moving sections and pools of warmwater streams. They are bottom-dwellers, usually living over soft mud or muck, where there is plenty of underwater vegetation. Brown bullheads can sometimes be found as deep as 40 feet. They are tolerant of very warm water temperatures, high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels, and levels of pollution that other fish cannot tolerate.
Life history: Brown bullheads spawn in late spring, May to June, when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. Both males and females participate in nest construction, which can be a shallow saucer on the bottom mud or sand, or among roots of aquatic plants, near the protection of stumps, rocks or downed trees. Nests can also be excavated holes or natural burrows. Spawning can also occur under sunken boards and logs, and in hollow stumps. The water depth for spawning ranges from six inches to several feet. The nests are usually around the shoreline or in coves, or in the mouth of a creek.
Brown bullheads usually spawn in the daytime. Their courtship includes the male and female caressing each other with their barbels. They spawn beside each other, but facing in the opposite direction. The females produce from 2,000 to 13,000 cream-colored, mucous-covered eggs. Sometimes one or both parents eat some of the eggs. Both male and female brown bullheads cooperate in protecting the nest, eggs and young. The parents fan and stir the eggs with their fins, aerating them. The parents have also been seen to take the eggs into their mouths, presumably cleaning them, and to blow the eggs back into the nest again. Hatched brown bullheads are pitch-black and may be mistaken for tadpoles. One or both parents shepherd the loose ball of fry for several weeks, until the young are about one inch long.
Like other catfish, brown bullheads are active mostly at night, when their sensitive barbels help them find food in the darkness. They are omnivorous bottom-feeders and eat a wide variety of plant and animal material, including aquatic insects and larvae, worms, minnows and other small fish, crayfish, snails, freshwater clams and even algae. Brown bullheads are able to exist on atmospheric air for a time. They can remain alive for hours if kept moist when they are out of the water.
Species overview: Next to the flathead catfish, the channel catfish is the largest catfish in Pennsylvania. Weights of up to 15 pounds are not unusual at lengths of about 30 inches. The state record is over 35 pounds. Channel “cats” are avidly sought sport fish and are raised commercially for the table. They are found statewide, introduced where they did not occur naturally. The native range of channel catfish is believed to be the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watershed, the Missouri River system, the Mississippi River watershed, Gulf of Mexico watershed and parts of Mexico. They were not native to the Atlantic Coast north of Florida. The channel catfish’s species name “punctatus” means “spotted,” referring to the small, dark spots on its sides. The channel catfish is the only catfish that has these dots.
Identification: The channel cat has a deeply forked tail, with tail lobes that are sharply pointed. In bigger fish, the fork is less noticeable or disappears. Channel cats have 24 to 30 rays on the anal fin, a small, fleshy adipose fin that is separated from the tail, and typical catfish spines on its dorsal and pectoral fins. The barbels are black and long. The back is bluegray to slate-gray or bluish olive. The sides tend to be silvery-gray, and the belly is whitish. Except for some large adults, especially the males, channel catfish have small, irregular spots on the sides and back. None of the other catfishes has these spots. Males become darker, almost blue-black, during spawning time.
Habitat: The channel catfish is an adaptable fish, usually found in clear, warm lakes and moderately large to large rivers, over clean sand, gravel or rock-rubble bottoms. It is generally not found in the muddied, weed-choked waters that some other catfish species frequent. Channel cats, especially young fish, may be found in fast-flowing water. Usually, channel catfish prefer deep pools and runs in rivers that have alternating pool and riffle habitats. It is also found in reservoirs, lakes and farm ponds, and even in some of the larger trout streams.
Life history: Channel catfish spawn in May to early June, when the water temperature ranges from 75 to 85 degrees, with 80 degrees the optimum. The male prepares the nest, which is usually a depression or hole in an undercut bank, or an excavated burrow under logs or rocks. Sometimes channel cats spawn in sunken, hollow logs or abandoned muskrat holes. In clear ponds, spawning channel cats must have semidarkened shelters, either natural or provided. From reservoirs, channel catfish sometimes move upstream to spawn in tributary rivers. A female channel cat may lay 2,000 to 70,000 eggs per year, depending on her size. After spawning, the males protect the adhesive egg mass and aerate and clean the eggs by fanning their fins. The males also guard the hatched fish for a time. Young channel cats are insect-eaters, feeding on mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae and midge larvae. As they grow, they switch to fish, crayfish and mollusks, but still feed on aquatic insects, and occasionally eat plant matter. Yearling and subadult channel cats are more tolerant of fast water than larger adults. They move out of slow water into the quicker current or swim short distances into tributary streams to feed. Channel cats feed mostly at night, but may forage on the bottom, where it’s dim during the day. Channel catfish, especially young fish, have been known to feed on the surface. Like other catfish, at night they depend on their barbels and their sense of taste to find food. Even so, channel cats are believed to be more of a sight-feeder than other catfishes, because of their clear-water habitat.
Species overview: The stonecat is one of the largest members of the madtoms, a group of small fishes in the catfish family. The genus name “Noturus” means “back tail.” It refers to the way the adipose fin is fused its entire length to the madtom’s back. The species name “flavus” means “yellow” and describes the fish’s color. The madtoms are not well-known because most are little fish and hide during the day, even burying themselves in the gravel, emerging to feed at night.
In Pennsylvania there are six madtom species. Some are rare, like the mountain, brindled, tadpole and northern madtoms. The margined madtom of eastern Pennsylvania is widely distributed and abundant. Madtoms have poison glands at the base of their pectoral spines. If handled improperly, they can give a sting as painful as a bee sting.
Margined Madtom Noturus insignis
The stonecat is found throughout the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds. It is not found in Atlantic Coast streams south of the Hudson River. In Pennsylvania, it is the most common madtom of the western part of the state, living in the Ohio River and Lake Erie watersheds, and can be locally plentiful.
Identification: The slender-shaped stonecat grows to about 12 inches long, but averages six to eight inches. Its back is yellow-olive to slate-gray or blue-gray. The sides are lighter, with yellow or pink tints. Its underparts are yellow or white. The tail is rounded or square-looking, with a light border. The adipose fin is completely bound to the body, a trait that distinguishes the madtoms. The upper jaw is much longer than the lower jaw. Its upper barbels are gray. The chin barbels are white. There is a light-yellow or whitish oval-shaped spot on the rear portion of the dorsal fin. The stonecat has no or few and weak sawteeth on the back edges of its pectoral spines. The anal fin has 15 to 18 rays.
Stonecat Noturus flavus
Habitat: The stonecat lives in rocky riffles or rapids in creeks and small to large rivers. It is also found over gravelly wind-swept and wavestirred shoals of lakes, including Lake Erie. The word “stone” in its name refers to where it likes to live. It is a warmwater fish and avoids cold water.
Life history: Stonecats spawn in early summer, beginning at about 77 degrees and peaking at 82 degrees. The females produce up to 1,200 eggs annually, laying 100 to 500 of them in each nest. The opaque, yellow eggs are attached in a compact, sticky mass to the underside of flat stones or similar objects in flowing water. The parents guard the eggs and young for a time. Like most other catfish, stonecats feed at night and have a varied diet, especially consuming fishes and aquatic insect larvae such as midges, caddises, stoneflies and mayflies, as well as crustaceans and other small invertebrates.
Species overview: Flathead catfish grow longer and heavier than other Pennsylvania catfish. In fact, they are one of the state’s biggest fish, of any kind. Flathead catfish are known to grow to more than 100 pounds, but 20 or 30 pounds is more likely in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania record is over 40 pounds. Flathead catfish are native to the lower Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin, from western Pennsylvania southward. They are also in Gulf of Mexico watersheds, and can live in reservoirs. In Pennsylvania, flatheads are found mainly in the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Fossils of this catfish genus that are about 15 million years old, from the mid-Miocene Epoch, can’t be distinguished from the modern flathead catfish. The flathead’s genus name “Pylodictis” means “mud fish,” and its species name “olivaris” means “olive-colored.”
Identification: Flathead catfish have the scaleless, strong body and the well-developed pectoral and dorsal fin spines typical of catfish. The tail is only slightly indented, or may appear square or rounded. The dorsal fin is high, and the lower jaw projects past the upper jaw. The body looks long and slender. The upper portion of the flathead catfish’s body is yellowish brown to dark, even purplish brown, with black or brown mottling on lighter brown sides. The belly is grayish or yellowish white. It does have a flat-looking head, very wide and depressed. The chin barbels are white to yellow, the fins are mottled, and the anal fin, which has fewer than 16 rays, is short and rounded. Except for very large adults, flathead catfish have a white tip on the upper lobe of the caudal fin. Young flathead catfish are nearly black on the back.
Habitat: Flathead catfish are found in large rivers, streams and lakes, usually over hard bottoms. They prefer deep, sluggish pools, with logs and other submerged debris that can be used as cover. Young flatheads live in rocky or sandy runs in the river and in the riffles.
Life history: The flathead is a loner and a traveler, leading a solitary existence except at spawning time. Flatheads spawn in early summer, later than channel catfish. The flathead’s spawning behavior is like that of other catfish. The adults form pairs and build nests in natural cavelike depressions in the bank, or they may hollow out a cavity under an underwater object, like a log or boulder. Their compact egg masses contain from 4,000 to 100,000 eggs. The male guards the nest and the newly hatched fry, becoming aggressive toward the female.
Flatheads grow fairly rapidly and mature sexually at about 15 inches and five years old. They can live to at least 19 years old. Juvenile flatheads live in riffle areas and feed on larvae and nymphs of aquatic insects. As the flathead grows, it switches to crayfish and fishes, although many items are on its menu. During the day, flathead catfish stay out of sight, hiding beneath undercut banks, in brush piles and log jams. At night they forage in a variety of habitats, including very shallow riffles where their backs and dorsal fins may be exposed. For this reason, angling at night is the way to catch a big flathead. Biologists report that one possible feeding strategy of the flathead is to lie motionless with its mouth open, until a fish looking for a spot in which to hide swims in. Others have observed flatheads lunging and grabbing prey after they have lain in wait.