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Catfish Fact or Fiction? 11 Debunked Myths About Whiskerfish

Myths abound about these popular sportfish. It's time we get to the truth of the matter.

Catfish Fact or Fiction? 11 Debunked Myths About Whiskerfish

The winter bite for channel and blue cats can be just as good as—if not better than—summer action. One catfish myth is that they bite best during the hottest weather. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Think you know a lot about catfish? It might surprise you that many things you’ve heard about these whiskered fish are simply not true. In fact, some widely held beliefs about catfish amount to nothing more than old wives' tales.

Let's take a look at 11 popular myths about catfish and dispel a bit of the mystique surrounding them.

Catfish Under Water
Many believe catfish are strictly bottom feeders, but they forage at mid-depths, too, and will rise to the surface to eat prey such as frogs and grasshoppers. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Myth # 1: Catfish Only Bite At Night

The Myth: Catfish are nocturnal predators and will only bite at night.

The Facts: In lakes and rivers where the water is extremely clear, catfish will probably bite best between dusk and dawn when it's dark outside. But in waters that are stained or murky, catfish will feed around the clock—morning, noon and night. The more discolored the water is, the more likely the bite will be good when the sun is high overhead. Don't miss opportunities to cast a line during daylight hours if that works best with your schedule.

Note: This catfish article was featured in the South edition of August's Game & Fish Magazine. The September issue is on sale at newsstands now. Find out how to subscribe

Myth #2: They’re Only Bottom Feeders

The Myth: Catfish feed only on the bottom. You can't catch them if your bait is hanging at mid-depths or floating on the surface.

The Facts: Catfish are, indeed, well-adapted for feeding on the bottom. But if you think they won't feed elsewhere, you are sorely mistaken. Catfish are opportunistic and will gobble up their vittles wherever they find them. They often feed on frogs, grasshoppers, cicadas and other creatures found on the surface, and they prey on baitfish such as shad and herring in midwaters. If bottom-fishing doesn't garner a bite, you should try presenting your bait elsewhere in the water column.

Myth #3: Catfish Are Dumb

The Myth: Catfish are just dumb brutes, making them more susceptible to being caught than other species.

The Facts: In 1985, Gordon Farabee, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, tested the comparative learning ability of 14 species of fish. Channel catfish (along with striped bass, bigmouth buffalo and common carp) were the best learners and achieved the highest overall scores, far above other sportfish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, northern pike and bluegills.

Myth #4: Catfish Baits Have to Be Stinky

The Myth: The best catfish baits have a horrible odor to attract whiskerfish from long distances. If it doesn't stink, it probably won't work.

The Facts: Catfish anglers have been mixing up reeking brews of secret-recipe specialty baits for centuries, and these stinkbaits can be superb cat catchers. Stinkbaits don't work because they stink, however. In fact, what stinks to anglers sitting on the bank or in a boat can’t even be smelled by catfish because their sense of smell functions differently a human's.

Catfish smell proteins emitted by the bait, not the "stink." The truth is, many of the best catfish baits smell no worse than baits used for panfish, walleyes or bass. Some have no noticeable odor at all.


Myth #5: All Catfish Are Scavengers

The Myth: Catfish are like underwater vultures; they spend most of their time scavenging for dead, rotten foods.

The Facts: Catfish, particularly juvenile catfish, will quickly gobble up many lifeless and moldering forage items they find, but they also are highly capable predators that have no problem chasing down or ambushing live prey.

The flathead catfish scavenges even less than blue cats or channel cats. Dead baits will occasionally entice it, but live-fish baits work best. Flatties prefer their meals still swimming when they eat them.

Myth #6: Hide That Hook

The Myth: You should be sure to cover your entire hook with bait, because visible terminal tackle frightens catfish away, and they will refuse to bite.

The Facts: If a catfish spies a hook, it doesn't think, "I better not bite that or I might get caught." These fish are just not endowed with enough intelligence to make that connection, unless they've been hooked and released dozens of times. It's better, therefore, to leave the barbed portion of your hook exposed so it penetrates the fish's mouth more quickly and easily. Exposed hooks equal more solid hookups.

Catfish in Clear Water
Like other popular gamefish, catfish thrive best in clean water. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Myth #7: They Like It Dirty

The Myth: Catfish like to live, and are most commonly found, in muddy or polluted water.

The Facts: Catfish can tolerate poor water quality that might be detrimental to other creatures. But just like trout, smallmouth bass and other fish, catfish need clean, fresh water in which to prosper.

If the water is too hot, too muddy, too polluted or too low in dissolved oxygen content, any catfish living there will be skinnier and less healthy than fish where water quality is better.

Myth #8: The Hotter the Better

The Myth: Catfish bite best when the weather is hot. Summer fishing shines.

The Facts: Summer is not necessarily the best catfishing season. Anglers who learn to find and pattern catfish during other seasons often discover the bite is better when the water and weather are cooler. Catfishing during the coldest days of winter often produces more and bigger fish than in warm months, especially when targeting channel and blue catfish.

Myth #9: They Croak With Air

The Myth: Those weird croaking sounds catfish make are produced by their swim bladders.

The Facts: While catfish "vocalizations" might seem to emanate from the air-filled swim bladder, they're actually produced by the catfish moving the pectoral fins on the sides of its body. The bony part of each fin is thicker at the base and rubs against adjacent bones to produce the catfish's strange voice. These sounds are poorly understood.

Scientists are uncertain if they serve as a warning to predators or have another purpose, but numerous catfish species can "vocalize" in this manner.

Myth #10: Those Whiskers Are Weapons

The Myth: A catfish's whiskers are stingers that inject a debilitating venom into hapless victims.

The Facts: Lots of folks avoid the whiskers, or barbels, of catfish, because they believe them to inflict painful, poisonous stings. Fortunately, a catfish's whiskers don't work in that way. They are actually soft, fleshy organs covered with dense taste buds that help cats find their food. The barbels are harmless.

The sharp, serrated fins on the back and sides of a catfish are another story. These can inflict painful wounds that are subject to infection. On madtom and saltwater catfish, the skin covering these spines contains miniscule poison cells that burst when a spine stabs a careless angler.

Wounds cause excruciating pain and may require medical attention. The spines of channel, blue and flathead catfish are not coated with venom cells like those madtoms and sea cats; nevertheless, painful puncture wounds can occur when handling these fish, and the wounds may become infected if not properly treated.

Use catfish grabbers (not your hands) to safely handle fish whenever possible.

Myth #10: They Can Get Big Enough to Eat Me

The Myth: Scuba divers working around big dams have seen enormous catfish hiding in rocky lairs beneath the surface. Some were of such a gigantic size—several hundred pounds, the workers reported—that the divers refused to return to their underwater duties for fear of being eaten.

The Facts: Tales like this are told throughout the United States, but they just aren't true. Blue cats and flatheads are known to exceed 120 pounds, but they don't get big enough to swallow humans. One hint that these stories are myths is the fact that the storytellers seldom are the ones who saw these huge fish. It's always someone of unknown identity who isn't available for verification. That's a significant component of all myths—rural, urban or fishing.

Angler with Flathead Catfish
While certainly opportunistic feeders, catfish—flatheads in particular—are not opposed to chasing down live baitfish. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Southern Hotspots for 100-Pound Blue Catfish

Southern waters that could produce a new benchmark for blue catfish.

Nineteenth-century documents indicate that blue catfish weighing 150 to 200 pounds were fairly common in our nation's big rivers at the time. However, the current all-tackle world record—a 143-pounder caught in Virginia’s Kerr Lake in 2011—falls well short of that mark. Could a new world record surface sometime in the near future? Many diehard catfish anglers think so, and these are some of the lakes, rivers and reservoirs that just might turn it out.

  • Tennessee River and Associated Reservoirs: Few aficionados would be surprised if the next world record comes from this river system in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. It includes trophy blue cat waters like Wheeler Reservoir, Lake Guntersville, Wilson Lake and Pickwick Lake. Several giants over 100 pounds have surfaced here in the past two decades.
  • Lake Texoma: This vast reservoir straddling the Oklahoma/Texas border has produced some of the biggest blues ever documented, including a 121.5-pound former world record. Texoma's capacity for churning out monster cats seems boundless, and somewhere beneath its surface another world record is likely lurking.
  • Santee Cooper lakes (Marion and moultrie): Giant blues roam these renowned South Carolina lakes, with Lake Marion’s vast flats and meandering river channel producing most of the big fish. With high numbers of savvy cat fanatics fishing here year-round, one has to rate these waters high on the list of places likely to produce a new benchmark blue.
  • Mississippi River: I'm putting my money on this massive body of water, especially the portion from Blytheville, Ark., to Tunica, Miss., which has proven to be a mother lode for hawgs.

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