‘Old Whiskers’: Catfish, the poor man’s trout

There are approximately 27 species of catfish found in the continental United States. In her 1992 publication, The Fishes of Winnebago County Illinois, Elizabeth Mayock Mullen lists seven species of this fish as occurring in the Rockford area. Of these seven, the channel, yellow bullhead, and black bullhead are the catfish most familiar to local anglers.

The long, slender “feelers,” or barbels, projecting from the head of a catfish make it impossible to confuse it with any other species. The barbels are sensory organs and are mainly used in locating food, but food preferences differ among the different species. Bullheads drag the barbels along the bottom to locate almost any type of food, living or dead. The channel cat prefers live food such as minnows or the fisherman’s lure that resembles a minnow or small frog, but it will readily accept a night crawler or piece of shrimp impaled on a hook.

Catfish are, beyond a doubt, the most sought-after and most commonly eaten freshwater fish in this country. Youngsters with cane poles and hooks baited with a worm, and oldsters with rods and reels and scientifically produced commercial baits pursue this fish in every state in the southern 48.

Many restaurants offer fried or baked catfish on their menus, and catfish may be purchased in the fish section of most food stores. But the “cats” that make their way to your table are, in all probability, farm- raised fish. When the boll weevil and the pink bollworm that devastate cotton plants in the South became resistant to commonly used, powerful insecticides, cotton farmers were faced with ruin. A wise U.S. Department of Agriculture advised them to take up catfish farming and provided assistance in constructing rearing ponds on previously cotton producing land. Many adopted this lucrative form of aquaculture, and today many other freshwater fish, such as tilapia and striped bass, are successfully farmed.

Did you ever noodle for a catfish? Noodling is sometimes called grabbing and requires the intrepid fisherman to swim underwater and thrust his hand into a recession in the bank of a river or stream, hoping to find a catfish lurking there. When a fish is detected, the unorthodox angler rubs the underside of the cat’s jaw, coaxing him to open his mouth. Then the noodler thrusts his hand into the gaping mouth and grabs onto some portion of the fish’s anatomy and unceremoniously drags it from its lair. Sometimes the noodler carries a hook attached to strong cord and manually hooks the fish and drags it to the surface. I recently saw a photo of a noodler in Arkansas and a 250-pound blue catfish he had successfully extracted from its underwater grotto.

If the noodler is unlucky, a snapping turtle or water moccasin may be inhabiting the niche in the bank, and he may receive a dose of venom from the snake or lose several fingers to the snapper. The alligator snapping turtle is found in the Deep South, but here in northern Illinois we have only the common snapper. Noodlers along the Rock or Kishwaukee rivers can take solace that the common snapper is only apt to bite off one or two fingers, rather than four or five that an alligator snapper can easily amputate with its massive jaws.

Anyone who knows anything about catfish knows to avoid the spines present in the lateral or pectoral fins and also in the dorsal fin of the small madtom catfish common in our area. Located at the base of the spines are loose aggregates of venom-producing cells that secrete to the outside via a small pore. Contrary to popular belief, the spines of a catfish are not hollow like the fangs of a pit viper. As the spines are held parallel to the body, they are bathed in the venom as it oozes from the body. When we are stabbed by a catfish spine, the venom, along with a good supply of bacteria-laden mucus, is introduced into the wound. Toxicity studies have shown catfish venom to be about as powerful as that of a copperhead snake. Fortunately for us, the venom has been greatly diluted by water before it enters our bodies.

Many sportsmen turn up their noses at fishing for catfish as they supposedly do not strike artificial lures and, therefore, are not considered to be game fish. The channel cat, however, is an exception to this, as it will readily strike any artificial that resembles a small fish or other animal. Spinner baits and spoons are good underwater lures for channel cats, and I have taken them several times on surface lures.

As a source of food and angling pleasure for countless numbers of individuals, “Old Whiskers” may just be the most important freshwater fish we have. All he wants is a little more respect.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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