Species spotlight: Blue catfish

Blue catfish in this size range make fine table fare. Many anglers prefer this size for eating over larger ones. (Picture by Brian Cope)

Popular among fishermen, they’ve spread out all over the country

Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins. They’re typically the biggest catfish species in most states, including Louisiana and Mississippi, and the largest species of catfish in North America.

Blue catfish are slender, smooth-skinned, scaleless fish. They have deeply forked tails, which makes them easily distinguished from flathead catfish. They have a set of four whiskers called barbels around their mouths.

Despite the name, the color of a blue catfish varies widely, based on water quality. They are often slate blue on their backs, with the blue giving way to silver or gray on the sides, and white on their bellies. However, some blue catfish are much darker and some very light-colored. Even in the same bodies of water, their colors of different fish can vary.

Blue catfish have a distinct line running from their upper mouths to their dorsal fins. Their anal fins are straight-edged and have between 30 and 36 rays. At certain sizes, it takes counting these rays to distinguish a blue cat from a channel cat.

Although only native to the river basins mentioned above, blue catfish have been stocked in many states. Their fast growth rates, along with their tasty flesh, have made them popular across the country. In some states, blue catfish have been blamed for diminishing populations of other catfish species, most notably channel catfish.

Habitat variety

Blue cats are highly adaptable and live in almost any type of freshwater; lakes, ponds, creeks, swamps and rivers are all good candidates to hold populations of blue cats. They are often even found in brackish waters, and anglers sometimes catch them mixed in with flounder, redfish and other saltwater species.

Just like their flexibility in habitat, they are much the same in diet. Other fish, crustaceans, insects, mussels and other shellfish and plant matter make up the bulk of their diet. Even ducks, mice, snakes and turtles aren’t safe when a hungry blue catfish is around.

When blue catfish are this size, it’s often difficult to distinguish them from channel catfish. Counting the number of rays on the anal fin is the surest way. (Picture by Brian Cope)

Breeding at around 4 years of age, males create nests in logs, between rocks, under downfall and any other type of protected areas. Females produce 10,000 to 60,000 eggs per year. Spawning occurs in the spring, once water temperatures reach about 70 degrees.

Blue cats are sometimes misidentified as channel catfish, especially when the fish is in the 5- to 15-pound range. They can grow to more than 100 pounds and can live 20 or more years in the wild.

Huge record fish

Anglers across the country have many nicknames for blue catfish. Along the east coast, they are often referred to as Arkansas blues, mainly because Arkansas provided many of the early catfish stocked in other regions. Other nicknames include fork-tail catfish, humpback blue, silver catfish and chucklehead.

The Mississippi state record, a 95-pound blue, came from the Mississippi River — the Natchez area. Dakota Hinson caught the fish in March of 2009.

The world-record blue catfish weighed 143 pounds. Nick Anderson of Greenville, N.C., caught the giant fish in Kerr Lake, aka Buggs Island, on the North Carolina-Virginia border in June 2011.

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