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Are Catfish Bottom Feeders?

Catfish are one of the most popular fish for anglers to pursue; in fact, according to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 8.1 million anglers over the age of 16 fish for catfish.

Catfish are an ideal fish to pursue. They put up a great fight on the line, they’re abundant, they grow quickly, and they’re widely considered to be delicious. However, there is one glaring insult that catfish have to put up with: the reputation of being a “bottom feeder.”

But is that true? After all, there are nearly three thousand different species of catfish in freshwater, brackish water, and salt water all over the world. Can they really all be bottom feeders? And what does being a bottom feeder even mean for fish?

Today, we’re going to explore the catfish’s reputation. There are twenty-six species of catfish in North America; however, only four of those are considered game fish. We’re going to take a deep dive alongside each of those four. We’ll tell you exactly what they eat, where they live, and where in the water column you can find them.

But first… what is a bottom feeder?

Bottom Feeding Fish

When it comes to people, “bottom feeder” is definitely an insult– and unfortunately, that negative connotation is carried over to fish. We tend to think of bottom feeders as being opportunistic scavengers that just skim along the deepest parts of the lake, eating who-knows-what. It’s a term that gets used to make a fish sound unpalatable. You are what you eat, after all, and if a bottom feeding fish is just eating whatever junk it can find… well, that doesn’t sound very tasty.

But that isn’t the truth about bottom feeders. In reality, lots of fish feed from the bottom of the water. Lots of tasty fish. Cod, halibut, sole, bass, and yes, catfish, all eat things at the bottom of the water column. These fish don’t just eat detritus that sinks down to the bottom; in fact, many of them are predators that eat invertebrates, smaller fish, and other living things they find in the algae and mud at the bottom of a lake.

There are several great reasons to fish for bottom feeders. First, these fish are unlikely to have unhealthy accumulations of mercury, which makes them safe to eat. Second, these fishes’ nutrient-rich diet means that they have lots of Omega-3 fatty acids, which makes them a heart-healthy choice.

Now that you know what it means for a fish to be a bottom feeder, let’s look at our four game catfish species and see if they’re really just bottom feeders.

Blue Catfish

The blue catfish is the largest catfish species in American waters, and can attain trophy sizes of over a hundred pounds. This catfish is an opportunistic carnivore that can survive in brackish waters as well as freshwater, and has been stocked in various lakes and rivers throughout the US because people love fishing for them.

While younger blue catfish stay close to the bottom, adult blue catfish often feed in the middle of the water column. Adult blues have very few predators in the water, so they don’t need to hide as much as younger fish. Their size means that they have a wider range of prey, which is another reason they will rise in the water column.

However, feeding isn’t the only reason a fish positions itself in the water. On hot days or extremely sunny days, catfish are simply more comfortable on the bottom. They don’t like warm temperatures, so the shallower the water, the deeper they will go to stay cool and comfortable.

Blue Catfish Fast Facts

Scientific Name Ictalurus furcatus
Normal Length Range 20-40 inches
Normal Weight Range 3-40 pounds
Maximum Length 65 inches
Maximum Weight 143 pounds
Native Waters Eastern United States
Diet Carnivorous; feeds on fish, insects, invertebrates, and other aquatic organisms

Channel Catfish

The channel catfish is America’s most numerous catfish. It was the first species to be commercially raised for aquaculture in the US, and it is a voracious omnivore that is known to eat anything it can fit in its mouth. (And it has a big mouth!)

Anglers have successfully caught channel cats with Spam, hot dogs, bacon, and bars of Ivory Soap. Seriously, we aren’t making this up. They’re known to eat all kinds of fish, including smaller catfish. Frogs, clams and other molluscs, crayfish and other crustaceans, and even unlucky small mammals are all fair game for a channel catfish– not just things they find on the bottom!

Channel Catfish Fast Facts

Scientific Name Ictalurus punctatus
Normal Length Range 12-24 inches
Normal Weight Range 1-15 pounds
Maximum Length 40 inches
Maximum Weight 58 pounds
Native Waters North America
Diet Omnivorous; feeds on fish, insects, crustaceans, plants, and algae

Flathead Catfish

The flathead catfish is the second-largest species of catfish and has been widely introduced to waters across North America. Flatheads, also known as shovelheads, yellow cats, mudcats, and granny cats, are voracious carnivores that virtually only eat live prey. Individuals above 10 inches long feed almost exclusively on other fish, including smaller flathead catfish. Other fish, such as drum, sunfish, small carp, gizzard shad, and other catfish species, are all part of the flathead’s diet.

Because flatheads have such a broad diet, you can find them feeding throughout the water. Flathead catfish prefer sandy bottoms and are often found in deep pools. However, they are highly opportunistic feeders, and will respond well to live bait at almost any part of the water column.

Flathead Catfish Fast Facts

Scientific Name Pylodictis olivaris
Normal Length Range 12-24 inches
Normal Weight Range 1-25 pounds
Maximum Length 69 inches
Maximum Weight 139 pounds
Native Waters Central and eastern United States
Diet Carnivorous, feeds on fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other aquatic organisms

White Catfish

The white catfish is the least popular of the four American game catfish, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting or any less fun to pursue. Of these four species, the white catfish is the only one that regularly scavenges. It’s also the only one that is a true bottom feeder.

You will rarely ever find this species in moving water or clear lakes; they love muddy, sandy bottoms where they can hide. The white catfish is a wily, wary fish that is often most active by night; if you’re after this species during the day, you need to present your bait low in the water for the best chance to pique their interest.

White Catfish Fast Facts

Scientific Name Ameiurus catus
Normal Length Range 12-24 inches
Normal Weight Range 1-5 pounds
Maximum Length 30 inches
Maximum Weight 20 pounds
Native Waters Eastern United States
Diet Omnivorous; feeds on fish, insects, crustaceans, plants, and other organic matter

So, are catfish bottom feeders? No! Only one of the four sportfish species is primarily a bottom feeder. The others will all hunt at different depths.

Bottom Dwellers, Not Bottom Feeders

So if catfish aren’t truly bottom feeders, why are they usually so low in the water? There are several reasons for this.

  • Catfish have small swim bladders and heavy, bony heads. This means they are negatively buoyant and naturally sink rather than float.
  • Catfish burrow in mud to avoid warm temperatures.
  • Catfish prefer to lay their eggs in burrows, and females spend a lot of time finding the right place to spawn.
  • During the spawning season, male catfish are aggressive nest guardians and will not leave eggs undefended.
  • Catfish stay low in the mud as part of an effective ambush hunting strategy.
  • Catfish have weak, sensitive eyes and poor vision; they prefer to stay in the darkest part of the water, which is down at the bottom. Since they don’t strongly rely on their sense of sight, the lack of light doesn’t impact their ability to hunt.
  • Catfish burrow in the mud to survive droughts. If the water level starts to lower, they go to the bottom.

All in all, what this means is that while you can find catfish in different parts of the water column, you’re most likely to get the best catfish at the bottom of the water. That’s where the real lunkers like to hang out, and it’s usually where they prefer to feed.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, catfishes’ reputation as bottom feeders is largely underserved for the species we pursue and eat. While many of the nearly three thousand species of catfish do eat off the bottom of the water, that isn’t the only place they hunt and forage. And for a fish, being a bottom feeder isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

Understanding the life history of the fish you pursue doesn’t just make you more knowledgeable in general– it helps you be a better angler! When you can think like a fish and understand why they do what they do, you will have better luck finding them and hauling them up. Check out the Reel Passion blog for more informative articles that will help you be a better angler!