Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)

Blue Catfish

This is a popular species within its range and prized for its flesh, as well as for its sporting value. The blue catfish is a strong, stubborn fighter. It can grow quite large, which enhances its appeal. It is considered good table fare and is widely pursued by commercial fishermen for the market. Its flesh is white, delicate, and tender, especially in smaller specimens.

Identification

Blue catfish are generally blue gray or slate blue and possess no spots or other markings, although they may be almost pale blue or silvery; their flanks taper in color to their bellies, which are light gray or white. They have deeply forked tails, and their anal fins have straight margins. They resemble channel catfish and when small are most easily confused with that relative.

A larger blue cat has a distinct humped-backed appearance, with the hump occurring at and in front of the dorsal fin; its head is generally larger than that of a channel cat, and its body is less sleek. It can be distinguished from a channel cat by its longer and straight-edged anal fin, which has 30 to 35 rays. In smaller specimens, a distinguishing characteristic is their lack of black body spots. Internally, the blue catfish has three chambers in the swim bladder, whereas the channel cat has two.


Like the channel catfish and the little-known Yaqui catfish of Mexico, the blue cat has a deeply forked tail, a characteristic that distinguishes these three from the flathead catfish and the bullhead, and to some degree also from the white catfish, which has a moderately forked tail. As with other catfish, channel cats have heavy, sharp pectoral and dorsal spines, as well as long mouth barbels.

Size/Age

Blue cats are capable of growing to gargantuan sizes but are rarely found at the upper limits of their capabilities. Most anglers catch blues in the 5- to 20-pound range. Fish in the 20- to 50-pound class are not uncommon in waters with a good population of fish, but blue catfish in that range are infrequently caught and specimens exceeding that size are rare. The all-tackle world record for the species is a 116-pound, 12-ounce fish caught in the Mississippi River in Arkansas in 2001.

A 116-pounder caught on a trotline was reportedly taken at Lake Texoma, Texas, in 1985, and in 1879 a 150-pounder from the Mississippi River near St. Louis was found at a local market and shipped to the U.S. National Museum. Historical accounts describe 100-pounders at the turn of the twentieth century, and individuals between 200 and 400 pounds have been reported but undocumented, perhaps being more lore than likelihood.

There is similar haziness concerning the blue cat’s growth and longevity. Several scientific reports indicate that these fish grow up to 14 years of age, and they have been reported to live to 21 years, but greater longevity for the biggest specimens is evidently possible.

Spawning behavior

Blue catfish spawn in the spring or early summer, when the water temperature is between 70° and 75°F. Nests are constructed by one or both parents, usually among crevices and holes under logs and trees and in undercut banks. Secluded and dark places are often preferred.

Food and feeding habits

Blue catfish evidently eat most anything they can catch; their diet includes assorted fish, crayfish, aquatic insects, and clams. Herring and gizzard shad are part of their diet, especially when the catfish are larger and in places where these are abundant. Blue cats primarily feed on or near the bottom, and they are principally nocturnal foragers.

Other Names

catfish, chucklehead cat, white catfish, forktail cat, Mississippi cat, Fulton cat, blue Fulton cat, great blue cat, silver cat, blue channel cat, highfin blue cat.

Distribution

Blue cats are native to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins in the central and eastern United States, extending north into South Dakota and south into Mexico and northern Guatemala. Dams and commercial harvest are among the factors that have affected their population and perhaps their size in some parts of their native range. They have been introduced with good success into some large river systems outside of that range, most notably in the Santee Cooper waters of South Carolina. They are now most abundant in the deep, warm waters of the South.

Habitat

Blue catfish inhabit rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs, and ponds but are primarily a fish of big rivers and big lakes/reservoirs. They have been introduced into smaller lakes and ponds but seldom attain large sizes in such places. This species prefers the deep areas of large rivers, swift chutes, and pools with swift currents. Like the channel catfish, it prefers locations with good current over bottoms of rock, gravel, or sand.
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