The most widely distributed of all freshwater catﬁsh, the channel cat is a significant component of recreational angling efforts, as well as a mainstay of commercial ﬁshing; its tender, white, and nutritious ﬂesh is highly valued as table fare. It has been stocked widely in lakes and ponds, and provides the backbone of catﬁsh farming activities.
In some states, the sporty channel cat is ranked at or near the top among all species in angling popularity. Channel catﬁsh have the potential to attain large sizes, although less gargantuan than other species, but their general willingness to strike baits, their wide distribution, and their high food esteem primarily account for their popularity.
IdentificationChannel catﬁsh are often recognized at a glance, owing to their deeply forked tails and small irregular spots on the sides. The spots may not be present in all specimens but generally are obvious in smaller individuals. These pigmented spots are most noticeable on younger ﬁsh and obscure on older ones.
The blue catfish also has a forked tail but no spots, and the same is true for the Yaqui catﬁsh (Ictalurus pricei; a species in the Yaqui River drainage of Mexico). The channel cat is more slender than other catﬁsh, perhaps owing to its native riverine existence, and it has a relatively small head. It is distinguished from the white and the blue catﬁsh by its 24 to 29 anal ﬁn rays.
The body of a channel catﬁsh is pale blue to pale olive with a bit of silvery tint, but the color variation is subject to location and water conditions. Male channel cats during the spawning season may be entirely black dorsally, and other channel cats may be dark blue, with little or no spotting, or uniformly light blue or silvery, like the blue catﬁsh or the white catﬁsh. Another feature distinguishing a channel catﬁsh from a blue catﬁsh is the anal ﬁn; this is shorter and more rounded on a channel catﬁsh than on a blue catﬁsh.
Like other catﬁsh, channel cats have heavy, sharp pectoral and dorsal spines, as well as long mouth barbels.
Size/AgeThe maximum age for these ﬁsh varies by latitude; some ﬁsheries sources report a maximum longevity of 15 to 20 years, although it is believed their age can exceed 20 years. Those commonly caught weigh from 1 to 7 pounds; ﬁsh exceeding 15 pounds are infrequent, and a 20-pounder would be considered extremely large. The all-tackle world-record specimen, a ﬁsh caught in 1964, weighed 58 pounds.
Spawning behaviorChannel catﬁsh spawn in the spring or the early summer, when the water temperature is between 70° and 85°F. Nests are constructed by one or both parents, sometimes over the open bottom but more likely among crevices and holes under logs and trees and in undercut banks. Secluded and dark places are often preferred.
The male guards the eggs and aerates them and has been reported to eat some of the eggs during incubation, although it guards the young until they disperse. Ten-inch females may lay only 2,000 eggs, whereas fish over 30 inches long may lay 20,000 eggs.