What is a Channel Catfish?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The channel catfish is a species of catfish commercially raised in the United States and can be found throughout the world. Its natural habitat of choice is in slow-moving streams and rivers, or in freshwater lakes and ponds. Considered highly desirable for its tender meat, it can also be kept as an aquarium pet.

Also known as the forked-tail cat, the channel catfish is the only species of catfish that has a vertical, forked tail fin. It can also be easily identified because the lower jaw is longer than the upper. The dorsal and side fins have sharp spines that can easily cut a person or another fish, and all the other fins of the fish are soft. Like other catfish, the channel catfish also sports long mouth whiskers, called barbels. Colors can range from bluish-gray to green or brown, and regardless of the color, the back is always darker than the silvery underside; this allows for camouflage against both the sky and the bottom of the river or lakebed.

The channel catfish spends most of its life on the bottom of lakes or rivers, where it finds the majority of the insects and invertebrates that make up its diet. Once the catfish has matured, it usually stakes out a small area and rarely strays from it. A mature catfish is typically between 2 and 3 pounds (about .9 to 1.4 kg) and 12 inches (about .3 m) in length, although some specimens can be much larger. The time to maturity varies. A fish acquires the ability to spawn when it is between two and three years old when raised in commercial captivity, while in the wild it may take up to six years to mature.

Channel catfish begin to spawn from February to August; breeding is triggered by water temperature, so time frame varies greatly depending on climate and location. The male will build the nest and protect first the eggs and then the young fish until they are about seven days old, when they leave the protection of the underwater den the male has constructed for them. The number of eggs depends on the size of the female.

A hardy fish that can tolerate temperature changes and thrive on a varied diet, a channel catfish can be easily kept in a home aquarium. The aquarium must be large enough to accommodate the fish comfortably, and should have plenty of open space on the bottom of the tank to simulate their natural environment. Addition of channel catfish can be a long-term commitment, as they can live up to 40 years.

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