Like Cats? And We Are Not Referring To The Feline Kind: How to Find and Identify Ohio’s Biggest Fish

Catfish, and people that fish for catfish, are a special breed. We mean that with love, of course. It takes a different kind of thinking to get into a catfish’s head. But once you do, you will be hooked (pun intended). Catfish are sporty, grow to gigantic proportions, and make for great eating.

So we put together a guide for anglers new to catfishing. Here you will find all the essential info you need to get started. From how to identify Ohio’s catfish to where to look for them to their habits, this is the bare-bones place to start. Enough jabbering, let’s dive in.

Ohio’s Catfish Species

Channel Catfish Ictalurus Punctatus

The channel cat is everybody’s favorite catfish. They are popular all over the country, with over 8 million anglers targeting them every year. Their widespread range, playful behavior, and large size are all reasons to love them. Not to mention, they are pretty good at eating. Channel catfishing is a large market in some parts of the country, like Minnesota, and has influenced the practice of farming fish for food both in the US and overseas.

Channel Catfish Home Range and Habitat

Channel cats are found throughout the state of Ohio. Beyond the state of Ohio, the channel catfish’s range is significant. They occur almost everywhere east of the Continental Divide, from Central Mexico well into Canada. They are lovers of deep water, so where you find deep, dark depths, you will find channel cats. They are often found in water bodies with some current, lying in wait for smaller fish.

How to Identify Channel Catfish

The body of the channel catfish covers a large window of size. Adults are typically around a foot in length and weigh 10-ish pounds. But record-holders are much, much larger than this. The world record channel cat, caught in South Carolina, was a whopping 58 pound lunker.

Their colorations differ much less. They are scaleless, typically silver toward the head, and whiter near the tail and underneath. Juveniles can have spots and might be confused with blue catfish. In Ohio, you will only see the blue cat in the Ohio River. Their dorsal and pectoral fins have venomous spines, so be careful when handling them.

Channel Catfish Behavior

Channel cats have an incredibly keen sense of taste/smell. They can detect some chemicals at one part per 100 million in the water! This is due to the channel catfish’s body being covered in taste buds. The highest concentration of external taste buds is on their barbels, or “whiskers”.

They tend to hang out in deep water at the edge of the current. They will wait for insect larvae, mollusks, crayfish, and small fish being swept downstream and happily gobble them up. They will also feed on dead and decaying matter.

They will nest in cavities and undercut banks, partially digging out a place to nest. Spawning typically begins when the water reaches the mid-70s (mid-spring/early summer). Where and when they are most active depends on what their prey is doing. One thing you can count on is that when the water rises after storms, channel cats go crazy.

Channel Catfish Ecology

Channel catfish are capable of surviving in a wide variety of conditions. For them, the main deterrent is water that is too murky. So when humans transport them to new places for food or sport, they often set up shop. There are non-native populations of channel catfish on almost every continent. In many places, they become invasive, preying on native species and impacting their numbers.

Blue Catfish Ictalurus Furcatus

The blue catfish is the largest catfish species in North America. Almost everything about them is defined by their massive size, from what they eat to where they live. And as you can probably guess, they are incredible sport fish.

Blue Catfish Range

You can find blue cats most easily in the Mississippi River drainage, closer to the ocean. As we have mentioned already, blue catfish in Ohio are only in the Ohio River. This is the northeastern edge of their native range. As of 2011, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources began a program to stock blue catfish in the Hoover Reservoir which is the best spot in the state to find them, conveniently close to Columbus.

How to Identify Blue Catfish

If we have not said it enough already, the blue catfish has an enormous body. Positively gigantic. Colossal. The standing world record blue catfish weighed 143 lb and was just shy of five feet long. As adults, they are typically between two to four feet long, far larger than the channel catfish.

To the untrained eye, the channel and blue catfish might look exactly alike. The blue cat is blueish gray and scaleless. It has a hump on its dorsal side and a forked tail. Apart from the range, the best method to ID a tricky catfish is to count the rays on the fish’s anal fin. Blue cats have more than 30 rays, channel cats have 29 or fewer.

Blue Catfish Behavior

Blue cats are opportunists. They will go after just about anything they can catch, which includes fish, crayfish, frogs, insects, and mussels are all on the menu. Adult blue cats will prey on schools of bass, and can even eat Asian carp. Juveniles stick to feeding at night to avoid becoming prey. They will take zooplankton and small bugs until adulthood. Like most catfish, they favor deep water and are most active at night.

Blue Catfish Ecology

As adults, blue catfish are essentially apex predators. They control populations of smaller organisms and help to recycle dead matter. But, being effective omnivores, they often become invasive. Blue cats were introduced to the Chesapeake Bay area in 1970. Since then, populations have grown unchecked. In turn, this has led to a reduction in local invertebrates like the blue crab.

Bullhead Catfish \Ameiurus Melas.

If you caught a bullhead catfish, you were probably fishing for something else. The most common reason to keep one is to use it as bait for bigger and better catfish. But that does not mean they are not perfectly edible. Brown bullheads are probably the best-tasting due to living in clear water and are fun to fish too. They are not too picky and each species has a slightly different habitat.

Bullhead Catfish Range and Habitat

Bullheads are common throughout Ohio. The largest populations are in the western part of the state. Each species of bullhead prefers different conditions and different parts of the river. Brown bullheads like the least vegetation and clearest water. Black bullheads prefer more turbid, cloudy water. Yellow bullheads prefer heavy vegetation cover.

How to Identify Bullhead Catfish

In general, bullhead catfish are small compared to others you may haul in. They typically range from 10 to 12 inches in length and between one and two pounds. The world record was a black bullhead just over eight pounds.

Each species is more or less described by its name. But be warned, their colorations can and do overlap. Black bullheads (A. melas) are typically brown-black, brown bullheads (A. nebulosus) are olive-brown, and yellow bullheads (A. Natalis) are yellow to olive. In most cases, they are somewhat mottled and have yellow or white bellies. Their tails are squared, like the flathead catfish, just without the flathead.

Bullhead Catfish Behavior

Highly developed sense of taste and smell. Feed on insect larvae, crayfish, mollusks, dead fish, just about anything they can fit in their mouths. Feed by taste. Activity peaks at night. Construct nests 1-15’ deep, preferring silt-free sandy or gravelly bottoms. Black bullheads will tolerate more turbid water. Brown bullheads are found in water with little vegetation and clear water. Yellow bullheads prefer heavy vegetation.

Bullhead Catfish Ecology

Black bullheads can make clear water more turbid. In places where they have been introduced, they can impact their neighbors by changing the content of the water. As detritivores, bullhead cats help recycle nutrients from the bottoms of rivers and lakes. They also tolerate high levels of pollution and low levels of oxygen, surviving where other fish can’t.

Flathead Catfish Pylodictis Olivares

The flathead is a monster. They are the second-largest catfish species in North America (following the blue catfish). And in true monster fashion, it is a ruthless carnivore. Whereas other catfish may feed on dead stuff with a mix of live prey, flatheads actively hunt and kill their food. They do this by sensing vibrations in the water, striking blindly. And there is not much they will not strike. Because flatheads are the “healthiest” eaters among catfish, they are the tastiest by far. What is not to like?

Flathead Catfish Range and Habitat

The flathead’s range covers the Midwest and South, from the Great Lakes to Mexico. In Ohio, flathead catfish live in major river systems and some lakes. These include reservoirs in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. In the water, flatheads like slow, easy currents. Adult flatheads gravitate to the deepest parts of rivers, especially near cover. Think logs or drift piles.

How to Identify Flathead Catfish

As the name suggests, the flathead’s head is, well, flat. When handling a fish, look for a flat plate between its eyes. The other way you can distinguish it for certain is by looking at the jaws. The flathead’s lower jaw is longer than the upper, unlike the bullhead.

Flatheads are typically yellowish-green to brown and whitish-yellow underneath. They have a square-shaped tail, similar to the bullhead. Adults range from a foot to two and a half feet long and five to 30 pounds. The world record flathead was 139 pounds (caught by noodling in the Arkansas River).

Flathead Catfish Behavior

As we’ve mentioned, flatheads feed almost exclusively on live prey. As they grow bigger, so does their prey. Juveniles typically only take insect larvae. Once they reach 4-5”, flatheads begin to include crayfish and other fish in their diet. Above 10” in length, they will begin preying almost exclusively on other fish, including sunfish and carp.

Flathead spawning begins once the water reaches 70 degrees. The adults will build nests deep under the surface into the banks of rivers and ponds. They will excavate natural cavities with their tails to create burrows. They defend these burrows fiercely, which is why noodling works so well (but more on that another time).

Flathead Catfish Ecology

Much like blue catfish, flatheads are apex predators in their ecosystems. In the places they occur natively, they help control the populations of their prey. But again, much like the blue cat, flatheads are invasive in many settings outside their range.

Have you caught any catfish recently? Drop us a line!

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