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Channel Catfish

Channel Catfish, illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing.


Body color of Channel Catfish varies widely from silvery-gray on the top side to light on the underside, depending mostly on the clarity of the water. The body is profusely marked with dark pigmented spots, which are usually more or less obscure in large adults. Young individuals, under 2 or 3 inches in length, also frequently lack these spots. There are from 24 to 29 soft rays in the anal fin, and this fin is about two-sevenths the standard length. The posterior margin of the adipose fin is free. The tail is deeply forked, which is unlike all the other catfishes except the Blue Catfish. The eyes are large, but the head is small, slender and subconic. The air bladder has two lobes which are laterally paired so as to appear as one at first glance. The upper jaw is slightly longer than the lower jaw.


Channel Catfish Distribution

One of the most widely distributed fishes in the state, Channel Catfish is common to abundant in most rivers and moderate sized streams. Stocking programs to satisfy the public demand for this fish has widened its distribution and increased its abundance in nearly all man-made lakes, natural lakes, water-supply reservoirs, surface mine lakes and farm ponds. During spring flooding catfish have been known to ascend even the smallest streams to inhabit the larger pools in these creeks.


The Channel Catfish is omnivorous and opportunistic in its feeding, gorging on all manner of living and dead material.

State Record

36 pounds, 8 ounces - Middle Raccoon River, Dallas County, August 1993 - Ron Godwin, Earlham, Iowa

Expert Tip

the worse it smells the more likely a Channel Catfish will bite on it


The Channel Catfish is most abundant and widely distributed of the catfishes of Iowa. It is common to abundant throughout Iowa’s rivers and moderate sized streams. The Channel Catfish occurs naturally but is also stocked in artificial impoundments, natural lakes, and farm ponds throughout the state.

The Channel Catfish is found in many types of habitats ranging from ponds, lakes and reservoirs to rivers, oxbows and bayous. It is highly abundant in the deeper waters of impoundments and large streams having moderately clear bottoms of sand, gravel or boulders and sometimes silt, provided the rate of deposition is low. The Channel Catfish is extremely adaptable, as it does not require flowing water at any point in its life cycle or the availability of live food. Although common in the Mississippi River and its larger tributaries, it has been known to ascend even the smallest creeks during spring flooding. Adults seek cover around submerged logs, steep cutbanks or drift piles during the day, and feed in riffles and shallow pools at night. The Channel Catfish avoids clear, cool streams, streams with high gradient, and dense beds of aquatic vegetation. Yearlings can tolerate considerable current and are often found in riffles or shallow pools.

The Channel Catfish is quite selective in its breeding habits. It prefers obscure places to deposit the eggs. Overhanging rock ledges, deeply undercut banks, underwater aquatic mammal runs, hollow logs and even large tin cans, tile, and other similar objects in the stream serve admirably for spawning purposes. Spawning activity takes place from May through July when the water temperature reaches 75 degrees F. Male and female Channel Catfish exhibit active and prolonged courtship behavior before mating. During the actual spawning act, the male swims beside the female but facing the opposite direction. Each fish then wraps its tail around the other's head, whereupon the male body quivers, which stimulates the simultaneous release of eggs and milt. Eggs are deposited in a golden colored gelatinous mass. The length of incubation depends upon the water temperature, but it is usually completed in 6 to 10 days. Although the number of eggs deposited by a female may run as high as 20,000 or more, catfish weighing from 1 to 4 pounds produce about 4,000 eggs per pound of body weight.

After spawning takes place, the male drives the female from the nest and takes over family duties until the young hatch. In artificial culture and perhaps in the wild as well, females and even the parent males will often devour the eggs from their nests, especially when disturbed.

Young catfish travel in schools for several days, or even weeks, after birth. Eventually the schools disperse and the young feed singly in the shallow waters over sand bars, around drift piles, and in rocky areas of quiet waters.

Female catfish reach sexual maturity at 13 to 16 inches and males somewhat earlier. Average body length at each year of life for channel catfish in the Des Moines River is 1 - 3.5 inches, 2 - 6.5 inches, 3 - 8.7 inches, 4 - 11.2 inches, 5 - 13.9 inches, 6 - 15.0 inches, 7 - 17.4 inches, 8 - 19.1 inches, 9 -20.4 inches and 10 - 21.3 inches.

The Channel Catfish is omnivorous and opportunistic in its feeding, gorging on all manner of living and dead material. Because of its highly developed sensory system, it feeds by touch, taste and sight. For this reason it is frequently caught by anglers in turbid waters which are unproductive for fishes that feed principally by sight. In extremely muddy waters, however, they are prone to feed much less.

A large part of the natural diet of the Channel Catfish is aquatic insects and their larvae. Crayfish, snails, small clams, worms and fish, both live and dead, are taken as part of the diet. The catfish is not a selective feeder and takes advantage of the food at hand. In the spring of the year its stomach may be packed with elm seeds and cotton from cottonwood trees. Other natural foods include such items as wild grapes, weed seeds, wild fruits, and other vegetable materials dropped into the stream from overhanging branches. Large Channel Catfish feed almost exclusively on fish.

Channel Catfish are harvested by commercial fishermen extensively from the Mississippi River. Approximately 400,000 pounds of Channel Catfish valued at nearly $250,000 are annually harvested from the Mississippi.

Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.


Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.

Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames

Illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing


Present in these Iowa water bodies:

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Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
Red Rock Reservoir Marion 4 miles north of Knoxville 15250.00
Pool 18, Mississippi River Louisa Amenities listed are for the Toolsboro Ramp. The ramp at Toolsboro is paved but the road to the ramp is gravel. Amenities vary by location in pool 18 13300.00
Pool 16, Mississippi River Scott The amenities list are for Buffalo Shores campground in Buffalo, Iowa. Amenities at other locations in Pool 16 vary by location. 13000.00
Rathbun Reservoir Appanoose 8 miles northwest of Centerville 11000.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5280.00
Saylorville Reservoir Polk North edge of Des Moines 4970.00
West Okoboji Lake Dickinson northwest edge of Arnolds Park 3847.00
Clear Lake Cerro Gordo south edge of Clear Lake 3684.00
Storm Lake (incl Little Storm Lake) Buena Vista south edge of Storm Lake 3097.00
Lake Odessa Louisa 5 miles east of Wapello 3000.00
Tuttle Lake Emmet 1 mile east, 2 miles north of Dolliver 2268.00
East Okoboji Lake Dickinson east edge of Okoboji 1835.00
Lost Island Lake Palo Alto 3 miles north of Ruthven 1162.00
Silver Lake (Dickinson) Dickinson west edge of Lake Park 1041.00
Five Island Lake Palo Alto north edge of Emmetsburg 973.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Three Mile Lake Union 3 miles northwest of Afton 880.00
Big Creek Lake Polk 2 miles north of Polk City 814.00
DeSoto Bend at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Harrison 5 miles west of Missouri Valley at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge 811.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 747.00
Little River Watershed Lake Decatur 1 mile west of Leon 743.00
Black Hawk Lake Sac east edge of Lake View 729.00
Brushy Creek Lake Webster 5 miles east of Lehigh 690.00
Lake Icaria Adams 4 miles north of Corning 648.00
Twelve Mile Creek Lake Union 4 miles east of Creston 635.00
Browns Lake Woodbury 2 miles west of Salix 580.00
Lake Sugema Van Buren 3 miles southwest of Keosauqua 574.00
High Lake Emmet 6 miles east of Wallingford 467.00
Rock Creek Lake Jasper 4 miles northeast of Kellogg 466.20
North Twin Lake Calhoun 4 miles north of Rockwell City 453.00
Lake Delhi Delaware 3m W Delhi 448.00
Pleasant Creek Lake Linn 4 miles North of Palo 401.00
Lost Grove Lake Scott Six miles east of Eldridge 400.00
Badger Lake Monona 380.00
Snyder Bend Lake Woodbury 1 1/2 miles west of Salix 375.00
Swan Lake Dickinson 2m N Superior 371.00
Ingham Lake Emmet 6 miles east of Wallingford 357.00
Green Valley Lake Union 2 1/2 miles northwest of Creston 338.00
West Lake (Osceola) Clarke 2 miles west of Osceola 320.00
Carter Lake Pottawattamie North edge of Carter Lake. 315.00
Lake Darling Washington 4 miles west of Brighton 303.00
Lake Wapello Davis 7 miles west of Drakesville 289.00
Roberts Creek Lake Marion 6 miles northeast of Knoxville 288.00
Badger Creek Lake Madison 5 miles southeast of Van Meter 276.00
Blue Lake Monona 3 miles west of Onawa 269.00
Lake Belva Deer Keokuk 5 miles northeast of Sigourney 264.00
Lower Gar Lake Dickinson ½ mile south of Arnolds Park 251.00
Summit Lake Union West edge of Creston 250.00
Little Wall Lake Hamilton 1 1/2 miles south of Jewell 249.00
Crystal Lake Hancock north edge of Crystal Lake 244.00
Lake Cornelia Wright 3 1/2 miles north, 2 miles east of Clarion 243.00
Blue Heron Lake (Raccoon River Park) Polk southwest of West Des Moines; Raccoon River Park 232.00
Center Lake Dickinson 2 miles west, 1/2 miles south of Spirit Lake 220.00
Nashua Impoundment (Cedar Lake) Chickasaw Located on the east edge of Nashua. 200.00
Dale Maffitt Reservoir Polk 6m SW Des Moines 200.00
New Albin Big Lake Allamakee 200.00
Hawthorn Lake (aka Barnes City Lake) Mahaska 1 mile south of Barnes City 182.00
Easter Lake Polk southeast edge of Des Moines 179.10
Big Hollow Lake Des Moines 3 miles west of Sperry 178.00
Lake Geode Henry 4 miles southwest of Danville 174.00
Prairie Rose Lake Shelby 8 miles southeast of Harlan 173.00
Lake Anita Cass 1/2 miles south of Anita 159.00
Don Williams Lake Boone 5 miles north of Ogden 151.00
Morris Lake Lucas 3 miles east of Chariton 141.00
Lake Miami Monroe 5 miles southeast of Lovilla 140.00
Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake Story North side of Ames, west of Grand Avenue/Highway 69. 137.00
Viking Lake Montgomery 4 miles east of Stanton 136.00
Volga Lake Fayette Located 3 miles north of Fayette. 135.00
Brinker Lake Black Hawk N edge Waterloo 134.00
Deep Lakes Muscatine 130.00
Waverly Impoundment Bremer 120.00
Minnewashta Lake Dickinson 1/2 mile south of Arnolds Park 118.00
Lake Ahquabi Warren 5 miles southwest of Indianola 114.00
Iowa Lake Iowa 5 miles North of Millersburg 107.00
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa 104.00
Upper Centerville Reservoir Appanoose South edge of Centerville 102.00
Hickory Grove Lake Story 3 miles southwest of Colo 100.30
Union Grove Lake Tama 4 miles South of Gladbrook 100.00
Swan Lake Carroll 3 miles southeast of Carroll 100.00
Lake Fisher Davis 2 miles northwest of Bloomfield 100.00
Diamond Lake Poweshiek 1 mile West of Montezuma 98.00
Grays Lake Polk Fleur Drive, Des Moines 96.00
Sand Lake Marshall On the Northeast edge of Marshalltown 95.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
Beeds Lake Franklin 2 miles west, 1 mile north of Hampton 90.00
Cedar Lake Madison 2 miles northeast of Winterset 90.00
Terry Trueblood Lake Johnson 1.5 miles south of Hwy 6 on Gilbert Street in Iowa City. 90.00
Bob White Lake Wayne 1 mile west of Allerton 89.00
Boyer River (above Dunlap) Crawford 84.00
Cedar Lake Linn 84.00
Pony Creek Lake Mills 3 1/2 miles northwest of Glenwood 83.00
Loch Ayr Ringgold 2 miles north of Mt. Ayr 83.00
Ellis Lake Lucas 1 mile east of Chariton 83.00
Lake Keomah Mahaska 6 miles east of Oskaloosa 78.00
Red Haw Lake Lucas 1 mile east of Chariton 76.00
Binder Lake Adams 1 mile northeast of Corning 76.00
George Wyth Lake Black Hawk N edge Waterloo 75.00
Otter Creek Lake Tama 6 miles Northeast of Toledo 74.00
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