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Body color varies 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 obscure in large adults. Young individuals, under 2- or 3-inches long, also often lack these spots. There are 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 sub-conic. The air bladder has two lobes which are laterally paired to look as one at first glance. The upper jaw is slightly longer than the lower jaw.
Most abundant and widely distributed of the catfishes of Iowa; 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 omnivorous and opportunistic in its feeding, gorging on all manner of living and dead material.
36 pounds, 8 ounces - Middle Raccoon River, Dallas County, August 1993 - Ron Godwin, Earlham, Iowa
the worse it smells the more likely a Channel Catfish will bite on it
The Channel Catfish is found in many types of habitats from ponds, lakes and reservoirs to rivers, oxbows and bayous. It is highly abundant in the deeper waters of impoundments and large streams with moderately clear bottoms of sand, gravel or boulders and sometimes silt, provided the rate of deposition is low. The Channel Catfish is extremely adaptable; it does not need flowing water at any point in its life cycle or 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. It 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 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 as spawning spots. 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, 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, the male drives the female from the nest and takes over family duties until the young hatch. In artificial culture and maybe in the wild as well, females and even the parent males will often eat the eggs from their nests, especially when disturbed.
Young catfish travel in schools for several days, or even weeks, after birth. Eventually the schools scatter 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. It is often 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 available. In the spring its stomach may be packed with elm seeds and cotton from cottonwood trees. Other natural foods include 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. About 400,000 pounds of Channel Catfish valued at nearly $250,000 are harvested from the Mississippi each year.
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