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Channel Catfish

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


Body color varies from silvery-gray on the top to light on the underside, depending mostly on the clarity of the water. The body is marked with dark pigmented spots, which are usually unclear in large adults. Young catfish, under 2- or 3-inches long, 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.


Channel Catfish Distribution

Most abundant and widely distributed Iowa catfish; 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.


Omnivorous and opportunistic in its feeding, gorging on all living and dead material.

State Record

38 pounds, 2 ounces -Missouri River, Pottawattamie County, June 2005 - Dustin Curtis, Omaha, NE

Expert Tip

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


Channel Catfish are 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, if the rate of deposition is low. It 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 be in 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 takes place from May through July when the water temperature reaches 75 degree. Males and females show active and long 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. The number of eggs deposited by a female may be 20,000 or more; catfish weighing 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-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 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 fish that feed mainly by sight. They often feed much less in extremely muddy waters.

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


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
Pool 13, Mississippi River Clinton Between Bellevue and Clinton, Iowa. Pool 13 Starts at River Mile 556.7 28117.00
Pool 11, Mississippi River Dubuque River Mile 583 at Dubuque, IA upstream to River Mile 615 at Guttenberg, IA. 19875.00
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. There is some shore fishing along the parking area and at the outlet of Lake Odessa. 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
Pool 12, Mississippi River Jackson Between Dubuque and Bellevue, Iowa 12349.00
Rathbun Reservoir Appanoose 8 miles northwest of Centerville 11000.00
Pool 14, Mississippi River Scott Located between Clinton and Davenport, starts at River Mile 522.5 10291.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. This ramp is located in downtown Muscatine. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
Spirit Lake Dickinson One mile North of Spirit Lake 5684.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5340.00
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
Pool 15, Mississippi River Scott Between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island Illinois. Starts at River Mile 482.9 3626.90
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
Big Timber Complex Louisa Two miles south of Muscatine, IA off of X-61/Stewart Rd. 1252.00
Lost Island Lake Palo Alto 3 miles north of Ruthven 1162.00
Silver Lake (Dickinson) Dickinson west edge of Lake Park 1065.00
Five Island Lake Palo Alto north edge of Emmetsburg 973.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Black Hawk Lake Sac east edge of Lake View 922.00
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
Big Lake (Lansing) Allamakee 3 m N Lansing 800.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 784.70
Little River Watershed Lake Decatur 1 mile west of Leon 733.00
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
Little Spirit Lake Dickinson 4 miles north of Orleans 604.00
Browns Lake Woodbury 2 miles west of Salix 580.00
Lake Sugema Van Buren 3 miles southwest of Keosauqua 579.00
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 400.00
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
Middle Sabula Lake Jackson W edge of City of Sabula 350.00
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 on the west side of V17 289.00
Roberts Creek Lake Marion 6 miles northeast of Knoxville 288.00
Independence Impoundment Buchanan Independence 280.00
Badger Creek Lake Madison 5 miles southeast of Van Meter 276.00
Blue Lake Monona 3 miles west of Onawa 275.00
Brinker Lake Black Hawk N edge Waterloo, located within George Wyth State Park. 270.00
Crystal Lake Hancock north edge of Crystal Lake 264.00
Lake Belva Deer Keokuk 5 miles northeast of Sigourney 264.00
Lower Gar Lake Dickinson ½ mile south of Arnolds Park 251.00
Little Wall Lake Hamilton 1 1/2 miles south of Jewell 249.00
Lake Cornelia Wright 3 1/2 miles north, 2 miles east of Clarion 243.00
Bussey Lake Clayton 2 m N Guttenberg 240.00
Blue Heron Lake (Raccoon River Park) Polk southwest of West Des Moines; Raccoon River Park 232.00
Summit Lake Union West edge of Creston 230.00
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
Prairie Rose Lake Shelby 8 miles southeast of Harlan 196.10
Quarry Springs Jasper At the 117 South exit off of Interstate 80, Colfax 193.00
Lake Geode Henry 4 miles southwest of Danville 185.70
Hawthorn Lake Mahaska 1 mile south of Barnes City on the east side of V13 182.00
Big Hollow Lake Des Moines 3 miles west of Sperry 178.00
Easter Lake Polk southeast edge of Des Moines 162.60
Lake Anita Cass 1/2 mile south of Anita 159.00
Don Williams Lake Boone 5 miles north of Ogden 151.00
Medicine Creek Wetland Wayne 3 miles southeast of Clio on the north side of Aurora and the west side of 100th in the Medicine Creek Wildlife Area 145.00
Morris Lake Lucas 2 miles east of Chariton on the south side of 482nd Street 141.00
Cedar Falls Impoundment Black Hawk N edge Cedar Falls 140.00
Lake Miami Monroe 5 miles southeast of Lovilia on the west side of 635th Avenue 137.00
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
Deep Lakes Muscatine Southern edge of Muscatine on Pettibone Avenue, East of Fruitland. 130.00
Middle River Warren There is not a public access to the Middle River within Warren County. 127.00
East Nishnabotna River Fremont Red Oak city limits has river access and hard surface boat ramp 123.00
West Nishnabotna River Fremont 121.00
Waverly Impoundment Bremer 120.00
Swan Lake Carroll 3 miles southeast of Carroll 120.00
Minnewashta Lake Dickinson 1/2 mile south of Arnolds Park 118.00
Lake Ahquabi Warren 5 miles southwest of Indianola 118.00
Skunk River (Rose Hill to Coppock) Washington McKain's River Access : Dogwood Avenue on the South side of the River. 3 miles North of Lake Darling State Park. 110.00
Middle Raccoon River (above Redfield confluence) Dallas The best access is the hard surface ramp below the dam in the city of Redfield. 110.00
North River Warren There is not a public access to the North River within Warren County. 107.00
Iowa Lake (Iowa Co.) Iowa 5 miles North of Millersburg 107.00
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa This stretch is located in Marshall, Tama, the SW corner of Benton, Iowa, and Johnson County. A popular access is at the Hwy 21 Access, which is part of the Iowa River Corridor Wildlife Area, just south of Belle Plaine. 104.00
Union Grove Lake Tama 4 miles South of Gladbrook 100.00
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