Wisconsin has two kinds of catfish, the channel catfish and the flathead catfish. They are the state's largest members of the bullhead catfish family and the most valuable commercial fisheries on the upper Mississippi River.
In general, catfish are bottom dwellers and get their name from the cat-like "whiskers," called "barbels," on their snouts that help them feel and taste things. They are also like felines because they rest in the day and prowl at night. Catfish are dark-colored fish and like secluded spots where they can be camouflaged like rock dams, deep pools, and under submerged logs. Flatheads even get into "cat" fights like tomcats do.
These fish have sharp spines in their back (dorsal) and side (pectoral) fins with venomous mucus glands that have a painful, but not dangerous poison. Some people think their barbels are what cause the sting, but this is untrue. They also have thick, tough skin instead of scales and an adipose (fatty tissue) fin on their backs in front of the tail.
Catfish stop feeding in the winter and gather in deep pools, settling in the muddy bottom, and then they go into semihibernation.
Catfish are a popular food fish along the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, featured in many riverfront restaurants and dinner tables of anglers. In some areas, fladheads are a treat and are nicknamed "candy bar." Be careful not to eat too many of these fish, they are fatty fish which can absorb pollutants that may make you sick over time. Have an adult check with the DNR's fish consumption advisory for more information.
Common names: channel cat, spotted catfish, spotted cat, lake catfish, Great Lakes catfish, northern catfish, fiddler
Here's how to identify them: blue to olive backs, whitish bellies and silvery sides spotted with dark black dots of different sizes which fade with age. They have eight barbels and a narrower head than the flathead. Look for a deeply forked tail.
These are the garbage eaters of the fish world - eating practically anything that comes their way - even soap! This fish is a scavenger, moving along shore feeding on any plant or animal matter that floats by or quickly swims after small forage fish.
Channel catfish live in rivers, lakes and ponds in southwestern and western Wisconsin reaching to the upper St. Croix River and St. Louis River. They are more abundant than the flathead. They are also found in Green Bay and tributaries of Lake Michigan in the east. They can handle turbid (cloudy) water, unlike the flatheads. They also travel more and migrate long distances in spring to spawn and moves downstream throughout the year.
Common names: Mississippi bullhead, Mississippi cat, shovelhead cat, shovelnose cat, yellow cat, mud cat, Hoosier, goujon.
Here's how to identify them: Look for the lower jaw and lip that sticks out farther than the top lip. They have light brown to yellow sides with darker brown or black areas. The belly is yellow to cream white. They are larger than channel catfish with a broad and flat head and eight barbels. Their tail is squared with slight forks.
This fish is the granddaddy of Wisconsin catfish, reaching up to 30 or 40 pounds. You can find them in the lower St. Croix River and in southwestern and western rivers in Wisconsin. Flatheads feed mostly on live fish, waiting motionless with mouth gaping open so they can lunge forward and swallow them whole! They like them big and alive.
They have their favorite lounging spots and return to them each day to rest, rarely traveling more than five miles from their resting spot.
Fishing for Catfish
Nightime is the best time to catch these bewhiskered fish. Fish on the bottom from riverbanks or in river backwaters. In the day, fish is deep pools. Take your time, they are slow eaters and will take a variety of baits:
Flatheads: suckers, carp, shad, sunfish, bullheads, and channel catfish
Channels: "stink bait" (made from smelly things like cheese, meat, animal blood, oats, flour and anise, strips of meat or fish, dough balls, or frogs,) or plugs, spoons, jibs, spinners and plastic worms. Fish just after a rain for best results (food washes into the water).