California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California's Catfish
channel catfish are bottom feeder California fishCalifornia is a large state, the 3rd largest in the U.S.A., and depending on where you go, can range broadly in habitat type and, also, climate. For this reason, California plays host to a huge variety of fish. Fishes are aquatic vertebrates that have fins, gills and scales. Gills are the part of the respiratory system that provide surface area for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide under water.

Fish are ectotherms, commonly referred to as 'cold-blooded', meaning their temperature is regulated by the temperature of their environment. They have a range of diets, being herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores. Some fish reproduce by laying eggs, while others reproduce by bearing live young. California fish species reside in freshwater and coastal/marine waters. Freshwater fish are fishes that live at least part, if not all, of their lives in bodies of fresh water with a salinity of less than .05%. Forty-one percent of all known fish species are found in freshwater.

Catfishes are a diverse group of ray-finned fish. Named for their prominent barbels, which resemble a cat's whiskers. Extant catfish species live inland or in coastal waters of every continent except Antarctica. Catfish have inhabited all continents at one time or another. Catfish are most diverse in tropical South America, North America, Africa, and Asia. More than half of all catfish species live in the Americas. They are the only ostariophysans that have entered freshwater habitats in Madagascar, Australia, and New Guinea. They are found in freshwater environments, though most inhabit shallow, running water. Representatives of at least eight families are hypogean (live underground) with three families that are also troglobitic (inhabiting caves).One such species is Phreatobius cisternarum, known to live underground in phreatic habitats. Numerous species from the families Ariidae and Plotosidae, and a few species from among the Aspredinidae and Bagridae, are found in salt water. In the United States, catfish species may be known by a variety of slang names, such as "mud cat", "polliwogs", or "chuckleheads". These nicknames are not standardized, so one area may call a bullhead catfish by the nickname "chucklehead", while in another state or region, that nickname refers to the blue catfish.

Blue catfish have stout bodies with prominently humped backs in front of the dorsal fin. They resemble channel catfish by having deeply forked tails, but are dissimilar because they are unspotted and have a long, straight-edged anal fin. The back and upper sides of the blue catfish are blue to slate gray, and the lower sides and belly are white. Blues occur in big rivers and in the lower reaches of major tributaries, and prefer clearer, swifter water than other catfish. Usually found over sand, gravel or rock bottoms, the blue catfish's preferred water temperature is 77 to 82 degrees. Young blues eat aquatic insects and small fish while larger blues prefer crayfish, mussels and other fish. They feed primarily at night.

channel catfish are caught in California rivers and streamsChannel catfish closely resemble blue catfish. Both have deeply forked tails. However, channels have a rounded anal fin with 24-29 rays and scattered black spots along their back and sides. They have a small, narrow head. The back is blue-gray with light blue to silvery-gray sides and a white belly. A flattened head, tiny eyes, squarish tail and protruding lower jaw distinguish the flathead from other catfish and contribute to it being placed in a genus of its own. They are yellow-brown and usually mottled above, with a creamy-white or yellow belly.

Flatheads are predatory fish and will consume bass, bream, shad, crayfish and often feed on other catfish. The young rely more extensively on aquatic insects and crayfish than do the adults. Large flatheads sometime congregate where food is plentiful such as near tailraces of dams. They often feed at the surface or in shallow water at night, returning to their residence in a hole or brush pile to rest during the day.  In California, flathead catfish are about as common as walleye and pickerel. But in the Colorado River downstream of Lake Havasu, they flourish.

For more than a half century, the Colorado River has been one of the state's top catfish fisheries, yet for some reason, few folks fish it. The fishery is far from California's metropolitan areas, and it isn't promoted at all. There is very little information available to anglers looking to tackle it. Even so, anglers looking to step outside of their comfort zone and learn a new method of fishing can find what no other spot in California offers: great numbers of trophy flathead catfish and great fishing for channel cats.

In 2003, Blythe resident Billy Joe Potter set a new state record here when he landed a 72-pound, 14-ounce flathead. The fish was 53.5 inches long and had a 36-inch girth.

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