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Note: This article first appeared in the July/August 1989 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Author- Eileen C. Stegemann. First in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

Some Catfishes Of New York

Mention the word catfish or bullhead and most people think - ugly! I think - survivor! While catfish thrive and enjoy clean, pristine water, if the water is too warm, too murky, or does not have enough oxygen to support other fish species, chances are you may find a member of the catfish family present. As a group, catfish are among the hardiest fishes living under some of the worst conditions. What other fish can survive for days and even weeks in a dried up pond by burying itself in the wet mud?


It is no accident that catfish can survive in such adverse conditions. Catfish have evolved to tolerate muddy, low water situations. Under low oxygen levels, certain catfish such as brown bullheads can breathe through their skin and even use their air bladder as an emergency lung by gulping surface air.

Highly adaptable, catfish are found in a wider range of habitats than most other freshwater fish. They are generally warmwater fish that live in ponds, lakes, or quiet, slow moving streams and rivers, but they are also present in many cool Adirondack lakes.

Catfish are distinctive and easily recognized. Adults are almost always medium-sized, averaging eight to 14 inches in length. However, channel catfish can reach over 20 inches in length and 25 pounds in weight in certain waters. Catfish have broad, flat heads, eight whiskers (called barbels), no scales, and strong, serrated spines at the front of three of their fins. While they may not win any beauty contest, their odd features are actually part of their adaptations to their environment.

Catfish are nocturnal - feeding most actively at night. Locating food in such dim light could be difficult; however, one of their most noticeable features - the barbels on their face - act as taste and touch sensors that help locate food along the bottom. Catfish have a very diverse diet, generally eating any object they can get their mouths around. Their major foods are insects, crustaceans and fish.

Catfish also possess a unique defense mechanism similar to a porcupine. They have three sharp spines located on their bodies: one at the front of the dorsal fin (on its back), and one on each of the two pectoral fins (just behind the head, on the sides of the belly). These spines can be locked into a position perpendicular to the catfish's body, making it difficult for other fish to eat them. Despite this unusual defense, however, catfish are eaten by bass, walleye, other catfish, snapping turtles, and fish-eating water birds.

Reproduction (spawning) takes place in late spring and early summer. Like many fish, the catfish constructs a nest and the female deposits the eggs. The male (sometimes aided by the female) builds a saucer-shaped nest or excavates a tunnel near some kind of protective cover. But unlike other fish such as yellow perch, trout and pike who simply lay the eggs and leave, adult catfish will guard the eggs and schooling young for several weeks. By chasing away potential predators, catfish are ensuring better survival for their young.

Catfish, especially bullheads, are popular sportfish. They are plentiful, easy to catch, very tasty, and can be fished all year long in New York State. Catfish are among the few fish available for early spring fishing. Simple techniques, such as fishing on the bottom with worms or live cutup baitfish, are very productive.

In New York State, there are two major catfish groups: the first includes the larger species such as the channel catfish, white catfish, brown bullhead, yellow bullhead, and black bullhead - the important food or sportfish members of New York State's catfish family. The second group is composed of the small catfishes called madtoms and stonecat and will not be discussed in this article. Persons interested in finding out more about any member of the catfish family can refer to the book, "The Inland Fishes of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith.

Brown Bullhead

Picture of brown bullhead

The brown bullhead is the most common catfish in New York State and is found in nearly all waters and all areas of the State. Often, when New Yorkers see or eat catfish, it is a brown bullhead.

The brown bullhead is a medium sized fish - averaging about eight to 14 inches in length. It has the typical catfish appearance of a broad, flat head and dark barbels around the face. Its square tail and mottled side coloration distinguishes it from other members of the catfish family. The brown bullhead is generally dark brown above and yellow to white on its belly, but as is the case with most fishes, its color may vary with its surroundings.

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

Spawning takes place in May or June when the water temperature approaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The entire process can take as much as several weeks, with one or both parents remaining for the whole time. Bullhead nests are usually found in a shaded spot near a log, but sometimes they will nest inside objects such as an auto tire nailed to a boat dock.

Brown bullheads are delicious to eat and a favorite of many. During the spring, anglers can catch them by the bucketful and large bullhead feeds are popular especially in New York State's Great Lakes counties.

Yellow Bullhead

Picture of yellow bullhead

New York State's yellow bullhead is much less common than the brown bullhead. It can be found in the extreme western tributaries of Lake Erie, the Genesee River system, bays and tributaries along Lake Ontario, in Oneida Lake, the Mohawk and Mid-Hudson River system, lower Hudson river tributaries, and the St. Lawrence River.

While it is most often mistaken for the brown bullhead, a yellow bullhead can be distinguished by its white chin barbels. In addition, the yellow bullhead has a somewhat smaller (eight to 12 inches) and huskier body than a brown bullhead and its tail is rounded rather than square.

Yellow bullheads prefer the waters of ponds, streams, and small brooks, with some vegetation and clear water. They spawn slightly earlier than other bullheads - usually in late May or June. Nests are often built under a stream bank or near the protection of large stones or stumps.

Yellow bullheads are less tolerant of harmful conditions than their cousins the brown bullheads. They do not tolerate turbid or muddy waters well and removal of stumps, logs, or vegetation - needed for spawning cover - will cause a decrease in their numbers.

Like other catfish, yellow bullheads make a tasty meal. However, because of their more limited range, they are not often caught by anglers.

Black Bullhead

Picture of black bullhead

Averaging eight to ten inches long, the black bullhead is the smallest of New York State's bullheads. It is even tougher than the brown bullhead and can withstand extremely high water temperatures and silty conditions. Black bullheads are uncommon in the State, restricted to the upper Genesee River drainage, a few locations in the Lake Ontario drainage, and in the St. Lawrence tributaries.

In appearance, black bullheads closely resemble brown bullheads and are difficult to tell apart, especially when young. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that black bullheads usually lack the color mottling found on the sides of brown bullheads.

Like the brown bullhead, the black bullhead is usually not found in cold, clear water, preferring the silty water areas of ponds, sluggish creeks and rivers. It does not live in the same areas as brown or yellow bullheads, but sometimes will replace those species if the habitat worsens.

The black bullhead has reproductive habits similar to other bullheads. It spawns near aquatic vegetation in the spring and early summer.

Black bullheads are not actively pursued by anglers in New York State. Their small size and restricted range make them a less popular game fish.

Channel Catfish

Picture of channel catfish

The channel catfish is the largest of New York State's catfish and is a formidable sportfish. Channel cats reach trophy size of 20-plus pounds, have good fighting qualities, and are very good to eat. Yet despite their attributes, relatively few New York State anglers seek them.

Channel catfish can be found in a number of the State's larger waters, including Lake Erie, Niagara River, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River, Finger Lakes, Canal system, Oneida Lake, and Lake Champlain. They can be distinguished from other members of the catfish family by their large size and deeply forked tail. Young and most adult channel catfish have many small black spots along their sides, but these often disappear on the larger, older fish.

Channel catfish differ from their cousins the bullheads in that they prefer the clearer waters of large lakes and streams. Often, they are found in currents over gravel or stony bottoms, such as areas below power dams. Channel cats are tolerant of adverse conditions such as low oxygen levels and warm waters, but to a lesser degree than bullheads.

Channel catfish also differ from the bullheads in their nest building technique. Rather than make a depression in the bottom, channel catfish make a tunnel. The tunnels are usually built under logs or in other protected areas where the water is clear. The male guards the eggs and young.

Channel catfish are most active just before sunrise and sunset. Due to their larger size and clearer habitat, adult channel cats may eat more live fish than bullheads and have even been found to have birds in their stomachs.

Channel cats play an important role as a food fish in the United States. They are raised for food on huge catfish farms in several southern states. Their unique ability to quickly turn food into flesh makes them perfect for this purpose. The culture and sale of catfish fillets are becoming a major agricultural industry. Southern catfish fillets are found in many New York State supermarkets.

White Catfish

Picture of white catfish

The white catfish is the least common member of New York State's catfish family. It has a very restricted range, occurring only in the lower Hudson River and a few inland lakes.

In appearance, the white catfish is a mix between a channel catfish and a bullhead. It grows larger than a bullhead, but smaller than a channel catfish. Its body is husky like a bullhead's, but its tail is forked like the channel cat's. Habitat best suited for the white catfish is also a cross between a channel cat's and a bullhead's. While a white catfish avoids the swifter waters of larger rivers, it does not thrive in weedy or muddy shallow ponds, either. It can be found in may areas of brackish water on the Hudson River.

Like the brown bullhead, white catfish spawn in late spring when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Males and females share the responsibilities of constructing the nest and guarding the eggs and young. Nests are usually located on a sandbar.

White catfish are fished for in the lower Hudson and appear to have considerable potential as a sportfish. However, because of their location, Hudson River catfish accumulate contaminants. Presently, it is recommended that people not eat them because of high PCB levels.

Bullheads and People

Human activities can have a negative effect on fish. Pollution and habitat destruction are major problems for a number of fishes.

Catfishes (particularly bullheads) have an advantage, an unusual ability to adapt to many adverse water quality situations that can kill other fish.

However, there is a negative side to this: while the bullheads are able to survive in sometimes polluted water, they may accumulate the pollutants in their bodies. Therefore, in some waters, bullheads contain elevated levels of contaminants. The New York State Department of Health has issued an advisory with recommendations for limiting consumption of contaminated fish. The advisory is updated annually and can be found in the Regulations Guide issued with every fishing license. DEC has programs to control discharges of pollutants to waters and to clean up the toxics that are already there. Progress is being made and, in certain waters, the amounts of toxics found in many fish are decreasing. But water pollution control programs will have to continue to ensure all fish from New York State waters are safe to eat.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from Latin and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is listed first and is capitalized. The species comes second and is not capitalized. While several organisms in the same family share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's catfishes:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
Brown Bullhead Ameiurus nebulosus
Yellow Bullhead Ameiurus natalis
Black Bullhead Ameiurus melas
Channel Catfish Ictalurus punctatus
White Catfish Ameiurus catus

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