Get to Know Channel Catfish

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

The channel catfish (informally referred to as the channel cat) is a stream fish whose native habitat includes the Chicago and Calumet Rivers and larger creeks. The population, once severely limited by water pollution and habitat destruction, is rebounding as area waterways improve. Channel catfish, who prefer fast flowing, sand and gravel bottomed rivers of a medium to large size but can tolerate a wide range of conditions, can be found in nearly all waters in Illinois.

Channel catfish have a long, slender body with a forked tail. Coloration can be variable ranging from grey/silver to black, with green/blue tints. Distinct black spots appear on the lateral surface, although they tend to disappear or become less prominent in older fish. The upper jaw protrudes beyond the lower jaw. Adult channel catfish are typically range from 18 to 30 inches in length. They typically weigh between two of four pounds but can exceed 10 pounds, and the world record channel catfish weighed 58 pounds, caught in South Carolina in 1964.

Channel catfish are highly migratory. During warmer months they can be wide ranging, moving generally upstream especially during high water events when they often move into smaller streams and tributaries. During the fall season they move downstream and overwinter in large congregations in deeper pools. Channel catfish become sexually mature at three to four years of age. Spawning occurs in late spring and summer. They are cavity nesters, meaning they lay their eggs in crevices, hollows, or submerged logs, to protect them from swift currents. Males select the secluded sites and construct nests in these safe cavities. The eggs are deposited by the female and males guard the nests and provide care for eggs and young larvae until they are able to leave the nest, about one week after hatching.

Channel catfish possess very keen senses of smell and taste. At the pits of their nostrils are very sensitive odor-sensing organs with a high concentration of receptors. Channel catfish also have taste buds distributed over the surface of their entire bodies. These buds are especially concentrated on the fishes’ four pair of barbels (whiskers) surrounding the mouth — about 25 buds per square millimeter. This combination of exceptional senses of taste and smell allows the channel catfish to find food in dark, stained, or muddy water with relative ease. They feed primarily on small fish, crustaceans (crayfish), clams, snails, aquatic insects and small mammals. There are even reports of channel catfish eating small birds, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  

Channel Cat Nesting Habitat Creation

In 2013, following years of effort that improved water quality for aquatic life, Friends of the Chicago River and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) launched a restoration project to improve channel cats’ reproductive success. Taking into account the much-manipulated Chicago and Calumet River lacked an abundance of natural nesting cavities, we invented a tubular structure that mimicked submerged logs and fabricated them out of permeable concrete to provide additional substrate complexity for macroinvertebrates and other aquatic life. The cavities benefit other fish species such as large-mouth bass and a variety of sunfishes.

Starting in 2105, Friends and IDNR installed the nesting cavities in the North Shore Channel, North Branch, and the Little Calumet River upstream and down of the Acme Bend near Whistler Woods. Four hundred total cavities were installed. In addition to the nesting cavities, Friends and IDNR released 277,000 juvenile channel cats to help repopulate the system.

The project was made possible a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chi-Cal Rivers Fund. The video, Lessons in an Urban River's Recovery: Making Habitat, with Senator Dick Durbin and our partners at IDNR, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Chicago Park District, describes the project.

In 2015, 10,000 catfish were released at the confluence of the river in downtown Chicago at a press conference with then IDNR Director Marc Miller, MWRD commissioners, and Friends’ executive director, Margaret Frisbie.

Adopt a Catfish

By symbolically adopting a channel catfish or an osprey or turtle—or giving one as a gift—you make it possible for Friends to advocate for clean water and help us to restore or create new wildlife habitat for more than 75 species of fish, countless species of birds, beavers, minks, muskrats, turtles and even the occasional river otter that call it home.