List of Freshwater Catfish Species in North America 2023 [ID Guide]
Bullheads (Ameirus spp.)
The genus Ameiurus is composed of small catfish species that tend to be more gregarious or social than other species of catfish in the family Ictaluridae. In addition, they have squared tails without any significant forking, distinguishing them from other catfish species like those in the genus Ictalurus who possess forked tails. They are native to the eastern half of the United States, with some ranges extending into Canada and Mexico.
Bullheads generally are omnivorous and share parental care responsibilities during the breeding season. While they are often not caught intentionally, they are edible, tasty, but typically used as bait.
1) White bullhead/White catfish (Ameiurus catus)
The white bullhead is the largest of the bullheads, coming in at an average length of 12 inches (30 cm) and obtaining a maximum length of over three feet at 37 inches (94 cm). This species’ color ranges from light silver to darkened grey. Their bellies are lighter in color than their dorsal surface, and some individuals have rust colorations on their fins. The caudal fin is slightly forked, compared to other bullheads which have a square tail. Their chin barbels are white, whereas their other barbels are grey.
They are native to the east coast but have been introduced outside of their range into other parts of the United States and Canada. Introduced white bullheads place pressure on native fish populations like the Sacramento perch, which was extirpated from areas in California following white bullhead introductions.
White bullheads prefer slow-moving rivers or lakes with muddy substrates. They often hunt amongst the substrate for insects and crustaceans and in the water column for small fish. During the breeding season, once waters reach at least 68 °F (20 °C), males and females pair up to construct nests and share parenting responsibilities.
2) Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis)
With one of the most expansive ranges of any bullhead, the yellow bullhead is one of the most ubiquitous bullhead species in North America, especially in the center of its range. Additionally, it has been introduced to the western United States and some parts of New England. As with the white bullhead, introductions result in reduced biodiversity and have placed pressure on the Chiricahua leopard frog in Arizona. This species looks similar to the white bullhead but is more olive-yellow in color.
This species can be found in rivers and lakes with calm water and soft substrates like mud, sand, or vegetation. Yellow bullheads are also pollution-tolerant, making them excellent at adapting to human environments. It often hunts for small insects, mollusks, and crustaceans such as clams and crabs. Additionally, adults will consume small fish, frogs, and tadpoles. They are a smaller bullhead species with an average length of 9.8 inches (25 cm).
3) Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus)
The brown bullhead is another small bullhead, approximately 9.8 inches (25 cm) in length, and has a superficially similar appearance to the yellow and black bullheads, but possesses a mottled pattern toward the caudal fin. There are also spots on its fins. All barbels on brown bullheads are dusky or dark-colored. Another distinguishing characteristic is the presence of saw-like teeth on the rear edge of their pectoral spines.
This species does not tolerate fast-flowing water and is typically found in rivers, lakes, and ponds with soft substrates. They tolerate pollution, anoxic conditions, and elevated water temperatures. One strategy they employ to avoid bad water conditions is to bury themselves in the mud until adverse conditions have passed.
During the mating season, both sexes participate in nest building and parental care, which involves protecting the eggs from predators and fanning the eggs to maintain optimal oxygen conditions. Once hatched, young brown bullheads eat insects and insect larvae while adults focus on fish, large invertebrates, and fish eggs.
4) Spotted bullhead (Ameiurus serracanthus)
Unlike the more ubiquitous species of bullhead, very little is known about the spotted bullhead’s biology and life history. Generally, adult spotted bullheads are 7.5 inches (19 cm). This species is darkly colored with black barbels and fin margins. Additionally, the last two-thirds of their bodies are adorned with lightly colored spots. Their diet consists primarily of snails, crayfish, fish, and insects and their mating system is most likely similar to other bullheads.
5) Snail bullhead (Ameiurus brunneus)
Snail and spotted bullheads are similar in appearance, with dark brown bodies and lighter speckles. However, two general traits should be considered when discerning the two bullheads. First, the snail bullhead has two lightly colored barbels, whereas the spotted bullhead’s barbels are all dark colored. Additionally, the snail bullhead’s anal fin is flat along the edges, whereas the spotted bullhead’s anal fin is rounded.
While most other bullheads enjoy softer substrates, the snail bullhead can be found in shallow ponds and streams with rock or gravel bottoms. It flourishes in disturbed habitats like impoundments. As their name suggests, the snail bullhead predates primarily upon Viviparidae snails. This family includes species like the common mystery snail often seen in pet stores. They also occasionally eat crayfish, insects, and small fish. Not much is known about other aspects of their life history, although it is likely similar to other bullheads.
6) Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas)
Black bullheads are predominately dark-colored catfish with yellow-olive underbellies. Like the yellow bullhead, the black bullhead has an expansive range stretching from northern Mexico into southern Canada. They have been introduced to other areas throughout North America and place predation pressure on endangered species like the imperiled humpback chub. They can be found in warm, turbid water bodies with soft, muddy substrates and they prefer slow currents, but do not do well in areas where there are other predatory fishes.
Young black bullheads eat insect larvae and other small invertebrates, whereas adults consume a variety of organisms, including mollusks, plants, and fish. During the breeding season, females construct nests, but both sexes protect the young.
7) Flat bullhead (Ameiurus platycephalus)
Flat bullheads can be found in rivers and creeks’ slow-moving waters with various substrate types. They are a smaller type of bullhead growing to around 9 inches (23 cm) in length. They are a silvery-grey color with a white underbelly. Their chin barbels are white, whereas their other barbels are dusky colored.
This species has one of the most restricted ranges of all the bullheads and is not well studied. Consequently, aspects of its biology and reproductive habits are not well understood.
8) Mexican forktail catfish (Ictalurus spp.)
Mexico is home to several threatened species of forktail catfish, such as the Rio Verde catfish (I. mexicanus) and the Yaqui catfish (I. pricei). These species are threatened by pollution and habitat alteration. Additionally, introduced Ictalurus species like the channel catfish and the Ameiurus species, the black bullhead, directly compete with Yaqui catfish where they co-occur.
Other Mexican forktail catfish, such as the Panuco catfish (I. australis), the Balsas catfish (I. balsanus), headwater catfish (I. lupus), Chapala catfish (I. ochoterena), and the Lerma catfish (I. dugesii) are not threatened but remain critically understudied. The pale-colored Panuco catfish is native to Mexico, with two separated populations distributed in restricted ranges. Its coloration is beige or off-white.
There is little data on the extant populations of this species of catfish. Still, they are known to suffer from various human threats, such as fishing pressure as a food fish, habitat alteration, and pollution. Besides their generalist diet, very little is known about their biology or reproductive behaviors. The Balsas catfish, like the Panuco, is a pale-colored catfish with a gold coloration and some black spotting. It is known to prefer clear water with deep pools.
9) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
The most popular sport catfish is the channel catfish or the channel cat. This species has a forked tail and a round anal fin instead of a straight one. The average length for this species is 10 to 20 inches (25 to 51 cm).
The channel catfish thrives in clear streams but can tolerate turbid water. They also can survive in brackish water. Young channel catfish have the typical invertebrate diet seen in other catfish species. The adults consume various prey items. Channel catfish reproduction is temperature-dependent and is initiated when the water temperature reaches at least 75 °F (23.9 °C). When temperatures are favorable, male channel catfish construct a nesting area for females to lay their eggs. Males protect and care for the eggs until they hatch.
The National Parks Service suggests using live fish and nightcrawlers to catch a tasty channel catfish. However, they will accept a variety of meat-based bait, from squid and shrimp to hotdogs and processed baits.
10) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
This next species is the largest catfish species in North America. The blue catfish can grow to enormous sizes, with a recent record weight of 143 lbs (65 kg). However, the typical blue catfish will reach an average weight of around 4 pounds (2kg). Not quite monstrous, but still sizeable. They possess a deeply forked caudal fin which distinguishes them from bullheads. They are similar in appearance to the channel catfish, and the edges of their anal fins can help identify this species. In blue catfish, the anal fin is generally straight. In channel catfish, the anal fin is somewhat rounded.
Unlike the bullhead, blue catfish enjoy clear streams. Like other catfish, they are nocturnal hunters and consume a mix of invertebrates and fish. This species reproduces annually in the spring. One source recommends using fresh fish, shrimp, chicken liver, or processed catfish bait to get a blue catfish on the line.
11) Blindcats (Prietella spp., Satan spp., Trogloglanis spp.)
These following few species are known as the blindcats. They live in near complete darkness and therefore have highly reduced or absent eyes, relying on only their sense of smell and touch to navigate their environment and capture prey. Additionally, they are colorless. The Ictalurid blindcats are composed of three genera: Prietella, Satan, and Trogloglanis, with four species. Their ranges are highly restricted, often occurring only in a handful of interconnected underground water systems. Only the widemouth (S. eurystomus) and toothless (T. pattersoni) blindcats’ ranges overlap.
Both Prietella species are tiny, growing between 2 and 4 inches (5 and 10 cm) in length. The phantom blindcat (P. lundbergi) is native to the underground water systems of the Rio Tamesi drainage in Tamaulipas, Mexico. The Mexican blindcat (P. phreatophila) is native to the underground water systems of the Rio Bravo drainage in Coahuila, Mexico. Very little is known about their reproduction or biology since they live in a highly understudied and difficult-to-access environment. According to the IUCN, both species are vulnerable and suffer from overfishing, habitat degradation, and oil drilling.
The widemouth and the toothless blindcats occur in the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio in Texas. Both species are threatened because the aquifer they reside in is overused, leading to declining water quality and pollution intrusion. The widemouth blindcat is approximately 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) in length, whereas the widemouth blindcat is 2.6 inches (6.6 cm). Other aspects of their biology are not well understood.
12) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
With a distinct protruding lower jaw, the flathead catfish has one of the most curious appearances of any catfish. This catfish is mottled, olive-colored, and immature individuals may appear black. Young fish may be confused with bullheads as they are both rather dark in color, but bullhead catfish do not possess a protruding lower jaw at any age. This species is also larger than other species on this list, with an average length of 30 inches (76 cm) and weights exceeding 100 pounds (45 kg).
This species is a sedentary, nocturnal hunter that spends most of its time in deep pools. When hunting, they will travel to shallower areas in search of prey. This species primarily consumes invertebrates and fish. They spawn once in early to mid-summer.
Flathead catfish are popular eating fish on the dinner plate and have a remarkable flavor. Live bait is best. Some examples of excellent bait fish include smaller sunfish, mudcats, or other appropriately sized bait fish. Care should be taken when handling any catfish as this group of fish possesses venom glands that can deliver a painful sting via hollow dorsal and pectoral spines. Gloves are recommended when removing catfish from hooks and processing them for filets.
Madtoms (Noturus spp.)
The genus Noturus is the most speciose of the Ictalurid genera and contains a whopping 29 species of small, secretive catfish. Madtoms are not commercially sought-after fish, yet they are a critical member of the ecosystems within which they reside as prey items for other animals and as primary consumers of insect larvae. Members of this group often have highly restricted ranges and are, therefore, extremely vulnerable to habitat alteration or destruction. As a result, they are often imperiled. Madtoms are nocturnal hunters with a short lifespan of around 3 to 4 years and an invertebrate diet. Most madtom species have venomous spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins and should be cautiously handled. Below are representatives of this group of catfish.
13) Stonecat (Noturus flavus)
The common name “stonecat” refers to this species’ tendency toward hiding under rocks, logs, and other debris. They are relatively small, between 4 and 8 inches (10 – 20 cm), so avoiding their spines is difficult when handling them. This applies to most other madtom species as well.
They prefer clean streams and shallow riffles. One would expect to find more stonecats in clear, shallow areas with gently flowing water. Their diet consists of aquatic insect larvae and crayfish. Due to their preference for clean water and diet, stonecats are considered an indicator of stream health.
Male stonecats construct nests in early summer in alcoves underneath suitable rocks that females visit to lay their eggs. They are monogamous and the adults will remain with the nest until the fry are large enough to fend for themselves.
14) Carolina madtom (Noturus furiosus)
Many madtom species have restricted ranges and are imperiled in some way. The Carolina madtom is no exception. This species is native to a small area in North Carolina and is near threatened by habitat degradation factors like construction and pollution. The Carolina madtom has yellow and black blotches along its body with a finely mottled midsection. Their fins are often populated with dark spots and, on average, they are around 2.3 inches (6 cm) long.
Habitat requirements for Carolina madtoms include sandy or gravel bottom streams with ample detritus. They inhabit up to medium-sized rivers and are most common around submerged logs or fallen branches.
15) Northern madtom (Noturus stigmosus)
The northern madtom is another yellow and brown catfish, although its patterning is less sharp than the Carolina madtom. They also have a mottled pattern on their barbels. You can find it in swift streams near submerged debris as far north as Michigan and south as Virginia. It is endangered in parts of Canada and Michigan, and populations are declining. Threats to northern madtoms include boats, habitat alteration, and pollution.
This small fish grows around 2.7 inches (7 cm). Their foraging behaviors and diet are characteristic of other madtoms. They live longer than other madtoms to at least six years old.
16) Brindled madtom (Noturus miurus)
Brindled madtoms are more widely distributed than the previous two species, with a range that extends as far south as Louisiana and as far north as Canada. They are similar in appearance to the northern madtom, although they lack the bright yellow-olive coloration of that species. A single spot on the dorsal fin can distinguish it from other madtoms. One can find other morphological characters on the Florida Museum’s website.
This small 2.8 inches (7.1 cm) madtom can be found in riffles with rough gravel or sandy substrates. Occasionally brindled madtoms can be found in lakes. They like to hide amongst woody debris.
17) Freckled madtom (Noturus nocturnus)
The tiny freckled madtom could easily be mistaken as a minnow. It has plain dark to olive colors and only grows about 1.8 inches (4.6 cm) in length.
It has an expansive range in the middle of the United States and is not endangered. The freckled madtom can be found darting between the roots of trees in shallow, fast-flowing streams with some degree of turbidity. Interestingly, they have adapted to human influences by using garbage as nesting sites. It has a spotty distribution in the eastern half of the United States.
During the breeding season, freckled madtoms create nests under rocks in areas with moderate flow.
18) Mountain madtom (Noturus eleutherus)
Mountain madtoms can be found in swift, clear water bodies with sand or gravel substrates and amble submerged vegetation. They typically take cover under debris during the day. On average, they are smaller than the freckled madtom at just 1.7 inches (4.3 cm). This species is dark in color and mottled, sometimes with a spot at the base of the caudal fin.
There are no known threats to the mountain madtom, and this species is of least concern throughout its range. Despite this, it is locally threatened in states like Missouri, where the mountain madtom is far less common. In these regions, this clear water-loving madtom suffers in areas polluted or disturbed by a human presence. As a result, the presence of mountain madtoms in a stream could indicate a healthy stream.
19) Slender madtom (Noturus exilis)
Small rivers or creeks with swift currents make the perfect home for the slender madtom. This species also loves rocky substrates and clear, cool water. This species is larger than other madtoms at around 4 inches (10 cm). It is abundant throughout its range, centered around Missouri and Arkansas, with some isolated populations in nearby states. Sometimes they are used as aquarium fish.
Slender madtoms are lightly colored with black edging on the margins of their dorsal, caudal, and anal fins. The barbels on the top of their noses are darkly colored, whereas the rest of the barbels are lighter.
Spawning occurs in spring, and adult males construct nests for females during the breeding season. These nests are typically located underneath larger debris like rocks. Males protect their nests until the young have absorbed their yolks.
20) Speckled madtom (Noturus leptacanthus)
One might find the slender speckled madtom in rocky streams near submerged plants or woody debris from Louisiana to South Carolina. It is easily distinguished from other madtoms by its scattered speckles, which are most visible on its fins. It grows to be around 2 inches (5 cm). Little is known about their reproductive habits or biology, although those aspects of their life history are probably like other madtoms.
21) Tadpole madtom (Noturus gyrinus)
The tadpole madtom is widely distributed throughout the eastern half of the United States and introduced to some streams in Idaho, although the impact of its introduction is unknown. Some identifying features to look for are listed on the Missouri Department of Conservation website.
It prefers clear streams with abundant submerged vegetation, although it has a tolerance for some turbidity. Adult tadpole madtoms may stray from the typical madtom diet of invertebrates by eating small fish. Like the freckled madtom, they may construct nests from human litter items like cans or bottles. Tadpole madtoms are essential prey items for giant sunfish like the smallmouth bass.
22) Ouachita madtom (Noturus lachneri)
The Ouachita madtom is a small, lightly colored catfish without dark blotches or mottling. Their barbels are lightly colored and not typically dusky or dark like other madtoms. They usually come in around 1.7 inches (4.3 cm) in length. Like its relatives, this madtom can be found in clear, cool water. However, it prefers shallower areas and will migrate to small streams for spawning.
Ouachita madtoms are endangered. This species primarily suffers from disruptions to its environment. For example, major construction events have obliterated localized populations. Its preference for shallow water also makes them highly susceptible to stream management practices that reduce the water depth of small streams.
23) Ozark madtom & Black River madtom (Noturus albater & Noturus maydeni)
The Ozark madtom and the Black River madtom are nearly identical madtoms occurring in the same general region and habitat type. Streams separate them; until very recently, they were thought to be the same species. However, recent genetic analyses have concretely identified them as two separate species. Both species sport dark colors with a bar along the base of the caudal fin and black splotching on the adipose fin. Their top barbels are darkly colored, while their bottom barbels are light. These species grow approximately 2.7 inches (7 cm) in length.
Both species are found in rivers and riffles with large, stony substrates and low turbidity. The rocks are essential to their life history as these species use them to hide their nests. Despite their small range, they are not imperiled.
24) Smoky madtom (Noturus baileyi)
From underneath, the smoky madtom is a light white-beige color with a smoky appearance from above. Their chin barbels are white, whereas their other barbels are dusky colored. Smoky madtoms are on the smaller side, with an average length of around 1.8 inches (4.6 cm).
Like most of its relatives, this species likes clear, cold water with large, rocky substrates. It only occurs in Citico Creek, Monroe County, Tennesee. Given its highly restricted range, the smoky madtom is considered vulnerable and is therefore protected by state and federal laws. Nests are built underneath rocks in streams. Little else is known of their biology.
25) Chucky madtom (Noturus crypticus)
The chucky madtoms’ white underbelly contrasts with its darkly patterned dorsal surface. Most of the patterning is concentrated around the head. Its caudal fin is also darkly colored.
Due to their rarity, few individuals have been observed, and they are challenging to study. Supposedly, they can be found in areas with medium-sized substrates like gravel or cobble, which they use for cover.
Their endangered status is facilitated by agricultural pollution, pesticides, and urban developments, which diminish habitat quality.
26) Checkered madtom (Noturus flavater)
Lightly colored with black bars and mottling, the checkered madtom is an adorable find in any stream where it may occur. It possesses a unique pattern of black and light color coloration along its entire body.
Checkered madtoms can hang out at the bottom of small rivers with moderate flow. They prefer clean, clear water and are less successful if there is competition around them. In areas where other madtoms occur, the checkered madtom is usually less abundant than it would be in the absence of competition.
Male checkered madtoms guard their nests which they create underneath rocks. While this species is global and of least concern, it is considered a species of conservation concern in Missouri.
27) Saddled madtom (Noturus fasciatus)
The elegant madtom, chucky madtom, and saddled madtom are challenging to distinguish from one another. Therefore, one should pay special attention to fin rays and color patterns. Specific species descriptions can be found here.
Saddled madtoms tend to seclude themselves in shallow streams during the day, traveling to deeper pools at night to hunt for invertebrates. As with the elegant madtom and many other members of this species, they likely build nests and reproduce in the substrate. This species is endangered and protected. This species faces habitat loss and degradation due to construction and drought.
28) Yellowfin madtom (Noturus flavipinnis)
Yellowfin madtoms have the same black and olive coloration as many other madtoms and can be found darting in and out of debris and tree roots. They enjoy shallow water with swift currents and low turbidity. Typically, they remain in the same general area throughout their lives.
The breeding season for yellowfin madtoms occurs in the spring to the summer with the typical characteristics of madtom reproduction, such as male nest building and guarding. Yellowfin madtoms are considered vulnerable and suffer from threats like pollution, habitat degradation, and mining.
29) Black madtom (Noturus funebris)
Native to the southern United States, the black madtom is an uncharacteristically dark madtom without any saddling or blotching. They can be found in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. On average, they achieve around 3 inches (8 cm) in length.
One study found an association between black madtoms and submerged logs, branches, and roots. In addition, they report a breeding season from June to August and a capacity to use human-made objects as nesting sites.
30) Orangefin madtom (Noturus gilberti)
Orangefin madtoms are elongated, small, pale-colored madtoms with minimal patterning. On average, they grow to around 2.7 inches (7 cm). It has been introduced to some areas in northern Kentucky, although it appears to have minimal impact in introduced regions.
This species is relatively understudied, although it is considered endangered. There are only a handful of populations, and this species’ preference for cold water makes it susceptible to anthropogenic influences like construction and pollution.
The orangefin madtom breeding season takes place from mid-spring to the beginning of summer. They do not tolerate competing for fish well.
Saltwater Catfish of North America
1) Hardhead catfish (Ariopsis felis)
The hardhead catfish is one of North America’s two most common oceanic catfish species. They are abundant in coastal waters and are sometimes used as bait fish, although most anglers discard them as trash fish. This species is often an annoyance for sport fishers as they take most types of bait and congregate in popular fishing spots.
They are grey, and the tip of their dorsal fin is blunt compared to the gafftopsail catfish’s eccentric trailing dorsal fin. Hardhead catfish grow to be around 10 inches (25 cm). Interestingly, hardhead catfish do not build nests. Instead, males carry fertilized eggs and, eventually, baby catfish in their mouths until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
This catfish is known for its particularly nasty barbed stinger, so great care should be taken when handling it.
2) Gafftopsail catfish (Bagre marinus)
Gafftopsail catfish sport elegant, elongated spines along their fins, for which they are named. They are an iridescent silver color with long, trailing barbels that help them detect crustaceans or mollusks in the substrate. This species also hunts in the water column, eating fish, algae, and seagrasses.
Gafftopsail catfish are abundant throughout their range which extends from near Providence, Massachusetts in the United States, along the coast to Sao Paulo, Brazil. They grow twice the size of hardhead catfish and are often caught as food fish. Texas Parks and Wildlife recommends using live or artificial baits that sink to the bottom of the water column to see one.
They tend to prefer saltwater, although they sometimes venture into brackish water. During the springtime mating season, male gafftopsail catfish carry 15 to 30 eggs in their mouths until the young hatch and can fend for themselves. This process can take over two months, during which the male catfish do not eat. Interestingly, the eggs of this species can have a diameter of up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) which is quite large for a catfish egg.