Catfish can all look alike at a casual glance. There are a handful of visual cues that can help identify the catfish species from one another. This guide will help you properly identify those catfish that are commonly caught and often misidentified.
Adult Channel Catfish like the one pictured below has a deeply forked tail and a more round than straight-edged anal fin. Spots are not always present on Channel Catfish, even in juveniles.
Juvenile Channel Catfish can look like an entirely different species. Since spots are not always present as juveniles they can be particularly difficult to properly identify these common catfish.
Blue Catfish juveniles can look a lot like Channel Catfish or other species. This is the Blue Catfish common appearance. It has a barber like “comb” looking anal fin. The Blue Catfish has a straight-edged anal fin and not a rounded one. Another notable trait is that the Blue Catfish has a moderately to deeply forked caudal fin.
White Catfish is one of the most misidentified out of all Catfish, not only in the Southeastern United States but in North America. A key detail in identifying the White Catfish is that they have a moderately forked caudal fin with a short but rounded anal fin. White Catfish look similar to Channel Catfish but one telltale sign to distinguish the White Catfish from the juvenile Channel Catfish is that there are no spots on the White Catfish. There are spots in most juvenile Channel Catfish.
Black Bullhead Catfish look very similar to other bullheads. Black Bullheads have black chin barbels (lower 4). Sometimes Black Bullheads have a white crescent marked shape on the base of the caudal fin. They have a rounded caudal fin.
Flat Bullhead Catfish are one in the trio of Bullheads that are easily identified by a black blotch at the base of the dorsal fin. Only Flat, Snail, and Spotted Bullheads have this black blotch. Some populations of Flat Bullhead Catfish are mottled in color.
Most often confused with the Snail Bullhead, Flat Bullhead’s however will have a slightly longer anal fin with more rays. Has a flat head. The anal fin is also more squared off than the Snail Bullhead’s rounded anal fin.
Snail Bullhead Catfish have a black blotch at the dorsal fin base. Snail Bullheads can be mottled. Snail Bullheads have a short rounded anal fin with around 19 anal rays. They have a relatively large eye.
Snail Bullheads also have a mottled version that can be found in the Eno River, NC. It can be confusing when there are similar-looking populations like this. Understanding range maps and the fact that Spotted Bullheads are hundreds of miles away will help.
Spotted Bullhead Catfish have a fairly small range (FL, GA, AL). Being one of the black spot trio, they also have a black blotch at the base of their dorsal fin. The coloration can be similar to Snail Bullheads with a spotted body but their range does not overlap, generally.
Brown Bullhead Catfish have more of a brown appearance but can vary greatly due to water conditions. Brown chin barbels can help separate it from other catfish species. Some Brown Bullhead Catfish can sometimes be mottled. The caudal fin is squared on the Brown Bullhead. Brown Bullhead have eyes that are bigger than the Yellow Bullhead has.
Yellow Bullhead Catfish have smaller eyes than Brown Bullhead Catfish have. White or yellow chin barbels are a key indicator in identifying Yellow Bullhead Catfish as well as a smaller rounded anal fin.
Flathead Catfish juveniles have a large mottled coloration which is different from the Spotted Bullheads small fleck style mottled pattern. Mature Flathead Catfish have a white-colored upper lobe on the caudal fin. Lower jaw projecting beyond upper lip in larger specimens.
Written by Tim Aldridge
Photos by Tim Aldridge