Catfish family is very diverse, and numerous different catfish species exist. And they also differ in feeding habits.
Some people imagine them as bottom dwellers active only at night in muddy waters but that is not the case.
Most of the catfish species are omnivorous, but some are scavengers or herbivores.
Out of almost 3000 catfish species, here we are going to mention the ones interesting to catfish anglers.
If you have ever wondered what does catfish eat, keep on reading the following chapters to find out their favourite food, when and where to find them and what is the best bait for catfishing.
- What Does Catfish Like to Eat in the Wild? [Natural Catfish Food / Diet]
- When and Where Does Catfish Feed?
- How Do Catfish Finds Food?
- What Do Catfish Eat in the River, Pond and Lake? [Farm Raised vs. Wild]
- How much food does catfish eat?
- What is the Best Bait for Catfish? [Homemade?]
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What Does Catfish Like to Eat in the Wild? [Natural Catfish Food / Diet]
Catfish are omnivorous feeders, and they are not picky eaters.
From algae to snails, typical catfish will eat almost anything that they can swallow.
Here is a list of usual natural catfish food that a catfish can eat in the wild:
• Water beetles
• Small fish species
• Small mammals
• Fish eggs
All of the above shows a usual meal consumed by catfish in nature. Of course, there are some exemptions.
Huge catfish species, like wels catfish, well known occupants of river Ebro, have been observed while feeding, and they would eat much larger pray than usual, including larger mullets, rodents that accidentally end up in the water, frogs and even some aquatic birds.
Not all catfish will do that but it clearly shows that they will feed on anything available at a given moment.
Different catfish prefer different food sources. For anglers that is a very important information because baits should be chosen accordingly. According to species, adult catfish diets varies as described below.
- Channel catfish will eat the following: fish, clams, snails, insects, small mammals, crustaceans, small birds, vegetation.
- Flathead catfish mostly feeds on smaller fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans.
- Blue catfish feeds on various fish species and large invertebrates.
- North African catfish feeds on water organisms like planktons, shrimp, and various fish, and with land animals like birds and snails. Among other food sources it can consume different dead animals, and plants and plant material like seeds, nuts, grain and fruit..
Most of the catfish species change their food preference as the grow.
We can see that on the channel catfish example. When they are young, they mostly feed on insects like dragonfly, water beetles and fly larvae. After reaching adulthood, they start to feed on small fish, seeds, aquatic plants, algae, crawfish and snails.
As they reach a certain size they start feeding mostly on small fish, which becomes their main catfish diet.
Same behaviour is observed in Blue catfish that slowly graduates to eating larger fish.
Interesting fact about catfish is that males usually guard the eggs and it is not uncommon for them to eat a few.
When and Where Does Catfish Feed?
Contrary to the popular belief, catfish feed during day and night, and in all water layers, from bottom to surface. That characteristic is actually very logical for opportunistic feeders like catfish.
Among examples of catfish species, African catfish is one of the rare ones that is strictly nocturnal. When not feeding actively, they spend time in holes and different covers near the bottom.
Recognizing those locations is important for angler as they can present their bait to the resting catfish who will gladly bite it. That is especially important for fathead catfish, which mostly eats fish that swims up to it.
Some catfish species search for food more actively, and they also tend to spend time in groups, mostly near rich food sources.
Their feeding habits differ during year. In winter they stay calm and inactive. If trying to catch them, try during the warmest parts of the day. Make sure you locate a place where they rest because they will not swim to you.
In summer catfish can be caught during dark, when temperatures drop and they swim to shallow waters. If you are fishing on deeper rivers with cooler temperatures, you could be successful during the day also, if you find the right location.
Late spring and early fall are similar to summer. During late fall, after a period of aggressive feeding before winter, they slow down.
After winter, when temperatures start to rise in beginning or mid-spring, they start to feed aggressively to gain weight. During spawn season, they tend to eat less.
It is important to mention that these rules depend on water temperatures and climate, not the exact calendar seasons.
For more info you can also check our video about What is the Best Time to Fish for Catfish?
How Do Catfish Finds Food?
Do you know, how do catfish find food?
Catfish have small eyes, and the sense of sight is not one of the food searching tools for catfish. Primary, they use their well-known barbels, and sense of smell and taste.
Their “whiskers” are actually highly sensitive feelers called barbels. Every one of those barbels is full of taste buds and olfactory sensors that detect smell. Catfish also use barbels as sense of touch.
Most of fish species, including catfish, have nares. Nares are small openings located on the side of the snout. They lead to tiny chambers that contain multiple folds. Folds have a purpose of enlarging surfaces used for smelling and they are covered with olfactory receptors. Catfish have more than 140 folds, which is the highest folds number in any freshwater fish species.
Except for that, they are sensitive to vibration and can detect vibrations made by prey. When swimming, catfish themselves produce almost no vibration and most of the prey fish is not aware of their presence.
Sensitivity to vibration is an important feature when choosing lures for catfish fishing, but more about that will be mentioned later.
Their highly sensitive taste buds allow them to find food in dark and muddy waters.
Most of the catfish species swim in the search of food and while doing it actively they will swim to various places, from river bottom to shallow water near the shore.
What Do Catfish Eat in the River, Pond and Lake? [Farm Raised vs. Wild]
Catfish living in captivity are fed by humans, while the ones in the wild have to find food sources by themselves.
There are certain similarities, but also differences, in diets of catfish.
Catfish in captivity, such as the ones living in catfish farms ponds and paylakes usually consume pellets.
Protein content in catfish pellets is around 30 percent, and different pellets are used according to the water temperatures.
Floating pellets are recommended when water temperature is above 18 degrees Celsius, slow sinking ones are used when temperature is between 15 and 18 degrees and below 15 degrees, sinking pellets should be used.
When the water is cold during winter, catfish both in captivity and in the wild, spend time inactive in deeper and warmer waters without surfacing. That is the reason behind sinking pellets.
In addition to pellets, different natural food sources are often available to farm-raised catfish.
Some are fed with live fish, worms or any available fresh food source.
There are also frozen mixtures available on the market that contain shrimp, fish and plants.
To successfully grow, pond catfish should be fed in certain time of a day. It is recommended to give food when water oxygen level starts to rise. Avoid times in the morning or midday.
They will not eat and digest properly when oxygen levels are low. That usually happens during the hottest parts of a day. It is actually very similar to wild catfish feeding pattern.
Among similarities, catfish in the wild are also affected by oxygen levels in the water, and they tend to avoid feeding during times when oxygen level is low.
However, rivers have constant fresh water supply and they are less prone to high oxygen level fluctuations, at least the ones large enough with a moderate or strong flow.
Catfish living in those waters will eat anytime.
Except that, wild catfish can also consume pellets. They are very attracted to them in a form of prebaiting, which is frequently practiced by anglers.
Rivers, unlike lakes, are changing temperature more slowly than shallow and small ponds. They warm up later in spring but cool down later in fall. That means that wild catfish start feeding a bit later after winter than their relatives in ponds. They also depend of prey availability and their behaviour is connected.
In abundance of natural food, wild catfish can choose their food and most of them prefers other fish.
So, if feeding wild catfish, especially before spawn, pellets should have higher protein content, up to 40%.
While pond catfish can gain weight if fed during winter, those living in rivers will lose it.
And how much will they lose depends of a temperature.
Normally, they start feeding less frequently when water temperature drops under 20 degrees Celsius.
When it cools down even more, and water temperatures are under 10 degrees, they more or less stop eating completely. And they prey becomes unavailable too.
Winter weight loss for a catfish living in the wild is up to 9% of their own body mass.
Again, the exact values depend of a species and location.
How much food does catfish eat?
In addition to what does catfish eat question, one more question frequently appears and that is how much food they eat?
Younger catfish, while growing, eat more frequently than adult catfish. Also, in regard to their size, young catfish eat more food.
Additionally, feeding habits, including food quantity, is different from one catfish species to another. Fish living in captivity are fed in certain quantities calculated according to their size.
For example, young African catfish needs to eat about 2,5% of its own body weight every day. Daily food intake depends of water temperature, oxygen level and other external factors.
What is the Best Bait for Catfish? [Homemade?]
Sometimes people ask me: “What human food can catfish eat?”. What can I use as a good homemade catfish bait? There is a lot of options …
As already mentioned, catfish react well to smell. Using stinky baits is always a good option.
Some of them are here and some of them are really good homemade catfish bait:
• Chicken liver
• Stinky baits
• Artificial baits such as pellets with strong smell made for catfish
• Night crawlers
• Live or cut small fish species
Some anglers like the challenge of catfishing using lures. If practicing that technique, vibration and noise are much more important than colour.
Catfish can’t see well, especially in murky waters. If using lures, anglers should choose the ones making a lot of vibration and move in way similar to movements made by injured fish.
Experienced anglers use lures in summer when catfish are very active. In winter time lures are not that useful as catfish remain still.
Stink baits for catfish are very popular baits that anglers can buy in fishing stores or prepare them at home. They are somewhat similar to carp boilies but the smell is much more intensive.
They used often by anglers, and they are indispensable part of modern fishing techniques.
There are certain baits that work well anytime of the year, such as bream, perch, chicken and beef liver and stink-baits.
Size is important too. If you are in a search for very large specimens use big baits. Otherwise, keep it simple and smaller.
If you are using live catfish baits, herrings and shads are good for spring and fall, slowly bleeding trout is excellent for winter and goldfish for summer.
What does catfish eat is a very wide subject.
Various catfish species have different feeding habits. From fish to insects and invertebrates to birds, most of them are opportunistic feeders that will eat anything available.
This variety of foods enables anglers to choose among numerous baits.
Catfish have extraordinary sense of smell and taste. Their recognizable whiskers help them in locating food. Sensitive to vibration, they can sense movement of their prey.
This diversity is useful for anglers as they can use numerous baits and be successful in catching one of these extraordinary creatures.