The catfish family, scientifically known as Ictaluridae, contains species of fish commonly known as catfish, bullheads, and madtoms. They are native to North America, from southern Canada to Guatemala. There are 49 species in eight genera, most of which are southern species. Madtoms are the most numerous, with 27 individual species.
They have some unique physical characteristics, having no scales and four pairs of barbels or whiskers, four on the chin, two atop the mouth, and one on either side of the mouth, which is why they are called catfish.
These whiskers are actually sensory organs or taste buds. They can't sting you with them, which is an old wife's tale.
In Michigan, we have 10 species of the catfish family,: bullheads (black, brown, and yellow), channel catfish, flathead catfish, madtoms (brindled, margined, northern, and tadpole) and stonecats. Most are found in the Lower Peninsula, with only bullheads and channel catfish found in the U.P.
While bullheads are widespread in the U.P., channel catfish are found only in the Menominee River. Madtoms are miniature catfish that rarely exceeding five inches and live primarily in streams, but are also found in lakes. Flathead catfish are found only in the large rivers in southwest Michigan (St Joe, Grand, and Muskegon) and can grow to more than 40 pounds.
Channel catfish are the most numerous species, being found in 26 states from Minnesota south to Florida, west to Montana and Texas, and east to Ohio. They are also the most fished-for family member, as eight million anglers target them annually.
Channel cats are often called a "swimming tongue", as a six-inch has 250,000 taste buds spread all over its body. This allows them to feed mostly at night and in very muddy waters. They are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material. A young channel cat's diet includes insects, algae, clams, snails, crayfish, worms, etc. However, once they grow to 16 inches, they shift to mostly a fish diet.
They are a strong fighter and a 10-pound channel cat will test your fishing gear. They are excellent eating, especially when they come from clear water. Almost all southern restaurants have catfish on their menu and/or Friday catfish frys.
Bullheads are likewise omnivorous and will virtually consume anything edible. Their diet includes live and dead fish, insects, algae, crayfish, grain, fruit, etc. If it looks like food, they will probably eat it.
They are smaller fish, averaging 1-2 pounds and do not exceed 8 pounds. All three species of bullheads have sharp dorsal and pectoral spines handle with care, and that comes from the voice of experience!
They, like channel cats, have taste buds all over their body, with an average bullhead having more than 100,000. Bullheads are good eating, especially when caught from cold, clean water.
The state of Minnesota has a commercial fishery that harvests/markets over a million pounds annually.
My favorite method of cooking bullheads is smoking, which eliminates difficult cleaning and filleting. Gut, chop off the head and tail with an axe and then brine in one gallon of water, one and a half cups of salt, one cup of brown sugar, two tablespoons garlic powder and let stand for 24-36 hours. Rinse thoroughly, smoke for approximately 8 hours, and enjoy.
Six species of the family are sought by fishermen, being considered game fish. They are blue catfish, bullhead (all three species), channel catfish, and flathead catfish. Blue cats are the largest of the family, with the world record standing at 143 pounds. Flatheads are second place, with the world record being 123 pounds, followed by channel cats at 58 pounds. Michigan state records for the latter two are 45.7 pounds and 41.5 pounds, respectively. The world records for bullheads are 7 pounds, 6 ounces (brown), 7 pounds, 7 ounces (blank) and 6 pounds, 6 ounces, Michigan state records for bullheads are brown at 3.62 pounds, black at 3.44 pounds and yellow, 3.6 pounds.
Catfish are great table fare, so if you have never eaten them, as Mikey says, "Try it, you'll like it!"