American Oceans

What’s the Difference Between Flathead Catfish and Channel Catfish?

Flathead catfish and channel catfish are two of the most popular and widely distributed species of catfish in North America.

a school of flathead catfish at the surface of the water

While they may share some similarities, such as their preference for freshwater habitats and their bottom-feeding behavior, these two species also differ in a number of ways.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the characteristics and behaviors of flathead catfish and channel catfish, and explore how these differences can impact their behavior, habitat, and even their value as a food source.

Whether you’re an angler looking to catch more catfish, or simply curious about these fascinating fish, read on to discover the unique traits and qualities that set flathead and channel catfish apart.

Key Takeaways

  • Flathead catfish have a broad, flattened head and mottled brown coloration, while channel catfish have a streamlined head and gray or olive-brown coloration with dark spots.
  • Flatheads prefer deep, murky water with plenty of cover, while channel catfish can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats and are more tolerant of clear water and faster currents.
  • Both species have a wide distribution across North America, but flatheads are more common in the southern and central regions, while channel catfish are found throughout the continent.

Distinguishing Features

an albino flathead catfish on a black background

Flathead catfish are generally larger and heavier than channel catfish. While channel catfish usually grow to be around 2-3 feet long and weigh around 5-20 pounds, flathead catfish can grow to be over 4 feet long and weigh over 100 pounds.


Both channel catfish and flathead catfish have a mottled yellow or brown coloration, but there are some differences.

Channel catfish have a lighter coloration, ranging from cream to yellow, with dark spots on their sides. Flathead catfish have a darker coloration, ranging from brown to yellow, with no spots.

Fins and Tails

One of the most noticeable differences between channel catfish and flathead catfish is their fins and tails.

Channel catfish have a deeply-forked tail, while flathead catfish have a square or slightly rounded tail.

Additionally, the dorsal fin on a channel catfish is usually longer and more curved than the dorsal fin on a flathead catfish.

The anal fin on a flathead catfish is also much longer than the anal fin on a channel catfish.

Barbels and Jaws

Both channel catfish and flathead catfish have barbels, which are sensory organs used to locate food.

However, there are some differences in the placement and number of barbels. Channel catfish have four barbels, with two on the upper jaw and two on the lower jaw.

Flathead catfish have six barbels, with four on the chin and two on the upper jaw. Additionally, flathead catfish have a more pronounced overbite, while channel catfish have a more pronounced underbite.

Habitats and Distribution

a river in nebraska where catfish live

Flathead and channel catfish are two species of catfish found in North America. They have different habitat preferences and distributions.

This section will discuss the habitats and distribution of these two species.

North America

Both flathead and channel catfish are found in North America. Channel catfish are more widely distributed than flathead catfish.

They can be found in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs throughout the United States and Mexico.

Flathead catfish have a more limited distribution and are found primarily in the Mississippi River and its tributaries, as well as in lakes and reservoirs in the Mississippi River basin.

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is home to both flathead and channel catfish. However, they have different habitat preferences.

Channel catfish are found in a variety of habitats, including deep pools, tributaries, and upstream areas.

Flathead catfish, on the other hand, prefer to live in deep pools, near dams, and in areas with slow-moving water.

Lakes and Reservoirs

Both flathead and channel catfish can be found in lakes and reservoirs. However, they have different habitat preferences.

Channel catfish are found in a variety of habitats, including shallow and deep water. Flathead catfish prefer to live in deeper water and are often found near submerged structures, such as logs and rocks.

Behavior and Diet

a view of a channel catfish in shallow water from above

Channel catfish and flathead catfish have different feeding habits. Channel catfish are omnivorous and have a diverse diet that includes aquatic insects, crayfish, shad, and even carp.

They feed during the day and night, but are more active at night. They use their sense of smell to locate their prey and will scavenge for food.

They prefer live bait, but will also eat dead or cut bait.

Flathead catfish, on the other hand, are predators and prefer live prey. They feed primarily on fish, but will also eat invertebrates and crayfish.

They are most active at night and prefer to hunt near structures such as logs and undercut banks.

They use vibrations to locate their prey and will hide in hollow logs during the day.


Both channel catfish and flathead catfish reproduce in the spring and early summer. They lay their eggs in nests in shallow water.

Channel catfish nest in riffles, while flathead catfish prefer to nest near logs or other structures. The male guards the nest until the eggs hatch, which takes about a week.


Both channel catfish and flathead catfish have adaptations that allow them to survive in their respective environments.

Channel catfish have a highly developed sense of smell, which they use to locate their prey.

They also have a specialized organ that allows them to detect changes in the oxygen levels in the water.

Flathead catfish have a large mouth and a streamlined body, which allows them to catch their prey more easily.

They also have a unique adaptation where they can breathe air by gulping it from the surface of the water. This allows them to survive in low oxygen environments.

Conservation and Management

a channel catfish isolated on a black background

Both channel catfish and flathead catfish populations are managed by state and federal agencies to ensure sustainability.

Populations are monitored through surveys, creel counts, and electrofishing.

The agencies responsible for managing catfish populations also use regulations to control harvest and protect spawning fish.

In some cases, populations of flathead catfish have become too abundant and have negatively impacted other species.

In these situations, population control measures may be implemented, such as commercial harvest or removal by electrofishing.

Stocking and Release

Stocking is a common practice used by fisheries managers to supplement populations of channel catfish and flathead catfish.

Stocking can be used to establish a new population in a water body where the species is absent or to supplement an existing population.

When stocking catfish, it is important to consider the habitat and forage available in the water body. Stocking in unsuitable habitats can lead to poor survival and growth rates.

Invasive species are a concern when stocking catfish. The introduction of non-native catfish species can have negative impacts on native fish populations and the overall ecosystem.

Therefore, it is important to only stock native species and to follow regulations and guidelines set by state and federal agencies.

Nutritional Value

a channel catfish up close

When it comes to nutritional value, both flathead catfish and channel catfish are excellent sources of protein.

According to a study by the Texas A&M University, channel catfish has an estimated 15-18 g of protein per 100 grams of raw meat, while flathead catfish has about 14-16 g of protein per 100 grams of raw meat.

Both types of catfish are also low in fat, making them a good choice for those looking to maintain a healthy diet.

In terms of other nutrients, channel catfish is a good source of potassium, which is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels.

On the other hand, flathead catfish has slightly higher levels of cholesterol than channel catfish, so it may not be the best choice for those with heart health concerns.

It’s worth noting that the nutritional value of both types of catfish can be affected by how they are raised and prepared.

Farm-raised catfish may have a different nutrient profile than wild-caught catfish, for example.

Additionally, how the catfish is prepared can impact its nutritional value. For instance, deep-fried catfish will have a higher fat content than grilled or baked catfish.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a flathead catfish and a channel catfish?

Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) and channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are two different species of catfish.

They can be distinguished by their appearance, behavior, and habitat. Flathead catfish have a broad, flat head and a brownish-yellow body with mottled spots. They prefer deep, slow-moving water and are often found near logs and other underwater structures.

Channel catfish have a more slender body and a forked tail. They are usually grayish-green or olive in color and have black spots on their sides. They are more adaptable than flathead catfish and can be found in a variety of habitats, including rivers, lakes, and ponds.

Is it better to eat flathead or channel catfish?

Both flathead and channel catfish are popular game fish and are commonly eaten. However, flathead catfish tend to have a higher fat content and a more delicate flavor than channel catfish.

Some people prefer the taste of flathead catfish, while others prefer the firmer, milder flavor of channel catfish. Ultimately, the choice of which type of catfish to eat comes down to personal preference.

Which type of catfish tastes best?

The taste of catfish can vary depending on factors such as the type of water they are caught in, their diet, and how they are prepared.

Some people prefer the sweet, mild flavor of channel catfish, while others prefer the richer, more buttery taste of flathead catfish. Ultimately, the taste of catfish is a matter of personal preference.

What is the size limit for flathead catfish?

The size limit for flathead catfish varies depending on the state and body of water where they are caught.

In some states, there is no size limit for flathead catfish, while in others, there may be a minimum size limit of 18-24 inches and a maximum size limit of 30-40 inches. It is important to check the regulations in your area before fishing for flathead catfish.

What is the average size of a channel catfish?

The average size of a channel catfish varies depending on the body of water where they are found.

In general, channel catfish can grow to be quite large, with some specimens reaching over 40 pounds. However, most channel catfish caught by anglers are between 1-5 pounds.

Why are flathead catfish considered a problem?

Flathead catfish are considered a problem in some areas because they are a non-native species that can have negative impacts on native fish populations.

Flathead catfish are opportunistic predators that will eat a variety of fish, including other game fish such as bass and bluegill.

This can lead to a decline in native fish populations and a disruption of the local ecosystem. Additionally, flathead catfish can reproduce quickly and have few natural predators, which can lead to overpopulation in some areas.

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