Common Family: The Catfish Family
Common Name: Blue Catfish
Scientific Name: Ictalurus furcatus
In West Virginia, blue catfish are native to the Ohio River drainage. Although native to Ohio River, blue catfish are thought to have occurred in low numbers in the upper reaches of Ohio River based on limited historic collections. Recent stocking efforts have likely contributed to the establishment of fishable populations within the West Virginia portions of Ohio River. Blue catfish are the largest catfish species native to North America, frequently exceeding 40 inches in length. Blue catfish are opportunistic foragers, often consuming mussels, invertebrates and other fishes. Diets of these large fish also likely shift seasonally dependent on prey availability. Blue catfish are silvery-blue in color and have a straight, comb-like anal fin. Blue catfish can be difficult to distinguish from adult channel catfish. Channel catfish have a punctuated black spotting pattern that is not present on blue catfish. As channel catfish get larger, this spotting pattern generally making them more difficult to distinguish using coloration alone. Additionally, anal fins of channel catfish are more rounded in shape, and channel catfish do not frequently achieve sizes larger than 30 inches. WVDNR staff is always willing to assist with identification.
Blue catfish prefer deep, flowing waterbodies with complex substrates including cobble, boulders, bedrock or sand. Blue catfish are more pelagic than other catfish species, generally inhabiting open water, and they are thought to avoid backwater areas and slow-moving water with heavily silted bottoms.
Although native to the Ohio River drainage, blue catfish likely occurred in low numbers in the upper reaches of Ohio River due to limited habitat availability prior to the construction of dams for commercial navigation purposes. It is very possible that blue catfish occurred throughout this system in limited numbers, but the species was considered extirpated from West Virginia waters for many years due to no individuals being collected during biological surveys. Recent stocking efforts by WVDNR, beginning in 2004, have contributed to the reestablishment of fishable populations within the West Virginia portions of Ohio River. Improving water quality is likely another attributing factor toward the reestablishment of blue catfish in West Virginia, as it has positively impacted many aquatic species throughout the Ohio River drainage and much of the state.
Since WVDNR stocking began, the blue catfish state record has been broken almost annually. WVDNR recognizes a state record for both weight and length. The current weight record has been held since 2016 by Mark Blauvelt. This fish weighed in at 59.74 pounds and was 44.88 inches long. The current length record was caught in 2020 by Justin Conner. This fish was 49.84 inches long and weighed 58.38 pounds.
Blue catfish are the largest North American species of catfish. The current world record blue catfish was caught in 2011 (John H. Kerr, Buggs Island Lake, Virginia). This fish was 57 inches long and weighed 143 pounds.
Blue catfish can be highly mobile fish, making large-scale movements. One study documented a single individual moving more than 400 miles in a year.
Blue catfish are quickly becoming one of the most exciting fish West Virginia has to offer. Large circle hooks with cut or live bait is recommended when targeting blue catfish. Angler’s hoping to land a blue catfish should look for areas with drop-offs and seams in the current. Blue catfish also remain active, feeding throughout the winter months.
Blue catfish and channel catfish are closely related and hard to tell apart. One way to tell the difference is by counting the rays on their anal fin. Blue catfish have 30 or more and channel catfish have less than 30. In addition, channel catfish often have black spots, but blue catfish never have any spots. The two species also can be distinguished by the shape of the anal fin (straight edge with blue catfish and curved edge with channel catfish).