Catfishes are often thought of as sedentary fishes that lie on the bottom of the river, lake or pond waiting for an easy meal. Published studies have supported their sedentary nature (Pugh and Schramm 1999), but others have reported movements over 400 miles (Garrett and Rabeni 2011, Tripp et al. 2011). Thus, characterizing catfishes as sedentary may not be accurate and may result in ineffective fisheries management. Here, I present the major findings of research on movement ecology of large-bodied North American catfishes (Blue Catfish, Channel Catfish, and Flathead Catfish) with a brief summary of a Chesapeake Bay-region Blue Catfish movement study.
Published studies have reported differences in movement patterns among individual fish within a species. Some fish undergo long-distance migrations in excess of 100 miles, whereas others occupy a much smaller range. Studies on Blue, Channel, and Flathead Catfish have all reported similar patterns. In an Alabama dam tailrace, four of ten radio-tagged Blue Catfish remained in the tailrace through the entirety of the 11-month study, whereas others dispersed or disappeared from the study area completely (Hunter et al. 2009). Studies on Flathead Catfish have reported a relatively small proportion of fish disperse great distances with a majority of individuals occupying areas near where they were collected, tagged, and released (Travnichek 2004). Several factors may influence why fish behave differently, but this is poorly understood in the scientific literature. A study in Missouri found that larger Flathead Catfish tended to move further than smaller fish (Travnichek 2004). However, other studies have reported found no size-based differences in ranges occupied by Flathead Catfish (Piette and Niebur 2011). A study on Channel Catfish reported males in the Red River of the North inhabited larger ranges than females (Wendel et al. 1999). Although size and sex may play a role in observed variability, further study is needed to understand what triggers some fish to migrate long distances and others to occupy small ranges.
Virginia Tech graduate student Jason Emmel tags a Flathead Catfish using a T-bar archor tag. These tags can be used to estimate movement rates following recapture by fishers and scientists, but don't provide the details that radio or acoustic tags provide when monitored by scientists or stationary receivers.
Seasonal Movement Patterns
Studies have also reported seasonal movement patterns where fish move to spawning habitats in the spring and to overwintering habitats in the fall. Catfishes tend to spawn in cavity-like structures, whereas overwintering habitats are often deep, slow-moving habitats. If these two habitat types are not close together in a river system, fish must undergo long migrations to find suitable habitat. Studies have reported movement may be greater during spring and fall, but are reduced during summer and the overwintering period (Hunter et al. 2009, Butler and Wahl 2011). However, Fago (1999) reported considerable winter movements from a subset of Channel Catfish overwintering in the lower Wisconsin River. Studies in the Mississippi River basin found fish moved into and out of tributaries with many entering larger mainstem rivers to overwinter (Fago 1999; Garrett and Rabeni 2011). Fish may also return to to areas they occupied in previous years following movement events (Gelwicks and Simmons 2011).These movement events appear to be related to lunar phase, temperature and increased flow events (Wendel et al. 1999, Hunter et al. 2009, Tripp et al. 2011). Pre-spawn movements in the spring may be triggered by temperatures reaching 46–59°F, whereas downstream movement from summer habitats may occur when water temperature declines from 68 to 59 degrees (Garrett and Rabeni 2011, Piette and Niebur 2011). Garrett and Rabeni (2011) reported monthly movement patterns were similar among Blue and Flathead Catfish in the Missouri River.
Graphical representation of the annual movement cycle of Blue (BL) and Flathead Catfish (FL) in the lower Missouri River and tributaries from 2006 and 2007. This shows the variability in movement patterns among individual fish. Figure from Garrett and Rabeni 2011 (Figure 4).
Movement Throughout the Day
Not surprising to most catfish anglers, catfishes tend to be more active at night. Movement over a 24-hour period is best described in published literature for Flathead Catfish. Flathead Catfish spend the day in cover, but leave at dusk or during the night, returning to their daytime residence before sunrise (Daugherty and Sutton 2005). Most Flathead Catfish movement occurs between dusk and dawn and they are least active right after sunrise (Vokoun and Rabeni 2006, Hedden and Gido 2016). In the upper Gila River in New Mexico, nightly movements were small (less than 90 yards) and often from undercut banks to open water or to areas below riffles (Hedden and Gido 2016). Association to structure may be more important for Flathead Catfish than Blue and Channel Catfish. A study on Blue and Channel Catfish in a Missouri small impoundment found activity levels were highest during sunrise and sunset (Fischer at al. 1999). However, some studies have not detected differences in Blue Catfish movement rates and distributions between day and night (Hunter et al. 2009, Gerber et al. 2019).
Movement in Chesapeake Bay
Movement of catfishes in Chesapeake Bay is likely understudied with only a single published study in recent years. Scientists from Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources conducted a study on Blue Catfish movement patterns in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers (Tuckey et al. 20117, Read Here). Scientists tagged 1,237 fish (12–46 inches in length) from November 2012 to June 2013 in a 40-mile stretch of the Potomac and collected reports of recaptures from recreational and commercial fishers until 2015. The average distance moved from release to recapture site was about 15 miles with a range of 0 to 70 miles. Most fish were recaptured downstream of their release site (63%) with 13% collected at the release site. In the Rappahannock River, scientists examined data from a VIMS trawl survey to determine if abundances varied over space throughout the year. The goal was to understand if fish aggregated in particular areas seasonally and if these aggregations (and presumably movement events) were related to river discharge. The analyses revealed there were no differences in abundance associated with season or river discharge. Thus, the take-homes of the study were that Potomac River Blue Catfish move long distances with variable movement patterns by individual fish and that large-scale management schemes would be necessary to meet fishery management goals. However, additional tagging studies with telemetry tags may provide a clearer picture of seasonal movement patterns and triggers to those movement events in Chesapeake Bay tributaries (watch this video for more information on telemetry).
Distance (in river kilometers, 1 km = 0.62 miles) between release and recapture site during a tagging study on Potomac River Blue Catfish. Distances may be up or downstream of the release site. Fish were tagged in 2012-2013 and recpatured by commercial and recreational fishers until 2015. Figure from Tuckey et al. 2017 (Figure 5).
The main lessons from these studies are that catfish are highly mobile, but there is considerable individual variability in movement behavior. Consequently, management of large catfishes may require large spatial boundaries as fish may move between jurisdictions. Further, contaminant levels in individual fish may be higher than expected as fish may move from high to low contaminant areas (Tuckey et al. 2017). VIMS scientists reported Blue Catfish collected at 21.8 ppt salinity in the James River indicating the species can inhabit and disperse through considerably saline waters, making available a large portion of Chesapeake Bay and also the Delaware Bay through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (Tuckey et al. 2017). Although the studies discussed above provide useful information on catfish movement, none of the studies summarized from outside Chesapeake Bay are from tidal river systems. Salinity and tidal influences add additional complexities to the movement ecology of Chesapeake Bay catfishes. Many recreational anglers plan their fishing trips around tides to maximize catch rates. Further, fish may move in response to summertime salinity increases, as freshwater outflows decrease. Future studies on the influence of salinity and tides, as well other environmental factors on Chesapeake Bay catfish movement would help us better understand their ecology in the region.
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Daugherty, D. J. and T. M. Sutton. 2005. Diel movement patterns and habitat use of flathead catfish in the lower St. Joseph River, Michigan. Journal of Freshwater Ecology 20:1–8.
Fago, D. 1999. Movement of Channel Catfish in the lower Wisconsin River and pools numbers 10 and 11 of the Mississippi River using radiotelemetry. Pages 177–185 in E. R. Irwin, W. A. Hubert, C. F. Rabeni, H. L. Schramm Jr., and T. Coon, editors. Catfish 2000: proceedings of the international ictalurid symposium. Symposium 24, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
Fischer, S. A., S. Eder, and E. D. Aragon. 1999. Movements and habitat use of channel catfish and blue cafish in a small impoundment in Missouri. Pages 239–255 in E. R. Irwin, W. A. Hubert, C. F. Rabeni, H. L. Schramm Jr., and T. Coon, editors. Catfish 2000: proceedings of the international ictalurid symposium. Symposium 24, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
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Hedden, S. C. and K. B. Gido. 2016. Movement distances and activity of introduced flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) in the upper Gila River Basin, New Mexico, and potential impacts on native fishes. The Southwestern Naturalist 61:210–216.
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Piette, R. R. and A. D. Niebur. 2011. Movement of adult male flathead catfish in the upper Fox River and Wolf River systems determined by radiotelemetry. Pages 455–471 in P. H. Michaletz and V. H. Travnichek, editors. Conservation, ecology and management of catfish: the second international symposium. Symposium 77, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
Pugh, L. L. and H. L. Schramm, Jr. 1999. Movement of tagged catfishes in the lower Mississippi River. Pages 193–197 in E. R. Irwin, W. A. Hubert, C. F. Rabeni, H. L. Schramm Jr., and T. Coon, editors. Catfish 2000: proceedings of the international ictalurid symposium. Symposium 24, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
Travnichek, V. H. 2004. Movement of flathead catfish in the Missouri River: examining opportunities for managing river segments for different fishery goals. Fisheries Management and Ecology 11:89–96.
Tuckey, T. D., M. C. Fabrizio, A. J. Norris, and M. Groves. 2017. Low apparent survival and heterogenous movement patterns of invasive blue catfish in a coastal river. Marine and Coastal Fisheries: Dynamics, Management, and Ecosystem Science 9:564–572.
Tripp, S. J., M. J. Hill, H. A. Calkins, R. C. Brooks, D. P. Herzog, D. E. Ostendorf, R. A. Hrabik, and J. E. Garvey. 2011. Blue catfish movement in the upper Mississippi River. Pages 511–519 in P. H. Michaletz and V. H. Travnichek, editors. Conservation, ecology and management of catfish: the second international symposium. Symposium 77, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
Vokoun, J. C. and C. F. Rabeni. 2006. Summer diel activity and movement paths of flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) in two Missouri streams. American Midland Naturalist 155:113–122.
Wendel, J. L and S. W. Kelsch. 1999. Summer range and movement of channel catfish in the Red River of the North. Pages 203–214 in E. R. Irwin, W. A. Hubert, C. F. Rabeni, H. L. Schramm Jr., and T. Coon, editors. Catfish 2000: proceedings of the international ictalurid symposium. Symposium 24, American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.