5 Things Every Angler Should Know About Catfish Senses

By Keith Sutton

Imagine being a catfish — it could help you
catch more whisker fish!

Catfish angler with his catch

A catfish is like a swimming tongue. Every square centimeter of its body is covered with taste buds that help the fish locate food. On a large catfish like this flathead, taste buds number in the millions. (Photo: Keith Sutton)

You’d think the sensory abilities of catfish come right out of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” No other fish have more acute senses of taste, touch, smell and hearing. Cats have other senses, too — the lateral line sense and electroreception — that help them find food, decide what to eat and avoid predators. A short lesson in understanding how these senses function will dramatically improve your catfishing success.

1. Taste — If you were a catfish, you could taste pizza just by sitting on it.

A catfish just six inches long has more than a quarter million taste buds on its body. Yes — on its body. Every square centimeter of skin is covered with least 5,000 taste buds, with the densest concentrations on the gill rakers and whiskers (barbels). On a giant blue cat or flathead, taste buds number in the millions. Taste buds cover the fins, back, belly, sides and tail.

2. Smell — If you were a catfish, you’d smell what’s cooking in your neighbor’s oven.

A catfish’s sense of smell is equally keen. Catfish can smell some compounds at one part to 10 billion parts of water. Water flows over folds of sensitive tissue inside the catfish’s nostrils, allowing detection of virtually every substance in the fish’s environment. The number of these folds seems related to sharpness of smell. Channel cats have more than 140. Rainbow trout have 18, largemouth bass eight to 13.

3. Hearing — If you were a catfish, you’d never need headphones.

With no visible ears, it might seem like catfish can’t hear well. Don’t believe it. A catfish’s body has the same density as water, so it doesn’t need external ears. Sound waves traveling through water go through a catfish as well. When sound waves hit the fish’s swim bladder, the bladder vibrates. This amplifies sound waves, which travel to small bones (otoliths) in the inner ear. The otoliths vibrate, too, and bend hair-like projections on cells beneath them. Nerves in these cells carry sound messages to the brain.

The swim bladder on most fish is independent of the inner ear. But in catfish, bones connect the bladder with the inner ear. Fish without these bone connections (bass and trout, for example) can detect sounds from 20 to 1,000 cycles per second. Catfish are equipped with high-tech audio, so they can hear sounds of much higher frequency, up to about 13,000 cycles per second!

Close-up of catfish eyes

Although the eyes of catfish are relatively small, they provide keen sight for zeroing in on prey in water that’s not too turbid. (Photo: Keith Sutton)

4. Sight — If you were a catfish, you’d have free night vision optics.

Catfish also have excellent eyesight. In clear water, they often strike lures, with no sensory cues other than sight triggering this action. They see something resembling prey, and they attack.

Cones in the eyes indicate catfish have color vision, and other structures enhance their night-feeding abilities. Rods improve dim-light sight, and each eye is lined with a layer of crystals that reflects gathered light on the retina, thus improving the fish’s low-light vision even more.

5. Anatomy of the bite — If you were a catfish, eating would be a whole body experience.

All these sensory cues control a catfish’s feeding behavior. It doesn’t just search with its nose or taste buds or eyes. It uses every sensory cue available before deciding to eat. The sensory organs on the skin detect tastes, smells and sounds from potential food items and send messages to the fish’s brain telling it to search for it. When the catfish picks up the food, taste buds in the mouth tell it to eat the food — or spit it out.

Pros and Cons: If you are a catfisherman, you need to know how to beat a catfish’s senses.

PRO: When catfishing, you benefit from the fact that these whiskered warriors’ senses are so acute. Because catfish have multifaceted detection systems, they have little trouble finding your bait day or night no matter what type of water you are fishing — clear, muddy, stained, fast-moving, slow-moving, deep or shallow.

CON: However, the fact that catfish are so keenly aware of smells, sounds and other sensory cues can also make it difficult to hook a fish that detects something isn’t right. For example, if a catfish tastes or smells certain compounds in the water or on your bait, feeding activities will cease. These compounds include such things as gasoline and ingredients in sunscreen, tobacco and insect repellent.

Insect repellent can disrupt catfish senses negatively

Certain ingredients in insect repellent, sunscreen, gasoline and tobacco products are very repellent to catfish. When possible, anglers should minimize use of and contact with such items to improve their fishing success. (Photo: Keith Sutton)

CON: The fact that catfish have one of nature’s most acute auditory systems could create difficulties as well. Making unnecessary noise in your boat certainly will alert catfish to your presence and make them warier. But you also must contend with their superb lateral line sense, which is used to detect low-frequency vibrations. As surprising as it may seem, this sense enables a catfish to detect your footsteps on shore, so tread lightly.

CON: A catfish also uses its sight to detect shadows. If, for example, an osprey flies overhead and casts a shadow on the water, a catfish seeing this will retreat to the safety of cover or deep water. An angler’s shadow cast on the water often produces the same reaction.

PRO: To improve your catch rate, therefore, you should use avoidance strategies that tilt the odds more in your favor. Avoid contact with gas, sunscreen, insect repellent and tobacco when fishing. Avoid making unnecessary noise, even when bank fishing. Avoid fishing where your shadow falls upon the water, or fish at night when shadows aren’t a problem.

Following these simple tips, seldom considered by most anglers, can greatly increase the number of catfish you catch.

About Keith Sutton:

Keith Sutton headshotKeith Sutton is the author of “Hardcore Catfishing: Beyond the Basics,” a 180-page, full-color book released in April 2015. It’s full of catfishing tips that will benefit beginners and experts alike. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $22.45 to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Drive, Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, visit www.catfishsutton.com.

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