How to Hold a Catfish Without Getting Jabbed

Joe Cermele

Some fisherman seem like they don’t want to know how to hold a catfish. My five-year-old son will jam a thumb into a bass’s mouth without blinking. He’ll wrestle with a chain pickerel or stocked trout, perfectly supporting the head and tail for a quality photo. Catfish, on the other hand, he doesn’t want to touch. Despite his love of cranking them in, something about their appearance makes him wring his hands and keep his distance. He’s not the only person I’ve ever seen have this reaction.

Maybe it’s their scale-less skin and slimy appearance, or their whiskers, but many people just aren’t as quick to grab a cat as they are other species. That, or they simply know that catfish can, in fact, hurt you. These fish have sharp spines that are easy to miss if you’re not sure where to look. But once you do know, they’re pretty easy to avoid. So, let’s breakdown how to hold a catfish without worrying about getting stung. With a few simple pointers, you’ll be grabbing cats like a pro.

Table of Contents

Catfish Spines and How They Can Hurt You

How to Hold Small Catfish

How to Hold Medium-Size Catfish

How to Hold Big Catfish

Frequently Asked Questions

Catfish Spines and How They Can Hurt You

All catfish have sharp spines on the leading edges of their pectoral and dorsal fins when they’re young, and the smaller the fish, the more needle-like those spines are. Madtoms, as an example, are some of the tiniest catfish in the country, and though they’re not targeted by anglers, if you accidentally step on one while splashing around a creek, you’ll know it. A madtom’s spines are so finely honed—and contain a mild venom—that even a glancing blow can send them deep into your skin.

Catfish, like this brown bullhead, have sharp spines at the front of both pectoral fins, as well as the dorsal fin. Adobe Stock / Field & Stream

Pointy, razor-sharp body parts are a fairly common form of defense among fish. Striped bass, for instance, have gill plates that will slice you faster than a Gillette when they’re tiny. As they grow, those plates get duller and duller, because as the risk of being inhaled by a large predator diminishes, the pointy armor becomes less necessary.

The spines of channel, flathead, blue, and bullhead catfish do not contain venom, but the mucous surrounding their daggers often harbors bacteria that can cause a painful infection that can persist for weeks if the injury isn’t cleaned and treated quickly with antiseptic.

How to Hold Small Catfish

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The smaller the catfish, the more easily it can hurt you. For species like madtoms and bullheads, even full-grown specimens are small enough to be sucked down by a bass or bigger catfish, so their fin spines remain sharp and pointy for their entire lives. Likewise, small channel, flathead, and blue catfish have spines that can inflict a nasty wound.

Keep in mind that you’re most likely to get stuck by a smaller cat spine while the fish is flopping on the ground or twisting in the air as it dangles from the end of your line. With catfish measuring 12 inches or less, the trick is to grab them quickly but with authority so you can control them. Grip them around the back of the head placing your thumb and forefinger on the back side of each pectoral fin. The crook of your hand between those two fingers should butt up against the back of the dorsal fin. By gripping the fish tightly with this hold, you’re ensuring that the fish can’t wriggle free, and even if it tries, you’re not going to get stung because all the dangerous spines are forward of your hand.

How to Hold Medium-Size Catfish

While bullhead spines pack a nasty sting regardless of the size of the fish, the spines of channel cats, flatheads, and blues dull and thicken with age. That said, fish measuring approximately 12 to 24 inches still need to be handled with care. A jab from a fish in this size range, though perhaps less frequent, can cause more damage than a poke from little fish. That’s because as those spines wear, they often become jagged and splintered, giving them a serrated effect. And if they go in, they’re going to rip you up worse coming out.

One good way to hold medium-size cats is to put a thumb behind one pectoral fin, with the other between your index and second finger, while also grasping the tail. Joe Cermele

Catfish in this size class, of course, are more picture worthy. You might want to hold one up for a shot before sending it back or tossing it in the cooler. With these cats, instead of gripping them across the back behind the head, support them under the head at the gills, positioning one pectoral fin between your thumb and index finger and the other between your pinky and ring finger. The crooks between those fingers should be tight against the base of each pectoral fin so you have control of the fish but are keeping the pointy ends away from your hand. Your other hand can now support the fish at the base of the tail, which features no sharp points. With this hold, you should have complete control of the fish, so you don’t need to worry about getting jabbed by the dorsal spine.

An alternative to this hold, as seen in the photo above, is to put a thumb firmly behind one pectoral fin with the other pectoral between the index and second finger. Then grasp the tail with the other hand for total control.

How to Hold Big Catfish

Once any species of catfish grows bigger than approximately 10 pounds, the threat of getting spined diminishes greatly. Even 80-pound blue cats and 50-pound flatheads still have spines, but by the time they reach trophy size, those spines are usually short, thick, blunt nubs and often covered over by a membrane of skin. Given that big cats don’t have the same ability to flop, twist, and contort wildly when you land them, it would take a freak accident involving a lot of force to drive the spine of a huge cat into your flesh.

Sough Dakota angler Ethan Evink holds a state-record flathead by the mouth and tail. SDGFP

Still, this doesn’t mean you should reach for the pectoral or dorsal fins, but the heavier the cat and the more surface area it has on its body, the easier to is to avoid getting a hand anywhere near the spines. Large cats can be gripped in the manner described above for medium-size catfish, or by the lower jaw for extra support. Neither channel, nor blue, nor flathead catfish have any teeth, though the interior of their mouths is rough and mildly sharp. Many people wear a glove when grabbing the lower lip of a true trophy cat but having reached into the maws of both barehanded for pictures and video, I can attest to it not being that bad. At worse you’ll get a little rub rash, but it’s sort of a badge of honor for trophy cat hunters.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you hold a catfish by the tail?

Yes, for medium-size to large catfish, you’ll may want to hold the fish up horizontally for a picture, and in this case you should grasp the fish just ahead of the tail, wrapping your fingers around that narrow area for a good grip. Then, use your other hand to support the fish under the head and gills, avoiding the pectoral-fin spines as described above.

What to do if a catfish sticks you?

You should take a little break from fishing and clean the would right way. The mucous surrounding the spines of most catfish often harbors bacteria that can cause a painful infection if the injury isn’t cleaned and treated quickly with antiseptic. It’s not a bad idea to keep a small first-aid kit handy when targeting catfish.

How bad does a catfish sting hurt?

Well, the sting itself is nothing you can’t handle. But it does hurt. What can be more painful is the infection you can get if you don’t clean the wound right away, so follow the advice above and it won’t hurt so bad that it’ll keep you off the water.

Should I wear gloves when handling catfish?

It doesn’t hurt to wear a glove. That said, I’ve never felt the need to do so myself. The spines on catfish are easy enough to avoid if you know where they’re located and how to hold the fish accordingly. Also, the needle-like spines of smaller cats especially are going to poke right through the material of a lot of gloves. However, for handling big cats, lots of anglers like to use a glove when holding the fish by its rough mouth.

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