Catfish don’t “sting”, let’ go ahead and get that out of the way……
I was digging through the ask a question mailbox the other day and since I started this site I have been filing one question over and over into a file several times a week, “how do you hold a catfish without being stung”. For some reason I have been avoiding this topic but I was looking through this file and started counting how many times this question had come in, I stopped counting at 175 and was less than half way through the questions before I decided I would go ahead and break down and cover this topic.
There is a common misconception that catfish will “sting” but this is nothing more than a myth.
Catfish Anatomy 101
All catfish have the same anatomy when it comes to fins. There might be slight variations of the numbers of rays in the anal fin (see telling the difference between a blue and channel catfish) and other minor differences but for this purpose what we are concerned with are the dorsal fin, pectoral fin and the whiskers. If you want to read up more on each of the different species and their pattern and anatomy you can check out the blue catfish, channel catfish and flathead catfish pages.
For the purposes of how to hold and catfish and the great myth that a catfish will “sting you” we are going to cover three parts of the anatomy, the dorsal fin (on the top), pectoral fins each side behind the head) and the whiskers (around the mouth).
I have countless people that fish with me that are concerned about the whiskers and being hurt by the whiskers. WHISKERS ARE HARMLESS. They are soft, pliable and touching them or having them touch you is no different than touching the whiskers on a dog. There is absolutely no concern here in regards to being hurt by the whiskers.
The areas of concern in regard to being “hurt” or “stung” are the dorsal and pectoral fins. These fins are again located behind the head on each side and on the top of the fish behind the head (refer to the image above). These fins are soft if approached from the back but there is a hard spine that runs the length of the fin in the front (the nearest portion of the fin to the head). The tip of these spines are pointed and very sharp (especially on smaller catfish, and especially channel cats).
These spines again don’t “sting” and you can touch them without any pain occurring, the pain and injury occurs when these spines puncture the skin. The spines contained in the dorsal and pectoral fin contain a venom that causes edema (swelling) and is also hemolytic (causes increased blood flow in the area of the injury) if these spines puncture the skin.
The fish that most often hurt people are again smaller fish. Most often the larger catfish fish spines are dull and they are also larger as well (the tips of these spines in smaller fish are often like needles).
How To Hold A Catfish
Small Cats – Again, smaller catfish are what you have to watch for, especially the really small ones but once the fish reach about sixteen to eighteen inches it seems like the chance of being finned is greatly reduced (or at least for me). I never worry about the fish that are two to three pounds and up, but the smaller they are the more I watch and the more caution I use. I also find that in most instances with these small cats that are so dangerous that the injury usually occurs on the release. This is most often because as you remove your grip the fish will start to flop around.
There are two approaches you can take. One is to hold the fish from the top. The preferred method for holding the really small species (less than 10 inches or so) is to place your hand directly behind the pectoral and dorsal spines with the area between your thumb and forefinger resting behind the dorsal spine.
As the fish get larger (up to about two or three pounds), this approach becomes more difficult so some anglers prefer to hold the catfish from the top, putting their hand in front of the dorsal fin and behind the pectoral fins.
Medium Cats – Fish in the range of a pound or two up to about 7 or eight pounds can usually be handled in the same manner outlined above (in front of the dorsal fin and behind the pectoral fins). These are relatively easy to handle until they get to the point that you cannot easily get your hand around them and then the best bet is moving on to a lip grip (I like the Berkley Big Game Lip Grip instead of the cheap plastic ones).
Big Cats – Getting finned by big fish is rarely an issue so are not really relevant to this article. I will cover landing and handling trophy cats at some point but for now the short version is to scoop them up with a dip net and then handle them with again with a lip grip. Always use caution when sticking your hand in the mouth of a big fish (see the blue catfish finger munch video).
**This is all outlined in the video below.
What To Do When You Get “Finned” By A Catfish
The “Safe” Way To Treat A Wound
I am going to give you two answers, the first is what a doctor will tell you and then my “real world” advice. I also spent the better part of ten years as a paramedic so I can speak with authority from the medical perspective.
If you happen to get finned clean the wound up immediately with some sort of antiseptic and then cover the wound. This obviously requires carrying a first aid kit with you in your car, truck or on your catfish boat. It’s really a good idea to have a basic first aid kit anyway, you never know what is going to happen.
The Belly Slime Treatment
If you ask 10 doctors about this they would probably all tell you that this is a bad idea but it’s something someone taught me ages ago and it works. If you take the wound and rub the wound on the belly of a catfish it will remove the sting quickly. You have to rub the puncture onto the belly slime of the fish for about ten to fifteen seconds but after doing so the sting from getting finned will go away in almost no time. After doing so make sure you you clean the wound thoroughly some sort of antiseptic and cover the wound.
I have had a few people claim that they got infections from this practice but honestly, there is no way to tell if the infection is from the puncture or the slime. I suspect that in most of these instanced the infection occurred from the puncture after being finned.
Disclaimer: I have been doing this for close to twenty years now (or longer) and have never had an issue but if one of your hands falls off don’t come crying to me.
There really is no difference between handling catfish and handling other species of fish. To me, handling white bass is much more painful (and dangerous). Just make sure you use some caution, especially when handling the smaller fish. Make sure you have a firm grip, and be conscious of where your hand is in relation to the pectoral fin. Your never going to get “stung” but if you spend enough time handling them you will eventually get finned, it will hurt for a few minutes and then you will get over it.
There are instances where people will get finned and they get serious infections but these are the exception and not the rule.
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