Catfish don’t “sting”, let’s go ahead and get that out of the way now.
Catfish whiskers don’t sting. Their barbels or fins don’t either. They can cause some discomfort though (if you’re not careful) so let’s cover what you need to know.
I was digging through the mailbox and some Twitter questions the other day and the same question kept appearing “how do you hold a catfish without being stung”. After looking through the files and counting how many times this question had come in, I stopped counting at 175 and was less than half way through before I decided I’d break down and cover the topic.
There is a common misconception that catfish will “sting” but this is nothing more than a myth or misunderstanding of catfish.
Let’s cover everything you need to know about how to hold a catfish, the truth about “catfish stings” and what you need to do to keep from getting hurt.
Catfish Anatomy 101
Catfish of all species and types have the same anatomy when it comes to fins.
There are slight variations of the numbers of rays in the anal fin of the big three catfish species and other minor physical differences. What we’re concerned with are the dorsal fin, pectoral fin and the whiskers.
For the purposes of how to hold and catfish and the great myth that a catfish will “sting you” we’re 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’ve got countless people that fish with me on guide trips that are concerned about catfish whiskers and being hurt by the whiskers.
CATFISH WHISKERS ARE HARMLESS. They’re soft, pliable and touching them or having them touch you is no different than touching the whiskers on a dog. There’s absolutely no concern with being stung by catfish whiskers, they’re not going to hurt you.
The areas of concern in regard to being “hurt” or “stung” are the dorsal and pectoral fins.
These fins are located behind the head on each side and on the top of the fish behind the head (refer to the image above). The 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 don’t “sting” and you can touch them without any pain occurring. 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 a hemolytic (causes increased blood flow in the area of the injury) if these spines puncture the skin.
Smaller catfish are the fish that most often hurt people. The larger catfish spines are typically dull and they’re also larger as well (the tips of these spines in smaller fish are often like needles but in larger fish the spines are blunt).
How To Hold A Catfish
Smaller catfish are what you’ve got to watch for and be careful with, especially the really small ones. Once the fish reach about sixteen to eighteen inches the spines are much more dull and the chance of being finned is greatly reduced.
Fish larger than two to three pounds are rarely a concern. Smaller catfish are a different story though and the smaller they are the more careful you have to be. Injuries from small catfish fins or spines usually occur during the release of the fish. You’re hold them, you remove the hook, and at some point you go to release the fish into the water or put it in an ice chest and “BAM”, it happens, you get finned by the fish.
Even thought catfish don’t sting, it can be uncomfortable, painful even, when you get finned.
There’s two approaches you handling smaller cats to keep from getting hurt.
- Small Cats Holding the fish from the top is the preferred method. Place your hand directly behind the pectoral and dorsal spines with the area between your thumb and forefinger resting behind the dorsal spine. This is the preferred method of holding or handling any catfish that’s small enough for you to get your hand around and hold firmly. 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 from one to two pounds up to about seven or eight pounds can usually be handled as outlined above (in front of the dorsal fin and behind the pectoral fins). They’re relatively easy to handle until they’re a size that you cannot easily get your hand around. The best bet for handling fish you can’t get your hand around is using a “lip grip” like the Berkley Big Game Lip Grip or the Team Catfish Lip Grips.
- Big Cats – Getting finned by big fish is rarely an issue. Scoop them up with a dip net and use lip grips to handle them during landing, photographs and the live release (please practice catch and release of larger catfish). Be careful sticking your hand in the mouth of a big catfish, their mouths are much more dangerous than their fins!
What To Do When You Get “Finned” By Catfish
There’s two options here, 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.
What a Doctor Will Tell You: If you get finned by a catfish clean the wound immediately with antiseptic and then cover the wound. Hydrogen Peroxide or any other antiseptic to clean with and then cover with a clean dressing, it’s basic first aid. They’re not going to tell you what fishermen do when they get finned by a catfish to stop the sting.
The Belly Slime Treatment: If you ask ten doctors about this they’ll all tell you it’s a bad idea but this is an “old school” catfisherman’s tip that I’ve been using for decades and it works!. Rub the wound on the belly of a catfish it will stop the stinging almost immediately. Simply rub the puncture on the belly the fish for ten to fifteen seconds after getting finnned and the pain stops almost immediately. Once you do this and the pain stops use an antiseptic to clean the wound and cover with a clean bandage.
I had people claim that they got infections from this practice. There’s no way to tell if the infection is from the puncture or the slime. I suspect that in most of these instances the infection occurred from the puncture after being finned.*
Disclaimer: I’ve been using this belly slime trick for over thirty years and never had an issue but if one of your hands falls off don’t come crying to me.
There’s really no difference between handling catfish and any other species of fish. Handling white bass is much more painful (and dangerous) in my opinion. Make sure you use some caution, especially when handling the smaller fish. Keep a firm grip, and be conscious of where your hand is in relation to the pectoral fin.
Your’re not going to get “stung”, but if you spend enough time handling them you will eventually get finned, it will hurt or be uncomfortable for a few minutes and you’ll get over it.
There’s instances where people will get finned and get serious infections but they’re the exception and not the rule.
Want More Catfishing Tips
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