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.
There’s a common misconception that catfish will “sting”. 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 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 is 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. They’re also larger as well. The tips of these spines in smaller fish are like needles. In larger catfish 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 duller 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 holding 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 though catfish don’t sting, it can be uncomfortable, painful even when you get finned.
There are 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. Put 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. 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!
Can You Hold a Catfish By The Mouth?
You certainly can hold a catfish by the mouth. With smaller catfish, most anglers prefer to hold a catfish with their hand wrapped around the body like previously explained because this helps control the fish and helps reduce the risk of getting finned.
With larger catfish, you can hold the fish by the mouth but keep in mind the inside of the mouth of larger catfish is very abrasive. Many anglers will grab the mouth of a large catfish for the first time and then get surprised when the fish bites down hard on their hand. The first impulse is to slide the hand it and the abrasive portion of the mouth will scrape up the skin. This is commonly referred to as catfish knuckles. To avoid these injuries and better control the fish many anglers will use fish grips designed for holding and handling catfish.
What To Do When You Get “Finned” By Catfish
There are 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 of the fish for ten to fifteen seconds after getting finned and the pain stops almost immediately.
As an alternative to rubbing the wound on the belly of the fish, you can soak the affected area in water (as hot as possible) to help relieve the pain.
The biggest issue with getting finned by a catfish is the spines. It’s not uncommon when finned by a smaller fish for the spine to break off. If left inside the body a nasty infection will follow. In many cases, spines can be removed with a tweezer but if they’re deep they’ll require more extensive medical care to be removed.
If you get finned by a smaller fish it’s important to make sure you inspect the fish and confirm the fins are in tact.
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.
You’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 are instances where people will get finned and get serious infections but they’re the exception and not the rule.
Want More Catfishing Tips
To get more catfishing tips, check out the Ultimate List Of Catfishing Tips for all the catfishing tips and tricks you could ever want and more.
For more in-depth information on locating and catching catfish check out the Catfish Edge products to get on the fast track to catching catfish.
Updated December 10, 2021
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