Two of the catfish we find in the Hudson have forked tails. Both are gray or grayish brown above, fading to white below. If small black spots are scattered over the body, then the fish is a channel catfish, found mainly in fresh water. The white catfish lacks spots and ranges from fresh water into slightly salty parts of the Hudson. Most catfish that we catch are less than fifteen inches long.
Catfish and bullheads have the reputation of being able to sting. Sharp spines – one each in the dorsal fin and in the two pectoral fins – can jab one’s hand if the fish aren’t handled carefully. The barbels are harmless sensory organs, covered with taste buds that allow these fish to find food at the river’s bottom, where it is dark and eyes aren’t of much use.
Catfish are tasty and a popular catch for river anglers. However, health officials advise against eating catfish taken from the Hudson, as they tend to have high levels of toxic PCB contamination.
Tasting what you touch
Imagine having taste buds on the tips of your fingers. That might not be very desirable for people, but for fish living in the murky Hudson, tasting what you touch has its advantages. Fish like sturgeon, carp, and catfish have sensory organs near their mouths called barbels that can touch and taste. A catfish’s “whiskers” are actually barbels and do not sting. Instead, they can feel and taste objects in the river to identify a potential meal. In the murky Hudson, sometimes it’s easier to feel your meal than it is to see it.