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Tall tales of catfish on the Tennessee River
Tennessee Aquarium celebrates this river resident
in August during National Catfish Month

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Aug. 3, 2006) – Legendary storyteller Mark Twain once said, “Do not tell fish stories where people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where people know the fish.”

For fishermen and storytellers, few species have captured the imagination like the catfish. They have been immortalized in Native American folklore, in Twain’s legendary river stories and even in the modern cinema’s “Big Fish.” This August, during National Catfish Month, there is no better place to celebrate the catfish than the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

For people who have spent any time at all around the Tennessee River, tall tales of “catfish as big as Volkswagens” are as common as fleas on a dog. The oft-told legend has it that man-eating catfish the size of small cars have been sighted near the base of area dams by maintenance divers (whose hair reportedly turned white from the shock of the sighting). The first reaction to these fish tales may be head-shaking disbelief, but after spotting the enormous blue catfish in the Tennessee Aquarium’s Nickajack Lake exhibit, visitors may find themselves wondering if the tales are true instead of tall.

Although the big blues that cruise in the Nickajack exhibit are quite large, Aquarium biologists are quick to refute tales of car-sized catfish.

“As long as I’ve been working for the Aquarium, I can honestly say the most frequently asked question is, ‘How big is that catfish?’” said Carol Farmer, Aquarium assistant curator of fishes. “People never cease to be amazed by the size of the animals. Our largest blue catfish does weigh in at more than 90 pounds. However, there are no records of car-sized catfish – even near area dams.”

In his book, “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain – a fan of a good fish story himself – tells of a 250-pound catfish. The largest confirmed catfish in the U.S. was caught in 1879. That big blue weighed 150 pounds. The largest known blue cat caught in Tennessee was 130 pounds and was caught in the Fort Loudon Reservoir in 1976. Wheeler Reservoir, a section of the Tennessee River in north Alabama has been a popular area for “fat cats” – boasting big blues of more than 100 pounds.

The two large catfish in the Nickajack exhibit are most likely females and were donated to the Aquarium. The larger of the two animals was collected at the Raccoon Mountain pump storage plant in 1993. A commercial fisherman in Guntersville, Ala., collected the smaller blue catfish in the winter of 2002. She is a favorite of the volunteer dive staff and weighed 74 pounds when she was introduced in December of 2003.

The Aquarium features a large collection of freshwater catfish. They come from four different continents and range in size from 1 inch in length to 4 feet. Some species, like the blue and channel catfish in the Nickajack exhibit, are quite common. Others, like the red tail Sternella plecostomus in the Amazon River exhibit, are quite rare.

Many of the native catfish at the Aquarium were collected by staff members or donated by local fishermen. The brindled madtom catfish found in the Aquarium’s Backwaters exhibit were donated by Conservation Fisheries Inc., in Knoxville, Tenn. CFI specializes in breeding, rearing and releasing threatened and endangered fishes of Tennessee. The more exotic catfish, like the striped raphael in the Amazon exhibit, are sometimes purchased from fish wholesalers. However, many are donations from other public aquariums or individuals. (Although the Aquarium accepted such donations in the past, we discourage people from using the Aquarium or any other institution as a clearinghouse when they can no longer care for fish that have outgrown their tanks. Aquarium staff members encourage potential pet owners to research fish for size and compatibility before making a purchase. Visit for more catfish information.

Catfish are any of about 31 families and 2,000 species of fish belonging to the order Siluriformes, most of which are found in freshwater. While they vary greatly in appearance, all have the characteristic barbels, or whiskers, that give them a cat-like look. All catfish have bodies that are devoid of scales. Some are smooth-skinned, but others, like the ripsaw catfish in the Flooded Amazon exhibit, have bony plates called scutes. Some catfish have the ability to inject painful toxins via pectoral spines, so handling them can be a risky business. Aquarium staff members use special plastic nets when handling catfish. Not only does this protect the aquarist from coming into contact with the barbs; the nets also protect the fish from getting stuck.

Notoriously omnivorous (eating both plant and animal matter), catfish are not known for being picky eaters, but man-eating catfish are only found in tall tales. Catfish will, however, eat almost anything else. Their barbels are covered with tastebuds that allow them to find food in the murkiest of waters. Many suckermouth catfish, also known as Plecostomus, are generally herbivores (plant eating). They use the teeth that line their sucker-like mouths to scrape algae off rocks and wood. For the suckermouth catfish in the Aquarium, a generous supply of zucchini and vegetable gel diet is provided. The blue and flathead catfish prefer a meatier diet and are given smelt, squid and herring. The smallest catfish in the Aquarium are the Corydoras or “cory cats,” a species found in the Amazon River exhibit. They eat the leftover flake food and brine shrimp that settle on the bottom of the tank.

Many catfish are inactive during the day, coming out to feed at night. Freshwater catfish usually spend much of their time (and lay their eggs) in hollow logs, undercut banks, and other hiding places; if these are removed, catfish populations decline. One or both parents guard the eggs until they hatch.

Whatever types of catfish strike your fancy, you can most likely find it in one or more exhibits at the Aquarium. And remember, as Twain once said, “the catfish is a plenty-good-enough fish for anyone.”

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Click here for National Catfish Month press kit and downloadable images w/ cutlines.

The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $22.95 for adults and $13.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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