Tall tales of catfish on the Tennessee River
Tennessee Aquarium celebrates this river
in August during National Catfish Month
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
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.
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.
the big blues that cruise in the Nickajack exhibit are quite
large, Aquarium biologists are quick to refute tales of car-sized
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 www.planetcatfish.com
for more catfish information.
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
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.
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.
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.”
here for National Catfish Month press kit and downloadable
images w/ cutlines.
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 www.tnaqua.org
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