Many new anglers are scared to handle catfish, and here are two reasons why: One, they smell bad. Seriously, holding these fish will make you smell like one for days. Two, they have three sharp spines that can impale you or sting you. These stings can be excruciating and may cause inflammation of the skin. If you are new to catfishing, don’t get stung on your next outing, and follow these guidelines on how to hold a catfish.

In this guide, we will go over their anatomy, what to do if you’re stung, and the different methods for handling and unhooking them.

How to Locate the Venomous Catfish Spines

Catfish often get viewed as disgusting bottom-feeders. However, only one word comes to mind when I think of a catfish: resilience. When you first hook a catfish and start to reel it in, you will shortly learn how much of a fighter these fish are. This fight is one of the main reasons why I enjoy targeting them.

Catfish have three dagger-like, venomous spines. When faced with a predator, they engage their spines and lock them out perpendicularly from their body. Here’s how to locate their spines:

  • One at the front of their dorsal fin (on their back)
  • One on each pectoral fin (front two side fins, behind the head)

What to Do If You’re Punctured or Stung by a Catfish

Here’s how you should treat a wound caused by a catfish:

  • Remove the spine with a pair of fishing pliers
  • Immerse the affected area in clean hot water
  • Scrub and sanitize the wound with fresh water
  • Do not tape or stitch the wound

If a catfish seriously harms you or someone else, seek medical attention immediately.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details on how to handle and unhook catfish.

How to Hold a Catfish and Properly Unhook It

Step One: Firmly Grab Behind the Dorsal and Pectoral Spine

To start this hold, place your thumb and index fingers behind the dorsal and pectoral spine. Holding behind their shoulder blades is one of the safest places to handle a catfish because it is the most rigid part of its body. Note: You can perform this hold from over the top of its head or under its belly. Choose whichever grip is most comfortable for you.

Step Two: Unhook the Catfish Using Fishing Pliers

Now, it’s time to unhook the fish. So, go ahead and grab those trusty fishing pliers out of your tackle box. With your fishing pliers, pinch the hook’s eye and remove it by rolling the eye toward the point.

Alternatively, you can pinch the hook outside of the fish’s mouth and shake or wiggle it out. I recommend the rolling technique between the two methods because I find it the most effective, especially when using a circle hook.

Step Three: Grasp Above the Caudal Fin With Your Other Hand

Grasping the fish between its adipose and caudal fin is an optional step to use if you start to lose control of the fish. When performing this hold, continue to grasp the fish behind its shoulder blades with your other hand. Note that the adipose and caudal fin is located at the fish’s end.

Additionally, this hold makes for a great photo-op. So, make sure to smile and hold your fish away from your body.

Pro Tip: The further you hold the fish out, the larger it’ll look on photos.

Step Four: Keep or Release Your Catfish

Before you keep your fish, make sure to follow your local conservation department’s guidelines. These guidelines vary from state to state, and some fisheries may prohibit you from keeping catfish under or over a specific size.

For example, when fishing at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, you are prohibited from keeping blue catfish between 26 to 34 inches in length. Fisheries put these size limitations to protect those catfish as prime candidates for breeding.

Or, if you want to release your fish, be mindful, and practice proper catch and release techniques. Keep in mind, when fishing in water bodies 30ft or deeper, you may need to burp your fish before releasing it. To burp the fish, massage the air out of its belly, and reacclimate it to the water.

Stay Safe When Fishing for Catfish

Knowing how to hold a catfish will keep you and the fish from harm. So, to avoid getting punctured or pricked by their barbs, try not to touch the catfish’s dorsal and pectoral fins. However, if you’re still unsure about handling these fish, wear fishing gloves, or use a fish lip gripper for added protection.

Remember, in the unfortunate event you are stung by a catfish, break out your first aid kit, and sanitize the wound as soon as possible. If the injury is severe, then immediately seek medical attention.

Leave a comment below if you have questions on properly holding catfish. Did you find this guide to be helpful? If so, please share it with other anglers who are starting their catfishing journey.

Featured image credit: Mathias Appel via Creative Commons