The Truth About Catfish Stings and Poison

by fisherme

Are catfish poisonous?  Yes, and if anyone tells you’re they’re not, they haven’t been stung by their barbs. I can tell you from first-hand experience that getting pricked by the catfish spine can be very painful and in some serious cases, very dangerous.

How dangerous? There have been reports of catfish stings being deadly. That’s not the outcome in most cases, but it’s happened. If you’ve ever held a catfish or have done a lot of catfishing then you’ve probably been poked by the spines. They’re actually venomous glands located around the dorsal and pectoral fins.

Not all catfish are poisonous, but studies have identified over 1000 catfish species that are harmful to humans.  I was finned by a catfish when I was very young and it was a horrifying experience.

Are channel catfish poisonous?

They most definitely are and I got stung by one when I was 6 years old and it cost me a visit to the hospital.  Growing up, neighbors and family would go on fishing trips and catch so many catfish that they didn’t feel like cleaning them all.  They’d give my mom a mess of them and we’d spend all day and night cleaning catfish.

One day we had a kiddie pool full of channel catfish and I reached down to grab one and it stung me close to a vein.  The channel cat pricked me pretty deep and I became very naueous and my hand swole up like a balloon.  Shortly after that I walked to the back yard and could barely hold myself up.

I eventually passed out in the outdoors laundry room and woke up in the hospital.  Luckily for me, my mom found me before things got too bad.  I was in a sling for about a week because my hand was paralyzed.  I’ll never forget the pain I felt from being stung and how the poison made me feel.

How to hold a catfish

I’ve been very careful to avoid getting finned by another catfish.  I’m really cautious around smaller catfish when holding because they’re spines are smaller and sharper than larger catfish.  Think about how puppy teeth are very sharp when they’re young, but they get larger and blunter as they age.

The same goes for catfish fins.  The best way to hold a catfish is to get your hands under the belly and place your thumb and forefinger behind the left and right pectoral fins.  This will allow you to have a better grip on the catfish and control its head movement.

If the catfish is very squirmy and strong, grab it’s tail while still gripping behind the pectoral fins and you’ll have full control of the fish.  I also will from time to time grab them by the lips, but there are some catfish that have teeth and can bite you.  This goes true for some channel cats that are around 16-18 inches long.

best way to hold a catfish

They can grab your thumb and hold on to it until it gets very discomforting and sometimes down right painful.  For this reason, I do not recommend lippin a catfish.  For me, the best way to hold a catfish is under the belly behind its pectoral fins.  This is by far the easiest and safest way to not get finned.

The same holds true when cleaning catfish.  I’ve been stuck more than a few times trying to get the skin off.  The best way to clean the catfish without getting finned is to remove the fins with catfish skinning pliers before removing the skin.  And never pull the skin from the tail towards the head before removing the dorsal fin.  When pulling with force, that fin can stab you and break off into your hand.

What to do if I get stung by a catfish

If you get stung or finned by a catfish the first thing you’ll want to do is clean the area with soap and water.  The catfish that stung you may not be poisonous, but they also carry harmful bacteria that can cause an infection in the localized area that could also spread throughout the body.

If you got finned to the point that part of the fin broke off, remove it like you would a splinter. Clean with some sort of triple antibiotic cream like Neosporin and cover the wound with a clean dressing.

Are catfish poisonous to eat?

The variety of catfish we find in our North American waters like channel cats, flathead and blue catfish aren’t poisonous.  Bullheads may be the worst type of catfish to sting you and taste muddy, but they’re not poisonous to eat.

missouri fishing pond

The only time you should worry about a catfish being harmful if you eat it is from environmental factors like water contamination.  Illegal dumping and toxic chemicals in the waters would cause concern from eating the fish.

Catfish sting effects and how to know if you’ve been stung

You will definitely know if you’ve been stung by a catfish.  The effects of the sting depend entirely on where the injury occurs and how well your body reacts to the venom or bacteria.  For me, it was very painful and resulted in a trip to the hospital.  I couldn’t move my hand or arm for about a week and it was painful for days.

I knew immediately after being stung that something happened because it burns a lot.  It almost feels like a really bad bee sting but it aches.  A bee sting burns, but a really bad catfish sting aches to the bone.

How to avoid a catfish sting

The best way to avoid a catfish sting or getting finned is by proper handling.  Learn the best techniques to holding a catfish and when possible use a catfish lip grabber tool and wear gloves when handling.  Because I had a bad reaction to getting finned, I almost always use the fish lip grabber when handling smaller catfish.

I wear gloves because it’s more protection from getting stung and I can also lip the fish.  I’ve seen guys handle catfish with no worries, but for me, I have to be careful cause I know first hand that catfish are poisonous.

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