by Shane Linder, uploaded January 01, 2002
What is the world’s largest catfish? My search for the world’s largest catfish started with this simple question. I started with my own library. After two days I had books strewn about the room, my files were spread all over the floor, and I still was not sure. I then called and emailed friends and started surfing the Internet. Along the way, I came across some great stories and folklore about catfishes. So what is the world’s largest catfish? Well, it would be a pretty short article if I told you in the first paragraph.
I started my search here at home. North America is home to two giant catfishes. Ictalurus furcatus, the blue catfish, is native to the Misssissippi, Ohio, and Missouri river basins. Angler Tim Pruitt, of Alton, Illinois, holds the record catch of this species weighin in at 124-pounds. He dragged out of the Mississippi River near Alton after a half-hour battle, the fish measured 58 inches long and 44 inches around. There is a record from the Missouri River of a 315 pound blue catfish that was caught "just after the Civil War."
The second giant is Pylodictis olivaris, the flathead catfish. The current world record, as of 1998, is a 123 pound monster caught in Kansas. Commercial catfishing operations report flatheads nearly 5 feet long and weighing in at 140 pounds. This was my first surprise. Many sources report that the blue catfish is the largest catfish in North America. However, according to the most recent world records, the flathead catfish currently holds the title. Maybe there are still a few giant old blue cats lurking deep in the Mississippi. As an American, I would like to think that we have not fished our largest species of catfish down to second place.
Next, I headed south. South America is home to many well-known giant catfishes. Aquarists often think of the South American red tail, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus, as a monster, but at a maximum length of four feet and a weight of 88 pounds, it pales in comparison to the largest of the South American catfishes. The jau, Zungaro zungaro, can reach to over four and a half feet and weigh more than 100 pounds.
The even larger dourada, Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii, will grow to six feet, but it is the dourada’s cousin, the piraiba, that holds the South American heavy weight title. The piraiba, Brachyplatystoma filamentosum, reaches at least nine feet four inches and weighs up to 308 pounds. This giant is widespread in the Amazon Basin and the same, or a similar species, is found in the Rio Orinoco. Stories of the piraiba occasionally eating humans are common in the Amazon and, in English, date back as far as Teddy Roosevelt’s diary of his Amazon travels. Locals also claim that parts of monkeys are sometimes found in the stomachs of piraiba.
After searching the Americas, I turned east to Asia. Asia is home to many species of giant catfishes. Bagarius yarrelli, known as the goonch in India, is the largest member of the family Sisoridae. This species is widespread throughout Asia, but the largest specimens are usually reported from India. Hora (1939) reported that the goonch reaches six feet in length and can weigh 250 pounds. A number of Asian catfishes of the family Bagridae from the genera Sperata, Hemibagrus and Rita attain lengths nearing five feet.
The silurid catfish Wallago attu, known as the freshwater shark, has been reported at lengths over six feet. This fearsome predator gorges itself on small cyprinids and Burgess reports that many locals are as fearful of this fish as they are of crocodiles.
However, the real giants of Asia belong to the family Pangasiidae. Pangasius sanitwongsei from Thailand can reach nearly eight feet. Smith (1945) relates the story of an unfortunate fisherman that died as a result of his encounter with this behemoth. In 1925 a P. sanitwongsei over seven feet long was captured near Raheng. When the fisherman dove to clear the net the catfish inflicted a deep stab wound in the man’s side with one of its fins. Smith also claims that this catfish has a fondness for eating dogs. Unfortunately, true giants of this species have not been seen since the early 1900s. In an attempt to save this disappearing species they are now artificially spawned for aquaculture purposes. An unfortunate consequence of these spawnings is that juveniles are now showing up in the aquarium hobby trade. These fish are selling under the trade name paroon shark. For obvious reasons, no member of the family Pangasiidae is an appropriate aquarium fish and they should never be purchased.
Perhaps the most famous catfish of Southeast Asia is Pangasianodon gigas. This fish is known in Cambodia as Trey Reach (royal fish), in Laos as the Pa Buk, and in Thailand as the Pla Beuk. In English we simply call it the Mekong giant catfish. This fish not only has the distinction of being one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world, but it is also possibly the fastest growing. Newly hatched fry measure less than one quarter of an inch, by day 11 they measure over an inch, and at only six years of age they can weigh nearly 100 pounds. An adult fish will reach over nine feet and weigh over 650 pounds. Adult fish have no teeth and feed on algae making this catfish a true gentle giant. Southeast Asia is rife with folklore of this mighty catfish, and eating the flesh is believed to confer the gifts of wisdom and long life.
From Asia I turned my search to Africa. I found information on the largest species of catfishes in Africa difficult to find. So I would like to offer special thanks to my friend Lee Finley for sharing some of his resources. In Africa we find what is likely the largest of the sea catfishes, family Ariidae. Arius gigas is found in the Volta and Niger Rivers and may reach nearly five and a half feet. Interestingly enough, three of the four candidates for the largest catfish in Africa are found in Lake Tanganyika. The bagrid Bagrus meridionalis reaches nearly five feet in length and practices very advanced bi-parental brood care. The female sheds unfertilized eggs for the fry to eat while the male brings mouthfuls of invertebrates to the nest.
In Kinshasa, Pierre Brichard reported seeing a member of the family Claroteidae, Chrysichthys cranchii, (the fish was misidentified as C. grandis) that was more than six feet long and weighed over 400 pounds. C. grandis is a large catfish restricted to Lake Tanganyika, however, I was unable to determine its ultimate size for certain because many records, such as Burgess, are based on Brichard’s misidentification. The largest catfishes in Africa for which I could find definitive records all belong to the family Clariidae. This family is known as the labyrinth catfishes for their ability to breath atmospheric air. In South Africa Clarias gariepinus reaches four and a half feet and can weigh over 100 pounds. This species actually hunts in packs. Packs will herd and trap smaller fishes for easy consumption. Natural predators of this catfish include crocodiles and leopards. Heterobranchus bidorsalis from the Nile River reaches nearly five feet. Catfishes of this genus are said to be fierce predators that will attack most small animals, especially fishes and birds. The largest labyrinth catfish, Dinotopterus cunningtoni, is found only in Lake Tanganyika and reaches a total length of over six feet.
Lastly, I focused on Europe and here my search ended. Only two catfish species are native to Europe, however, what Europe lacks in catfish diversity it more than makes up for in size. Silurus glanis, the wels, have been reported up to 16 feet 8 inches and weighing over 730 pounds. The rod and reel angling record for the wels is 202 pounds. This fish, caught in the Danube in Romania, took five hours to land. Beazely relates the story of an unfortunate Polish youth who tied the free end of his fishing line to his wrist. A wels took the bait and dragged the youth from his rowboat down into the depths where the boy drowned. Heckel and Kner, in 1858, reported finding a poodle dog in the stomach of a wels they were examining and Smitt (1895) reported that a lamb drinking from a Swedish lake was seized by a wels. According to Burgess, fishermen used to employ the help of teams of oxen or horses when fishing for wels. The fishing line was tied off to the yoke of the beasts of burden. Once a large wels was hooked the strong animals could then haul the catfish out of the water.
With the wels, the world’s largest catfish, my search ended. Catfishes are found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. This fascinating group of fishes have adapted to environments ranging from the open seas to thousands of feet above sea level in the mountains of the Andes and Himalayas. There may be more folklore surrounding the catfishes than there is for any other group of fishes. Perhaps this is because the catfishes have been nearly as successful as humans in spreading throughout the world. However, man’s activities have impacted the catfishes, especially the giant catfishes, in ways from which these fish may never recover.
Old fishermen always say that the fish were larger and more plentiful in their youth. In the case of the giant catfishes this is true. The very reason that these catfishes are famous, their size, has been their downfall. Giant specimens of North America’s largest catfish have been so over fished by commercial fisheries that the blue catfish no longer holds its rightful title. The case of the Mekong giant catfish is perhaps the most worrisome of all. In 1904 Pavie reported that during the fishing season 6,000 were taken at one location and 1,000 at another. Roberts reported that 64 were taken at one popular location in 1990. By 1996 Peray reported that only 15 were taken at Ben Hat Krai on the Thai-Laotian border. Peray returned in 1997 and 1998 and was unable to find a single Mekong giant catfish.
It is more than just over fishing that is causing the decline of the giant catfishes. We have only recently begun to understand that many of these fish make migratory journeys that can extend over a thousand miles. These migrations affect the catfishes feeding and spawning cycles. Dam projects, especially in Asia and Africa, have interrupted these annual migrations. Giant Mekong catfish have been released into lakes and impoundments. However, it appears that since they cannot make their natural annual migrations, these fish are not reproducing. Sadly, just as I have found the world’s largest catfishes I have also come to find that they are almost gone.