Discover the Official State Fish of Nebraska

Written by Mike Edmisten
Updated: September 9, 2023
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Nebraska has some rather interesting state symbols. For instance, there are two official state drinks: milk (state drink) and Kool-Aid (state soft drink). Nebraska also has a state folk dance (square dance) and two state songs. “Beautiful Nebraska” is the state song, and “A Place Like Nebraska” is the state ballad. But, along with these rarer state symbols, the Cornhusker State also has state animals just like every other U.S. State. There is a state fish counted among the ranks of those Nebraska animal symbols. The official Nebraska state fish is the channel catfish.

Naming a State Fish

The channel catfish was selected as the state fish in 1997. Unlike most other states, though, the selection did not require any action from the Nebraska legislature. 

According to Nebraska Revised Statute 90-119, “The Governor may designate official state items, including animals, plants, minerals, and other things. Legislative approval of any such designation is not required.”

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Because there was no need to secure the support of Nebraska lawmakers, Gov. Ben Nelson was able to singlehandedly name the channel catfish as the Nebraska state fish. He did so after a group of fourth-graders at Valley Elementary School lobbied for the official recognition of the fish. Gov. Nelson listened to his young constituents and made the state fish declaration on September 13, 1997. (He would designate the square dance as the state folk dance a few days later.)

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

The channel catfish (or channel cat, for short) is the most plentiful catfish species in the United States. The fish inhabits deep rivers, streams, and lakes in the central and eastern U.S. They can also adapt to smaller ponds and lakes with healthy stocking practices. 

Channel catfish illustration. Image was prepared by Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp as part of the 1927-1940 New York Biological Survey conducted by the Conservation Department (the predecessor to today's New York State Department of Environmental Conservation). Permission for their use is granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The channel catfish has a slender body with a deeply forked tail.

©Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp / Public domain – License

Appearance and Size

Channel catfish have long, slender bodies with a deeply forked tail. They are scaleless fish that range in color from olive-green to blue-gray. Channel catfish are commonly mistaken for blue catfish.

Younger channel cats (sometimes called fiddlers) have spots, but those spots often disappear as the fish ages. The dorsal and pectoral fins have sharp spines. These spines contain a venom that causes edema (swelling) and a hemolytic, which causes increased blood flow in the area of the injury. Smaller catfish have sharper spines since they become duller as the fish ages.

An average channel catfish weighs two to four pounds, but these fish can also grow significantly larger if the conditions are right. A 20-pound channel catfish is a great catch, but an exceptional channel cat can grow to 40 pounds or better.

Blue Catfish
Blue catfish, such as this one, are often mistaken for channel catfish.

©M Huston/


Channel catfish are primarily nocturnal feeders. The fish has poor eyesight, so it primarily locates food through scent and taste. A channel cat has olfactory organs in its nares (nostrils). 

The fish’s body is also covered with tastebuds, but the highest concentration of tastebuds is found in the fish’s trademark barbels. These “whiskers” draw comparisons to the whiskers of a cat, hence the fish’s name. The channel catfish has eight barbels: two pairs are on the lower jaw, one pair is by the nares in front of the eyes, and the longest pair is on each tip of the upper jaw. 

The barbels of a channel catfish have approximately 25 tastebuds per square millimeter. These highly developed senses allow the channel cat to locate food at night and in water that is often stained and muddy.

Channel catfish are perhaps the most opportunistic feeder of any catfish species found in the U.S. These omnivorous fish will eat whatever food is available. Channel cats will eat fish, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, snakes, small birds, and plant material. That is just a small sample, though. It would probably be a shorter list to document what a channel catfish will not eat.

channel catfish
The channel cat’s barbels are highly sensitive and help the fish find food in dark, muddy water.



This allows anglers to use all manner of bait to catch channel cats. Some prefer to use live bait such as fish and nightcrawlers. Others prefer dip or stink baits. Still, others prefer doughballs, chicken livers, or shrimp. The list is nearly endless, which means fishermen and fisherwomen can argue interminably about which catfish bait is most effective.

Catfish are typically bottom feeders, so anglers will often fish deep with a bobber/float or simply allow their bait to rest on the floor of the river or lake.

Channel catfish are among the most sought-after fish for table fare. The moist, sweet fillets are firmer and less flaky than other whitefish. Channel catfish are widely considered to be the tastiest catfish in North America.

Common Earthworm Nightcrawler (Lumbricus Terrestris)
Catfish anglers have a wide variety of baits to choose from, but many swear by the tried-and-true nightcrawler.

©Liz Weber/

Nebraska Channel Catfish Fisheries

Here are a few of the best places to land a big channel catfish in the Cornhusker State. However, channel cats are found throughout Nebraska, so this is far from an exhaustive list.

Merritt Reservoir

This is arguably the top fishery in the state. A consistent supply of clean water and diverse habitats have helped to create a multi-species fishery that is stacked with quality fish. The state record channel catfish came from these waters (more on that later), but so did the state record muskie. Merritt Reservoir also holds big walleye, northern pike, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and a variety of panfish.

Merritt Dam, located southwest of Valentine in rural Cherry County, Nebraska. View is from the west. Note the bell-mouth spillway at left.
Merritt Reservoir is quite possibly the top fishery in Nebraska for channel cats, along with a host of other species.

©Ammodramus / CC0 – License

Lewis and Clark Lake

Situated on the Nebraska/South Dakota border, Lewis and Clark Lake is probably the best smallmouth bass fishery in the state. In addition to smallies, these waters hold big numbers of quality channel cats. Sauger, walleye, crappie, northern pike, largemouth, and rock bass are other sportfish that swim in this quality, multi-species fishery.

Lake McConaughy

This lake yielded state records for both walleye and striper, but it is also a great place to target channel cats and smallmouth bass. The trout fishery below Lake McConaughy is one of the best in the state, as well.

Rolling Nebraska grassland slopes down to blue, Lake McConaughy. Tiny white sailboats dot small bay.
Beautiful Lake McConaughy is another great Nebraska channel cat fishery.

©Bonita R. Cheshier/

Box Butte Reservoir

This lake in the Nebraska panhandle holds some big channel catfish. Box Butte Reservoir has a rocky bottom, so the water is much clearer than many other Nebraska lakes. In addition to channel cats, this lake holds quality crappie, northern pike, walleye, and largemouth bass.

Burchard Lake

This reservoir in southeastern Nebraska is primarily known for its bass fishing, but there are also lots of nice channel cats in its waters. Panfish and crappie populations can also make for a fun day of fishing on Burchard Lake.

Channel Catfish caught at Twin Lakes State Park
There are plenty of places in Nebraska to hook a nice channel catfish.

©vastateparksstaff / CC BY 2.0 – License

Channel Catfish Records

The Nebraska state record channel catfish weighed 41 pounds, 8 ounces. John Cunning of Valentine, Nebraska, caught that massive channel cat on Merritt Reservoir on July 26, 1985. He landed the record channel cat on a nightcrawler. We’re pretty sure we know what his vote would be in the great bait debate!

The world record channel catfish weighed 58 pounds. That mammoth channel cat was caught on the Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina on July 7, 1964.

Other States

Nebraska is not alone in its recognition of the channel catfish’s importance. Three other states have given the channel cat official status. It is the state fish of Kansas and Missouri (along with the channel catfish, Missouri named the paddlefish as its official state aquatic animal). The channel catfish is the state commercial fish in Tennessee (the smallmouth bass is Tennessee’s state sport fish).

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About the Author

A freelance writer in Cincinnati, OH, Mike is passionate about the natural world. He, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks. A former pastor, he also writes faith-based content to encourage and inspire. And, for reasons inexplicable, Mike allows Cincinnati sports teams to break his heart every year.

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