Stuck By A Catfish! Am I Going To Die?

Every fishing trip has its own story.  This is one of excess and retribution from the catfish gods for catching more than my legal limit of fish on a gloriously warm and rainy morning in the spring.  Although it was a few years ago when this event takes place, every time I go to the river I think about the day I almost lost a finger by being careless in handling a catfish.

Let’s clear up some myths about them now.  Their whiskers will not hurt you!  The evil catfish cannot hurl its spines and cripple you where you stand.  Most fishermen today will tell you that other than a little burning where the catfish scraped or stuck you, there is no poison in their spines.  I believe they are wrong, and I have the finger to prove it!

One fishermen whose opinions I valued at one time, told me that it wasn’t the catfish that was sticking me when I grabbed it, but it was me who was sticking myself on the spines of the catfish!  I’m not suicidal and the catfish that struck me that day must have been possessed by demons!

A fishing buddy and I had tied our boat up under the Elk River Bridge on Highway 72 in north Alabama.  There was a light and steady rain, one that dripped off a chorus of blooming Dogwood trees that lined the bank of the river like frost on a cold bottle of beer.  It was pleasantly warm and the catfish were biting.

Using red worms and chicken liver, we caught blue catfish and channel catfish all morning, almost as fast as we could throw the hook into the water.  It was a splendid day and I should have known I was going to experience something bad in the near future, to compensate for the pleasure I was receiving that morning.

During the course of this fishing bonanza, I was scraped and punctured by several catfish as I struggled to get them off the hook.  The catfish has a spine in its dorsal fin just behind its head, as well as in the pectoral spines on the side.  Most experts say that they contain venom that burns and stings the skin, but is not normally harmful.

Being the tough southern boy I am, the stings and pain of fishing is something that’s just a normal part of the outdoor experience, so I ignored it.  The next morning the index finger on my left hand was tingling as if there were tiny electrical charges going off in my finger.  It didn’t really hurt; it was just annoying.

The Next morning though, my finger was throbbing as if I had hit it with a 20 ounce hammer!  Not only was I in agony, but the finger had turned dark blue and was as large as my big toe!  I hadn’t gone to med school, but I knew something was wrong!

I went to the doctor as soon as they opened and he told me that I had catfish poisoning.  He used what I thought was much too large a needle to inject an anesthetic into on all sides of my finger to deaden it for the main attraction.   He actually cut a hole in the offending digit about the size of a pinto bean and simply scooped out the infection.

Doctor Phil, yes that was his name, told me that if I had I waited much longer to see him; gangrene would have dictated that I have the finger removed.  He also explained that while researchers know that some exotic forms of catfish have poisonous spines, it is believed by many that injuries severe enough for surgery, are due to infections from the wounds.  Dirt, river water and the skin of the catfish touching the scratches and punctures may have contributed to the infection!

Fishing for catfish is a way of life in the south, so be careful.  If you get scraped or poked by the spines of a catfish, immediately wash the wound in alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.  Most fishermen of any intelligence today carry a first aid kit with him, so be prepared. 

Can you die from being stuck by the dorsal fin or pectoral fins of the catfish?  Probably not, but if the wound becomes infected you may think you’re on death’s door.

Bob Alexander is well experienced in outdoor cooking, fishing and leisure living. Bob is also the author and owner of this article. Visit his sites at:

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