Hardhead Catfish

Hardhead Catfish, Ariopsis felis

The Hardhead Catfish, Ariopsis felis, whose common Spanish name is bagre boca chica, is a member of the Sea Catfish or Ariidae Family, known collectively as bagres marinos in Mexico. Its common name stems from the presence of a hard bony plate extending from between the eyes toward the dorsal fin. Globally, there are 22 species in the genus Ariopsis, of which three are found in Mexican waters, one in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific.

The Hardhead Catfish have elongated and easily recognizable “catfish” bodies. Their color is traditional “catfish gray” or golden dorsally and transitions to white ventrally. Their fins are pale with the exception of the second dorsal fin which is dark. Their head is rounded and slightly flattened and has two pairs of closely set nostrils with the upper jaw forming a broad arc. Their teeth are on the roof of the mouth with two patches on each side, two small round narrowly separated patches in the center, and two large oval patches on the sides. They have three pairs of rounded barbels: two pairs are white and under their chin and one pair is thread-like, located at the corner of their mouth, and used to probe the bottom for food. They also have a longitudinal groove in a depression on the midline of their head. Their caudal fin is deeply forked. Their first dorsal and pectoral fins each have a very sharp, slime-covered, barbed, and serrated spine. Their second dorsal fin is fleshy and dark in color. Females have larger pelvic fins than males. They have wide gill openings with 13 to 16 gill rakers on their first arch and 13 to 17 gill rakers on their second arch. Their lateral line is complete. They have no scales and their skin is smooth to the touch.

The Hardhead Catfish can tolerate a wide range of salinity and are found inshore, in the surf zone, and in estuaries in turbid waters over muddy bottoms at depths up to 350 feet. They are very common around docks and piers. They are known to enter estuaries during warmer months and retreat to deeper waters during winter months. They reach a maximum length of 70 cm (28 inches) and weigh up to 5.5 kg (12 pounds). They have an acute sense of smell and are opportunistic feeders consuming algae, benthic crustaceans, detritus, seagrasses, and small fish. In turn they are preyed upon by a variety of sharks and bottlenose dolphins. In brackish environments they are also preyed upon by water snakes. Reproduction is oviparous with females having low fecundity levels and producing only 20 to 65 eggs annually. Following fertilization, eggs are mouthbrooded by males for about a month until they hatch and for up to an additional two weeks in the larval stage. They are scientifically interesting due to their ability to respond to chemicals released by injured individuals demonstrating communication among catfish. They are known to use hearing to detect obstacles in close proximity as an aide in navigation. They also have the ability to produce sound which is used as a defense mechanism, in courtship, and for spawning. They have a lifespan of up to four years.

In Mexican waters the Hardhead Catfish are found in all waters of the Atlantic.

The Hardhead Catfish can be easily confused with the Gafftopsail Catfish, Bagre marinus (overabundant thick white slime produced; dorsal and pectoral fins with distinctive extensions; two pairs of flattened, ribbon-like, and long barbels on chin and upper jaw).

The Hardhead Catfish are easy to catch on lightweight tackle by hook and line with shrimp being a bait of choice, however, they can quickly become a nuisance. In freshwater they can be caught on bacon, beef, chicken, and smaller fish. Most anglers consider them trash fish. They are difficult to handle due to their venomous barbed dorsal and pectoral spines that can inflict significant pain. They taste “fishy”. Hooked males are known to spew eggs or little catfish on deck. They are also caught as a by-catch by commercial fishermen with bottom trawls and typically discarded. From a conservation perspective they are considered of Least Concern being widely distributed, common, and abundant with stable populations. They are unregulated throughout their range. They are prone to mass mortality during cold water episodes. They are believed to play an important role in coastal ecosystems.

Hardhead Catfish, Ariopsis felis. Fish caught off the Sanibel Pier, Sanibel Island, Florida, January 2011. Length: 33 cm (13 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of Kenneth Tse, Toronto, Canada.