When you hear the word “catfish” it’s a safe bet your mind goes to river fishing at night for flathead catfish on the prowl, dunking worms for channel catfish in a pond, or laying chicken liver on the bottom below a hydraulic boil in a tailwater fishery hoping to muscle out a big blue catfish. All three species have a few things in common: they are active in low light, smell and touch are primary senses, they grow large—quite large—and they make fine table fare.
It may surprise you to learn another group of catfishes is renowned for their diminutive size and equally secretive nature with the most curious of names: the madtoms. Twenty-nine madtom species inhabit streams and rivers in the central and eastern United States and fall under the management purview of state fish and wildlife agencies.
Their common names pay tribute to the waters they swim: Neosho madtom, Ouachita madtom, Ozark madtom, and Carolina madtom. Other common names describe their shape or color or other attributes, such as smoky, slender, piebald, pygmy, and frecklebelly. Some of the madtoms are common, and others, well, not so much. The Scioto madtom from central Ohio was declared extinct in 2020. Most of the madtom species now have unnaturally fragmented and limited ranges and are the object of conservation concern.
The frecklebelly madtom was the subject of recent range-wide surveys. The tiny catfish naturally occurred in medium to large rivers in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and a minute portion of Tennessee. A species status assessment paid for by State Wildlife Grants, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program, funded several years of population surveys by the state fish and wildlife agencies in all five states. State Wildlife Grants are monies appropriated by Congress—versus Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Act taxes paid by firearms, archery, and fishing tackle industries—that are meant for conservation work for fish and wildlife with a high conservation need.
The frecklebelly madtom had that need; the fish has declined in number over the years and recent State Wildlife Grant-funded surveys proved that up. The frecklebelly madtom has suffered from habitat loss due to damming and dredging and agriculture. The frecklebelly, like all the madtoms, not to mention some of the sport fish that co-occur with it such as the redeye bass, need clean swift-flowing water over a rocky river bottom. Perturbations that cause sediments to fall out in the stream bottom and clog the cobbles rob the fishes of a place to hide, feed, and spawn.
Frecklebelly madtoms are shaped for life in fast water: low profile, and flattened heads, and slender like a torpedo, all in the length of your finger. They subsist on mayfly and caddisfly larvae. Blackflies make up a large part of their diet, something anyone who frequents streams for work or fun can appreciate given their propensity to inflict painful bites.
The frecklebelly’s scientific name, Noturus munitus, is something to unpack. Think “munitions.” The little fish’s pectoral spines are serrated like a buck saw blade and possess a venomous gland. They sting like a bee and turn a biologist’s hand numb and send his or her feet into an involuntary dance in shin-deep water. That sting might be the origin of their unusual common name, implying an angry tomcat. They are also known to writhe and wriggle untiringly in captivity. All the madtoms are in the genus, Noturus, attributed to a 19-century Turkish polymath naturalist with the greatest eccentricities, Constantine Rafinesque. The man walked over the Alleghenies and long reaches of the Ohio and lower Wabash rivers in 1818 collecting plants and fishes and fossils. He eschewed a horse because mounting and dismounting took too much of his time from looking at plants. Rafinesque ascribed the Greek genus name to a stonecat madtom from the Ohio River, referring to its long fleshy adipose fin that adjoins the tail.
And this coincidence is too eerie to overlook: Rafinesque tragically lost all his belongings—his papers and plant and fish collections—in a shipwreck on the Atlantic coast. Tulane University ichthyologist Dr. Royal Suttkus gave the frecklebelly its scientific name in 1965 and lost belongings, collections, and papers in a hurricane in 2005. And what’s more, Suttkus had many years prior named a new minnow species, Notropis rafinesquei, the Yazoo shiner, in honor of the eccentric naturalist.
State Wildlife Grants are the juice that makes things go for research and management of obscure but not necessarily unappreciated fish and wildlife species. The frecklebelly surveys conducted up to 2019 revealed that the fish was absent from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway but was more abundant elsewhere than previously thought by scientists.
Such was not the case in the upper Coosa River lying in part over the Georgia-Tennessee state line. The frecklebelly madtom in those sites were afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act in this its fiftieth year in existence. As the frecklebelly in its furthest fringe is added to the list of federally threatened species, the Apache trout in Arizona is set to come off—a beneficiary of Sport Fish Restoration grants and the contributions of the fishing tackle industry.
–Craig Springer, USFWS – Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration