How long can catfish live out of water?

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caught catfish

Despite their reputation, quite a few anglers try to catch catfish for dinner.

To keep your catfish fresh until the time it’s ready to cook, you should know how long a catfish will survive out of the water so you can be prepared to keep it fresh.

So, how long can catfish live out of water?

There are over 3,000 species of catfish, so each one is going to survive out of water differently. Typically, a catfish can survive out of water for up to an hour, but there have been instances of catfish surviving out of water for 18 hours. 

Why Can’t Fish Survive Out Of Water

Believe it or not, but fish need oxygen to survive. They don’t breathe oxygen in like you or I would, but instead, they use gills to filter oxygen out of the water. 

When a fish is pulled out of the water, they can no longer get oxygen because there is no water for the gills to pull it from. So even on land, where there is plenty of oxygen, fish suffocate. 

How long can catfish live out of water

Many freshwater fish will suffocate within a few minutes out of water. These fish usually swim in well-oxygenated waters and can get a substantial amount of oxygen while swimming. 

Fish that live in colder water, or deep waters can survive a little longer on land because the water they are used to doesn’t have much oxygen. 

What Makes Catfish Special?

You may have heard that catfish are bottom feeders, and that’s absolutely true! They often live at the bottom of murky waters where oxygen is scarce. So how do they do it?

Catfish can oxygenate themselves through their skin. Yes, you read that right! Catfish have a suprabranchial organ which means “over the gills”.

As long as the catfish’s skin remains damp, or stays covered in mud or slime, they can survive for long periods of time. 

This organ isn’t as effective as our lungs, but it’s not uncommon for a catfish to be able to survive for up to 24 hours out of water in the right conditions.

This long period of time allows catfish to survive droughts, and even move to other water sources. 

In a drought, catfish can bury themselves in wet mud and survive for a year! During dormant phases like this, their metabolism slows right down, so they need even less oxygen than they normally would. 

How To Keep a Catfish Alive Longer

If you’re catching catfish to cook them later, you are going to want to keep that fish fresh for as long as possible. A fresh catfish is going to taste much better than one that’s been dead for a while. 

To keep your catfish as fresh as possible, you’re going to need to keep it alive until you’re ready to cook it.

The best way to keep it fresh is by keeping it in a live well while you’re on a boat, and then putting it in the bathtub when you get home- as long as your kids and pets don’t get to it before you’re ready to cook. 

How long can catfish live out of water
This fella will need a big Bath Tub to keep alive

If you’ve caught too many catfish, you might have a problem keeping them all fresh until you’re ready to eat. In this case, you can clean your fish and freeze it while it’s fresh.

Then thaw and cook when you’re ready for a catfish dinner. 

Catfish Recipe

How do you cook your catfish? Here’s one of the best-reviewed recipes! You can read the full story and recipe here.


4 to 6 catfish fillets, about 1-2 pounds

1 cup milk or buttermilk


3/4 cup fine cornmeal (do not use coarsely ground cornmeal)

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

Oil for frying (use peanut oil if you can)


  1. Heat oil in pan, heat warming oven:

In a heavy frying pan (I prefer to use cast iron), pour enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan. Heat the pan on medium-high.

Heat your oven to 200°F and lay a cookie sheet inside. Place a wire rack on top of the cookie sheet.

  1. Soak catfish in milk or buttermilk:

While the oil is heating, soak the catfish in the milk or buttermilk.

  1. Mix together cornmeal, flour, spices for dredging:

Mix the cornmeal, flour and spices together. (Or you can substitute your favorite seasoning instead.) Place in a shallow dish for dredging.

  1. Dredge fillets in flour mixture, then fry in hot oil:

Let the oil reach 350°F — a good test is to flick a little of the dry breading into the oil, and if it sizzles at once, you’re good to go.

Once the oil is hot, sprinkle the catfish fillets with salt and dredge them into the breading. Shake off the excess and gently lay into the hot oil.

Fry until golden brown, about 2-4 minutes, depending on how thick the fillet is. Use a metal spatula and gently turn the fish over and cook for another 2-4 minutes.

Cast iron heats up and stays hot, so monitor the heat as you fry; you may need to lower the heat on the burner at some point.

  1. Keep cooked fillets warm in oven:

Once the fish is ready, move it to the oven while you cook the rest of the catfish. Keeping the fried catfish warm in the oven will help keep it crispy.

When they’re all done, serve at once with your favorite hot sauce, coleslaw and some hush puppies.

Final Thoughts

Fried catfish with coleslaw is a great dinner- if you can catch a catfish and keep it fresh until dinner time. Luckily, catfish are easy to keep alive for long periods of time, even out of water. 

As long as you keep their skin damp, they can survive for up to 24 hours! I probably wouldn’t attempt something quite that extreme, but you can probably keep them alive for an hour.

You might have several days if you keep them in a bathtub!