Redtail catfish care guide

Redtail catfish (lat. Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) got its name due to its bright orange tail fin. This is a good looking, but very large and predatory catfish, that yet is being kept in tanks. It can be seen on sale quite often as well. The redtail catfish grows very large even in small tanks. You’ll need a very roomy tank to keep this fish. It’s a predator, therefore everything it can swallow will be eaten and it can eat quite a lot.

Habitat in the wild

Redtail catfish inhabits Amazon, Essequibo and Orinoco river basins — from Colombia to Bolivia including Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil. Also the fish was acclimatized in waters of Thailand and Florida state (USA).

This is a demersal fish that prefers freshwater basins. The redtail catfish can be encountered is large and medium rivers, streams, lakes with sandy or muddy bottom. Its range of expansion is very wide – from fast flowing sections of rivers to immersed forest bogs. The fish feeds on fish, crabs and fruit.

Latin name of originates from Greek words ‘phraktos’ that means «a fence», and ‘kephale’ — «a head». It is not used for cooking because it’s not tasty. However, it is an object for sport fishing.

Scientific NamePhractocephalus hemioliopterus
Common NamesRedtail catfish; redtail fish
Range and habitatBrazil, Colombia
Size1.8 m (5 ft 11 in)
Lifespan15 years
Ease of keepingEasy
Minimum tank size220 gallons and more
Temperature72-78 °F (22-26 °C)
Water hardness5-20 dGH


General length of the redtail catfish reaches 1,8 m (5 ft 11 in) and it weighs 80 kg (180 lb). In tanks tends to grow significantly smaller, but still its size is from 50 cm (20 inches) and to 100 cm (40 inches). The redtail catfish lifespan is over 15 years.

The head is large, wide and flattened from top. The eyes are small, located at the top of the head. The fish has 3 pairs of barbels; one is on its maxilla and it is longer than other two pairs on its mandible.

The body is bulky and elongated. The dorsal is wide and tall. Fatty fin is small. Pectoral fins are long and wide. Anal fin elongated and has short base. The caudal fin is forked and very wide.

The back is brown, sides are yellow, pectoral, abdominal and anal fins are black, top of the dorsal (its bottom is black) and tail fins are orange-red.

Due to such coloring the fish got its name. The abdomen is beige.

Difficulties in keeping

The redtail catfish is undemanding, quite nice and active. But. This is a monster, that can grow to be a huge fish. Quite often aquarists buy it because of its unusual appearance and then they start to notice that other fishes in a tank start to disappear.

At that the redtail catfish grows very fast. When its owner gets who eats other tank dwellers, he tries to get rid of the pet. However, there are not that many volunteers who want to have it.

Care and keeping in the tank

Tank size

The redtail catfish is extremely challenging in terms of keeping due to its size and requirements as for the available space to swim. That’s why recommended tank volume should be 1000 liters (220 gallons). Young species can live in smaller tanks, but if you don’t provide them with a tank of corresponding volume as they grow, the fish will die early. This catfish prefers near bottom water layer and dim light.

Tank decor

Having shelters in a tank is a must, since the fish will spend most of its time there, especially when it grows older. The fish will guard its shelter from other tank mates invasion. The redtail catfish likes all kinds of shelters and when it is young it can easily get into any cave, but the large adult fish species has to just lie down over some snag or log in a tank.

The tank bottom substrate should be dark colored. As for the tank decorations – one or two snags will do. You should fix them to the bottom since adult species may break the tank glass with such a snag. Don’t use stones as tank decorations for the same reason.

As for the tank plants, they will grow and be ok only when the fish is small. Some time later the catfish may just root them away. Putting tank plants into flower pots won’t help in this case as well.

The redtail catfish may live at Spartan tank conditions. Moderate lighting, some snags and large stones as shelters – this is all the fish needs.


However, powerful canister filter is a must, because the redtail catfish produces a lot of waste. All possible tank equipment has to be put outside the tank, since the fish easily destroys thermometers, sprayers etc. The fish gets used to its owner very quickly and lets him stroke it.


The redtail catfish is omnivorous. The catfish will eat all types of dry, frozen and live food, but it prefers live prey or products of animal origin. Young catfish should be fed every day. As they grow you should switch to feeding them one-twice a week.

Tank mates

Fish has a large mouth and good appetite, that’s why any small sized tank mates will be eaten. This catfish gets along well with the fish species of its size, but there are almost no tank fishes of such size. Any other fish that is sufficiently smaller will be treated as food.

This fish guards its territory and may demonstrate aggression towards its relatives or catfish of other kind, that’s why don’t keep them together (though it is hardly ever possible). Keep just several adult fish species in a tank or just one of them.

It is better to observe this catfish in public tanks, where in a volume of many tons capacity there is a whole community of Amazon selva.

As a rule in such tanks tank mates are black pacu, giant gourami, iridescent shark or large sized armored catfishes (sailfin pleco, common pleco).

Gender differences: male vs female

The redtail catfish doesn’t have any pronounced gender dimorphism. Therefore, it is still unknown how to tell between the male and female.


For obvious reasons in a home aquaria breeding this catfish is impossible.