We examined feeding of blue catfish, Ictalurus furcatus, and flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, collected from floodplain lake, secondary (side) river channel, and main river channel habitats in the lower Mississippi River (LMR), U.S.A. We described the feeding ecology of two large river catfish species within the context of whether off-channel habitats in the LMR (i.e., floodplain lakes and secondary channels) potentially provided energetic benefits to these fishes as purported in contemporary theory on the ecology of large rivers. We used diet composition and associated caloric densities of prey consumed as indicators of energetic benefit to catfishes. Differences in diet among habitats were strong for blue catfish, but weak for flathead catfish; consumed foods generally differed among habitats in caloric (energy) content. Caloric densities of consumed foods were generally greatest in floodplain lakes, least in the main river channel, and intermediate in secondary river channels. Strong between-year variation in diet was observed, but only for blue catfish. Blue catfish fed disproportionately on lower-energy zebra mussels in the main river channel during 1997, and higher-energy chironomids and oligochaetes in floodplain lakes during 1998. Results suggested that although off-channel habitats potentially provided greater energetic return to catfishes in terms of foods consumed, patterns of feeding and subsequent energy intake may vary annually. Energetic benefits associated with off-channel habitats as purported under contemporary theory (e.g., the 'flood-pulse concept') may not be accrued by catfishes every year in the LMR.