This study relied on the day-by-day analysis of bioenergetics and prey size preference in larvae and juveniles of Hemibagrus nemurus selected at random, held in isolation (28.5°C, 12L:12D) and feeding ad libitum on conspecifics [21 fish, 12–46 mm total length (TL), dry mass (DM) of 1–145 mg]. Several traits concur to make young H. nemurus highly cannibalistic: (1) high predation capacities (largest prey = 88% and 70% TL in fish of 8 and >40 mm TL, respectively), (2) opportunistic feeding behaviours with no marked size preference and (3) an unusual combination of high food intake (>100% DM at 1 mg DM) and very high gross conversion efficiency (>0.70). A growth model was constructed from the top performances of fish feeding maximally (16 of 21 fish) and indicated that the risk of cannibalism would be high and permanent except for meal frequencies over five daily meals. Cannibals emerging spontaneously under communal rearing (6 fish L−1, three daily meals) grew more slowly or just at the same rate as predicted by the growth model constructed from siblings selected at random. This indicates that the individuals that become cannibals do not possess higher intrinsic capacities for growth than others.