Cathepsin L (CatL) has been widely known for its involvement in the innate immunity. However, it still remains poorly understand how CatL modulates the immune system of teleosts. Moreover, the CatL of Nile tilapia (NtCatL) has not been cloned or characterized. In this study, the gene encoding NtCatL was cloned, and was characterized by bioinformatics analysis, heterologous expression and protease activity assay. The coding sequence of NtCatL is 1017 bp in length and encodes 338 amino acid residues with a predicted molecular weight of 38.487 kDa and a theoretical isoelectric point of 5.79. NtCatL possesses the features of a typical cathepsin L, including one signal peptide, one propeptide region, and one papain family cysteine protease domain containing four active site residues (Gln135, Cys141, His281, and Asn305). The prediction of protein-protein interaction shows that NtCatL may interact with some functional proteins for realizing an immune function. Real-time quantitative PCR revealed the widespread transcriptional expression of NtCatL in six tissues of healthy Nile tilapia, and the NtCatL mRNA is significantly up-regulated after Streptococcus agalactiae challenge. These results suggest that NtCatL is likely to be involved in the immune reaction of Nile tilapia. Recombinant proteins from the mature domain (residues 117–337) of NtCatL were obtained by heterologous expression using pET28a and Rosetta (DE3) competent cells. A protein product with the high purity was obtained by using TALON Superflow purification rather than adopting HisTrap HP columns. The protease activity of the recombinant protein was verified by using a substrate hydrolyzing assay. This work has cloned and characterized the CatL from Nile tilapia for the first time, and contributes to elucidating the immunological functions of CatL.