Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.
I dragged the deflating raft behind me with one arm. My other hand held a fishing rod, which offered some balance as I trudged toward shore through the thigh-high surf. I felt the sharp sting of a jellyfish wrapped around my leg. Then another on my other leg. Upon finally reaching the beach, I yardsaled across the white sand.
In years past years, I stood in the surf and cast to deeper water. I’d usually have a limit of tasty pompano before my family awoke in our beachfront vacation rental. This year, however, currents in the Gulf of Mexico brought in hordes of jellyfish, and I couldn’t cast far enough to clear them. So, I pumped up our inflatable boat. And by “boat,” I mean a $29.99 big-box store plastic raft—the “S.S. Explorer,” which my brother and I used to ride afternoon waves on previous vacations. In the morning calm, I reasoned I could paddle beyond the gentle breakers to fishable waters, avoiding jellyfish in the process. Fishing rod and raft in tow, I grabbed a bag of frozen shrimp and struck out to the ocean.
Not the best idea my 13-year-old mind engineered, but also not the worst.
I reached the far edge of the sandbar with relative ease and dropped my baited hook into the emerald water. My one-ounce pyramid weight hit the sandy bottom about 20 feet down. Just as I closed the bail, I felt a hearty tug, and soon, a 14-inch hardhead catfish splashed at the surface. I naively flipped the cat into the raft. Chaos ensued. Its pectoral and dorsal spines quickly punched no less than four holes in the cheap blue and yellow vinyl of the S.S. Explorer. I then shrewdly flipped the unhooked fish out of the raft and made haste for the beach.
Gafftopsail and Hardhead Catfish
The jellyfish invasion cleared later in the week and I biked down the road to a hole-in-the-wall tackle shop to restock on bait. I recounted my earlier catfish and raft episode to the shop clerk, who, weathered by a lifetime of sun, didn’t hold back his opinion on the fish.
“Bud, they’re trash! If they don’t poke ya, they’ll slime ya. If they do poke ya, you’ll be hurtin.’ And, they’re bottom feeders that ain’t even good to eat!” he said in a devilishly calm drawl. “Most folks hate ‘em ‘cause they’re bait stealers, but they keep me in business!”
Nearly 20 years later that memory remains vivid. As a young Yankee in the South, I couldn’t imagine a saltwater fish being labeled “trash.” For the rest of our vacation, I remained unconvinced—sea cats provided non-stop action, and they actually were tasty!
In tackle shops and bar rooms all over their native range, however, marine catfishes continue to take a bashing. Both hardhead and gafftopsail catfish continue to hold the misaligned label of “trash fish,” that lackadaisical term applied to fishes with little perceived ecological, sporting, or culinary value. But saltwater catfish deserve a fair assessment unsullied by second hand slander.
Catching Your Own Cats
Gafftopsail and hardhead catfish are members of the family Ariidae, or sea catfishes. Both are relatively widespread and abundant along the Atlantic Coast, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, these two marine catfishes share habitats—brackish bays, sandy and muddy shores, and river mouths, and they will often school together.
Gafftopsail catfish (Barge marinus) generally grow quicker and larger than hardheads—a big gafftop can reach 24-plus inches and weigh in the 10-pound range. A large hardhead is generally not more than 3 or 4 pounds. Gafftopsails are easily distinguished from hardheads by long filaments extending from their dorsal and pectoral fins, which, as their name suggests, resemble the topsail on a sailing ship. Hardhead catfish (Ariopsis felis) are also fittingly named—their scientific name comes from Greek, ari for “strength” and opsis for “appearance,” in reference to the hard, bony plate extending from their eyes to their dorsal fin. They are generally more abundant than gafftops, and hardheads have six “whiskers” compared to four on gafftopsails.
Similar to freshwater catfishes, sea catfish barbels (or “whiskers”) are sensory aids to help locate prey on the bottom, especially in murky water. Both catfish species are opportunistic feeders and eat a range of prey including shrimps, crabs, and other fishes. Bait fisherman are sometimes annoyed by these catfishes’ greater willingness to bite than desired sport fishes, but the non-stop action can be especially fun for a family saltwater outing. Gafftops also actively feed throughout the water column or even at the surface. So, if you want to target gafftopsails, or avoid catching too many hardheads, an actively worked jig or streamer can be the ticket.
Like drum species, hardheads also produce a variety of sounds to communicate. They are one of a few bony fishes that use a form of echolocation to help maneuver around structure and perhaps locate food. Both marine catfishes are also mouth brooders, meaning a male cat carries around relatively few, large eggs in his mouth after the female lays her clutch. Once hatched, the larvae remain sheltered in their father’s mouth for several weeks as they grow. During this 8- to 10-week period, the male will not actively feed.
When a sea cat, male or female, does take your bait or lure, be ready! These catfishes maybe be the best pound-for-pound hook and line fighters in the Gulf. What they lack in size they make up for in their fight and punch. As I learned in the raft, their sharp, stout spines can puncture many surfaces, even car tires, and they will deliver a painful, noxious poke to your skin. Like burbot, they also produce slime as a defense and stress response, which is especially copious on a hooked gafftopsail. However, when handled carefully and correctly, their outward defenses and appearance shouldn’t deter you from a fun fight and a tasty treat.
Can You Eat Saltwater Catfish?
One of the most egregious fallacies that generally comes with the “trash fish” label is that such fishes are unworthy table fare—a notion I vehemently refute.
Renowned wild game chef Jesse Griffiths agrees with me and holds gafftopsail catfish in particularly high regard. But like any fish, “trash” or not, he stresses proper handling and care.
“They’re obviously really slimy, which I think puts people off the most,” Griffiths said. In fact, some fishing guides in the Gulf won’t allow clients to keep gafftops. Griffiths simply suggests using a separate cooler for cats.
“The best thing to do with them is to get them in an ice slurry,” Griffiths said. “This firms up the slime and makes them easier to handle. It’s also a good idea to bleed them.” At that point, the slime is easily wiped away and Griffiths prefers to fillet then remove the skin, rather than skinning whole.
With typically firm fillets, hardheads and gafftopsails fry up nicely—just like any freshwater catfish you’d find on restaurant menus across the South. Chef Jesse has even tricked a few nay-sayer guides into becoming fans of gafftops.
“During our cooking classes, we have guides help take out our guests. We try to catch as many species as we can for the classes. One time we served a bunch of fried gafftops to the guides and one told me it was the best fried fish he ever had. I was so happy to tell him it was a gafftop—he was pissed!”
Saltwater cats also take on excellent flavor when smoked whole. And according to Griffiths, gafftops can really outshine many species, freshwater or marine, as a substitute for cod, especially salted cod preparations: “We use them in dishes like brandade, and they are excellent.”
“Overall, they’re a top five fish in our nearshore bays of the Gulf. They’re right up there with redfish and [sea] trout,” Griffiths said.
As a self-respecting bird hunter, I’m much more of a dog person than a cat person. But when it comes to unjust “trash fish” labels, I drop that moniker and claim both dogfish and catfish equally. So, let’s move beyond saltwater cats’ reputation as pokey, slimy, and off-putting—they’re tasty, fun, and when nothing else is biting, these feisty cats can be a life raft to save your inshore fishing trip.