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Can You Eat Saltwater Catfish? Why or Why Not

Over time, certain species of fish have earned bad reputations. Fishermen call them "trash fish" and consider them as a nuisance. There are many reasons why these lowly fish get dismissed as unworthy of a fisherman's time, but perhaps the most prevailing are that they're assumed to be not good to eat. If you've ever fished in the Gulf of Mexico you've likely encountered one of the more common salty trouble makers and you've probably wondered... can you eat saltwater catfish?

The short answer is yes. You can eat saltwater catfish, but that doesn't mean you would want to or should. But on the other hand, are you missing out on a unique culinary experience by throwing back these pesky bottom feeders?

Let's take a closer look at the fish no one wants to catch but often can't keep off the hook.

These guys actually cook, eat, and give you their opinion as to whether or not Gafftopsail  Catfish are good for eating.

Different Species of Saltwater Catfish

There are many species of fish that make up the saltwater catfish category, but the two most common are the Gafftop Catfish and the Hardhead Catfish.

Both are in fact edible, and both are largely despised by fisherman for stealing bait and getting slime all over everything, including your fishing reels.

Gafftop Catfish, also known as Sailtop Catfish and Sailcats, are easily identified by a tall spike on their dorsal fin that sticks up like the sail of a ship. They are grayish silver and clock in around 1-2 pounds, but can grow up to 9 pounds.

hardhead and gafftopsail catfish

Hardhead Catfish are similar in size and color as Gafftops, but do not have the tall sail-spike on their dorsal fin. Hardheads are appropriately named with very bony heads that extend all the way back to their dorsal fin.

Both species of catfish are found in the same areas, often in the same schools, but depending who you ask, vary widely in their culinary potential. One noteworthy distinction between Gafftop Catfish and Hardhead Catfish that could affect how good they are to eat is their diet.

Hardhead Catfish are primarily bottom feeders, eating anything in their path whether dead or alive; Gafftop Catfish eat all throughout the water column, including crab, shrimp and bait fish.

Why The Bad Rap?

Saltwater catfish are often found in the same waters as prized game fish, including Redfish, Speckled Trout, Flounder and other species. The thing is that in a lot of places there are huge populations of saltwater catfish, and they're often very eager to take whatever bait a fisherman is casting.

how to catch catfish 2

It's a very frustrating experience to have small Hardhead catfish taking your bait when you really wanted to catch a nice Redfish. Saltwater catfish get in the way of the real fish...

And the problem isn't only that they take bait reserved for a finer fish, they make a huge mess while they're at it. Both Gafftops and Hardheads are covered in thick slime that gets all over everything. It covers your leader, your lure, and everything else it touches.

Many fishermen simply don't want to deal with the mess of putting the fish in their coolers...

And then there's the issue of potential injury. Gafftop Catfish have that long spine off their dorsal fin, and while it is subjectively beautiful, it has a protective poison that will cause a very painful wound that can get infected. Are their fillets tasty enough to risk a poisonous puncture wound?

Can You Eat Them? Should You Eat Them?

Most fisherman you come across will tell you that saltwater catfish are not good to eat and aren't worth the trouble. But could this wide-held belief be something that people just say and accept as fact without having ever actually eaten saltwater catfish?

how to catch catfish 3

And if so, should this idea be challenged and should Gafftops and Hardheads be given a chance as worthy table fair?

An article by Garden and Gun, sheds light on a recent culinary trend that some of the South's top chefs are embracing: the idea that trash fish should be utilized for a more holistic approach to seafood as regulations on first-choice fish such as grouper and snapper, tighten.

Whether you agree or not, here's what Justin Devillier, head chef at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans had to say about Gafftop Catfish:

"Oh man, those things can be nasty," Devillier says. "Most people won't cook them at all." But a quick simmer in a rich, flavorful sauce—a buttery curry, for example—can turn this generally cast-aside saltwater catch into an occasion-worthy dinner. "The gafftop is like most fish: If you treat it well right out of the water, you can make something really good with it."

Justin Devillier
Head Chef / La Petite Grocery

Final Thoughts

Next time you're out fishing and all you seem to catch is a Hardhead or a Gafftop, maybe take a few home and fry em' up! Then when someone asks you, "can you eat saltwater catfish," you can answer them truly, whatever your answer may be.

​Oh, and one more thing...make sure that you always have a good pair of fish grips and fishing pliers with you at all times. With out them, removing a hook from one of these pesky bottom feeders can get real tricky.

Would you rather eat shark?

can you eat shark 2

Here's the final verdict on catching and eating some species where others may take a pass.  Read the story.

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