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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.

Salt Water Catfish: What Are They, How Do You Fish for Them and Can You Eat Them

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.

Salt water catfish were once widely regarded as nuisance fish, those pesky species you do not want to catch but seem to catch all the time. Anglers often complained to fisheries management officials that there were too many and all they did was steal bait intended for other species, the real gamefish anglers were targeting.

But for some reason that has changed, at least in certain circles. Whether it is due to a growth in the overall popularity of catfish as a gamefish species, because some anglers are less particular about what they catch (as long as they are catching something) or critics decided if you cant fight them join them is still a mystery. What is known is that a growing number of anglers are specifically targeting salt water catfish. As their popularity grows so in the interest among anglers who never really thought about them, maybe did not even know they exist. 

For those uninformed anglers new to the salt water catfish world we are here to help. In the following article we will answer all, or at least most, of your questions related to salt water catfish. What are they? How do you fish for them? Can you eat them? By the end you may just want to grab a rod, head to the beach and try catching your very first (on purpose) salt water catfish.

What Are Salt Water Catfish?

Hardhead Catfish

hardhead catfish

This salt water catfish is common to the U.S. east coast ranging from the northwest Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and extremely numerous in south Florida and the Keys. The name is derived from the hard, bony plate that extends from the area between the eye to past the dorsal fin. Although capable of reaching lengths up to 28 inches and weighing over 12 lbs. the average is usually in the 1-3 lb. range. 

The primary habitat for the hardhead catfish is near-shore waters or brackish estuaries and river mouths where the bottom is muddy or sandy. They will move to deeper water during winter months and rarely enter fresh water.

Like all catfish the hardhead has the tell-tale barbels common to the species with four under the chin and two at the corners of the mouth. Both the pectoral and dorsal fins are supported by a thick, sharp, barbed slime which are also covered in a thick slime. Unlike many fresh water species these barbed spikes are extremely sharp and capable of inflicting a serious wound, even when wearing gloves or shoes. The slime makes these wounds potentially dangerous due to the frequency at which they become infected.

Gafftop Catfish

Also known as Sailtop Catfish or Sailcats are also common to the Atlantic coast with a normal range that overlaps with the hardhead catfish but also extends further south to the Caribbean Sea. They are easily distinguished from other species by their deep forked tail and name-sake dorsal spine which includes a distinctive fleshy extension. The largest recorded gafftop is 9.9 lbs. but like the hardhead tends to be much smaller, with the average fish being only 12-16 inches in length and weighing between 1-2 lbs.

Gafftop catfish prefer to stick close to shore in shallows that offer protection from larger predators including brackish waters of lagoons and mangroves. They are especially fond of areas that include structure such as piers, jetties and reefs.

The gafftop has two sets of barbels, one set of maxillary and one set on the chin. The serrated spines are of special concern to anyone who handles this fish as they are venomous, something far too many anglers discover the hard way.

In the areas where both the gafftop and hardhead it is common for them to school together and will often be caught within the same area & using the same baits.

Both species of salt water catfish are voracious feeders, eating almost any natural bait they can find and fit in their mouth. Like all catfish they are primarily scavengers, meaning they are just as likely to feed on already dead meat as they are to hunt. Their primary diet includes small baitfish, shrimp, crabs, crustaceans and mollusks. While hardheads tend to feed primarily on the bottom the gafftop will feed throughout the water column, even chasing baitfish to the surface when the opportunity presents itself.

How To Catch Salt Water Catfish

As is the case with most species of catfish both the hardhead and gafftop are most easily caught by bottom fishing with natural or cut bait. Hardheads will also readily take almost any piece of meat it finds including chicken livers, chicken and even pieces of raw bacon. Gafftops can occasionally be taken through the use of artificial lures as well, including plastics (worms, crabs or shrimp for example) and even top water cork poppers (it is thought the noise tricks them into thinking wounded fish are nearby). Most experts will agree that when it comes to selecting a top bait for salt water catfish it is important o choose a species native to the areas and that contains high levels of fish oils & blood. It are the last two qualities which make strips of mackerel very popular where it can be found.

Aside from selecting a quality bait there is little specialized equipment need to be successful when targeting salt water catfish. Due to their small size even trophies can be easily handled on medium tackle. When fishing smaller members of the school light tackle can make for a very exciting fight. Both species are known for the high strength vs. size and are considered fierce fighters when hooked. Mud flats and sand bars are popular locations for catching both species and gafftops are frequently take from piers or jetties.

Although both species are considered abundant and successfully taken throughout their ranges one of the most popular locations is the Indian River Lagoon area of Central Florida. The multiple estuaries and mud flats of this area offer near perfect conditions for not only salt water catfish but also the food sources they prefer. When fishing such areas, the best conditions are at low tide and during the evening or overnight hours, the last being another trait they share with their fresh water cousins. If using native or cut bait most anglers will fish a simple bottom rig, which allows the bait to stay in place as the scent floats through the water column attracting the fish. Make sure you use enough weight to keep you bait in place so the catfish can more easily locate it.

Can You Eat Salt Water Catfish?

The short answer is yes, both species of salt water catfish are edible. However, the real question is “do you want to eat them?”

As stated earlier salt water catfish are often considered a nuisance species. This is due in part to their tendency to steal bait intended for other, more popular gamefish species. However, it is also due to the fact that very few anglers, even those who specifically target them, care to harvest and eat either species. There are several reasons for this lack of popularity as table fare including taste, preparation issues and the relatively low yield of eatable meat from each fish. Although each of these issues can be addressed it often becomes a matter of benefit vs. effort.

Taste

The biggest factor when it comes to taste is the catfish’s diet. Those that are feeding primarily by scavenging mud flats will tend to have a deeper, fishy flavor. If the diet includes more live natural bait hunted on sand bars or around structure you will find the flavor to much milder. In either case it is also important to avoid harvesting bottom feeders in areas prone to pollution as they will absorb the contaminates from the water and food they take in each day.

Preparation

Catfish in general can be difficult to clean, add the dangerous barbs and spikes of the hardhead & gafftop and tedious can easily become dangerous. Most experts agree the easiest way to clean a catfish is to make a single slice from the head to the tail, taking great care to avoid the spikes. Once this slice is made simply start peeling the skin from the flesh. Remember to avoid the sharp spikes when handling or cleaning either species.

Yield

It is impossible to catch only big fish, but you can increase you yield of consumable meat by not wasting any of what you do catch. Fillets from smaller fish can be breaded and fried, making even smaller pieces a sort of fish nuggets. Larger fillets can be prepared in a variety of ways, including fried or even pan seared in a flavorful sauce (which helps to overcome any strong fish flavor).

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

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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