Catfish have been a staple of American cuisine throughout recorded history. Native Americans ate them, as did European explorers and the earliest settlers. In fact, our hankering for delicious catfish has done nothing but grow, with catfish now among the most popular American food fishes.
One reason for their heightened popularity is the fact these whiskered warriors are abundant in lakes, rivers, ponds and even brackish tidal waters. The three species most commonly targeted are the channel catfish, blue cat and flathead, all of which are delicious when properly cared for and prepared.
While these different types of catfish are very similar in flavor, catfish connoisseurs agree there are distinctive differences that make one species preferable over another for particular diners. In some cases, physical differences between species and size classes also necessitate differing means of preparation to facilitate the utmost gustatory enjoyment of the catch.
These things being so, let’s look individually at each species and its unique qualities. Knowing the differences will enable you to savor to the fullest these delectable freshwater fishes.
Let’s begin our discussion with the most popular, most widespread, most abundant member of the family, the channel cat. Blue cats and flatheads grow much larger, but when it comes to popularity polls, these heavyweights can’t hold a candle to their cousin.
Everywhere the channel cat swims, it is targeted by a devoted group of anglers who like nothing better than catching and eating this whiskered wonder. In states where catfish anglers have been surveyed, 50 to 75 percent prefer fishing for channel cats. And when asked to describe the number and size of catfish they preferred to catch and keep, most preferred four 5-pound catfish or ten 2-pound catfish over one 20-pounder, a fact I believe correlates to the belief that smaller fish are more flavorful than heavyweights.
Channel cats inhabit everything from city ponds, gravel-bottomed creeks and muddy bayous to vast man-made reservoirs, natural lakes and big delta rivers. They can tolerate extreme conditions better than many fish, but they do not, as many people think, prefer living in turbid, poor-quality waters. Channel catfish are healthiest in clean, warm, well-oxygenated water with moderate current and abundant cover. Their adaptability is amazing, however, and channel cats inhabit nearly every body of water within their range that’s not too cold or too polluted.
In the cases where channel catfish are caught in extremely muddy, hot or polluted waters, it is likely the flesh will have a poor taste. The same is true with other species of catfish. It is best, therefore, to concentrate fishing efforts where water quality is good, and keep the catch alive or on ice until prepared for eating. I love the flaky white meat of all channel cats caught and cared for in this manner, but, without doubt, the best-tasting channel cats I’ve eaten were caught from icy-cold lakes and ponds in winter and cooked fresh from the water over a campfire!
Although they grow much larger, blue catfish closely resemble channel cats in appearance and flavor. In fact, I once bet a friend $50 he couldn’t distinguish a fried blue cat fillet from a fried channel cat fillet in a blind taste test. My buddy was constantly saying a fat blue cat was better eating than any channel cat. But with a blindfold on and two plates full of channel cat fillets in front of him to sample (yes, just channel cats), he stated emphatically that plate number one must indeed be blue cat because of its distinctively better flavor. I graciously accepted payment of the wager.
Healthy populations of blue cats usually contain numerous individuals up to 10 pounds. Larger, older fish are much less common, but in some prime waters, catching several 20- to 40-pound blues during a few hours is not considered unusual during peak fishing times. Specimens weighing 50 pounds or more are scarce and often difficult to find and catch, but more and more anglers enjoy the challenge of targeting these big, hard-hitting trophies.
So what about those larger blue cats? Are they good to eat? I often am asked that question and always reply the same. Yes, they are delicious, a fact I confirmed many times in my younger, more ignorant days when I kept and ate every catfish I caught.
Now I encourage fellow catfish anglers to practice restrictive harvest. Keep smaller fish to eat and release larger catfish – those that are older and less common – so they continue growing and provide trophy fishing opportunities. There’s no hard-and-fast rule to follow, but I personally draw the line at 5 pounds. The fillets and steaks I eat come from smaller, more abundant blue cats. Same with channel cats and flatheads.
The flathead catfish, also known as the yellow cat, mud cat or shovelhead, is a brute of a fish, muscular and streamlined, but ugly by all standards. Its flattened cranium looks like it was run through a trash compactor. The beady eyes are wide-set. Its thickened under lip protrudes in a perpetual pout, worm-like barbels dangle from its chin, and its hide has the color and texture of a slug.
Despite its ugliness, however, the flathead catfish has a devoted following of anglers. This is largely because this fish is a big, bullish battler. When one takes your bait, you may first think you have snagged a sunken log. But set the hook, and it will explode with a fury that is sometimes frightening. Few freshwater big-game fish offer anglers such outstanding opportunities for catching the fish of a lifetime. And when a mess of fish for the dinner table is wanted, the abundance of small flatheads in many waters makes it a cinch to load a cooler with plenty of “eaters.”
Load the coolers we do, for many of us old cat men strongly believe a 1- to 5-pound flathead has a delectable flavor far superior to other catfish. I cannot say for sure why this should be, but flatheads scavenge much less than their brethren, preferring live foods like sunfish and crawdads to the meals of dead fish or detritus blue and channel cats hastily devour.
Perhaps it is this difference in diet that gives flatheads a taste many of us find much sweeter and flavorful. To me, it’s like the difference between a fillet basted in butter during cooking and one that is not. The former titillates the taste buds in ways the latter cannot.
To heighten this savoriness, one should always do two things when preparing a flathead – or any other catfish for that matter – for cooking.
First, before skinning each fish, use a rope or nail to hang its head up from a support above a 5-gallon bucket. Then use a knife to cut off the tail where the tail joins the body. Blood will pour out from a vein in the tail, thus “bleeding out” the fish, an endeavor that produces whiter, better-tasting meat. The first time I tasted wild catfish bled in this fashion, I was amazed at the marked improvement in flavor.
Second, after you skin the fish, use a sharp knife to remove all dark red flesh along the fish’s sides, particularly along the lateral line. This meat tends to have a strong, disagreeable flavor, and contaminants that may be in the water where the catfish was caught tend to concentrate there. Get rid of it and the catfish not only tastes better, it’s also healthier to eat.
Some Final Notes
For some folks, frying is the only way to cook a catfish. There’s simply no tastier method of preparation, so why bother with anything else? Case closed.
Truth is, versatility is one of catfish’s greatest assets Serve it fried, smoked, poached, baked, broiled, braised, sautéed or barbecued. Or combine it with other foods for casseroles or chowders. Catfish can be eaten in a sandwich, a salad, a pizza or an omelet. You’re limited only by your imagination.
The biggest mistake to avoid is overcooking. Catfish are naturally tender and cooks quickly. It’s done when it flakes easily with a fork.
If you wait for the fish to float in hot oil as some people recommend, you’ve probably cooked away the natural moisture that makes catfish so succulent and destroyed much of its unique flavor in the process.
When deep-frying, heat the oil to 365 to 370 degrees – no hotter. The old “throw a match in the oil and wait till it lights” trick rarely results in the proper frying temperature. Use a cooking thermometer to get it right, or a deep-fryer that can be set at the correct heat.