Catfish have been a staple of North 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.
Some catfish anglers fish primarily for trophy specimens like big blue cats and flatheads, which can weigh more than 100 pounds. These usually are caught, photographed and released.
But most catfish fans hope to catch a mess of 1- to 10-pounders (usually channel cats) they can take home and prepare for the dinner table. Smaller cats are much more abundant and delicious than their heavyweight counterparts.
When the catching is done, those of us who enjoy eating our catch must then separate the catfish from its skin to get at the flaky, white meat inside. These whiskered warriors are scaleless, so their skin has evolved into a thin yet very tough covering.
Were you to try cooking the fish with its skin on, as we do many panfish, you would find the skin is too tough and chewy to eat. It must be removed before the fish is cooked.
As a reminder, use great care to avoid the catfish's sharp dorsal and pectoral fin spines throughout the skinning process. If you've ever wondered how to skin a catfish the right way, check out these great tips. You'll be glad you did.
The Right Tools
Many anglers consider skinning a catfish a daunting task, but with a sharp knife and a set of skinning pliers, it is really quite simple. Skinning pliers (pictured here) are available from many fishing-tackle suppliers and have wide jaws specially made for gripping the catfish's thin, slippery integument. Regular pliers will work in a pinch, but they won't do the job nearly as well as good skinning pliers.
It is helpful to hang the catfish vertically to make the task of skinning easier. This is easily accomplished by driving a long nail at an upright angle through one end of a board. The board is then securely nailed to a tree or the side of an outbuilding with the sharp end of the nail pointing outward and upward.
Hang the Catfish Vertically
Pushing the nail through the thin skin beneath the catfish's lower jaw holds the fish upright while you prepare it. With the fish in this position, it is much easier to properly dispatch and skin.
To begin, use a knife to cut off the catfish's tail where it joins the body. Do this over a bucket or big can. Blood will pour out from a vein in the tail, thus bleeding out the fish. This quickly kills the fish and produces whiter, better tasting meat.
Make Your Cuts
Next, use a very sharp knife to make a cut encircling the head. Slice just through the skin, starting behind the bony bumps you can feel behind the pectoral (side) fins. For greater ease of skinning, you also may use the point of the knife to split the skin down the middle of the fish's back, from head to tail. Cut around both sides of the dorsal fin.
Use the skinning pliers to grasp the skin below the cut encircling the head and pull it toward the tail. The skin usually will come off in large pieces. Continue grasping and pulling pieces until all skin below the head has been removed.
Remove Remaining Skin
The skinning pliers now can be used to grasp and pull away the dorsal and anal fins. Remove any bits of skin that may remain. Then use a heavy knife to cut off the fish's head, and discard it with all the entrails.
Prepare for Cooking
You should now have just the meaty carcass of the catfish left, minus head, tail, fins, entrails and skin. With smaller catfish, you may want to cook this entire piece whole. Larger fish should be cut crosswise into 1-inch thick steaks that are cooked with the bone in. A heavy knife or cleaver may be required to do this.
If you prefer, you can use a fillet knife to separate the meat from the bones, creating boneless fillets your dinner guests will love.
Time to Cook
Now all that's left to do is cook and eat your catch. That's one of the best parts of catfishing. You can dredge the fish in seasoned corn meal and deep fry it as most people do. But catfish can be prepared using a variety of other cooking techniques as well. Serve it grilled, baked, sautéed, blackened, poached or combined with other foods for casseroles and chowders. You're limited only by your imagination.
About the Author
With a resumé listing more than 3,800 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith "Catfish" Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country's best-known outdoor writers. In 2012, he was enshrined in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Communicator. The 12 books he's written are available through his website.