Salty Cats Add Fun to a Day

Unlike their smaller cousins, the sea cats, gafftopsail catfish are delicious to eat and often targeted by saltwater anglers. They have long filaments on their fins. (Keith Sutton photo)

Ask an angler to describe the scenery that comes to mind when catfish are mentioned, and most will describe a Southern bayou, a delta river or perhaps a farm pond or lowland lake. Few, if any, will mention an ocean view. There are, however, two species of catfish often caught by anglers fishing Southern saltwater, and with many of you planning fishing trips on the coast in upcoming months, I thought you might enjoy learning about these interesting and fun-to-catch whiskerfish.

The gafftopsail catfish resides in the Gulf of Mexico and in the western Atlantic from the Carolinas to Brazil. The sea, or hardhead, catfish is common in Gulf waters and ranges along the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to the West Indies.

Anglers have mixed emotions about these cats. Those fishing for redfish or speckled trout consider them bait-stealing nuisances. But when specks and reds aren’t biting, gafftops and hardheads offer considerable sport, especially on light tackle. They’re strong fighters, and while not as acrobatic as some saltwater fish, their bulldoggish power runs can add exciting moments to any fishing trip.

Gafftopsail catfish are so named because the dorsal and pectoral fins are each tipped with a string-like filament that lends the appearance of a small triangular sail called a “gafftopsail.” One nickname for the fish is “sailboat.”

A 5-pound gafftop is a heavyweight, with most averaging 1 to 2 pounds. The International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record, a 9-pound, 10-ounce fish, was caught near Boca Raton, Florida, in February 2007.

This Louisiana angler is stringing up gafftopsail catfish he’ll deep-fry for dinner or serve in a Cajun court bouillon. (Keith Sutton photo)

Gafftops often gather in large schools in brackish bays and estuaries where salt concentrations are in the intermediate range, 5 to 30 parts per thousand. But during periods of extended cold, few are reported by inshore fishermen. Gafftops are sensitive to cold and migrate offshore during much of winter.

The unusual fins of gafftops distinguish these catfish from their relatives the sea cats. Sea cats lack the gafftop’s unusual string-like ornamentation. The chin barbels (“whiskers”) also help anglers separate the two species. Gafftops have two, sea cats four.

Sea cats are among the smallest catfish in Southern waters. Sixteen inches is close to the maximum length, with most weighing 1/2 to 1 pound. Rare individuals top the 2-pound mark. The biggest in world-record listings is a 4-pound, 11-ounce monster caught off Dania, Florida, in April 2014.

Sea cats, often called hardheads, are easily caught using a wide variety of baits and lures, but use great care in handling them. Their sharp fins are covered with poison cells that can cause painful wounds. (Keith Sutton photo)

Sea cats usually are caught in waters where salinity is high, 30 or more parts per thousand. Schools gather around oil platforms, barrier islands, artificial reefs and other offshore structure. During warm weather, young sea cats may migrate to brackish waters and ascend coastal creeks, rivers and canals.

The spawning habits of gafftops and sea cats are unique and intriguing. Following courtship in spring or summer, the male catfish takes the large (3/5- to 1-inch diameter), fertilized eggs into his mouth for incubation. The eggs hatch in 60 to 70 days, during which time the male does not eat. The male continues protecting the fry by carrying them in his mouth until they are about 3 inches long. A single male may carry in its mouth more than four dozen eggs or two dozen young.

Ocean cats strike spoons, plugs and jigs, but fishing a bottom rig baited with fresh shrimp, crab or cut-bait is the most effective technique for catching them. To prepare this rig, tie your line to one eye of a three-way swivel. Tie a 12-inch leader on a second swivel eye, and on the other end of this leader tie a 1-ounce pyramid sinker. Last, tie an 18-inch leader on the third swivel eye. A No. 1 to 2/0 baitholder hook and the bait go on the end of this leader. This bottom-fishing rig can be used effectively from shore or boat.

Ocean cats are caught around the clock, but the best fishing is at night. Both species are schooling fish, so when one is hooked, it’s likely more are nearby.

Sea cats often run in schools containing hundreds of individuals. During their feeding frenzies, anglers often catch a fish on every cast. (Keith Sutton photo)

Be extremely careful when landing or handling any saltwater catfish. The sharp, serrated spines can cause serious wounds. The thrust of a spine into the flesh ruptures small poison cells contained in the skin covering the spine. When the contents of the poison cells enter a victim’s body, the pain can be excruciating. If not properly treated, dangerous secondary infections can result. Punctures should be washed thoroughly then soaked in hot water and covered with a sterile dressing and antiseptic. Immediate medical attention is recommended for anyone with a serious wound.

Experienced anglers avoid the spines by stunning the fish with a club and grasping it firmly with a rag or a double-jawed catfish gripper. Fish should be netted in the water, never swung into a boat.

The flesh of sea cats, though edible, has a strong, unsavory flavor. Gafftops, on the other hand, make fine table fare if properly prepared. The quality of the flesh is improved by cutting off the tail and allowing the fish to bleed thoroughly. Also, remove dark red flesh along the lateral line. Fish thus cleaned are superb when fried, broiled, grilled, blackened or used in court bouillon or chowder.

Next time you’re fishing Southern saltwater, consider keeping a few of these interesting catfish dinner. They’re delicious and eating them is a fitting way to end a day on the water.

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