All Things Outdoors with Jim Zumbo
Whenever I visit the south, a big item on my bucket list is to enjoy a catfish dinner Southern style. Though catfish live in every one of the lower 48 states, there’s just something special about catfish cooked in the land of Dixie, whether you’re in a restaurant or someone’s home. There’s more good news when you realize that they’re easy to catch with minimal tackle; and there’s probably a lake, pond, or river near your home where you can catch them. And by the way, you don’t need to be a famous chef or even a great cook to make them taste great!
To many anglers, catfish are the primary quarry and are highly prized. To others, they’re called “bottom feeders” and aren’t worth the effort to pursue them. I suspect the latter attitude is one shared by folks who have never caught them or tasted them.
I suppose they’re called catfish because they have long whiskers, which are technically called barbels. These are sensory organs that allow the fish to sort out scents in the water. Their sense of smell is remarkable. In fact, their entire body has taste buds that allows them to detect the slightest bit of food. Another unique feature of catfish is their scale-less bodies. They have smooth skin with no scales at all. One more characteristic that needs mentioning is the needle-sharp spikes found on the dorsal (top) fin and the two pectoral (side) fins. I think everyone who has ever handled a catfish much, has been poked by a spike. It’s not fun—they hurt and often cause a burning sensation that may last for a few hours or more. There’s a technique that allows you to safely hold one. Slide your hand from behind the dorsal fin toward the head until the dorsal spine is firmly against the web of your hand between your thumb and first finger. Then move your thumb and first finger firmly over the two dorsal spikes. The fish is then immobilized so you can remove the hook safely. Another way is to use a set of fish grabbers that look like long pliers that easily grip the fish’s lower lip, holding it securely. They’re sold in most sporting goods stores. Or, just use a set of needle-nose pliers to hold the fish.
I caught my first catfish when I was very young. My dad took me fishing before I was old enough to go to school. Those first fish were black bullheads which are a species of catfish that don’t get very big, but you can usually catch a bunch on a single outing. A 12-15 inch bullhead is a big one. According to biologists, there are seven subspecies of bullheads. They usually bite best at night, but I’ve had success during the daylight hours as well. Usually, we’d sit on a dock or onshore at night with a campfire burning merrily, close enough so the firelight allowed us to see our rods which were propped up on sticks or rocks. Sometimes we’d attach a small bell to the rod tip to alert us when a fish was biting. It was great fun. We’d cook marshmallows and hotdogs over the fire and sit there in the dark listening to the bullfrogs, peepers, nighthawks, and sometimes an owl. Now and then, we’d hear a bass make a noisy splash as it chased its dinner. We’d spring into action when we saw a rod tip twitching. Then we’d grab it, set the hook, and reel in a feisty fat bullhead.
The channel catfish is the most popular catfish in the country, with more than 8 million anglers fishing for them every year. It’s more slender than the bullhead and can attain weights up to 50 pounds, but that’s a monster. Most weigh two to four pounds, and one that weighs 10 pounds is considered exceptional in most areas, with a 20 pounder being a real crowd-pleaser. The channel cat, as they’re called, is likely the fish you enjoy served in restaurants and the one you buy in stores, although there is a hybrid channel catfish-blue catfish variety that’s growing in popularity. Catfish are farmed in the Southern states, chiefly Mississippi. More than 500 million pounds of catfish are grown in farms each year.
Two other catfish popular with American anglers are the blue and the flathead. These grow very large, attaining weights over 100 pounds. Of the two, the blue is the biggest. These fish put up a terrific fight, requiring strong lines and heavy tackle.
Catfish are not finicky about their dietary needs. They’ll eat most anything that will fit in their mouth, whether it’s plant or animal matter, but mostly animal (fish). For that reason, the sky’s the limit when bait is being considered. I think that 90% of the catfish I’ve caught around the country were taken on worms. Nightcrawlers were always a favorite. When I was young, I’d gather them on rainy nights, searching for them with a flashlight. My Dad and I usually caught all we needed. In fact, I caught so many I sold them at 25 cents a dozen when I was a teenager. Nowadays, you’ll pay $3 or more a dozen. You can buy worms in stores everywhere. Be sure to keep them out of the sun, or you’ll have boiled and useless worms. I put them in a very small cooler with a chunk of ice. Other types of bait also work well, whether it’s dead or alive. Chicken liver is a favorite, along with a chunk of hot dog, cut bait, dead minnows, and various kinds of stink bait. You can make your own stink bait or buy it. If you haven’t used it, be aware you’ll be most unpopular with your friends and family if you get it on your hands or clothing. Most anglers will dunk their hook in the jar and swirl it around with a stick, then lift it out and never touch it. Crawfish, dead or alive, are my favorite bait for channel catfish. Live minnows also work well. Channel cats spawn in some sort of structure, whether it’s a cavity in rocks, under logs, or in rocky dikes. I’ve had good luck casting lures around these areas. I’m not sure if the fish are chasing away potential nest robbers or see the lure as food. Either way, it works well…
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Jim Zumbo has hunted all fifty states for deer, has fished in most states, has hunted elk in all the major western elk states, and has hunted on four continents. He worked for fifteen years as a forester, game warden, and wildlife biologist. Jim draws on these experiences for his monthly column “All Things Outdoors.” For more information, visit www.jimzumbo.com.